God doesn’t look at things like we do. That’s a simple statement, but a profound theological thought. And, that is the point of the reading from the Old Testament for this Sunday, I Samuel 16:4-13. Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow on that theme, and I must admit, this sermon had a mind of its own and took me in a completely unexpected direction.
God Doesn’t Look at Things Like We Do
I Samuel 16:4-13 NIV
4 Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”
5 Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”
7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” 9 Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”
“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”
Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”
12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.
Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.
The Story of David’s Anointing As Israel’s King
I must confess: I love this story! And who wouldn’t? The text we read this morning continues the lesson from last week. The backstory is that the people of Israel began to demand that before Samuel died, he would find a king for them.
Samuel talked to God about their request. Despite God’s objection, God gave Samuel permission to get them a king, but with some dire warnings first. Samuel, as God instructed him to, warned the nation that God would take their sons, their daughters, their herds, their fields, and anything else a king could get his hands on for the king’s own purposes.
Despite that, the people said, “Yep, that’s what we want because we want to be like other nations who have kings.” That’s my paraphrase, but that sums it up.
Israel had come from the bondage of Egypt led by Moses; had been led into Canaan by Joshua; had been led both civilly and militarily by a series of judges, both men and women. Samuel becomes the last of these judges.
But Samuel isn’t just any old judge. Samuel himself has heard the voice of God as a small boy in the charge of the priest, Eli. Samuel has responded to God by saying what Eli tells him to say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” At least, that’s how I learned the story when I was a small boy.
So, Samuel becomes for the nation both the last judge and the first real prophet they have ever had. But Samuel’s sons, like Eli’s before him, aren’t cut out of the same cloth as their father. The people of Israel know this.
Their concern not to be ruled by Samuel’s corrupt sons, and to be like other nations pushes Samuel to take the whole matter to God.
Now, don’t miss this part. God says to Samuel, “It’s not you they’re rejecting, it’s Me!” But then God goes on to grant reluctantly their request.
We could stop right here because here is the Bible saying that God is making an accommodation to Israel that God does not want to make. What does that say to us about God? Does God change God’s mind? Does God grant requests that God knows are not going to turn out well? Interesting questions, but that’s not what we want to focus on this morning. But, at a minimum these questions ought to make us a little more humble about what we think we know about God.
But back to the issue at hand and the story. The problem Samuel has is that he has already anointed Saul as king of Israel. Unfortunately, Saul isn’t working out and by this passage we read today, God has rejected Saul as king. Unfortunately, again, Saul refuses to step down.
So, Samuel has to slip around and disguise his trip to Jesse’s village, Bethlehem, as an occasion for sacrificing to God. At this point, remember, Jerusalem is not the center of Israel’s civic or religious life. There is no Temple, and Shiloh, and other worship sites are prominent. David eventually will make Jerusalem the capitol of both government and worship, but that won’t happen for several more years.
But, back to the story. Samuel invites Jesse and his sons to join him for the sacrifice. At this point, Samuel sees Jesse’s son, Eliab, and thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”
God quickly corrects Samuel’s presumption, and Samuel looks at all seven of Jesse’s sons, none of whom God has chosen. Samuel asks Jesse, “Do you have anymore sons?”
“Only the youngest, but he’s out tending sheep,” Jesse replies.
Samuel says, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”
Well, apparently they do sit down because when David arrives, God says to Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
And, so Samuel does.
Why Do We Love This Story?
So, why do we love this story? I think first we love this story because of the characters in it: Samuel, the beloved prophet, priest, and judge; the wicked King Saul, who is being replaced; and, of course, David the shepherd boy who walks from the pasture into the presence of God and the Kingdom of Israel.
If there is ever a rags-to-riches story, this is it. And, the story of David is built on this idea of the underdog, David, who defeats Goliath, the giant Philistine. We all root for the underdog.
And, in this passage, the Bible tells us that David was a healthy, strong, good-looking kid. That only makes this story better. And the message I got as a kid was “be like David.”
But, if that’s why we like the story, we have missed the whole point of it.
