Anointing the king

Anointing the king

Sermon for the third Sunday in Pentecost
1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13

If you were here last Sunday, you’ll know that I launched into an extended sermon series on these stories of kingship and nation-making in ancient Israel; stories from a world so very different from our own, but which can yet speak important insights into our lives and times. Last week we considered the determination of Israel “to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations”; an aspiration soundly critiqued by the prophet Samuel. If you ask for a king, you’ll get one… and a king will only cause you grief by drafting your sons into his army, putting your daughters to work in menial jobs as cooks, bakers, and perfumers. A king will tax your land and its produce, leaving you as little more than indentured servants. Yet because you persist in your determination, God will grant it. Just be warned…

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As tonight’s episode begins, a fair bit has unfolded in the larger story. God had allowed for the establishment of kingship in Israel, and had called Samuel to anoint Saul. Saul is described as “a handsome young man,” the text noting that “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” (1 Samuel 9:2) In short, he was a striking character of regal bearing; surely a promising candidate to lead the people. And pretty much right away he begins to act like a king, which in this case means ignoring the counsel of Samuel, choosing instead to make up his own mind as to how this people should be governed. Pretty much right away, Saul holds power just like the kings of “other nations.”

As tonight’s narrative opens, we find that not only was this a source of grief for Samuel, but “the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel”; that God regretted/was sorry/grieved over the anointing of Saul. Regret? Had God not been able to see this coming? This is where the theme of human freedom comes powerfully into play in these narratives. Saul has been entrusted with real authority in the life of the nation, and his choices are real. Might he have chosen differently? Might he have heeded the counsel of Samuel, and exercised a different sort of kingship? Yes, I believe he could have. Saul is not a pawn on a chessboard, being moved around in some predetermined way until the divine chess master decides to knock him off the board. No, Saul chose to play the kingship game strictly according to his own strategies, and that is the source of God’s grief.

Yet the story moves quickly. As Walter Brueggemann has it, “the season of grief has passed. Now it is time to laugh, celebrate, and rejoice. It is time for David. The turn from weeping to laugher happens because God does a new thing… The new thing, inexplicably new, is this David, who simply overrides the old tension and silences the old uneasiness about kingship.”

Being that Saul is still very much alive and very much in power, it takes a bit of subterfuge for Samuel to get himself to Bethlehem to seek out the new king. Stop and think about it for a minute, and you realize that this is basically a treasonous act. Samuel does manage to get there, and he seeks out Jesse, for it is among Jesse’s sons that a new king will be found. And so, the narrator tells us, when the sons of Jesse came, Samuel “looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.’” Eliab is the oldest, and we can infer from what follows that he was probably physically impressive in the same way that Saul had been. “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 does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’” Don’t bother with his good looks, nor with the fact that he’s the eldest son. That’s not how this is going to work, “for the Lord looks on the heart.” Even you, Samuel, are making the assumption that humans so easily tend to make, that just because Eliab looks like good royal material he must be the right choice. Look again, Samuel. Look again.

So Jesse next calls forward Abinadab, and then Shammah, and then one after another four more sons. But no; none of these has the right heart for this calling. “Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And Jesse said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’” The youngest, the one who is left with the menial job of tending the sheep, the one Jesse had not even bothered bringing out when Samuel arrived. Who cares about a shepherd boy?

Evidently God does. Jesse sends for David, and he’s brought before Samuel who hears the voice of the Lord saying “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” This is the one with the right heart for the job; “a man after God’s own heart,” as David will later be described. “The young David,” says Brueggmann, “is one of the marginal people. He is uncredentialed and has no social claim to make.” And it is on account of this that he stands, at least at this moment, as “a model for the last becoming first.”

And yet the narrator of the story can’t help but add a little editorial note: “David was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” Oh, outward appearance is not what should determine this anointing… it is all about the heart of the boy… but he is pretty darned irresistible, isn’t he? The tradition adores this David, and will continue to do so even when he falters; even when he, too, begins to act like the kings of other nations.

The text is silent regarding the reaction this all gets from Jesse, and from Eliab, Abinadab, Shammah, and the other brothers. Maybe that’s because they were more or less speechless in face of this unexpected, upside-down anointing of the boy shepherd as the new king. Their new king. In fact, David himself doesn’t say a word; he just receives the anointing, “and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him from that day forward.”

In a sermon series preached on these stories at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, Dr Otis Moss III raised some fascinating observations about what David’s experiences might say to African-American men living in Chicago’s south side. To speak of the “south side” in Chicago is like saying the “north end” in Winnipeg; you’re talking about very particular social, economic, and even racial realities. “His daddy,” Moss suggested, “His daddy didn’t even think David could be anointed as the king.” Jesse didn’t even think to include David when Samuel asked to meet the sons. Jesse just left the boy out with the sheep, assuming he wouldn’t even register. And then looking ahead to some of the ways David would choose to live his life, attend—or not attend—to his own family, and structure his own way of ruling, Moss wondered “how that”—that lack of recognition and inclusion, from his father, no less—“how that continues to walk with you.”

Well, for now we’ll let that question be, though later in the series I’ll be returning to the even more poignant questions Moss raises about David’s choices and David’s family. For now, we’ll let the narrator affirm that David is the one. He has the right heart and he the spirit of the Lord is mightily upon him; the last, the least, the littlest of the brothers is the chosen one. To riff off of one of the short parables we read from Mark, the tiny mustard seed is about to yield something more than you would ever expect. And with those beautiful eyes and handsome looks the narrator simply can’t resist… well, these stories can only get more and more interesting… to say nothing of rather disarmingly honest.

To be continued…

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