Second Sunday after Pentecost

In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel denounces King Saul for violating the rules of Holy War by sparing the king of the Amalekites and keeping booty from Israel’s war against them.

June 14, 2009

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Commentary on 1 Samuel 15:34—16:13

In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel denounces King Saul for violating the rules of Holy War by sparing the king of the Amalekites and keeping booty from Israel’s war against them.

Samuel told Saul that his kingship would be turned over to his “neighbor,” who turns out to be David.

The main portion of this lesson deals with Samuel’s anointing of David, who is actually anointed three times in the Old Testament. The first anointing by Samuel, found in chapter 16, expresses Yahweh’s loyalty to David. The second and third are in 2 Samuel 2 and 5, expressing respectively the loyalty of Judah and the loyalty of the northern tribes toward David.

Samuel shows some reluctance in following Yahweh’s command to anoint a king in Bethlehem, since he knows this would be considered an act of treason by Saul. So, Yahweh provides a cover for Samuel by telling him to go to Bethlehem and make a sacrifice.

This is the truth, of course, but it does not disclose the whole purpose of the sacrifice. The elders in Bethlehem trembled when they saw Samuel, either out of respect for Samuel or because they recognized the controversial political implications of what he was about to do.

When Jesse brought his eldest son Eliab before Samuel, the prophet thought this must be the one to be anointed king because of Eliab’s good looks and his height.

However, Yahweh denied it was Eliab, since Yahweh does not judge by outward appearances but by the heart. Good looks and height were exactly the things that had made Saul stand out earlier (1 Samuel 9:2; 10:23). The heart is also cited as indication of one’s character in Jeremiah 17:10 and 20:12.

Having started with his first born, Jesse presents seven of his sons to David, only three by name, but in each case Samuel indicates that this is not the one Yahweh has chosen to be king.

Election in the Old Testament is primarily focused on a task that Yahweh wants done and has little to do with the quality of the person or persons chosen. For example:

  • In Deuteronomy 7:7-8, we learn that Yahweh chose Israel not because they were so numerous, but because Yahweh loved them and was keeping his promise to their ancestors.
  • In Deuteronomy 9:5, Israel is told it is not because of the uprightness of their hearts that they will occupy the land but because of the wickedness of the nations that Yahweh is dispossessing.
  • In Genesis, the mystery of election is expressed in that a younger son is often preferred over an elder son: Jacob over Esau; Perez over Zerah (Genesis 38:29-30); Judah over his elder brothers Reuben, Simeon, and Levi; and Ephraim over Manasseh among Joseph’s sons.

Jesse parades seven of his sons before David, and all of them are rejected. When Samuel asks if he has another son, Jesse mentions David, who was out tending the sheep. The word translated “youngest” in 1 Samuel 16:11 could also imply that David was the shortest. Kings in the Ancient Near East were often described as shepherds. Hence David’s chores with the flock may metaphorically symbolize his great royal future.

David’s good looks — despite what had been said in verse 7 — confirmed that he was Yahweh’s choice to be king. When Samuel anointed him, the spirit of Yahweh rushed upon him.

This spirit possession was also a sign of divine election. Saul too was given the spirit in 1 Samuel 10:6, 10; 11:6). Saul and David, in fact, are the only kings of Israel who have such a gift of the spirit. Isaiah 11:2 indicates that the messiah will once more possess the spirit, and Pentecost demonstrates that this spirit is now poured out on all whom God has chosen.

The theological point of this pericope is David was chosen by Yahweh to be king and anointed by no one less than the prophet Samuel. The anointing of David indicated Yahweh’s obligation to him and, by implication, Yahweh’s covenant with him.

Though the reputation of Samuel lent prestige to David, the choice itself was not Samuel’s. David was the youngest, perhaps the shortest, and was tending sheep while his brothers were doing “important things” with the prophet Samuel.

From now on, David was the divinely designated successor to Saul. The rest of 1 Samuel relates how this became true, as David contested with Saul in warfare and for the favor of the people. All David’s deeds of politics, guerrilla action and intrigue, marriages of convenience, and questionable service with the Philistines are trumped by a prior fact: already at the start Yahweh had anointed him to be Saul’s successor.

The doctrine of election has often been a point of controversy and even offense. Does God choose some and not others? What leads God to choose a certain person or a certain group of people?

The Bible pays very little attention to these questions. It is much more interested in the purpose for which God chooses people.

God chose Sarai and Abram so that through them, all the families of the earth would gain a blessing (Genesis 12:3). The New Testament concurs: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9).

Samuel was at first blinded by the good looks and imposing height of Eliab, Jesse’s firstborn. But it was the youngest and shortest, the eighth child, who was not even invited to the festivities involving Samuel that was Yahweh’s choice. Yahweh chose him to be ruler over his people, Israel.

When we wonder, why does God choose us or anyone else, we do well to ask, “What is the assignment that God would like me to carry out?”