(Due to technical failure, this sermon wasn’t recorded….)
1 Samuel 16:1-7 | John 9:13-17, 35-41
On the surface, 1 Samuel chapter 16 tells a simple story. King Saul, the first King of Israel, has gone bad; and while he still rules, God has rejected him. Samuel, God’s prophet, is commanded by God to go to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse – for Jesse was an honourable man, obedient to the law of God – and secretly anoint a new king.
Samuel obeys, and he sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab – good looking, tall, already seasoned in battle – and is sure this will be the man. But no – God does not judge on outward appearances, like mortals do, but God judges the heart – and it is Jesse’s younger son, David, who is to be chosen, anointed as king.
It’s a great story, with a great, memorable, take away line: “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
But read around the story, and perhaps just a little bit between the lines, and a different picture begins to emerge.
Samuel, God’s prophet, was the one who anointed Saul king in the first place. And if you remember the story, you’ll recall that Samuel didn’t want to anoint a king, but the people demanded it of him. before Saul, the prophets and judges had been the de-facto rulers of Israel – the call for a king was a rejection of Samuel, a dilution of his influence, the creation of an alternative powerbase within the people – who were, remember, less a nation, and more a collection of families, tribes, at this point.
A king would unite them, make them a nation, lead them. And Samuel didn’t want it to happen.
But the people insisted, so Samuel anointed Saul as king of Israel. And he was the obvious choice. Tall (“a head taller than any other Israelite”), handsome, a dutiful son, and an accomplished military leader. But it didn’t work out well. Sure, Saul united the people, but personally he began to fall apart. Depression, paranoia, fits of wild rage followed by deep remorse. And, most tellingly for the writers of the book of Samuel, an increasing tendency to disobedience to God.
Which rather raises the question: if God does not see as mortals do, but judges the heart, why was Saul God’s choice as king? A man who met all human standards, but for whom a combination of the lure of power and, perhaps, an underlying mental condition, would lead astray?
Was Saul God’s choice, chosen to teach the people a lesson about kings? Or Samuel’s choice? Or was his rise to power more to do with his own abilities, and Samuel’s anointing something of a rubber stamp: since he has become king, he must be God’s chosen one?
And the story just gets murkier as we start to look into Saul’s disobedience. 1 Samuel chapter 15 tells the story. Samuel decides that God wants to punish the Amalekites for opposing Israel when they first entered the land – and just to put that in context, the Amalekites lived in the land when the people of Israel, under Joshua, entered; their opposition to Israel was that of a people defending their homes from an invading army.
But Samuel says God wanted them punished – by complete destruction. Every man, woman and child, every animal was to be slaughtered. And Saul’s disobedience was this: Samuel tells Saul to commit genocide; and Saul, though he kills all the people, spares the life of the King of the Amalekites, and takes the sheep and cattle as the spoils of war.
And for this, he is to be rejected as king.
So perhaps you’re starting to get a sense of why I say that a different, and rather more problematic, story starts to emerge. A simple reading of 1 Samuel, with Samuel as God’s hero, doing what is right, speaking God’s messages, requires that God appointed as king a man who turned out to be mentally unstable, commanded him to commit genocide, and then rejected him because he didn’t kill enough.
As Jeyanth said to me the other day, when we had just listened to the story of Joshua first taking the land “but didn’t Jesus say that fighting our enemies wasn’t the right way?”
Perhaps we have to find other ways to read these stories.
The books of Samuel were, according to most Old Testament scholars, compiled by the people during the years of exile in Babylon, after the fall of Jerusalem. And they were written with a very particular purpose in mind: to make sense of who the people of God were, how they had come to be where they were, how their understanding of God, their theology, if you like, fitted with their experience.
And at the heart of their theology, their core revelation or insight of genius, was: “The Lord your God is the only God”. And everything in their understanding of history, and their telling of their story flows from that one truth.
We read, hear, and tell the story through different eyes; for we have another truth at the heart of our story: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. Our rereading, retelling, must be through eyes that have seen the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and because of him, see everything anew.
And the revelation of Jesus Christ allows that not everything happens the way God ordains.
So reading between the lines a little, we might imagine a different way to tell the story. Saul, fresh from a major military victory, positions himself as king, and Samuel, the respected religious leader, seeing how the wind is blowing, and, rightly or wrongly, interpreting that as God’s blessing, anoints him.
But Saul becomes inebriated by power, and, perhaps, less and less inclined to accept Samuel’s advice. So Samuel sets out to find another man who might be king instead. Not Eliab. Eliab is too like Saul. Tall, handsome, accomplished in battle – and a loyal member of Saul’s army. No, it’s the younger brother, David. Someone more likely to listen to the prophet.
It’s a story that is just as messy; but this time it is messy in a very human way. Political manoeuvring, shifting balances of power, relationships made and broken. A history written more in shades of grey; but out of which emerges the kingdom of David and of Solomon, the one true high point in the history of the people of Israel.
And when we read this story through eyes that have seen Jesus, perhaps we recognise something in the flavour of the story. A very human story, rich with betrayal and friendship, jealousy and generosity, war and peace, a broken mess out of which something wonderful is fashioned by the mysterious workings of God.
A story, in fact, of redemption – for what is redemption if it is not God taking something that is messed up and broken, and turning it into something that is beautiful.
In the end, for me, this tells a richer story. Not the story of a God who chooses king and commands them to violence, and casts them aside when they will no longer obey; but the story of a God who works with and in and through the very brokenness of humanity to bring about unexpected ends.
A God who does not expect – or need – us to be perfect; and who does not reject us, or cast us aside as of no more use when we fail in our calling.
A God who works with our weakness, sickness, rebellion, foolishness, confusion; not because those are good things, but because they are less bad than God is good.
A God who uses broken things, broken lives, broken people, to bring about healing, wholeness, beauty.
A God who used the death of God to compose the crucial chapter at the heart of the story.
This is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the one through whom we read the scriptures.