Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 51:10-14
Reading 1 Samuel 16:1-13 alongside Psalm 51:10-14 creates a fascinating dialogue between these two texts.
Most people read the words of Psalm 51 in light of its superscription as pertaining to David’s contrition after his affair with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12). In this perspective, Psalm 51 is a kind of supplement to 2 Samuel 12:13 because what David says there, “I have sinned against the LORD” — only two words in Hebrew! — leaves much to be desired. David’s confession in 2 Samuel 12 seems altogether too brief to mean much in the face of the numerous wrongdoings, including the murder that he has committed. Psalm 51, especially via its superscription, gives readers of the Bible more to go on, suggesting that David felt genuine sorrow and had much more to say than just a quick two-word confession.
But scholars have long wondered if any of the psalms’ superscriptions were original to the poems themselves. The superscriptions may have been added later, especially since some of the most ancient versions of the Bible often have different superscriptions. The connection forged between Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12 by means of the superscription, then, while quite evocative, may be a secondary and thus not a necessary one. There is nothing in Psalm 51 proper that proves this poem was about David amidst the Bathsheba-Uriah debacle. Anyone, that is, not just David after 2 Samuel 11, might pray Psalm 51, regardless of the specifics of their own sins. The history of the Psalms in both church and synagogue demonstrates, in fact, that countless saints have done just that.
The Narrative Lectionary realizes that Psalm 51 is “moveable,” and, by placing it with 1 Samuel 16:1-13, it invites different connections between David and the psalm beyond the prophetic confrontation with Nathan in 2 Samuel 12.
1 Samuel 16 is about David’s initial selection as king. Samuel is still grieving Saul’s failure as king (1 Samuel 15:35a), but God is ready to move on and has located the next king in Bethlehem among Jesse’s sons (1 Samuel 15:35b-16:1). But Samuel is not only sad, he’s worried: a rival to the throne will certainly cause political problems (verse 2a) and so God provides him with a clever cover-story to get him safely to Bethlehem (verses 2b-3).1 Samuel isn’t the only one that’s concerned: the city elders shake with fear when this prophet shows up at their door (verse 4). So, only four verses in and we’ve already seen that the move to a new leader — to David — is one that’s met with considerable (and reasonable!) resistance, that it isn’t an easy move, and that it is an occasion for real worry, fear, even disappointment.
The parade of Jesse’s sons and how they aren’t quite right for the job, despite their good looks or birth order, but that God’s choice falls on the last-born — the runt of the litter, as it were — is familiar, if not downright biblical. Of course, it is familiar because it is biblical, and God’s inexplicable favoring of the youngest sibling is a pattern as old as Genesis 4. But it seems to be news to Samuel who thought that first-born Eliab was definitely the one (verse 5). He must be told by God to not pay attention to external appearance because the Lord see things differently, perceiving not only what is obvious on the outside but also what is in the heart (verse 7; see also John 7:24; 2 Corinthians 5:16; James 2:1-13; as well as Isaiah 52:14; 53:2; Hebrews 4:12). And what God is looking for is someone “following the LORD’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). Evidently, that is the youngest of Jesse’s sons.
Although, according to God’s own account, the heart is what matters, the narrative goes out of the way to point out that David was handsome, with beautiful eyes and some sort of ruddy complexion (16:12).2 The last quality echoes back to Esau (Genesis 25:25), who is the only other individual in the Bible described as “reddish brown” (’admoni). Perhaps it indicates that David, like Esau, was an outdoorsman and hunter (Genesis 25:27); or perhaps it demonstrates that those who have atypical complexions aren’t always passed over, like Esau was, but can be chosen and favored after all, like David is. Whatever the case, in the next chapter, Goliath will also take note of David’s good looks and ruddy appearance but will despise nevertheless (1 Samuel 17:42). David’s appearance, then, is largely beside the point. A far more crucial detail is that he is a shepherd (16:11b). The shepherd was a favorite metaphor used by kings in the ancient Near East to describe themselves, and so this tidbit, along with David’s own testimony in 1 Samuel 17:34-36 — especially the part about killing lions (another common royal trope) — are clues that he has kingship in his blood. Within the Old Testament itself, Israel’s greatest leader, Moses, too, was adept at keeping other people’s sheep (Exodus 3:1).
Once identified, David is anointed by Samuel and God’s spirit comes upon him “from that point forward” (1 Samuel 16:13) — a consistency of spiritual accompaniment that Saul no longer enjoys (verse 14).
Now, in light of all that, how does one read Psalm 51:10-14? Two possible prayers of the psalm can be considered: Samuel and David.
Samuel might have prayed this bit of psalm after the rejection of Saul, especially following God’s somewhat stern word to him to stop grieving Israel’s first, tragic king. On Samuel’s lips, this portion of Psalm 51 is a prayer for restored vocation: it asks for a faithful and willing spirit (verses 10, 12) to somehow, with joy, do the Lord’s work that lies ahead, with David, no longer with Saul. And, following the bloodshed of 1 Samuel 15:32-33, perhaps the great prophet’s prays to be freed of any and all future violence, replacing that, instead, with lyrics celebrating God’s righteousness (Psalm 51:13).
On the lips of young David, just anointed as king, the psalm is a prayer for inaugurated vocation. At the start, before all the struggles, the battles, the encounters with Saul, the Philistines, Nabal, and all the rest, David prays for a clean heart, for faithfulness, and for God’s accompanying presence — that it won’t leave him, as it has Saul. And, still further, before all the ups and downs, the machinations of power, the twists and turns, if David had prayed Psalm 51:14 at the start, he would have been praying for — and perhaps, as a result, participated in — far less violence than turned out to be the case (see 1 Chronicles 22:8).
In the end, surely it is a trace of God’s grace that, despite David’s great failures and violence — his inability from early on, not to mention later with Bathsheba and Uriah and all the rest, to pray and live Psalm 51:10-14a — that he is nevertheless known, and this perhaps above all else, as the great singer of God’s righteousness (verse 14b), even and perhaps especially in the Psalms, and perhaps most especially of all in Psalm 51.
1. See Stephen B. Chapman, 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 146: “God … appears to view worship as a suitable ruse. But God’s greater concern has to do with the political survival of the people rather than merely the operation of religious ritual for its own sake.”
2. Some have thought this ironic or somehow in contrast to verse 7, but see Chapman, 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture, 148: “the Samuel narrative’s witness is sophisticated rather than self-contradictory. Just as Eliab, like Saul, is not to be chosen simply because he looks like a king, David is not to be dismissed because he looks attractive either …. Rather than a clumsy inconsistency, David’s description provides a crucial check against any moralizing interpretation that might render the narrative’s message as in effect: ‘godly leaders should not be physically prepossessing.’ Ironically, godly leaders will sometimes by physically impressive and sometimes physically unimpressive, because their aptness for leadership functions on an entirely different basis” (emphasis original).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of strength,
In David you chose a king with a big heart. Create clean and willing hearts in us, and choose us to do your work. Amen.
Create in me, Paul Christiansen