Looking Beyond for Good or Ill: Reflections on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

The brothers murmur and shift uncomfortably, as their father leans heavily on his staff, and the ancient prophet stands mute by the altar of sacrifice. In verse 12, the shepherd David bursts into the scene. Now comes one of the text's greatest and most mischievous surprises. "He was red-toned (from the word "Edom," "red" in Hebrew) with beautiful eyes, good to look at," hence "good looking," the very model of a Hebrew ten! We must note that this lengthy description of the extraordinary good looks of David comes hot on the heels of a warning to all of us that we too readily look on the outward appearance while YHWH looks on the heart. It would have made far more sense at this point in the story if David had been described as a swarthy, broken-nosed toad, not worthy of a second glance. But no! He is a bombshell of a man whose beauty will be known far and wide in the land. And YHWH—that God who supposedly looks on the heart, on the inside—commands the prophet, "Get up and anoint him, because this is the one" (1 Sam. 16:12). And with no more words, the prophet proceeds to do just that.

Given what happens to this man, supposedly a "man after God's own heart," we must question this entire story. David, the handsome, becomes king all right, and wins many battles all right, and creates an Israel larger than ever it has been all right, but in a terrible series of monstrous acts, this same David shatters at least four of the ten commandments! He commits adultery with a man's wife, coveting her so far as to sleep with her, having her husband murdered in an arranged battle, and then lies about it all until confronted by Nathan, another prophet who is having none of it. Read 2 Samuel 11 if you think I am making this up.

So, why are we reading 1 Samuel 16 for the fourth Sunday in Lent? I must say that I remain uncertain. It is about the choice of an unlikely king. It is about a God who chooses whomever that God elects to choose. Yet, it is about a deeply flawed human being, surrounded by deeply flawed human beings, each of whom attempts to discern the will of that God for them, but just as often acts in whatever ways they decide, God or no. So, it is about us on our Lenten journey, I suppose, but making it into a sort of strange king choice story may raise far more questions than it can ever answer. So a serious Lent to you, flawed human that you are, that we are.

Author's Note: Remember the Baltic in September! I will lecture on Job, and you will see some of the great capitals of the world. We depart from Copenhagen on September 3. Full details are at eo.travel. I do hope to see you there!

3/23/2014 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.
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