1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 & Mark 4:26-34
This week’s Hebrew Bible passage tells the story of God choosing a king after Saul’s fall from grace. Saul was a physically huge man and was the most attractive man in Israel (1 Sam 9:2). He looked the part of a king, to be sure. But when God gave specific orders to Saul, he second guessed them, to near-catastrophe for his people centuries later (Esther 3:5-6). For this reason, Saul was abandoned by the Spirit of the Lord (1 Sam 16:14), whom had previous been with him.
Samuel, who had been Saul’s friend and confidant up to that point, also abandoned him, but grieved for his friend’s punishment (1 Sam 15:35). God also felt very sorry that Saul had been made king over Israel. But then God roused both Godself and Samuel out of mourning (1 Samuel 16:1) and set to work picking a new king.
The men of Bethlehem, being associated with the disfavored king, were terrified to see Samuel coming, and only relaxed after he confirmed that he was coming in peace. Crucially, he told them to make themselves holy, while he set to the task of making Jesse and his sons holy. What this means, we’re not exactly sure, but it sets the stage for a sacrifice, and some performance that is going to be out of the ordinary and probably strange in the eyes of the people [which is what “holy” means after all, “weird” or “strange”].
Samuel regarded Jesse’s sons as they passed before him, thinking that Elaiv, who was apparently physically impressive like Saul had been, must surely be the new anointed one (1 Sam 16:6). But God responded that while humans look at the outside of a person, God considers the heart. All the sons of Jesse passed before Samuel and were passed over in turn. Finally, the youngest, who was apparently a bit weird-looking, passed in front of Samuel. He had red hair (1 Samuel 16:12 and cf. Gen 25:25), beautiful eyes and was apparently very pretty (1 Samuel 16:12). This boy was a bit too gorgeous to be considered as kingly, apparently. Saul and Eliav weren’t exactly hard on the eyes, but David seems to have been embarrassingly attractive, and not in a stereotypically masculine way. This pretty boy was exactly what God wanted, apparently. God told Samuel to rise up and anoint David [literally “messiah-him”]. And from that day, the Spirit of the Lord rested on him.
Skipping ahead to Jesus’ parable, we are told that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a seed planted in a field. Without further intervention from the farmer, the seed germinates and grows; producing stalk, head and individual grains. Then as soon as the grain is mature, it is cut and harvested.
This is an apt parable for thinking about the kingship during the prophethood of Samuel. God’s Spirit picked Saul because he looked like a leader (1 Samuel 9:2, 1 Samuel 10:24). But when he failed to live up to his promise, God felt sorry. But God immediately set out to anoint a new king. The Spirit of God led Samuel to anoint not a rugged-looking manly man, but a red haired boy with beautiful eyes. We are not told anything about David’s height, ever, unlike Saul who was a head taller than everyone in Israel. What we do know is that David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14): a lover, a poet and a warrior.
Just because God felt grieved by a terrible, idolatrous, disobedient leader does not mean that God’s Spirit stopped working. Like a seed, God’s spirit-filled kingdom is planting, growing, harvesting and replanting all the time, even when everything around seems horrible and disappointing. When faithless leaders disappoint by making great shows of devotion but not actually obeying God’s word, God raises up those who may seem silly or the opposite of a macho leader to make a point that God’s concern is not with outside appearances, but obedient hearts that will press on in doing the work of God’s Spirit.