Every few weeks, the text for the week calls up some long-ago, filed-away kids’ song that I sang in Sunday school or Vacation Bible School or at Camp Bethel. This week, I’ve had this gem from the Gaithers stuck in my head – I’ve woken up singing it, hummed it while I washed dishes, went to bed with the lyrics running through my dreams:
This morning, our scripture is the story of God anointing David to be King over Israel. You know that story: Samuel, the priest, hears from God that he is to anoint a new king, and he hears from God that the new king will come from the house of Jesse. So he invites Jesse and all his family over for dinner before the big sacrifice, and when they arrive, Samuel is certain that Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, is the one that God has chosen – he’s attractive, strong and (as we remember from last week’s story about King Saul) he has the most important leadership quality: he’s tall.
But God says, “Nope. Not the one. ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”
And that is the money verse right there, the one you probably remember from Sunday school like I do – the reminder that God’s ways are not our ways, the pinch of shame remembering how the Israelites exclaimed and fawned over the handsome, tall, totally unqualified King Saul that they had begged God for. Jesse parades seven sons before Samuel, and God disqualifies each one of them until Samuel finally asks, in desperation, whether or not there is any other son around. Jesse finally calls in David, the youngest, still a boy who is outside tending the sheep.
And when David walks in, dirty and smelly from tending the sheep, God says to Samuel: “Rise and anoint him. This is the one.”
When we hear this story, we think this scene – David getting anointed unexpectedly – is the entire narrative. At least in my memory of the story of King David, I remembered that Samuel anointed him, he proved his worth by fighting Goliath, and took over ruling Israel immediately, with God’s blessing and the people’s good will.
But actually, that’s not how the story goes. There’s a little problem: Israel still has the old king. Saul the Tall is still on the throne.
I’ve really enjoyed imbibing and whittling down these epic narratives from the Hebrew Bible this summer, as we’ve navigated our way through the family legends and stories of a people thrust into conflict with Empire and figuring out how to live as God’s people.
And this is the first week that I have to confess that I cannot make heads or tails of the narrative.
1 Samuel tells the story of Saul’s kingship – the story of Samuel being dedicated to God and the temple before his birth, growing up under the mentorship of Eli, taking charge of the worship of the entire people and following God’s advice to anoint the people a King when they demand that they have one in order to be like all the other people, in order to have someone who can “fight their battles for them.”
All of that makes pretty decent narrative sense. What comes next – the chaos of the reign of Saul – does not.
Saul does some good stuff – wins some battles, kills a ton of enemies – but he does some bad stuff, too. The bad stuff is not entirely clear. It seems like the final straw for God was when Saul refused to kill ALL the Amalekites, keeping the best livestock and their leader for himself and his men. Scholars are still unsure why THIS is the offense that leads God to declare Saul no longer fit for kingship – a failure to show no mercy? but either way, God decides that Saul is no longer his anointed one.
So, God tells Samuel to go anoint a new king.
Here’s what happens when Samuel anoints David as King, even though Saul is still on the throne:
“From that day on, the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David…”
And, one verse later, “Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.”
So, maybe the following mishmash of events is due, in part, to this evil spirit that has taken over Saul. Certainly Saul’s behavior makes sense for someone possessed.
Even though God has clearly shifted his allegiances from Saul to David, even though Samuel has anointed a new King, Saul still sits on the throne. David has the Spirit of the Lord, but he doesn’t have any military might or power from the people. He’s still just a young kid tending his dad’s flocks. Everybody is still looking to Saul for direction, that King that they demanded of the Lord, the one Samuel warned them would be awful for their well-being and their children’s well-being. But the Israelites are stubborn, and they’ve gotten what they’ve asked for, and now they are fawning over this new King, following his royal dictates in the news, watching his every move on the Iron Age equivalent of Twitter. I bet that even the Israelites who were opposed to the whole King business in the first place (ahem, Samuel…) are just as caught up in Saul’s antics as the rest of them.
Everybody’s watching King Saul. But God’s spirit has GONE OUT OF HIM. God’s not working his promise through the throne anymore.
God’s got his man down with the sheep.
But soon enough, David finds himself in the halls of power. As Saul’s health declines, he starts having hallucinations. He can’t sleep. He is tortured by the evil spirit that God has sent upon him, and his advisers think he needs a personal musician to help tame the demons. David, it turns out, is pretty great with a lyre. They summon him, and he enters into service of the King. Well, into the service of the guy who all the humans assume is still the King.
David would play his lyre whenever Saul got agitated by the evil spirit, and Saul took a special liking to him.
The Philistines (remember them?) were still hanging around, threatening the Israelites. One of their huge, popular warriors, named Goliath, challenged the Israelites to something like a gladiator challenge. All the Israelites grumble and argue about who they’ll send to go fight this gigantic man, but David – skinny little kid who spends his days playing the lyre and tending his father’s sheep – volunteers as tribute.