The Key to the David Story
Even though David was a good-looking, healthy kid, that’s not why God chose him. Quite the contrary actually. The key verse to understanding this story is verse 7. When Eliab appears before Samuel, he’s a good-looking kid, too. And Samuel makes the assumption that his maturity and good looks, and being the oldest, mean that God has chosen Eliab. But, listen to what God says about Eliab:
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Don’t take his appearance or his height into account, Samuel is told. Why? Because God doesn’t look at things like we do!
And that is the key to understanding this whole passage. God doesn’t look at things like we do.
Of course, the temptation for preachers right about now is to tell you how God sees things. But of course, if we knew how God saw things, then we would see things like God does, and this whole story and verse 7 wouldn’t make any sense.
But even though we don’t see things like God sees them, and more importantly, God doesn’t see things like we do, we can still take some hints from this story of David about what that means.
Some Hints About How God Sees Things
So, how can we tease out from this story, how God sees things? Here are some thoughts that stand out to me:
- We look at outward appearance, God looks at the heart.
Obviously, that is not an original thought of mine, because God clearly tells Samuel exactly that. But, here’s the problem — when David appears the writer of this story describes David’s outward appearance!
“He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.
Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.” — I Samuel 16:12 NIV
Now, of course, this verse makes it sound like that David is chosen because of his “fine appearance and handsome features.” I wish the writer of this story had said something like, “Even though David was short and stubby, and a little scruffy looking, God said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
That would have made more sense. But we have to let the writer be human, and humans do what? Answer: humans look on the outward appearance. So, the writer illustrates God’s point with his own description of David.
But, what does God see in David’s heart? Well, it can’t be that David will be completely obedient to God, can it? Because if you know the story of David, you will remember that after David has become king, when he was supposed to be out fighting with his men, he’s lounging around his palace in Jerusalem. Looking from his palace down on the modest houses around the palace, David spots a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing on the rooftop of her house.
You know the rest of this story. David sends for Bathsheba, commits adultery with her. But that’s not all. To cover up the evidence of his adultery, David has Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle. Of course, eventually Nathan the prophet confronts David, and David repents of his sin. David’s repentance is captured in Psalm 51, in one example.
So, it cannot be that David’s heart is pure, or even obedient. What does God see in David’s heart?
That brings us to the second way God’s view of things is different from ours.
- We look for power, God looks for possibility.
David, God knows, will become powerful. It is David’s power that becomes his downfall. No one else in his kingdom could have taken another man’s wife except David himself. But, as powerful as he was, David was also able to see his own sin and repent. Unlike his predecessor King Saul, David’s heart was open to change, to repentance, to conversion, to transformation.
God isn’t looking for self-sufficient power. Rather, God is looking for spiritual possibility. Which is the same kind of thing Jesus was saying when he said about 1,000 years after David:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You don’t have to be rich, strong, full or powerful. It’s the upside-down kingdom, this kingdom of God. Where possibility trumps power, where the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. It’s a contradiction to our culture and every culture. It’s what God is looking for.
If God Doesn’t See Things Like We Do, What Hope Do We Have?
Well, first of all, just because God doesn’t see things like we do, doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to see things like God does.
Listen to that again, very carefully: just because God doesn’t see things like we do, doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to see things like God does.
I think that is the point of Paul’s great hymn about Jesus, from Philippians 2:5-11 KJV:
5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” I like the King James Version. In other words, “think like Jesus.” Other translations say, “Have the same attitude as Jesus..”
Regardless of translation, Paul’s point is that we can see things the way God sees them. And that mindset, that attitude, always leads to self-sacrificial love.
Secondly, if we can have the mind of Christ — his attitude, his perspective, his love — then it will change us and our conversations and conduct.
If we can look on the hearts of those around us, like God does, and see in each heart the possibility of this person loving God, because they are God’s creation and Jesus died and rose again for them, then that might change us.
It might change the things we say on Facebook, it might change the comments we make to co-workers, it might begin just ever so slightly to nibble away at our cultural prejudices, our knee-jerk reactions, our critical natures, and our divisive rhetoric.
God doesn’t look at things like we do, but we can look at things like God does. At least a little more than we used to. Each day.
And when we look at people’s hearts, just as God looked at David’s, we realize that sick hearts can be healed, broken hearts can be mended, rebellious hearts can be turned, hard hearts can be softened, and black hearts can be made white as snow.
That’s what God sees. Not our perfection, but our potential. May we see with the eyes of God those around us. Amen.