1 Samuel 16:1-13
I warned them, but they wouldn’t listen, Samuel must have thought to himself as he watched Saul’s reign as king crash and burn. But they just had to be like everyone else and have a king.
It broke the Lord’s heart. After he had brought them out of Egypt, cared for them all those years in the desert, helped them take the Promised Land and settle in it, they still didn’t understand that with the Lord on their side, they didn’t need some guy in a crown, just like they hadn’t needed a god made of gold at Sinai.
But the people just could not get the hang of trusting God. It shouldn’t really be any wonder they ended up with a king who also couldn’t get the hang of trusting God.
Even God had been fooled by this man Saul. He was handsome, and tall, and looked like a king in every way. He came from a prominent, wealthy family. He was the oldest son. All the things you could want in a king: Saul had them.
But a king for God’s people had to be different. He needed to trust in God’s strength, not his own. He needed to be willing to listen to God’s voice as it came through the prophets. Saul had said all the right words to Samuel, God’s prophet, and had been anointed king.
But he turned out not to be different from other rulers who trusted in their own strength and didn’t listen to God. When Samuel told Saul to wait for him to arrive before making a major sacrifice to ask for God’s help in an upcoming battle, Samuel took a little longer than expected; so Saul took matters into his own hands and made the sacrifice without him. He didn’t trust God, and it cost him his kingdom.
Then, to make matters worse, Saul led the people into another battle, after hearing God command that they take no prisoners, no plunder, nothing from the people they conquered. But instead, Saul enslaved the king of the people and took the best of the livestock and valuables from the people, and only killed the common people and destroyed the things that had no value. Again he didn’t trust God, but decided to act so as to gain some wealth for himself.
That was the last straw for the Lord. He sent Samuel to Saul with a message. He had to tell Saul, the very first king of Israel, that God had repented of making him king, regretted the day he’d laid eyes on him. It was not a happy moment, and Samuel’s heart was broken right along with God’s.
He never saw Saul again, even though Saul continued to reign as king for quite awhile after that.
There are a lot of advice columns in newspapers, magazines, and online, in which people ask questions about dilemmas they’re having, conflicts with other people, and such. We enjoy reading them, possibly because there’s no struggle someone writes to an agony auntie about that isn’t pretty common. We’ve all faced trouble, and there’s nothing new under the sun; so reading these advice columns could give us insights about how to handle situations in our own lives.
But let’s be honest: sometimes we read those columns, or watch the judge shows on TV, or whatever, to feel better about ourselves—in other words, we’re not going through that, so we must be doing all right.
One question that comes up pretty regularly in advice columns has to do with grief. Might go something like this:
“I lost my spouse six months ago after a long battle with cancer. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t cry, don’t wish I could hear their voice again, don’t see something of theirs or remember something we did together and have it come crashing down to me that they’re never coming back.
“Some of my friends, and even my siblings, are telling me that I need to stop grieving and get on with my life. I was talking with a friend just yesterday, and I mentioned some little quirk that my spouse had and how much I miss them. And my friend said, ‘You just need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. Get back out there, find new hobbies, start dating again.’ But I’m just not ready. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready.
“When I told my friend that, I might have been a little more forceful than I should have been, and they hung up the phone mad.
“Auntie, is there something wrong with me?”
Any agony auntie or therapist would say that we grieve according to our own timetable, and that it’s not okay for anyone else to tell us when it’s time to put it behind us, as though we could just flip a switch. A good one might give us some suggestions how to deal with our grief in a healthy way, and how to recognize if we become stuck in our grief—which is very different from “when our friends get tired of us being sad around them.”
A person can’t tell someone who has suffered a great loss when it’s time for them to stop grieving. Some people are through the worst of it after only a few weeks. Others take months or even years. It’s different for every person, so someone else doesn’t really have the ability to say when it should be done.
But that’s just what God did with Samuel. God said, “Okay, that’s enough. We made a mistake with Saul, but now it’s time to move on. Get up and go down to Bethlehem, because there you’ll find the new king.”
But Samuel was afraid. He had given Saul the bad news that he would not get to remain king, and none of his sons would take his place when he finally grew old and died. Kings don’t necessarily appreciate hearing such things. Sometimes they even kill the messenger.
So far Saul hadn’t done that, but Samuel had to wonder what might happen if he got wind that Samuel had gone down to Bethlehem and anointed a new king. He might well have been accused of treason for something like that.
So God told him what to do. “You don’t have to tell everyone the whole truth all the time, Samuel. Sometimes it’s okay to keep some of the details to yourself. Just go down to Bethlehem, and if anyone asks you what you’re doing there, tell them you’re going to make a sacrifice. That will be true; take an animal with you and make a sacrifice. Just do this other thing, too, while you’re there.”
I guess that must have calmed Samuel’s anxieties down, because he took a heifer and set out for Bethlehem. But when he got there, he found that the elders of the city were afraid too. It doesn’t really say what they were afraid of, but I would imagine they figured he was there on some kind of mission from Saul—they would have had no way of knowing about what had gone on between the two of them—and were concerned what Samuel’s mission might mean for them. Or it could be that they knew he was God’s man, and when God’s man turns up and starts talking, things start happening, things that aren’t always easy or enjoyable.
Samuel reassures them that he’s not there to do them any damage, and invites them to the sacrifice; then he goes and gets a local named Jesse and his sons ready for the sacrifice, too.
Then comes the mission, the real reason he had gone to Bethlehem. Jesse’s sons come before Samuel one by one. The first one is Eliab, and Samuel is sure this is the one who will be the new king. He was handsome, and tall, and looked like a king in every way. He was the oldest son. All the things you would want in a king, Eliab seemed to have them.