And you know this story: David pings Goliath in the forehead with a rock from his slingshot, Goliath falls like a mighty oak, face first into the dirt, and David finishes him off.
The people are totally impressed, and so is Saul. Saul starts sending David out as a warrior, and wherever Saul sent him, he managed victory over the Israelites’ enemies.
The people start fan-girl-ing David, chanting in the streets: “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his TENS of Thousands!”
And that’s when Saul gets jealous. David has more and more success, and Saul begins to be afraid of him.
And this is where the story gets…wonky. For the rest of the book – 12 more chapters – Saul chases David all over creation, trying to kill him then remembering that he once loved him like a son; commanding his generals to assassinate him, then being chastised by his son Jonathan, who loved David deeply; stalking him from town to town, then repenting when David decides not to kill him when he has a chance.
This goes on, and on, and on, and on. Saul cannot bear David’s rise to power, and yet he also cannot seem to cut him off. Saul the Tall has gone legitimately mad. He can’t tell up from down, his supporters from his enemies, right from wrong, dead from alive.
In the midst of all this cat-and-mouse game, Samuel the priest and prophet dies. All of Israel mourns him – the last leader of integrity that they had known. In his frantic grasp at power and sanity, Saul makes a trip to a woman who is a Seer – something he himself has forbid for the kingdom of Israel – in order to call Samuel forth, back from the dead, to give him advice.
It works – the seer woman summons Samuel’s spirit, and Samuel shows up. Saul bows down to him and Ghost Samuel says, irritated, “‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?’”
“I don’t know what to do!” Saul wails. “the Philistines are waging war against me, God’s spirit has gone away from me, my advisers keep quitting on me, no one listens to my Twitter rants anymore…I’m just so LOST!”
And Samuel replies: “Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors – to David…The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.”
And, unsurprisingly, soon thereafter, the Israelites enter into another battle with the Philistines. When the enemy surrounds Saul and wounds him, he cannot take it anymore. He falls on his own sword.
David has been steadily rising in influence as a tested and victorious warrior who also seems to treat his enemies with some measure of mercy. The people have come to love him, and when Saul dies, they eagerly seat him on the throne. David only become king years and years after Samuel has anointed him, years and years after Saul has lost his mind, years and years after that moment where God declares that he does not value power the way that we humans value power, but that the heart is the most important.
It’s hard not to read the story of Saul – an unlikely King demanded by a dissatisfied people and reluctantly installed by a disapproving Deity who knows how badly it will end; an unprepared mind simply not up to the task of wielding such power and descending, predictably, into paranoia, narcissism and pain, dragging an entire people with him – and not make a parallel to America today.
Plenty of Christians cite that verse from Romans 13 when they talk about the relationship that faithful people should have with the government. You know the one: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
And I want to call that out as an evasion, a half-truth, a way of hiding behind one verse of scripture without acknowledging the whole of it in order to keep our hands “clean,” as it were, in order to let ourselves off the hook when the governing authorities turn out to be not just bad but actually actively destroying the lives of our sisters and brothers, actively dragging us into madness.
God established Saul’s authority, it’s true. The Israelites asked for a King and God gave them one. But God also REMOVED HER SPIRIT from Saul. When Saul went rogue, like everybody knew he would, God started working in and through David to guide the Israelites toward the promise. And God says, straight up, “I don’t work the way you work. I don’t see power the way you see power. Authority doesn’t come from being attractive or wealthy or in the right place at the right time – the authority that I establish comes from having a heart that is pure and humble and inclined toward me.”
So, here’s a challenge for all of us this week: where do you see GOD at work? Where do you see God’s spirit moving among her people? Instead of following the white house on Twitter, look around – in unexpected places, with unexpected people. Where is God’s Spirit hanging out, these days?
I saw it on Main Street on Friday, when I walked the couple of blocks from my house to share water with protesters spending 7 hours marching against the KKK. I saw it in kids dancing, musicians drumming, neighbors chanting, dozens dropping off water and snacks and sunscreen and people declaring, together, that this city is not a place where evil spirits are welcome.
I’ve read a few of the media reports of what’s going on in Durham over the last few days, and I have to say that I’m not sure journalists are equipped to report on things “from the inside out,” like God does. But if we pay attention, we do have ways to look at the heart of a situation. We know what ‘heart’ looks like – often unassuming, sometimes stuck in the back with the sheep, sometimes from a backwater sort of place like Nazareth, sometimes hanging out with the people no one else wants to pay attention to, sometimes teaching and preaching and healing in opposition of the religious and political leaders, sometimes crucified for all that, sometimes resurrected in the power of God’s own Spirit.
Where have you seen HEART at work recently?