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David and The Good Life: Identity
1 Samuel 16:1 - 16:13
September 11, 2022
Reverend Jason Harris
We long to live fulfilling lives that make sense, and yet it seems that we are increasingly confused about what such a life might entail. But one thing is for certain—if we want to live “the good life,” the first thing we have to do is figure out who we are, and what we learn from the outset of David's story in 1 and 2 Samuel is the importance of grounding our identity in our relationship to God, above and beyond anyone or anything else. This first sermon in our series David and The Good Life looks at 1 Samuel 16 where we are first introduced to David and considers the Lord's mission, the Lord's sight, and the Lord's anointed.
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The social scientist Arthur Brooks tells the story of when he walked past his teenage daughter's bedroom, expecting to see her staring absent-mindedly into the Zoom screen, but instead, she's laughing uproariously at a video that she has found. He asked her what she's looking at, and she said, "It's an old man singing and dancing like a chicken." It turns out that the old man is Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones performing his 1965 hit, (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, at a recent concert. Mick Jagger still has it at 79 years old, but from the perspective of a teenager, when he dances, he looks like a chicken—a warning to all the baby boomers out there.
This precipitated a conversation between the social scientist and his teenage daughter about the paradox of satisfaction. We crave it. We long for it. We believe we can attain it. At times we briefly experience it, but then it seems to slip through our fingers. Jagger sings, “I try and I try and I try" to find satisfaction. How? Presumably through sex and consumerism, according to the lyrics of the song, but it doesn't seem to work. Isn't this what we all want, not only for ourselves, but also for our kids? We simply want to be happy, to find fulfillment, and satisfaction.
One of the ancient and perennial questions that we human beings must ask ourselves is: What is the good life? And then a related question: How can it be lived? We long to live fulfilling lives that make sense, and yet it seems that we are increasingly confused about what such a life might entail. The longtime University of Chicago Professor, Leon Kass, recently wrote a book entitled Leading a Worthy Life. After decades as a professor who taught the great books of Western civilization, he's concerned especially about young people today. He says we live in interesting times, but:
“Young people are now at sea—regarding work, family, and civic identity. Authority is out to lunch. Courtship has disappeared. No one talks about work as vocation. The true, the good, and the beautiful have few defenders. Irony is in the saddle, and the higher criticism mocks any innocent love of wisdom or love of country.
The things we used to take for granted have become, at best, open questions. The persons and institutions to which we once looked for guidance have ceased to offer it successfully. Today, we are supercompetent when it comes to efficiency, utility, speed, convenience, and getting ahead in the world; but we are at a loss concerning what it’s all for. This lack of cultural and moral confidence about what makes a life worth living is perhaps the deepest curse of living in our interesting time.”
Kass suggests that there's a number of domains in which people can and do find meaning within our modern lives. He suggests (1) the domain of fulfilling work, (2) the private domain of love and family and friendship, (3) the public domain of devotion to one's community, to one's people, to one's nation, (4) the domain of seeking wisdom, pursuing the truth about ourselves and our world, and (5) the domain of devotion to something higher than ourselves, to the holy, the righteous, the divine. In other words, devotion to God.
I think that's true. People do find meaning in those various domains of life. And yet that can still sound somewhat abstract. What really would help us would be concrete and tangible examples to show us where the good life can be found and how it can be lived. That is what brings me to the story of David. David's name is mentioned 1,000 times in the Bible. The rise, the fall, and the promised redemption of Israel's greatest king is the single most extensive story told of one person's life in all of Scripture. Without a doubt, David is the most complex and many-sided character in the Bible. The Bible presents David in all of his humanity, which is what makes him utterly relatable. In fact, those moments of egregious error and failure in his life are what render David most life-like. He's far from perfect. Despite the ups and the downs of his earthly existence, David lives his life in response to God, and that's what counts. In love and friendship, at work or at war, in service to his people, or as a slave to his own worst impulses, David's entire life is nothing else if not a confrontation with God. That's what gives his life meaning. That's what animated his existence.
Over the next several weeks, we're going to explore what God has to say about the good life through a close examination of the David story contained for us in the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel. If you want to live the good life, the first thing you have to do is figure out who you are. And what we learn from the outset of David's story is the importance of grounding our identity in our relationship to God, above and beyond anyone or anything else. We'll start by looking at the episode which first introduces us to the character of David. We'll take a look at 1 Samuel 16, and as we do, we'll consider the Lord's mission, the Lord's sight, and the Lord's anointed. Let me invite you to open up a Bible to 1 Samuel 16. I'll be reading v.1-13.
