The Ones God Chooses And Uses

Caroline East
(1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 46)

Samuel, who I preached on last week, is an old man by this point in the story, he’s burdened.   He’s retired. For better or worse, he was the last of the great Judges of Israel.  No longer is he the eager boy hearing God’s call in the night- the child we heard about before saying, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” 

No, now he is world-weary, and prone to reflection. He reviews his life with the lens of a man facing its end.  He remembers the good years, of course: the prophesy and sacrifices, the people he met and communion with God. But, the bad years, he doesn’t just remember them, he feels them. Each of his failures ache, deep into his bones.  Most of all, Saul, his shame. 

The people had wanted a king so badly.  They didn’t want God, they didn’t want Judges, they wanted a king.  Israel begged to be like their neighbors. He’d tried: “You don’t know what you are asking, Samuel said. You don’t really want a king. A king will take your daughters as his concubines, your sons as his soldiers, your land for his own.  You’ll lose your voice, your freedom- you’ll become a slave- struggling to feed your family though you live on a farm… working day and night to pay the taxes you owe. Please, friends, listen to me.”

But they were not convinced. And so, eventually, God told Samuel to make it happen-give them what they’d asked for. So Samuel went out and found a king for the people, and it was Saul.  And he was great.  Really attractive, a head taller than other men, he was athletic and confident- You know the type: strong and decisive- the kind of man people want to follow. The only problem was that he was a terrible king. 

He didn’t do what God told him to do, and he DID what God told him NOT to do. And so God decided that he had to go.  And it broke Samuel’s heart. And with his heart is still breaking, his bones still aching, Samuel sways and dips, and rides a donkey out from his home to some little town that God is calling him to. And he’s worried about it all, still, and feeling a little guilty. After all, he was the one who’d found Saul in the first place. He was the one who’d helped give the people what they’d wanted. He’d prayed it would work out, and he’d hoped, but it didn’t. And for that, he felt a tiny twinge of self-righteousness:  I’d warned them.  I told them.

Then, God breaks into his daydreaming, “How long, Samuel, are you going to wallow and be miserable? I’m over it.  I’m over him.  We’re moving on. I’m sending you to Bethlehem, to Jesse. I’ve chosen another king, and he’ll come from among his sons.” Still, Samuel worries.  What will Saul do if he finds out?  After all, putting forward a king when there already is one… there’s a word for that: Treason. And even though he’s got God on his side, he’s not feeling so safe.

In preparation, God had given him a cover story: “Take a heifer and say that you’ve come to sacrifice to the Lord.”  He gets to Bethlehem, and the people see Samuel- an imposing man, a man of power, a man who was known, and now it is them who are worried.  The elders ask, “Do you come in peace?” Which, to us, seems a strange thing to ask, but it’s a fair question because judges have been know not to, if you get my meaning.

“Oh yes, peacefully, I come.  I’m here to sacrifice,” he says.  “You ALL are invited to join me.”And this was a big deal: Samuel, the prophet, the judge,- he was somebody to see, so you can be sure that the people of Bethlehem, a one horse town if ever there was one, were going to be there. 

“Sanctify yourselves.” Samuel says.  And then he, himself, sanctifies Jesse and his sons. “Y’all are coming back for the sacrifice, right Jesse?” “Samuel, we’ll be there with bells on.” “Fantastic.” The time comes, and people are starting to gather, and prepare.

Jesse and his boys arrive and immediately Samuel comes towards them.  Scripture doesn’t mention this, but I imagine Samuel must have said something to Jesse. But what do you say? How do you introduce this kind of an idea to a father? “Jesse- weird thing, I know, but, well… One of your boys is God’s choice for king.  God’s replacing Saul.  No, I’m not sure which.  Let’s line them up and we’ll figure it out.”

“Ok, Lord,” Samuel thinks, “Let’s make this happen.” And so, Jesse’s sons line up, and the first is introduced. His name is Eliab, and he’s a winner- you can just tell.  Maybe a bit like Saul-in the best sense: a tall, strapping young man.  Dark wavy hair, hardworking, honest, bold, maybe most importantly- his faith matters to him.  He must have impressed Samuel because when he sees him, he thinks, “This is it.”

And God?  God says, “Seriously Samuel!?  NO!  This isn’t the one.  Haven’t you learned anything?  I don’t look at his perfectly symmetrical features or his six-pack abs. I don’t see his big brown eyes or athleticism. I don’t care about his high cheekbones or how smart he is. I’m not interested in his popularity or his ability to ‘hold a crowd.’ I’m not worried about his elocution or his outfit. I do not see as you do. I am God and I look at what matters: the heart. And I have rejected him.

