Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

A heart—in other words, a will—that aligned with doing things God’s way

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June 16, 2024

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Samuel 15:34—16:13

The verse that states that YHWH “was sorry that he made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:35) is complex! A careful reading helps to unpack this conundrum.

Textual horizons

In the books of 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is clearly seen in the analysis that started with German biblical scholar Martin Noth (1902–1968), who identified a red thread in these books. Noth states that the author lays out a theology that demonstrates the reason for the destruction of Israel (722/721 BCE), then Judah and Jerusalem (587/586 BCE), and the Babylonian exile. The author(s) sought to demonstrate that the reason for these calamities is fundamentally due to disobedience to the covenant with YHWH. This theological framework—based on the theology of the book of Deuteronomy—is called the Deuteronomistic History (which also includes Joshua and Judges).1

The author’s perspective of this Deuteronomistic worldview was demonstrated in the many dramatic turns of events in these narratives. Thus, the faithful and humble are raised up and blessed, while the disobedient and proud are humbled and suffer consequences. This reversal of fortune is first seen in Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1–10). Thus, the reversal of fortune is seen as a “theological prologue” that sets out this central motif for these four books (1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings)2 that revolve around the core concern of faithfulness to YHWH.

Now, enter King Saul at the time of the downward spiral in his reversal of fortune.

In the previous chapters, Saul’s disobedience is documented. Samuel passes the judgment of YHWH on to Saul—repeating the judgment—making it clear in a concentric structure. The beginning and the end of 1 Samuel 13:13–14 make it plain that his downfall is because Saul had “not kept what the LORD commanded you [him].” In a concentric structure, the central aspect is usually key. Here, the core concept is that “the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart” (verse 14).

This verse is often understood to say that YHWH chose David because he loved—had a heart for—YHWH. This is not accurate. While David loving YHWH is part of the understanding of David’s character as seen in other texts, it is not what is meant by “heart” here. So, “doing justice to the text” means not forcing meanings from other passages onto the text at hand. Rather, exegete those other texts for their inherent meanings.

It is important to realize that in this biblical Hebrew context the heart was not the seat of emotions. Rather, “the heart is the seat of the will”3—a sense of volition. Thus, this means that David was the person of YHWH’s choosing. It would have made it easier to understand why Saul was replaced by someone who loved YHWH. However, that is not the meaning of “heart” in either 1 Samuel 13:14 or 1 Samuel 16:7. The latter is our pericope, when Samuel is reviewing Jesse’s sons, which states, “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

Instead of love, there is a different criterion for YHWH’s anointed: obedience. This is found in Samuel’s pithy summary just a few verses before the start of this reading: “Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22b).

The pericope ends with “The spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). The beginning and end are negative and positive bookends to a narrative that reinforces the Deuteronomist’s theological concern of covenantal faithfulness to YHWH.

Homiletic horizons

The dominant culture at that time would have assumed that the firstborn of Jesse’s sons would be the chosen one. However, David, though still handsome (verse 12), was a lowly shepherd boy who had a heart—in other words, a will—that aligned with doing things God’s way. The strange act of choosing the youngest son exemplifies the reversal of fortune that was so unexpected in this context. YHWH raises up the lowly faithful. This is a huge contrast to King Saul in this reversal of fortune, as the powerful who are disobedient are brought low.

The heart (pun intended) of this pericope is: “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

What do mortals in your context today see and put their trust in? What does our culture focus on (see) that is actually in conflict with God’s volition and the ministry of the gospel?

YHWH’s heart (volitional will) looks for humble folk to raise up into leadership in the ministry of the gospel—people who have a heart (volitional will) to serve the will of God. The will of God, oversimplified, is loving God and loving others.

This text also includes a warning to leaders. God is calling leaders to faithful obedience—doing what the LORD commands.


  1. Sandra L. Richter, “Deuteronomistic History,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, ed. Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 219–30.
  2. Mark Throntveit, “Enter the Bible – Books: 1 Samuel,” n.d.,, (accessed February 1, 2020).
  3. Andrew Bowling, “1071 lavav,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr. and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody, 1999), 467.
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