1The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” 4Samuel 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?” 5And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord's anointed is before him.” 7But 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 sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” 12And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.
This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love.
The Lord’s Mission
As the scene opens, the Lord asks the prophet Samuel how long he will grieve over Saul. We get the impression that he's grieving not so much over Saul but over himself, for once having chosen Saul as king of Israel. But the Lord tells Samuel to “fill his horn with oil, and go.” He’s sending him on a mission to anoint someone new as king. Samuel is understandably afraid of Saul’s response. He knows that obedience to the Lord might actually cost him his life. Saul at this point is a bit unhinged. Samuel already knows how Saul's anger can be kindled and flare up at the slightest provocation, especially coming from a rival threat. Samuel as a prophet might be able to claim that he's got God on his side, but Saul has command of the army. He's understandably afraid, but God is aware of the political predicament. As a result, he sends Samuel with a cover story and tells him to go to Bethlehem under the pretext of offering a sacrifice.
Upon our initial reading, our sympathies may lie with Saul. We might rightly wonder: What has Saul done that's so terribly wrong that God has rejected him as king? Saul’s life began with so much promise. He was head and shoulders taller than everyone else. He looked and acted the part of a king. He wasn't looking for fame or power. He didn't anticipate or expect that he would become king. In fact, he recognized that he was from a small and relatively unimportant little tribe in Israel. Who was he? He wasn't looking for kingship. But God, as it were, came looking for him.
The tragedy is that it didn't take long for Saul's initial humility to give way to arrogance and greed. As time went on, his pride grew and his reliance upon the Lord began to fade. But the core of the issue is that Saul refused to listen to the Lord's voice. He refused to follow the instructions given to him through the prophet, and when he is confronted about it, he lies on more than one occasion. Therefore Samuel informs him, "since you have rejected the word of the Lord, the Lord has rejected you as the king of Israel." As an alternative, the Lord is now going to seek out what he calls “a man after God's own heart.” That's what the Lord wants: A man after God's own heart—1 Samuel 13:14.
There's an important lesson here for all of us because Saul was by all accounts a success. Saul had it all: Good looks, social charm, leadership ability, military prowess. And even after God calls the end of his kingship here, Saul will still continue to serve in the role as king for many, many years past this point. Anyone looking from the outside in would be hard pressed to see that anything is wrong. From the outside looking in, it would appear that Saul is still king. From the outside looking in, it would seem that everything is OK. If you had been there, if you were living in that moment, Saul very likely would have represented to you everything that you might aspire to be in life. He had it all. And yet, he was deeply unhappy.
You may not be an ancient king, but I would suggest that we all run the exact same risk. Luc Ferry is a French philosopher and a self-proclaimed atheist. I don't reach the same conclusions that he does, but I love reading his work because I'm so appreciative of the ways in which he describes the modern world. There is one particular place where he says that we, today, have confused what the ancients called "the good life" with "the merely successful life." He puts it like this.
“Everything combines today to make success—success for its own sake—an absolute ideal in all imaginable domains. Sports, the arts, the sciences, politics, business, love—everything is included…[But]
…The idea of ‘success’ is highly contestable. Is it not inadequate, even fallacious, as a standard of evaluating an existence as a whole? Is it not both naïve and mistaken to insist on thinking about life in terms of a category better suited for a year-end exam than for the development of a good life? Isn’t it enormously pretentious to think that we can make a success of our lives in the same way that we successfully produce a soufflé…especially when we consider all the things in our existence that do not depend on us, but rather on the hazards of birth, the pure contingency of events, or the blind strokes of fortune and misfortune?”
Here's the question for you: would you rather live a successful life or the good life? Think about it. You can earn straight A's. You could get into grad school. You could land the dream job. You could be promoted, or published, or platformed. You could move into the corner office, and then what? It might feel like nothing. That's the problem of building your life on success. If you build your life on success, then your ambitions will likely always outstrip your achievements, leaving you feeling anxious and dissatisfied. We can't get no satisfaction. There must be a better way. And I believe that there is.
The Lord’s Sight
Let's turn from the Lord's mission to the Lord's sight. Jesse parades his sons before Samuel, the prophet, and Samuel is immediately impressed with Eliab, the oldest, because of his height and his heft. He looks the part. He says, “Ah yes, this must be the Lord's anointed,” but he's about to repeat the exact same mistake that he had previously made with Saul. The one thing that I want to impress upon you is how carefully crafted the Bible is. The narrator of 1 and 2 Samuel is a master storyteller. Let me draw out an interesting wordplay that doesn't come through in our English translations. You only see it in the Hebrew text. In v.1, our English translation says, “I have provided for myself a king among his sons,” but literally in Hebrew, it says, “I have seen me among his sons a king.”
