YEAR A: LENT 4
1 Samuel 16:1-13
The passages set for today, especially the Old Testament and John 9:1-41, induct us into the strange economy of God’s kingdom. In John 9 the one born blind comes to sight in more ways than one and those who have not only physical sight but insight in other ways are seen to be blind. And in Samuel, God chooses as king the one least likely – the least significant, the one forgotten. This strange economy comes to its fullness in the events of Easter where, contrary to all expectations, death gives way to life and mourning is turned to dancing.
Today’s passage is the beginning of a long section (1 Samuel 16 – 2 Samuel 5) often called ‘the history of David’s rise’. It tells the story of how David, described in his youth as both shepherd and musician, rises in Saul’s court, flees to save his life, lives as a mercenary and, in the end, succeeds Saul as king. 1 Sam 16:1-13 speaks of the ‘transfer’ of the spirit from Saul to David. It is brought about by Saul’s disobedience (1 Sam 15:1-9). The Lord regrets having made Saul king (15:10, 35) and rejects him (15:26). The ‘transfer’ is complete in 16:14 with the departure of the ‘spirit of the Lord’ from Saul. Of course, we cannot think of the ‘spirit of the Lord’ in this text as the same as the (Holy) Spirit in the New Testament, which is given to each one in the community of faith, uniting the community as well as distributing gifts. In the Samuel account the ‘spirit of the Lord’ is more restricted and specifically designates God’s elected individual and empowers that one for a set task, here kingship.
This movement of the ‘spirit of the Lord’ is made plain to us as readers, but it is not said to be clear for the characters in the story. A careful reading of the text shows that they, in fact, face a number of difficulties and challenges. First, Samuel himself, while grieving over Saul, is sent to anoint a new king. This is an extremely dangerous task as Samuel recognises (16:2). If Saul gets wind of the plot he will kill Samuel. The Lord’s decision to ‘sack’ his chief executive seems to be neither sufficient in itself nor so publicly transparent that the matter is resolved easily. The will of the Lord is inextricably bound to political activity, and instigates what is essentially a coup d’état. Is some irony intended in the fact that to cover his clandestine activity the Lord tells Samuel to say he is on a pilgrimage to offer sacrifice (16:2) while Saul, when challenged about the flocks and herds that had been taken as possessions against the Lord’s will, also explains that they were intended for a sacrifice (15:21)? How does one distinguish between the lie of the thief and the ruse of the Lord’s prophet when one is in the midst of the action and there is no narrator to tell you who is the goody and who the crook?
Secondly, the will of the Lord in this situation is never something the participants clearly or easily discern. It is clear to us as readers. We know the story. We’ve collectively known for almost three thousand years that young David will be chosen. But Samuel doesn’t know it until near the end of the story (v. 12). He only knows that one of Jesse’s sons will be the new king. And Jesse doesn’t know it either for he calls his sons forward in order of age (vv. 8-11). And Samuel hopes above all that Saul doesn’t know it, at least for a while yet.
The Lord tells Samuel not to look on appearance or height as indicators of the chosen one as Jesse’s sons are paraded before him (v. 7). These were the expected attributes of leadership and election, and were recognised as such in the case of Saul (9:2; 10:23). In the Hebrew, the verb ‘to see’ occurs three times in v. 7 while the noun ‘appearance’ is related to the verb ‘see’. The focus is on how one sees when choosing leaders, and especially on how the Lord ‘sees’ as compared to how humans see. The Lord ‘sees the heart’. While the context is different in John 9, the matter of true sight versus false sight or even blindness is central there too. There is always the temptation to see what is on offer, what is exceptional in appearance, what meets accepted standards, what is impressive, what is beautiful, what seems secure, appropriate and fitting. But the economy of the Lord’s choosing offends such standards. It breaks open what can be misleading in order to seek out the truth at the heart of the matter. The one born blind ‘sees’ who Jesus is with an insight surpassing that of his sighted acquaintances. Samuel persists beyond Jesse’s seven visible sons to ask if there is yet another not seen. The will of the Lord may only be visible to those who are blind enough to see it, and only discovered by those willing to ask if there is yet another alternative.
Finally, we ought to note that even as we acknowledge the strange economy of God’s choice of people and plan, it is all too easy to slip back into our old expectations. As the youngest son of Jesse is brought to Samuel, the narrator notes: ‘Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome’ (v. 12). Does the narrator fall back into the old way of judging even when this has been so rigorously challenged? Or is God just as susceptible to a good pair of eyes and a handsome face as the rest of us? In any case, this slippage in the text serves its purpose. Even by the old standards, this new choice of David as king finds approval. The statement in v. 12 thus confirms, by its old standards, that this unexpected choice is indeed the right one.
The preacher has a lot to work with this week around the themes of faithful ‘seeing’, of striving to recognise the will and way of God in the midst of social and political events, and of the peculiar economy of God’s choice of leadership among the people. 1 Samuel 16 may be about the choice of an ancient king, but it speaks very much to the struggles of any faithful life.
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