As the saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Samuel, usually a man of vision and perception, has a small dose of insanity here as he seeks a new king to replace Saul. Saul began well, but something about the power of ruling has corroded his soul, and he has set himself against God one too may times. So God rejected him, meaning that once Saul dies, his line will not inherit the throne.
At God’s direction, Samuel now seeks for a new king, among the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite. God’s choice might cause some questions – Jesse’s grandmother was the Moabite woman Ruth, so his bloodline is not pure Israelite. And Bethlehem isn’t really much of anyplace – it’s not where the smart king-shopper browses for a new selection.
Yet God directs Samuel there, and provides him a cover story in case Saul hears about it and moves to protect his interests the old fashioned way – killing all enemies and potential enemies before they can cause him trouble.
The Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce is not exactly happy to see the renowned prophet and leader. They know that Samuel brings the potential for serious trouble to their village. Politically, he can pose a threat to Saul and religiously, he has power Saul can’t match. Has he come to Bethlehem to start a revolt against the king? Whether he has or not, Saul might decide the region is troublesome and “pacify” it.
Fortunately, Samuel has come in peace, for religious reasons. He plans to offer a sacrifice and he invites the town leaders to prepare themselves so they can join in. Jesse is among those leaders. The young men are presented to the great leader, and Jesse’s sons are part of that. It’s all fairly ordinary, and only Samuel and the Lord know that the Lord has special plans for one of Jesse’s sons.
The parade of sons begins, and Samuel believes the eldest is the obvious choice. He looks every inch a king, tall and commanding. But God says no. In fact, he says no to every one of Jesse’s sons, though they all have noble bearing and seem like natural leaders. Though they may look like kings to Samuel, the Lord does not see what he is looking for.
Is there another son, Samuel asks. Are these all the young men?
No, there is the youngest, David, who has been left to watch the sheep while the grownups are busy. Go get him, Samuel says.
I suspect that by now, Samuel knows who he is to anoint, but the Lord confirms it when David arrives. We learn that David is a good-looking young man, but he still looks more boy than man. He would be no one’s obvious choice for a king.
When Samuel thinks of a king, he has a certain picture in mind, and he looks for that picture in the sons of Jesse whom he meets. But the qualifications he’s using have been proven not to work. Tall? Hey, Saul was tall. Noble and kingly? Hey, Saul looked good in the robes and wears the crown well. He can fill the role of the king pretty well – remember he began with success.
If the choice had been Samuel’s, he would have picked a man who seemed as qualified for the job as Saul had seemed. But God saw something in each man that disqualified him. Would Eliab have been another Saul? Or Shammah? Or the others? We don’t know. What we do know is that God decided Israel’s second king would not be like its first.
Samuel would do the same thing people had always done when they sought leaders. Look for the people who looked like leaders or acted like leaders. Sometimes that works. But sometimes it doesn’t, and if we listen to what God said to Samuel, we learn that whether or not it works has little to do with those outward appearances and qualifications.
You’d think Samuel – the child born to a woman whose many years of barrenness were ended with her prayer to the Lord – would remember this. But he doesn’t.
We should, though. We should remember that when God chooses to act, a lot of times he chooses to do so in a way that makes no sense to any of us. Sure, he might do the expected, but whether he moves the way we anticipate or something else entirely seems to have very little to do with whether or not what he wants done gets done.
Rather than remake the world with a word once his creation has damaged it, he chooses to allow the men and women he has made a second chance. Rather than blasting his enemies out of existence with a look, he chooses to allow them a shot at redemption.
When he makes his move to begin his work of redemption, he chooses a little nobody from nowheresville, the teenager Mary, makes her pregnant before she’s married and then let her and her husband try to bring up the boy that’ll turn into a man who’ll save the world.
And rather than go with the rich and powerful, the swift and strong, the eloquent and learned to bring his message around this world, he picks…us.