The Lord Looks on the Heart (1 Sam 16)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.

Imagine your life like a marathon (2 Tim 4:7). You know that what lies ahead of you will be difficult, but worth it, so you prepare. As a Christian, you could allegorize all sorts of images here. Perhaps proper breathing is your prayer life, and good running shoes are your feet shod with the readiness of the gospel (Eph 6:15), and the map you follow is your Bible reading, and so one and so forth. But as you are stretching, King Jesus walks down to you and asks you if you would like His grace to sustain you and His power to be fully given to you throughout the race. Of course! We would all say. So, He reaches down and places in the bottom of our shoe a long, sharp thorn.

What? Why would Jesus do that? That was the apostle Paul’s question. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul is explaining the remarkable revelations that God has given him, but then explains: “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me,” (2 Cor 12:7-8). Paul pleads with God because, well, thorns hurt! Thorns distract you. Thorns slow you down. Thorns keep you from running as quickly and as effectively, right? But the Lord’s response to Paul’s request was: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong,” (2 Cor 12:9-10).

What on earth does that mean? Strength the absence of weakness; power is the overcoming of weakness. But in Christ, our lack, our limits, our inexperience, our chronic suffering and pain, our depressions, our ignorance, our humiliation—all of it is the channel through which we access the deepest pools of God’s grace and power. We see this vividly portrayed in our text today.

Turn with me to 1 Samuel 16: 

The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ 3 And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” 4 Samuel did what the LORD commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’S anointed is before him.” 7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” 10 And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen these.” 11 Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” 12 And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.

14 Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the LORD tormented him. 15 And Saul’s servants said to him, “Behold now, a harmful spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord now command your servants who are before you to seek out a man who is skillful in playing the lyre, and when the harmful spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will be well.” 17 So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me a man who can play well and bring him to me.” 18 One of the young men answered, “Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him.” 19 Therefore Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me David your son, who is with the sheep.” 20 And Jesse took a donkey laden with bread and a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them by David his son to Saul. 21 And David came to Saul and entered his service. And Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. 22 And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.” 23 And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him.
1 Samuel 16:1-23

The Appearance of Power

The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons. (1 Sam 16:1)

So Samuel arrives in Bethlehem under the pretense of offering a sacrifice and invites Jesse’s family to join him for the sacrificial meal to be enjoyed afterwards. And as the sons line up to receive the blessing from the prophet, we are told: “When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’S anointed is before him,” (1 Sam 16:6). Eliab was not only the firstborn (the most obvious choice for a leader) but obviously impressive looking. As soon as Samuel sees Eliab he thinks he has found the next king. Verse 7 specifies that Eliab was tall, and we are reminded that Saul was similarly described as being exceptionally tall (1 Sam 9:2; 10:23-24). Samuel is looking for a Saul-replacement and Eliab seems to fit the bill well.

But the Lord immediately speaks to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart,” (1 Sam 16:7). Sight is a crucial theme in this entire chapter. Back in vs. 1 (when God told Samuel that He had “provided” a king for Himself) the word for “provided” in Hebrew literally is “I have seen” (ra’ah)—much like we would say in English, “See to it.” The king that God provides is the king that He sees, how He sees. When Eliab steps forward we are told that Samuel looked (ra’ah) at Eliab and thought his physical appearance qualified him as king. But God says “Do not look at his appearance.” The word for “appearance” actually comes from the same word for “look”—so God tells Samuel, “Do not look at what can be looked at, do not see what your eye alone can see. You must see like I see.” So, he tells Samuel to not look at two things: his appearance and his height. Which is sort of redundant, isn’t it? Height is, of course, a part of a person’s appearance.

Well, like I said earlier, Samuel was probably assuming that the next king to replace Saul should at least resemble Saul. Maybe the last CEO with the Ivy League credentials has been fired, but it makes sense to look for another candidate who is at least similarly qualified and credentialed, right? When Saul is first put forward as king we were told, “Then they ran and took him from there. And when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the LORD has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” (1 Sam 10:23-24). Remember, that a king was primarily a military fixture, so being a formidable physical presence on the battlefield made a lot of practical sense. So why does God tell Samuel to disregard height? On the one hand, God is saying: I don’t need someone who fits the typical credentials, I don’t need strength, I am interested in something else. God is not so weak that He needs your strength.

