Providence (1 Samuel 16:1-13)
Work on the statue of David started in 1464. The city of Florence commissioned several large statues for the cathedral in the city. Two sculptors worked on the statue, one after the other, but neither get very far. And both had their contracts terminated. As they worked on the statue, both of them complained that the marble Florence had purchased had too many imperfections and it wouldn’t ever stand up under its own weight. Between the two of them, by starting at the bottom, only a portion of David’s legs were sculpted. So for 25 years, David laid in the stone, on his back, out in the elements.
In comes Michelangelo. He’s 26-years-old, the highest-paid artist of his day, and the city officials offer him a contract to finish the statue. And in just over two years, he finished what has become maybe the most famous statue in the West. Most paintings of David show him in his most famous story, when he fights Goliath. And they show him either holding or standing over Goliath’s head. But Michelangelo decided to show David before he confronts Goliath. He’s calm, cool, and collected. He’s carrying his slingshot over his shoulder, but it’s not the focus. It’s barely visible. He presents David as clever, not just as a fighter. David won a battle with a giant, and now his statue stands 14-feet fall in the Galleria dell’Accademia.
David comes along at a rough time in Israel’s history. They have not been a nation all that long. God has made a covenant with the people, and their blessings depend on their faithfulness to the covenant. When the people are unfaithful, God permits neighboring nations to come and attack them. But when that happens, he also sends a person called a judge to act as a sort of temporary prophet-king to lead them out of an invasion. Judges didn’t have successors like a king. The book of Judges is the miserable history of how often God sent judges to bring the nation back from the ledge.
The prophet Samuel comes along as the final judge, and the people are now demanding a king instead of just a temporary judge. God is to be their king until he appoints a human king for the people, which he had promised to Abraham as far back as Genesis and again to Moses. But instead of waiting on the providence of God, they demand a king right now. Samuel speaks to God on behalf of the people, and God assures him that the people are not rejecting his leadership but God’s kingship.
God will provide a king for the people. God sends a man named Saul to Samuel, and God makes it clear to Samuel that he will be the first king of Israel. But he will be a king “for the people.” Saul is a great leader until he has a few losses and becomes paranoid. Under Saul, the Philistines constantly attack Israel, and there are few victories. Essentially, Philistia controls the land of Israel, and it’s almost as if they’re back in Egypt under the oppression of a foreign power. Samuel is raised up almost as a Moses, who will be instrumental in bringing peace back into the land. God removes his Spirit from Saul and sends Samuel out to find the man who will replace Saul one day. Instead of Saul being a king “for the people”, David will be a king “for me”, or for God.
David’s life shows us the providence of God. Providence is God’s guiding hand over the affairs of this world. David is introduced to us as a very young man, but God has already a will in place for David’s life. He would be a shepherd, a king, a keeper of the covenant, a general, a musician, and a psalm writer. He would also be an adulterer and a conspirator in a murder. He’s complex, to say the least. But through it all, David’s life is a shining example of how God lovingly guides and directs his people into a righteousness not of their own but that which is a gift.
Recently, a pastor and a professor at Ukraine Baptist Theological Seminary made the news because he moved his family out of Ukraine for their own safety and then went back by himself to minister with other pastors to shepherd their people. People don’t do that because they’re good in their heart. People do that because they know in their heart that God is in control and guiding the affairs of this world so that the gospel is preached to the nations, and no matter what world events may take place, everything serves the good will of our heavenly father. So of course we pray for relief for those under attack, but we simultaneously trust God, who guides and directs the affairs of this world.
Samuel is grieved over how Saul has performed. He was a great man, but once his ego was shattered through failures, he never recovered. And from this point on, it would only get worse. Saul’s a character study in how greatness can destroy a man of low character. Saul makes sacrifices that he’s not authorized to make because he gets impatient and can’t wait for Samuel any longer. He gets jealous of David and tries to kill him. But he still was a great strategist. And seeing someone with so much capability ruin themselves was tough on Samuel. He’s grieving not just the downfall of the first king of Israel but that the first king of Israel would fail so badly. Is this the best Israel has to offer?
God tells Samuel to get up and take action. There is another man to whom God will give the throne after Saul dies. Samuel is sent to Bethlehem in Judah, which should not surprise a man who teaches the Scriptures. In Genesis 49, as Jacob is dying and blessing his sons who would become the twelve tribes of Israel, he says that “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of all the peoples” (v.10). There was always meant to be a king in Israel, and he would be a descendent of Judah.
