The Task of Choosing a King (1 Samuel 9-16)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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Saul Chosen as Israel’s First King

God's first choice to be king is Saul (c. 1050-1010 B.C.), someone who looked the part—he literally stood "head and shoulders above everyone else" (1 Sam. 9:2). Furthermore, he won military victories, the main reason for having a king in the first place (1 Sam. 11:1-11). In the beginning, he served faithfully (1 Sam. 11:13-14), but he quickly became disobedient to God (1 Sam. 13:8-15) and arrogant with his people (1 Sam. 14:24-30). Both Samuel and God became exasperated with him and began to look for his replacement (1 Sam. 16:1). But before we measure Saul's actions against 21st-century leadership expectations, we should note that Saul simply did what kings did in the ancient Near East. The people got what they asked for (and what Samuel had warned against), a militaristic, charismatic, self-aggrandizing tyrant.

How are we to evaluate Israel's first king? Did God make a mistake in leading Samuel to anoint young Saul as king? Or was the choice of Saul an object lesson to the Israelites not to be seduced by outward appearances, handsome on the outside but hollow on the inside? In asking for a king, the Israelites showed their lack of faith in God. The king they received ultimately demonstrated that same lack of faith in God. Saul's primary task as king was to assure security for the Israelites from attack by the neighboring Philistines and other nations. But when faced with Goliath, Saul's fear overcame his faith and he proved unequal to his role (1 Sam. 17:11). Throughout his reign Saul similarly doubted God, seeking counsel in the wrong places, and finally dying a suicide as his army was routed by the enemy (1 Sam. 31:4).

David Chosen to Succeed Saul

As Samuel searches for Saul's replacement, he nearly makes the mistake of judging by appearances a second time (1 Sam. 16:1-4). The boy David seems inconsequential to Samuel, but with God's help, he finally recognizes in David God's choice for Israel's king. On the surface David does not project the image of gravitas people expect in a leader (1 Sam. 16:6-11). A little later in the story, the Philistine giant Goliath is similarly dismissive (1 Sam. 17:42). David is a non-traditional candidate for reasons beyond his youth. He is a last son in a society based on primacy of the first-born. Moreover, he is ethnically mixed, not a pure Israelite because one of his great-grandmothers was Ruth (Ruth 4:21-22), an immigrant from the kingdom of Moab (Ruth 1:1-4). Though David has several strikes against him, God sees great promise in him.

As we think about leadership selection today, it’s valuable to remember God’s word to Samuel: “The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). In God's upside-down kingdom, the last or the overlooked may end up being the best choice. The best leader may be the one nobody is looking for. It can be tempting to jump at the initially impressive candidate, the one who oozes charisma, the person that other people seem to want to follow. But high self-confidence actually leads to lower performance, according to a 2012 Harvard Business Review article.[1] Charisma is not what God values. Character is. What would it take to learn to see a person’s character through God’s eyes?

It is significant that David was out doing his job as shepherd, conscientiously caring for his father's sheep, when Samuel found him. Faithful performance in the job at hand is good preparation for a bigger job, as in David's case (1 Samuel 17:34-37, see also Luke 16:10; 19:17). Samuel soon discovers that David is the strong, confident, and competent leader the people craved, who would "go out before [us] and fight [our] battles" (1 Sam. 8:20). Throughout his career David keeps in mind that he is serving at God's pleasure to care for God's people (2 Sam. 6:21). God calls him "a man after my own heart" (Acts 13:22).

God has selected David to succeed Saul. Now Samuel must anoint David as king while Saul is still on the throne. Samuel doubts the prospects for success. “How can I go?” Samuel says, “If Saul hears it, he will kill me” (1 Sam. 16:2). God’s response is to Samuel to go under cover. “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me him whom I name to you.” (1 Sam. 16:2-3). In other words, go openly to Jesse’s house (where the new king is to be found), but disguise your purpose in going there. Following God’s guidance, Samuel succeeds in anointing David king.

In our work, we also may face the challenge of dealing with an abusive system or tyrannical leader. Do we speak up clearly, as if with a target on our backs, waiting to be shot down? Or do we navigate subtly, hoping this will give us a chance to more positively affect the final outcome? What does it look like to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” as Jesus put it? (Matthew 10:16). For more on the topic of when deception may be morally necessary, see the TOW topical article “When Someone Has No Right to the Truth.”

There is a time to be clear about what we stand for, and there is a time to act more covertly, keeping the end in mind. How do we know the difference? The clue is here in the text, in which Samuel is continually talking with God for guidance. Under pressure, we may find ourselves making this kind of decision on our own, but that is likely to gravitate toward what is most comfortable for ourselves rather than what God wants. Yet we have Jesus’ promise of help from God’s Holy Spirit (John 14:26). Samuel’s habit of talking with God in his workplace led him to navigate the morally ambiguous situation in God’s light to understand God’s purposes correctly. Can we do the same in our own workplaces, bring our questions and uncertainties to God in prayer? For help with this, see the Bible reading plan, “How to Make the Right Decision.”