Scripture Text: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
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The following is the original manuscript.
In today’s scripture we are dropped into the middle of a story already in progress, so let’s back up a little. After the Israelites settled into the land of Canaan, the tribes of Israel were very loosely held together. They were constantly threatened by enemies on all sides. God would occasionally call a charismatic leader to lead Israel to subdue an invading army, and peace would prevail for a while. But then the people would disobey God, and trouble would come again. That’s the story found in the Book of Judges.
In 1 Samuel, the main enemy is the Philistines. They are iron smiths, crafters of great weapons and farming implements, far more powerful than Israel. The Israelites fear them. So they want a king to make the nation stronger. Samuel, their spiritual leader and chief priest and prophet, thinks a king is a terrible idea. A lot of you would like Samuel. He is obviously a Republican because he complains loudly that, among other things, a king is going to tax them like crazy! Are they prepared for that? But the larger and more important issue is that the people already have a king—the Lord. Israel’s biggest problem is not the Philistines; it’s that they don’t trust in the Lord. Their desire for a king betrays a lack of faith. If they had faith, Samuel tells them, everything would be O.K.
Reluctantly, despite Samuel’s well-founded objections, God leads Samuel to anoint a man named Saul as the first king. From outward appearances, Saul looked the part. In a couple of places, we are told that he is taller and handsomer than anyone around, and he also had a pedigree: he was from a prominent and wealthy family. Early on, Saul is successful against the Philistines, and the people embrace him. And he’s a sympathetic character in many ways, doing the best he can. But he doesn’t have it all together spiritually, and his biggest problem is that he does doesn’t seem to listen when God speaks to him, and his disobedience ultimately causes his downfall. Even though Saul would continue as king for years longer, his fate was sealed. His kingship was rejected by God.
And that’s where today’s scripture picks up. Samuel is grieving over this rejection.
If you read the chapters leading up to this scripture, the fact that Samuel seems depressed about it might be surprising. After all, in a way, Samuel’s most dire predictions came true. All of Samuel’s fears and warnings to the people were vindicated. The people got what they wanted, but were they really any better off?
On the other hand, this project of establishing the monarchy in Israel belonged to Samuel. It was something he was called by God to do. And it appeared to be a failure. It’s easy to imagine he took this failure personally. It’s easy to imagine that he felt a little sorry for himself. It’s easy to imagine that he felt sorry for Saul. It’s easy to imagine that he felt sorry for his people. I’m sure he also felt confused: If God was responsible for making Saul king, why did it end so badly? We can’t be sure how Samuel felt, but we know that this man of God who up to this point in the story never lacked for confidence, never wavered in his faith, never failed to know the right course of action, seems completely immobilized by his grief.
Many of us know what that kind of grief feels like, right—where you just feel stuck and you don’t know what to do? A singer-songwriter named Iris DeMent has a song about her father’s death called, “No Time to Cry.” She describes in the song not wanting to slow down long enough to grieve for her loss because the world’s not going to slow down for her: “there’s bills to pay, and songs to play, and a house to make a home.” “And when the feelings start a-coming,” she says, referring to these feelings of grief, “I’ve learned to stop ’em fast/ ‘Cause I don’t know, if I let ’em go/ They might not wanna pass.”
That’s not good either! There is a season for grief. God is patient with Samuel here. He gives him the space to grieve. And when God ever so gently rebukes Samuel—“How long will you grieve over Saul?”—he’s not telling him there’s anything wrong with what he’s feeling, only that in spite of what he’s feeling, it’s time to get on with life. There’s more work to be done.
Just because the Saul experiment failed doesn’t mean that Samuel failed. Did you hear that? Answering God’s call—as Samuel did—does not guarantee success. I’m sure Samuel made some mistakes in his dealings with Saul. And I know he was a sinner like the rest of us. But when we answer God’s call, and we do what God wants us to do as best we can, we let God take responsibility for the results.
Easier said than done, right? There’s an important concept in family systems theory that comes into play here. It’s called “differentiation.” We ought to be well-differentiated people. Differentiation corresponds to the biblical idea of wisdom. It means that no matter what’s going on, even in the midst of a crisis, we can take a step back and see things objectively. We maintain a sense of perspective. It means that we don’t take things personally, even if other people are trying to make it personal. Differentiation means we are a calm in the midst of a storm. We are even-keeled. We don’t let ourselves get too high when things are going well, and we don’t let ourselves get too low when things are going poorly.