When Samuel goes to Bethlehem, he will meet a man named Jessi, and one of Jessi’s sons will be the next king of Israel. This time, instead of the people demanding to have a king, God will choose to give them a king. God tells Samuel, “For I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Now it’s not that God did not choose Saul, because he orchestrated how Saul and Samuel met. But in his providence, God will at times permit the sinful behaviors of his people play out as a disciplinary tool. The people were unfaithful in searching for a king that would serve in God’s role, and God said to them, “Thy will be done.”
Samuel is afraid of Saul in his paranoid state. If Saul finds out that another king has been anointed, there is little doubt in Samuel’s mind that he’ll be imprisoned or, more likely, killed. So God provides a good reason to make the journey, making a sacrifice, and as a judge and prophet he would have done this anyway. When he arrives in Bethlehem, he will invite Jessi’s family to the meal that would follow the sacrifice of the heifer. When he passes through Saul’s land, he won’t raise suspicion.
Sometimes there is a fine line between careful planning and deceit. But there is also wisdom in knowing how much to say, the way to say it, and what doesn’t need to be said right now. Samuel does not need to lie about what he is doing, but at the same time, God has already rejected Saul as king.
The first people he meets in Bethlehem are the town elders. They seem flustered by Samuel’s unannounced visit, and they ask, “Do you come peaceably?” That seems like an odd question for a prophet, but Samuel’s reputation as a no-nonsense judge and prophet precedes him. Just a few months earlier, chapter 15 tells us, Saul failed to destroy all the people of the Amalekites, taking some of them as slaves and imprisoning their king, King Agag. Samuel is at his whit’s end with Saul, so Samuel went up to Agag and took his lunch. He took his sword and chopped him into pieces. Suddenly a little curiosity about Samuel’s surprise check-in doesn’t seem to be so uncalled for. But he assures them that he comes in peace and invites them to the feast after they ceremonially purify themselves.
The sacrifice takes place, and the meal is about to begin. Samuel is looking Jessi’s sons up and down to see which one is God’s choice. Naturally, he starts with the oldest son, Eliab. The oldest son has the birthright, he’ll inherit the most from the family, he’s carrying the most responsibility among his brothers, and he’s likely the strongest from his brothers. But you know what you do when you assume. Looks are deceiving. God says to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (v.7).
How often our instincts lead us down the wrong path. If Eliab had been anointed for the way he looked, he would have been as bad or worse than Saul. When Saul was anointed king, the people liked him because of how tall and handsome he was. But in his heart, he was a paranoid, ego-driven man, obsessed with power. His failures simply shown a light on his heart. There might be many reasons that our instincts guide us toward the physically attractive, but at the end of the day we’re told that for whatever reason we strive toward those things, those features do not a king make.
Physical strength is good, and a clean appearance is good manners. But those exterior attributes can be accomplished apart from good character. Only the LORD can see who we truly are. The things we hide from others are open before God. Nothing is hidden from his sight. We might fool others for a time, but if we are just fooling others, we might very well be the judgment on those people from God as Saul was.
One of God’s attributes is that he is a perfect judge. He is impartial, judging only against his own standard of holiness and perfection. And as he knows the innermost parts of who we are, he does not make mistakes in his judgment. In Hebrews 10, when the author is speaking of God’s perfect judgment, it’s then that he writes, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (v.31).
We do not fear God because he is unjust, but because he is just. And even though we often downplay our sinfulness or mischaracterize it as moral failures or mistakes, God sees us as we are, fully exposed before him. Jesus tells us, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). Nothing is hidden from his view. That both humbles us and encourages us, because he will not misjudge us. And if we are found in Christ, then we have already been judged. The judgment that Paul writes of, that I will endure at the end of the age, is to determine whether or not Christ died for me or if I will die for me. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3 that the judgment for Christians will simply expose whether our works were done in faith or not.
How do we judge people? What’s the natural way? We hear their words, and we read between the lines. We look at their appearance. We ask questions like, “Do they look right for the job?” We ask for resumes and CVs, we ask for character references, because you and I can’t look at a person and know their heart or their intentions. This makes us prone to make mistakes in judging someone, and it makes prejudice possible. We can’t know everything, so we have to make some assumptions.
But not so with God. Psalm 139, which is famous for telling us that God knits us together in the womb, also says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways” (vv.2-3).
This is why the providence of God should matter so much to us. You and I are physically and spiritually incapable of guiding the affairs of this world because we are spiritually and physically incapable of understanding not only our own hearts but the hearts of other people.