Robert Alter, who is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley, has written a fabulous commentary on the life of David and he says,
“It is essential to preserve the literal meaning because this entire episode is built on the repetition of the thematically weighted word ‘to see.’”
That word “to see” is riddled throughout this passage. Samuel thinks that Eliab looks the part. But as we've seen with Saul, looks can be deceiving. The Lord 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.” God is not interested in height. He's interested in the heart.
Isn't that a word that New Yorkers need to hear? Here in New York, we're all about outward appearances. We make snap judgments about people based on the way they look, or where they work, or where they went to school, or what kind of clothes they wear. We're so concerned with outward appearances, that we'll go to extraordinary lengths to try to hide our fat, or our wrinkles, or our gray hair, or our bald spots. (By the way, I didn't have any gray hair or bald spots before I came to Central. I don't know what that says.) It may be worse for young people. I remember being struck by this verse when I was a 15 year old kid, trying to navigate the complicated world of high school, even before the days of toxic social media. This was one of the very first verses I ever memorized. “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.” Literally v.7 says, “For man sees with his eyes, but the Lord sees with the heart, or into the heart.”
The heart in Biblical narrative is not the seat of emotions, which is the way that we would often take it as modern people. No, the heart in the Bible is the seat of understanding. The heart describes the real you, who you really are, the core of your being. The point is that despite what others might think, and despite what even you might think of yourself, God sees you for who you really are and who you are to become. In fact, you only become the truest version of yourself in relationship to him.
If that's the way in which the Lord sees us, then that is the way in which we need to see one another. “Man sees with the eyes, but the Lord sees with the heart.” You see why this is so important. We have got to be a place where we model a different way of being human. Our Community Groups and our Bible Studies are going to start this week, and that's one of the best places to make new friends, and to grow in our faith, and to serve the city together. In those Community Groups and Bible Studies, in particular, rather than following the norms and the practices of typical New York City social life, we have to practice a very different way of relating to one another. When you show up at that group for the first time this week, do not make snap judgments. Do not judge by outward appearances. Don't look with your eyes. Look with your heart. See the way that God sees.
The Lord’s Anointed
We've considered the Lord's mission and the Lord’s sight, so let's turn to the Lord's anointed. One by one, Jesse's sons passed before Samuel, the prophet, but the Lord has not chosen any of them as his anointed. After seven pass by, presumably the number of completion, Samuel asks Jesse, “Do you have any more sons?” Jesse responds by saying, “There is still the youngest.” That word “youngest” carries the undertones of insignificance. It could also be translated as the "smallest." There’s still the baby brother. They’re still the runt of the family. As the youngest of seven brothers, David was probably never thought of as more than the kid brother.
David enters the story unnamed. There’s still the youngest. He was considered so small and inconsequential that it never even crossed his own father's mind to invite him. At this point in the story, David might have only been 10, 11, or 12 years old, which is something to think about. Like a male Cinderella, he has been left to his domestic chores and is never even invited to the ball. He's assigned a task that his family assumed he couldn't possibly screw up. They gave him a job that wouldn't cause any damage. He was simply watching the sheep. But as it turns out, his role as a shepherd will carry symbolic significance when he does become the leader of his people.
The David story reminds us that the Lord has a way of choosing the foolish to confound the wise, the weak to confound the strong, the lowly and despised things of the world, even the things that are not, in order to bring to nothing the things that are. God works in such a way that it becomes obvious to everyone that it's not because of our wisdom, or strength or power, it's only because of his grace. And therefore not one of us is ever in a position to boast about anything.
It turns out that David is good looking. He has handsome features and striking eyes. He has ruddy red cheeks because he's so young. He's not tall like his brothers. But the prophet Samuel doesn't even have an opportunity to judge his outward appearance because David is called in from the field sight unseen. Then the Lord immediately tells Samuel, “Anoint him. This is the one.”
The significance of this anointing may not have been apparent to everyone at that moment. Over time, prophets, and priests, and kings in the Old Testament would be anointed in order to set them apart for a special task, but that may not have become established practice yet. And moreover, Samuel anoints David, secretly, and in private, in the midst of his brothers. David will not be publicly recognized as the king of Israel until much later. But it is from this moment forward that the Spirit rushes upon David and grips him.