The word for “height” and “tall” has a double-meaning. It can also mean “proud.” Back at the very beginning of Samuel’s book, Hannah’s song warned us all, “Talk no more so very proudly,” (1 Sam 2:3). “Proudly” and “tall” are the same word (g’boah), and here the word is doubled for emphasis—talk no more “proud, proud” or “tall, tall.” To be “proud” to “walk tall” means you have what the world defines as strength, and are proud of it—you are attractive, intelligent, wealthy, successful. But God says: watch out, it is not by might that man shall prevail.

While you are here in church, it might seem attractive or nice to think about the idea of God choosing the weak. But by the time you leave the church parking lot, the rush of traffic, the clamor of hungry children, the anxiety of all the work that needs to be done on Monday, all of it begins to whisper to you: In the ‘real world’ weakness is a curse. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, so don’t be a chump and let other people walk all over you. Or, to put it another way, we might claim to believe the first beatitude, “Blessed are the weak,” (Matt 5:3), until our weakness is actually exposed. But theoretical weakness is not real weakness. Weakness hurts. Weakness is frustrating. Weakness is exhausting. And when we find out that others think we are unqualified, unattractive, or undeserving? At that moment, we don’t think weakness is actually a blessing anymore, but a curse. Why? We assume that it is by might that man prevails. So we need to be as mighty, and good looking, and competent, and qualified, and prepared as possible so that we can prevail, so that we can live “the good life.” 

And that’s exactly what Saul was. Saul was a king of the people, and so he reflected what they valued. He was physically formidable, a natural leader, a savvy military commander, concerned for the needs of the people, and appeared to be religiously motivated. He even possessed a modicum of modesty (1 Sam 9:21). And yet his literal height was a portent into the pride of his heart, and so a portent into the people of Israel themselves. They were looking “as man sees.” 

The Power of Weakness

Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart,” (1 Sam 16:7). If God rejects those who tower over others in their human success, who appear to have it all, then who does God look to? What does God look at? We are told, “the Lord looks on the heart.” God can peer through all the vestiges of success and power, all the accolades and skills, all the mistakes, all the failures, all the things that make us cringe most, into what lies beneath, down to who we really are. Hebrews reminds us, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account,” (Heb 4:13). God has never been fooled or misled. He sees you.

And God has been looking for one to replace Saul. Back in 1 Samuel 13 Saul was warned that, “The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart,” (1 Sam 13:14). This is what God is looking for.

So, the carousel of Jesse’s sons pass before him, all seven of them. And the seven-fold totality of what Jesse has to offer—the kind of sons he thinks are qualified—is summarily rejected by God (1 Sam 16:8-10). Samuel is confused. “Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here,” (1 Sam 16:11). There is an eighth son, the ”youngest,” or “littlest/smallest.” The son who Jesse assumed was so small and insignificant that he wasn’t even considered as an option, the 8thstring quarterback, is out tending sheep—a job that Eugene Peterson compares to sacking groceries at the local food mart or babysitting the neighbor’s kids. Doing a nothing job, overlooked, and ignored.

“And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he,” (1 Sam 16:12). Ironically, the one who is literally overlooked by his father, is the one that God looks to. David’s physical description seems odd, given that Samuel was just told not to look at outward appearances. Of course, his good looks do not qualify him to be a king, since Samuel doesn’t provide the same evaluation of David as he did of Eliab. David just happens to be a good-looking young man. But, the phrase “beautiful eyes” literally means, “beautiful to see (ra’ah).” Given the importance of the theme of “seeing” in this chapter, the description could also be cluing us in that in God’s vision of the heart, he sees David, and what he sees is lovely: here is a man after my own heart.

“Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah,” (1 Sam 16:13). In the midst of his brothers, the seven-fold presentation of what Jesse assumed would catch the prophet’s eye, the runt of the litter is chosen and anointed as king. David is the exact opposite of Eliab; he is the lastborn, and he is the littlest. If tallness is associated with pride, then does not being “little” ironically make you great in God’s eyes? What led David to be discredited by his father and brothers, is precisely what qualifies him in God’s eyes. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

This is just the fulfillment of what Hannah’s son was all about: God takes the exalted and brings them down low, and takes the low and exalts them:

The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.

