Opening The Old Testament
Discerning Divine Activity: Reflections on 1 Samuel 16:1-13
That line is beloved of many a preacher, and more than a few overly romantic sermons have been the result. "We should judge all people not by the way they look, but by their hearts, as God does" has probably been preached from several thousand pulpits more than once. And a good sentiment it is, too. However, is it quite as simple as all that? At least it could be said that Samuel is now more wary of the possible choices before him; he in quick fashion rejects the succeeding six sons of the increasingly confused Jesse. "Any more sons?" asks the impatient, and equally confused, Samuel. "One more," answers the old man, "the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep" (vs. 11). "We will not sit down until he comes," says the prophet, probably in his best sepulchral tones so as to increase the drama of the anointing to come.
Suddenly, Jesse's youngest son appears at the door, and the camera moves directly to his face in verse 12. The reader must remember what God warned: "Do not look at his appearance." How shocking is it then when the very first thing that is said about David is, "He was ruddy (that is "red," perhaps a most unusual coloring in the ancient near east), and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome" (literally "good for seeing"). How powerfully does the storyteller warn us about the charismatic man who stands before us! David's beauty and magnetism over woman and men will play no small role as his long story unfolds. However much we are warned by YHWH not to make such judgments by appearance, we all too often do precisely that anyway.
And at his appearance, Samuel immediately anoints this David with his sacred oil, and David becomes, however secretly, the new king of Israel. And "from that day forward the spirit of YHWH came mightily upon David" (vs. 13). And just how are we to judge that claim of YHWH's spirit falling on David? Little doubt in the succeeding story that David has a great destiny. But little doubt, too, that he will tarnish that destiny with his sordid affair with Bathsheba, the subsequent cowardly murder of her husband, Uriah, (2 Samuel 11), and his deathbed command for Solomon to seek revenge on one of David's old and helpless enemies, the act more of a Mafioso don than a king of Israel (1 Kgs. 2:8-9). In what way, finally, is David "a man after YHWH's own heart"?
These potent stories raise far more questions than they answer. The authors seemed intent on finding ways to deal with God's activity in the midst of human choices. And such divine activity is often not as easy to discern as we might like. But perhaps it could be said that human beings often go their own way—make choices merely by what their eyes see—rather than opening themselves up to the real possibility that God's actions in the world may still be significant, however hard it is for us to "look on the heart," and however hard it is for us to understand in what ways God also "looks on the heart." And finally we can say that the lives we attempt to fashion in the sight of God are not always so easy to create, whether on our own or even in consort with that God. Such humility, both religiously and humanly, is, I think, a very good thing.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.