1 Sam 16:1-13 is the story of David’s anointing by Samuel. It’s a dramatic and colorful narrative that makes for good children’s sermons and character lessons. Young David was Jesse’s son least likely to be chosen as king, but God looks on the heart. Nice story. I’ve even used it as a springboard for a discussion of fathering!
The story of Samuel, Jesse and David, however, is a part of something much larger. For the final authors of 1 Samuel, it is part of a narrative that begins with the book of Genesis and continues through the book of 2 Kings. I ask myself two questions when I look at Old Testament stories like these.
- What was God doing?
- Where is Jesus in this story?
We don’t have this story primarily so that we can see ourselves in the lives of characters like David, Jesse or Samuel. God did not give us the Bible to illustrate abstract spiritual truths. Rather, the Bible exists first of all to tell us about God’s might acts in history.
What was God doing when he sent Samuel to Jesse’s house? The answer is in found in God’s word to Samuel. “I have provided a king for myself.”
To be sure, the king God provided was “the younger brother,” one who had no inherent right to any privileges or power. Just as God chose Jacob over Esau to be the bearer of the covenant promise, so God chose David over his older siblings to reign over the houses of Israel and Judah. The knowledge that God elected to use a less glorious instrument surely comforted the tiny, battered nation of Judah during and after its exile. We will see this theme come to its full literary expression in the “suffering servant” passages of Isaiah and to its full human expression in the life of Jesus, the messiah nobody expected. God’s election is not based on things that most humans consider important.
When Samuel anointed David as king, there was already another anointed king sitting on the throne of Israel. Samuel anointed Saul as God’s chosen king, but then Saul did something bad and God changed his mind. The Lord said to Samuel:
I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands. 1 Samuel 15:11
Kings derived their authority from the divinities they served. If David had God’s anointing, Saul did not. So Samuel’s anointing of David as king was something like a coup. David’s rise to power necessitated Saul’s fall from power. That’s why Samuel said that Saul would kill him if he found out what Samuel was up to.
Through the remaining chapters of 1 Samuel, we see David’s rise and Saul’s decline. Admittedly, this “coup” is a little different than most. Even though Saul came to see David as a threat, David did not lift a finger against the sitting king. David maneuvered, survived and took advantage of his opportunities, but he did not attack Saul directly. The overthrow of Saul and enthronement of David was primarily God’s doing.
Even apart from the theological underpinnings, this is how history worked in the age of kings and emperors. Royal houses rose and fell, often at the point of a sword. One dynasty replaced another. Indeed, this is how politics worked in the northern kingdom of Israel which experienced a string of palace coups and dynastic changes throughout its history. From the point of view of the Judean narrator, though, this continuing parade of new kings was not what God intended. Later, we find the prophet Nathan saying this to King David:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. 2 Samuel 7:8-16
This passage looks back to God’s rejection of Saul in 1 Samuel 15 and to God’s calling David from the pasture in 1 Samuel 16. Something new is happening. The earthly throne of God’s people will not see a endless succession of dynasties as God overthrows one sinful king after another. Rather, God will establish David’s dynasty – literally David’s seed – as king forever, and God will establish the people of Israel in peace.
As I look at the larger story, I search in vain for why David is a better man than Saul and why his dynasty is more worthy to sit on the throne. Saul failed to obey the Lord, and the Lord rejected him. The story of Saul’s disobedience is bizarre to the modern mind and troubling the Christian conscience, and I won’t try to engage it here. David’s life is troubling as well. David was an adulterer and then a murderer. As a military commander, he was disloyal to his troops. He couldn’t maintain peace in his own family. He fell in love with the trappings of empire and power. Some might say that what made the difference was his heart, an inward disposition to God that Saul lacked. I’m not convinced.
What I see in looking at David is something like what I see in the story of Noah and the flood. In the story of Noah, God looked at the earth, saw its wickedness, wiped out the offenders and essentially started humanity over with Noah’s family. After the flood, though, God said, “No more of that.” Whatever the solution to human sin is, it doesn’t consist primarily of wiping out the sinners and starting over with a set of replacements. The new folks aren’t much different than the old folks.
In 1 Samuel 15-16, God looked at Saul, saw his wickedness, withdrew his anointing and started over with David. The rejection of Saul and the election of David, however, is a one-time occurrence that’s shortly replaced by another pattern. After choosing David, God said, “No more dynastic coups! The house of David will last forever.”
Political and military coups are not the answer to Israel’s need for a faithful one to reign over it. The history of every empire – including the Judean Empire – confirms the prophetic words of Pete Townshend:
Meet the new boss.
Same as the old boss.
We won’t get fooled again.
Throughout its history, the kingdom of Judah would have ongoing problems with the faithfulness of those who sat on the throne. Whenever David or his descendants proved unfaithful, they felt the pain of their sinfulness but God did not abandon them. God remained faithful to his promise.
The story of David’s anointing is the story of a God who refuses to let human wickedness frustrate his intentions for creation. God judges wicked rulers and holds them accountable, even if (or especially if) the wicked rulers are members of God’s own chosen people. But getting rid of bad kings doesn’t really solve the problem. The permanent and irrevocable election of David, then, is also the story of grace. God works his purposes among his people even when unfaithful men sit on the throne.
And then, when the time was right, God sent forth Jesus – the son of David, the stump of Jesse – to reign over all God’s people and all creation. In his kingdom, God’s people will live in their own place and be disturbed no more. Evildoers will afflict them no more, and God will give them rest from their enemies. His house and his kingdom shall be made sure for all time, and his throne shall be established forever.
In anointing David as king, Samuel set in motion God’s plan for the salvation of the all the world under the righteous and peaceful reign of King Jesus, the messiah, the anointed one. This is the king whom God provided for himself.
That’s what God was doing.
That’s where Jesus is in this story.