But just as Samuel was getting up with his horn full of oil, God says, “Hold on a minute, Samuel. We were fooled by tall, handsome, and regal-looking once before. I’m not looking at the outside this time,” said God. “Remember I wanted a king after my own heart—that is something you can’t necessarily see on the outside. This isn’t the guy.”
So Samuel takes a look at six other sons, and with each one God says, “No, he’s not the one.”
Jesse’s at the sacrifice with seven boys—and remember that seven is a perfect number in the thinking of the Hebrew people, so if wasn’t one of the seven, something could be wrong. But none of these seven is the one God has picked.
And after Samuel’s seen them all, and there aren’t any more boys hanging around, he is puzzled. He says to God, “I thought you said it was one of Jesse’s sons. Well, here they are, and you keep telling me no. What do I do now?”
God says, “Ask him if this is all of them.”
I wonder if Samuel argued. “Why would you think this isn’t all of them? I told him to bring all his sons, and here they are, and there are seven boys here—seven is the magic number, as you know.”
But God just said again, “Ask him if this is all of them.”
So Samuel does, and Jesse says, “Well, there is the least ’un; but he was too young to come to the sacrifice, so we left him at home to watch the sheep until we got back.”
Samuel says, “Get someone else to watch the sheep. I need to see him too.”
What do you suppose the other boys said? “Wait a minute! Eliab here is grown, and he’s responsible, and good-looking, and everything you could possibly want in a king; and you want to see the little runt? You want to see the pest, the pain, the one who listens in on our phone conversations and makes rude noises when we kiss our dates good night? Well, we always heard prophets had a few screws loose…”
But Samuel says, “No, I need to see him too. And we’re not going to do anything else until he gets here.”
How long do you suppose it took to get him there? It wasn’t like they could just call him up on the cell phone, or send someone out in the pickup to get him. But they all sat down and waited.
They bring the boy, and he’s been out with the sheep, and is probably sweaty and sunburned and dirty and grass-stained.
It’s kind of funny that when Eliab, the oldest, came before Samuel, and Samuel looked at him and said, “This fellow looks like a king,” God said, “Don’t judge the book by its cover.” But when the little fellow shows up, the narrator makes a point to tell us how good-looking he was.
And this time, Samuel hears a different message from God: “This is the one. He’s the king after my own heart. Anoint him. Anoint the shepherd boy, the dirty-faced kid, the runt of the litter, the least ’un. One day he’ll be remembered as the greatest king my people ever had.”
One of the things we discover early on when reading the Bible is that “God’s ways are not our ways.” We would not have picked the eighth son, the runt, the shepherd boy, the one nobody even calls by name until the very end of this story. David didn’t look like a king. Sure, he might have been a cute kid, but that’s all he was—a kid.
And when we read the rest of his story and we learn that he’s not even always a morally upright fellow. He did some terrible things, not the least of which was the affair with Bathsheba and the coverup after he discovered he knocked her up. Yet this was the one God chose, and God never did turn away from him.
God’s ways are not our ways.
What qualifications do we think a religious leader, a pastor, a teacher, an elder, a church planter, or whatever, should have? Do we want to make sure they have gotten the right amount of education? Would we ask someone who did the sixth grade three times and then dropped out of school to consider the ministry?
Should they have certain skills? A good speaking voice, perhaps, or the ability to run a business effectively? Do they have to be extraverted, or is it okay to have an introverted leader who is exhausted by being around other people? Would we accept a pastor who couldn’t balance a checkbook? Would we consider calling someone with major physical disabilities, or a mental illness?
Should their past be free of any moral or ethical slipups? Would we consider as an elder someone who’s just gotten out of prison for dealing drugs? What about someone who was a murderer?
Do we limit our pool of potential leaders to one gender?
What about lifestyle? Should our religious leaders be married, single, or celibate? Can they be divorced? Divorced and remarried? Gay?
These are all questions that churches have to consider when choosing their leaders, and different congregations have answered in different ways, depending on who and where they are.
But the witness of the whole Bible is that God doesn’t choose the most obvious people for positions of leadership and responsibility. Eldest sons are often passed over in favor of younger ones, like David or Joseph. Women get sent out with important messages, like “The tomb is empty!” The Bible is full of unlikely people called to do God’s work in the world.
A piece purporting to be a memo from a recruiting consultant has been circulating on the internet for years. You’ve probably seen it. The consultant has reviewed the qualifications of twelve people who are candidates for leadership in an organization, and she has serious doubts about almost all of them.
Very few of them have much, if any, formal education. Four of them are common laborers; one of them just a kid, and another with an alarming tendency toward impulsiveness and displays of temper. A couple more have questionable political associations. One’s only job experience has been in a dishonest and ethically questionable field. One is distinctly lacking in the necessary arts of tact and diplomacy, always answering questions and making comments that would be better left unsaid. Some of them seem to have come out of nowhere; the consultant has tried but cannot find anything at all about their background, experience, or skills.
But there is one candidate who is respectable, decent, qualified, whom she believes will be a great asset to the organization; and the consultant recommends he be hired immediately and placed in a position of high authority.
You have probably heard this before, so I’m sure you know who these people are. The letter is one a recruiter might have written to Jesus about the twelve men he had selected to be his disciples. None of them, by the standard ways of reckoning, has any business being placed in a position of leadership and authority—with one exception: Judas Iscariot.
God’s ways are not our ways. God calls unlikely people to be leaders. The Bible is full of them: Joseph, Moses, David, the disciples, the Samaritan woman who was the first evangelist, Mary Magdalene, Paul, most of the prophets.
God looks at our hearts, not our past history or our outward appearance. I wonder if we could learn to do the same.