Jesus, for example, is the most well-differentiated person who ever lived. The first sermon he preaches in his home town of Nazareth is so poorly received by people there that they threaten to hurl him over the edge of a cliff. Does it get him down? No. He just keeps on doing what his Father wants him to do. There are other places when he’s so popular and beloved by the crowds that he can hardly get away from them. But he doesn’t let it go to his head, or sidetrack him, or prevent him from fulfilling his mission.
I’m not saying we who are called by God throw caution to the wind, or that we don’t care about the results, or that we behave in a reckless way. But notice after God asks Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” God tells him, “I have rejected him as king over Israel.” In other words, God tells him, “This one’s on me. I’ve done this. I’m ultimately responsible for Saul’s success or failure. You don’t have to understand it. You may never understand it. That’s not your job. That’s above your pay grade! You can be certain, however, that my sovereign will is working through this apparent failure and, I promise you, something good is going to happen as a result. Something better than you can possibly imagine! You go down south to the house of this man named Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons—and this king is not simply going to be what the people want; he’s going to be what they need. He’s going to be a man after my own heart.”
“I have provided for myself a king,” God says. Only that’s not exactly what he says. That’s how it’s translated. God actually says, “I have seen for myself a king.” It’s a figure of speech—like when you ask someone to do something and they might say, “I’ll see to it myself.” “I have seen for myself.” This Hebrew word for “seeing,” “raah,” shows up again in verse 6, when Jesse’s first son appears, and Samuel “looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’” And God says no. Then the raah shows up a few more times in verse 7, translated as “look” and “see”: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
More than anything, this passage is all about having proper vision. Learning, as God tells Samuel, to see beyond appearances. This is especially difficult for us to do, I’m afraid. As a culture we are all about being superficial, aren’t we? How important are appearances to us? Good grief, have you see this YouTube video making the rounds that shows this rather plain-looking young woman who is transformed, using time-lapse photography, into the impossibly beautiful supermodel that we see on a billboard? Not only is it the makeup and the hair and the wardrobe—it’s the photoshop enhancements, the sculpting of her figure including elongating her neck and smoothing out what someone obviously sees as flaws.
To say that that photo doesn’t represent reality is an understatement. This finished picture is of someone who doesn’t even exist—who can’t exist in real life! And yet this is our standard of beauty. Something is wrong with us!
How desperately we need to look beyond appearances. God says the heart is what matters. I bet if we get our heart right first, becoming beautiful is much, much easier!
I went to the eye doctor last week. He asked me if I had any problems. I said, “Well, yeah… When I read now, I often find myself looking under my glasses like this. What’s that all about?” He said, “That means you’re getting old.” That’s not what you want to hear! C’mon, doc! Here’s what you want to hear: Several years ago, I had an eye exam, and I was looking at new frames. And this very attractive optometrist—speaking of superficial—led me out in the waiting room, put these frames on, and said, “Oh my gosh. You look so good in these!” And I’m like, “I’ll take three pairs! I don’t care how much they cost!” See—that’s what we want to hear when we go to the eye doctor. Not that we’re getting old!
Anyway, my prescription remained the same. But I got new frames. And even though the prescription was unchanged, when I first put the glasses on, I could see great, but they made me dizzy—like, whoah! You know that sensation? This confused me—they’re new lenses, but the same prescription. The doctor said, “No, that’s right. Your eye has to learn how to see through these new lenses.”
There is a lesson there for us. Because honestly… As great a man of God as Samuel was, as powerful a prayer warrior as he was, as spiritually mature as he was, Samuel’s vision wasn’t working properly. Samuel needed to learn to see things through new lenses—to learn to see things the way God sees them. Because the way God sees things, that’s the way things really are. Maybe that takes a lifetime of learning!
I bet in your own life there are areas in which you’re struggling with your spiritual vision. Maybe you’re seeing failure, disappointment, terrible mistakes, lost opportunities, and the consequences of sin. You’re not stuck there. That’s not the end of the story. The way things look right now are not necessarily reality.
After all, where Samuel saw failure, God saw an opportunity for something better than the world could have hoped. Out of this tragic history, through David and his descendants, in David’s city of Bethlehem, a new king was born, Jesus—and King Jesus gives us and the world lasting peace, salvation, and eternal life.
Who saw that coming?