God both raises up and tears down nations, which we are seeing in our own world today. God moves the hearts of the kings as he providentially moves his will forward. This is also why the church is free to make judgments about good and evil. We can look at world events, and we can look at what people and whole nations do, and without apology say that it is good or evil. We do not need to understand why things happen the way they do, because we do understand that there is one above us who does understand with perfect knowledge.
Eventually Samuel sees seven of Jessi’s sons. He knows that he is there to anoint the next king of Israel, but God has rejected every one of Jessi’s sons so far. There must be another. Because David is the youngest and the smallest, he’s not even considered by Jessi worth calling in from the fields. He’s out with the sheep keeping them safe. It’s almost prophetic, because “shepherd” will become a key attribute of the kings of Israel. Even before he’s made a king, he’s learning what it takes to be a shepherd, what it means to lovingly guide and direct those prone to wandering, knowing when to use your words and when to use your stick. He could learn that in obscurity, or he could learn that during his time as king. How much better off was both he and Israel by him learning to be a shepherd before taking office.
David is anointed now, but he will not become king for years. He still has the normal amount of growing up to do. Being shoved into a place of prominence before you’re ready is a dangerous place to be. It’s a good and noble thing to desire a high office, but to have an office without character is a recipe for the full catastrophe. God will often keep us in places of little to no recognition to guard us against an even greater fall once we are recognized. The day of small things is not a bad place to be if you desire the day of great things. It is in the day of small things that our hearts learn the things of God, where humility is learned, cultivated, and practiced. Without learning humility, greatness is a curse. This was the hard lesson that Saul learned, and David will himself struggle with it throughout his life.
David is anointed for greatness at this young age in front of his brothers, even if they’re unclear as to him being anointed as a future king. And even David is said to be ruddy or have a red complexion, to have beautiful eyes, and handsome. So dashing good looks do not prohibit you from greatness, but neither do they qualify you.
Then we read that the Spirit of God “rushed” on David. The language around the behavior of the Spirit is always exciting. You never read about the Holy Spirit sneaking into someone’s heart or slyly entering after a courteous introduction. The Spirit rushes on Saul, and he rushes on David. The Spirit falls at Pentecost. The Spirit is not just a force, but he always shows up in force. The Spirit is fully a part of the Trinity. The Spirit is a person. He is co-eternal with the Father and the Son and shares equal ultimacy with them both. The Spirit is as fully God as the Father and the Son.
The Spirit is always the agent of redemption. Whether before or after Christ, the Spirit is the one who applies the redemption that Christ bought with his blood to individuals. If the Spirit applies the blood of Christ to the church who looks back to him in faith, then the Spirit also applied the blood of Christ to the faithful within Israel who looked forward to him in faith. The difference is that in the old covenant, God lived among his people in the temple. The new covenant surpasses the old in that the Spirit of God now lives in us, because we are in Christ, who is himself the new temple.
And because God had always planned to place a king on the throne in Israel, God will make a covenant with David when he becomes king, promising that there will always be a son of David on that throne, that he will have an eternal kingdom. From that time on, when David fell short, the faithful looked forward to a time when a future son of David would be perfect and bring the people into right worship and perfect obedience to the covenant.
Providence is God’s guiding hand over the affairs of this world. From the beginning, God structured the kingdom of Israel to prepare the people for the son of David who would make a new covenant and lead his people into a right relationship with God where everyone would know him. David was a foreshadowing of Christ in so many ways. The prophet Samuel anointed David, John baptized Christ. The Spirit rushed on David, the Spirit descended on Christ. David was chased by Saul, Christ was chased by Herod. David was rejected by his people, Christ was killed by his people. God restored David after his sin, the Father resurrected the Son after his death.
In all the ways that David points us to Christ, perhaps his sin does it just as well. When we look to David, we can’t help but feel frustration at how he misses the mark over and over. That in itself draws our attention to our own sin and our own frustrations in the sins that remain. But where David would fall short as a king, the new son of David surpasses the old.
The prophet Jeremiah writes about the coming son of David who would redeem us when he writes, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’” (Jeremiah 23:5-6).
David looked forward to a future son who would accomplish everything the law demanded. No longer do we seek after a righteousness of our own, because Jesus Christ himself is our righteousness. Providence is God’s guiding hand over the affairs of this world. From before David knew he would be king, during his time of preparation, and through all of his successes and failures as the primary covenant-keeper in Israel, God was working all things to bring about our redemption. He continues to work to that end, culminating one day in the restoration of all things.
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