Samuel should have learned from his experience with Saul- he seemed so perfect, but things went so badly so very fast. And he did learn… but those kind of lessons are hard to retain for long. We all know it. We all do it. We make the same mistakes over and over and over. What is it about us that makes us so desperate for Eliab even when we’ve just been hurt by Saul?  We’re star struck by money, success, looks, power, connections, and God doesn’t care about any of it. Samuel assumed that he’d know God’s pick, but he was dead wrong- it was like he couldn’t help himself… he couldn’t just turn it off.

In comes the next son.  His name is Abinidab.  He seems like pretty good king material to Samuel to, but this time, he doesn’t say anything.  He ignores his good looks, he ignores his calm demeanor. Good thing, too. Nope, God says.

Next is Shammah, who’s pretty non-descript. Not him, says God.

Forget non-descript, the rest of the sons don’t even have the benefit of being named in the story!!   Just a long succession of brothers who don’t have what God is looking for:

So, I’ll name them. Henry- the one who’s such a good student? Nope, not that one. George, you know, the funny one. Not that one either. Adam. I think he might grow up to be a rabbi. No. Jack? He can fix anything. Uh, no, not him.

What’s wrong with Jesse’s 7 sons?  Not a thing.  Nothing bad is said about them in the scripture, they just weren’t God’s choice. And that’s important too. They weren’t chosen because being attractive is wrong, or being smart or older is a reason that God won’t choose you- the brothers were passed over because they weren’t the right person for this job- this particular one, at this particular time. 

And like many of us would be, Samuel is bewildered. He’s exhausted.  11 miles from Ramah to Bethlehem is a pretty long way for an old man to ride by donkey, and then he’d stood up in town waiting for people to get together for the sacrifice-Now, his knees are sore, not to mention his bad hip. He’s past sweaty and could use something to drink.

Worst of all, he’s 0 for 7 in picking the next king of Israel. 

Just to make sure he hasn’t missed anything… as much to cover his bases as anything else, he asks Jesse, “Are these all your sons?” “Well, all the important ones” Jesse seems to say. “I mean…There is still the youngest- but he’s out keeping the sheep.” Every youngest child from a large family knows exactly what’s going on here, because youngest children have a certain fear of being left out that comes from years of being told that they are too young, too small, “maybe someday but not today, honey.”

While all his brothers have gone to meet the great Samuel, as each is paraded before him as the possible king of Israel, David is out with the sheep.  Bless his heart. David the baby, doesn’t even know something is going on.  And maybe that’s part of his appeal to God. Who knows? But at that moment, something hits Samuel: could this be the one?  God keeps saying not to consider appearances. Could it be, the 8thson? “Go and get him.  Now!” Jesse shrugged.  “Ok. Shammah,- run and get your brother. Samuel, I’m pretty sure he isn’t what you are looking for.” “We’ll see.”

After about 15 minutes, in runs Shammah- “We’re here. Wait… he was right behind me.” A minute or two later, they see him: David…  almost as soon as he’s seen, he’s smelled. Dusty, dirty, and super smelly (he’s been with the sheep after all)- teenaged David makes his appearance before Samuel: The future king of Israel. Ironically, after all the talk of heart, the writer of the scripture makes a point to note his physical features- he’s ruddy with beautiful eyes. No matter how attractive he is, he’s just a kid…the unknown, undervalued shepherd boy. He’s marginal, if ever someone was.  He doesn’t look like a king…but it doesn’t matter. God says to Samuel, “Anoint him. This is the one.”

God’s Spirit descended on David, and David seems almost passive.  He’s silent, as far as we know- but at that moment, he and God were bound together. God calls the unexpected in David. The 8thson of a random man in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere- he becomes the greatest king in the history of Israel.  In fact, David is the most mentioned character in all the bible- even more than Jesus. 

God calls the unexpected in David, but, it isn’t really that unexpected. Or it shouldn’t be.

The story of God’s unusual call- this is the story of the bible.  The least, the lost, the last- these are God’s people. As one scholar said so well, this story is, “not merely a story of a boy who becomes king, an underdog who wins; it is a story about God and the way God sees us and chooses unconventional ways and unexpected people to get things done in the world[1].” 

The least, the lost, the last- these are God’s people.

And these are who God uses to do incredible things.

Thanks be to God that we just might be counted among them.



[1]  quote by W. Brueggemann.