1 Sam 2:4-5

Hannah’s song is a song of reversals. Those who are on top, the mighty, the full, the plentiful, will be brought low. And those who have been stepped on and forgotten will be exalted. How does this happen? In what kingdom do weak people rule, poor people cease to hunger, and barren women rejoice? In God’s kingdom. God wants to show His strength amidst your weakness; His fullness amidst your hunger; His life amidst your barrenness. You lack underlines just how much He has. So far from disqualifying you from being “on top” in His kingdom, you are blessed—He does the work.

9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,
for not by might shall a man prevail.
1 Sam 2:9

I wonder if you feel overlooked by others. I wonder if you look with a deep, deep jealousy at those who seem to have it all and think if only…

Here is what Jesus says to those who have it all: “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God,” (Luke 16:15)

The Weakness of Power

“Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the LORD tormented him,” (1 Sam 16:14). This is a sharp contrast with what we were just told back in vs. 13 of David, “And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward,” (1 Sam 16:13). But we must remember that this isn’t referring to Saul losing his salvation, but instead losing the equipping empowerment of his kingship. God has rejected Saul as king, and so He has pulled the power plug from His monarchy, and instead given it to David. The experience of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament was qualitatively different than those in the New Testament; in the NT individuals receive the new covenant experience of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a gift and sign of their salvation. In the Old Testament, the Spirit had a much more limited role. 

And God permits a demonic spirit to torment and assault Saul so that he is periodically drawn into bouts of extreme depression, irrational anxiety, and insane jealousy. The attendants around Saul recognize what is happening and suggest that Saul find himself a skilled musician who can soothe his troubled soul. “So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me a man who can play well and bring him to me.” 18 One of the young men answered, “Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him,” (1 Sam 16:17-18). And David comes and plays for Saul, and Saul finds relief in the music of David (1 Sam 16:23), so Saul sends to Jesse and says, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight,” (1 Sam 16:22). Two points of irony here that underline the weakness of Saul’s power:

  1. Saul, the mighty, powerful, tall king of Israel, is utterly powerless. He is helpless and must be delivered by the small, overlooked David.
  2. Back in vs. 1 where God said that He has “provided” for Himself a king, literally He has “seen” a king—and that king that Yahweh sees is David. Saul here uses the exact same phrase in vs. 17 when he says, “Provide for me a man…” (lit. “see to it”). And Saul’s servant responds by saying, “I have seen a son of Jesse.” And then Saul explains to Jesse that David has found favor in his “sight.” It’s a delicious kind of literary irony that the author has woven into the story: Saul, like Eliab, had the appearance of a king—when you looked at him, you saw power. David, by worldly standards, is overlooked. But in God’s vision, people like Saul are dismissed, and little David’s are seen. But Saul has now become spiritually blind like old Eli; though he continues to see David, he cannot see that he has just welcomed his own successor into his very court. Even the lengthy description Saul’s servant provides, which sounds like a list of qualifications for a king (a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and [especially] the LORD is with him) doesn’t register in Saul’s mind. Why? Because Saul only sees as man sees. It isn’t until much later when David begins winning military victories that Saul sees him as a threat.

God brings low the exalted, and exalts the weak. God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. This is just who He is. Many centuries later, another descendant of Jesse, born in the little town of Bethlehem, will be anointed, will be the anointed one. But, like David, He will be overlooked, dismissed, and even rejected by those who only see as man sees. One who, “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not,” (Isa 53:2-3). And this son of David, Jesus Christ, whose heart was after God’s own heart, will triumph, but not through strength, but weakness. Weakness to the point of death, even death on a cross. Your sins have distanced you from God and have earned God’s wrath. None of us measure up to God’s Law. But Jesus has come down to the weak, wounded, and weary sinners like us, and in the most supreme display of infinite strength, died on our behalf, suffered the punishment that our sins deserved, so that we could be reconciled with God. 

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” (1 Cor 1:26-31)

Do you chafe under your weakness? Have you ever considered that the weakness that comes into your life is a sign of God’s love and mercy, not the opposite?

Guide me, O my great Redeemer,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but you are mighty;
hold me with your powerful hand

God doesn’t need your strength, only your weakness.

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