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An Anointing that Abides

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 11th of Seventh Month, 2021

Speaker: Brian Young

Scripture: I Samuel 15:34–16:13, NRSV:

15:34 Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35 Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.

16:1 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Samuel Anointing Young David. Reuven Rubin, 1971

Good morning, Friends!

I am planning to spend the next several Sundays when I speak on some parts of the story of David, from First and Second Samuel. David is a fascinating character, and his story is perhaps the longest unified narrative in the Hebrew Bible— it sort of depends on how you measure the accounts of Moses, but it's definitely one of the longest.

There’s an early mention of David in I Samuel that calls him “a man after [God’s] own heart” (13:14), and so some readings of David want to emphasize only his good points, making him all but blameless. In fact, as you might remember, and as we shall certainly see over the next several Sundays, he was deeply flawed. Eugene Peterson says of David’s life that it “disabuses us of the idea that perfection is part of the job description of the men and women who follow Jesus” (TJW, 79). So in what I share with you today and in coming Sundays, the lesson will not, I hope, be “go and do likewise.” The Biblical account here makes it clear that David is not a paragon; the picture is much more complex, much more nuanced, much more human.

The passage that we’ve heard this morning is David’s first entrance, but you’ve probably already noticed that most of it has to do with this fellow Samuel, and also Saul. To fill in the background a bit, Samuel is a prophet, and Saul is Israel’s first king. As God’s representative on the scene, Samuel anointed Saul, essentially making him king by the direction of the Lord—though some suggest that Samuel didn’t hear God correctly, and was instead acting on his own intuition. This interpretation is possible because Saul's kingship as we have it here is the very definition of a fiasco: something that starts out well, but then goes horribly wrong. Saul is a mighty general, and his campaigns against Israel’s neighbors go well to begin with. Samuel is right there with him, representing the Lord, egging Saul on but also correcting him. But then Saul disobeys God, and God withdraws favor from him. (This account is mostly in I Samuel 9–15.) Hence the mournful tone of the beginning to the passage today; Saul and Samuel have parted ways, not to meet again, and as it says in 15:35, “Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel.”

Now, it’s serious business, to replace one king with another, especially when the first king is still living. The process of David taking Saul’s place occupies much of the rest of the book of I Samuel, in large part because Saul resists it and goes to war. That may be why the elders of Bethlehem tremble when they come to meet Samuel, and want to be sure that he comes in peace (16:4). Perhaps they have heard that Samuel and Saul have parted ways, and from that they’ve intuited that Samuel is seeking a replacement—and if Saul hears that Bethlehem is where a rival king dwells, it could be very bad for their town.

The account of how David is chosen puts me in mind of the wider Biblical witness on how God chooses vs. how people choose. First, we remember that God most often chooses from among the least and the marginalized, rather than the greatest and the most powerful. David is not even there when his father presents the older seven sons; Jesse hasn’t even considered him, and has left him to menial work with the flocks. And Samuel, of course, is ready right off the bat to anoint Eliab, the first, the biggest and the best-looking of the whole bunch—”That's got to be God's anointed! Look how big and strong he is!!” Commentators point out that Eliab looks a lot like Saul appeared, at an earlier point: in chapter nine, it says, “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than [Saul]; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (9:2). So this part of David’s story echoes in Jesus’ words that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first...“ (Mt 19:30 & par.), as well as in what Paul says, that “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (I Cor 1:27b).

Second, we see that when God chooses, it is the inward condition that matters: “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7). Robert Alter’s translation is even more visceral: “[humans] see with the eyes and the Lord sees with the heart” (TDS, 142). There’s the sense that God’s heart—in the Biblical understanding the seat of not just emotion, but also will and judgment and discernment—that God’s heart sees our hearts directly, in a way that no one else can. Samuel’s focus on outward strength is clearly inadequate. I think we see the same thing going on when Jesus chooses his disciples—he sees their hearts with his, knowing every way in which they are limited and flawed, and yet also seeing the strength and potential—and seeing all of this, he chooses.

For the rest of this message, I want to focus on anointing, the sign by which Samuel indicates God’s choice of David. This is a practice that has varied purposes in the Scriptures. Both people and things can be anointed. Most Biblical instances of anointing are with oil, as Samuel does with Saul and David, but others can involve things like perfume, and even blood. Often, the purpose is a commonplace one: cleansing or cosmetic. In other instances, sick and dying people are anointed in hopes of their healing, and after death, anointing is part of preparing a body for burial.

In the Hebrew religious law, anointing is most often related to consecration, or setting apart. This is done for sacred objects, to make them fit for service in the tabernacle or the Temple (e.g., Lev 8:10, Num 7:1). Similarly, there are anointings for priests, sometimes with blood from the sacrifice; and there are also anointings that the priests administer to cleanse those who come to make the sacrifices.

A little bit about the language