The point here is that David is chosen not because of what anyone saw in him—not his father, not his brothers, not even the prophet Samuel—he was chosen only because of what the Lord would create in him. He's picked out of obscurity. God takes the initiative. God makes the first move. David wasn't looking for God. He wasn't searching for God. He wasn't expecting to be found by God, but God comes after him. That's true of all of us because when God calls us into relationship with himself, it is a call of pure grace. God does not call us into his purposes because of our proven ability or our potential promise. The calling into God's purposes is not based on popular vote. No, it is based purely on his grace. It's not about what we put out. It's about what God puts in. And what God puts in is his very own Spirit to empower us and to enable us to become our truest selves to become something greater than we ever would be merely by ourselves.
Here's the best part. If you go back and look, you'll see that we don't even hear David's name until the very last verse—v.13—which gives his name a special place of prominence. Your name, of course, represents you—your person, your character, your identity. And ultimately, from God's point of view, God is the one who names you. You don't create your own identity, you discover your true identity only in relationship to the one who made you and who loves you.
You might wonder, so what? David essentially was a tribal chieftain living in a brutal Iron Age culture 3,000 years ago. What does David have to do with me? What we need to remember is that the David story is part of a much larger story within the unfolding drama of Scripture. The David story anticipates and foreshadows, it promises and prepares us, for the Jesus story. And it's not for nothing that Jesus is repeatedly referred to as "the Son of David." We sing in an old great hymn, “Hail to the Lord's Anointed, great David's greater Son!” Jesus is the great David's even greater son. He is the true and ultimate Lord's Anointed. He is the Anointed One.
The word “anointed” actually forms the root for the Hebrew word “Messiah,” or in Greek, “Christ.” Whenever we speak of Jesus Christ, we're referring to Jesus as the ultimate Anointed One. David was anointed the king of the ancient tribes of Israel, but Jesus was anointed as the king of the whole world. You might ask, when was Jesus anointed? The gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized with water in the River Jordan, and when he came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove. And he hears the voice of his Father say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That marks the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Acts 10:38 says that God anointed Jesus, “with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all.”
What was the special task to which Jesus was called as the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King? John 12 tells us that just less than two weeks before his untimely death, Jesus goes to the home of his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Mary proceeds to do something shocking. She anoints his feet with a whole pound of expensive ointment—ointment that was made out of pure nard, an exotic plant that could only be found in the Himalayan Mountains. She takes a pound of this ointment and pours it over Jesus' feet. His follower, Judas, is horrified by this. He’s shocked. "What a waste!" he says. What does Jesus do? He says, “Judas, leave her alone. Leave her alone because she has anointed me for my burial.” Jesus was anointed for his burial. That was his special task. Think about that. King Charles just became the king of the United Kingdom upon the passing of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. Most kings are born to live. Jesus is the only king who was born to die. That is what he came to do.
Jesus, like David, is such an unlikely choice. He comes to us out of obscurity. He willingly goes to the cross and becomes nothing to look at. In accordance with the words of Isaiah, his appearance is marred beyond all semblance of humanity because of the ways in which he was treated and tortured. But the Lord does not see as man sees. Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. And in Jesus, the Lord finds truly a man after God's own heart. A man who is perfectly attuned to God's priorities and willing to do all his will. Jesus faithfully carries out the mission that has been entrusted to him. Jesus dies so that you might live. That was his calling.
The core message of Christianity is that the Creator God who has revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus made you, and therefore, he knows you and loves you. He knows you for who you really are because he sees your heart. He knows everything that makes you unique and special, but he also knows those aspects of your personality or your character that can create more harm than good. And yet, he still loves you. He loves you despite all your faults and failures, so much so that he was willing to go to the cross for you in order to forgive you, to restore you, and to transform you into the person that his Spirit will make you become.
If you want to discover your true identity, you only find it in relationship to him. Whatever God loves, affirms, and desires within you, that forms the real you. And everything that runs counter to his intentions for you will only distort and mishape you. We don't create our own identity, despite what the modern world might say. No, we find it in relationship to Jesus. When you identify yourself with Jesus, especially through baptism, God places his name on you, and fills you, empowers you, enables you, by his Spirit to become more than you ever otherwise would. Through your identification with Jesus, God the Father will speak the same words over you that he spoke over him. He looks at you and he says, “This is my beloved child, whom I love, and with whom I am well pleased.” If you want to discover your true identity, put your trust in great David's greater son, the Lord's anointed, Jesus.
Let me pray for us.
Father, we acknowledge that we long to live a meaningful, fulfilling life that makes sense and yet we are so confused about where such a life can be found. Help us to see that you, and you alone, offer us the good life, and you show us how it can be lived; you empower us to live it through your Spirit. Help us to identify ourselves with you, recognizing that it is only from you that we discover our true identity. It's in Jesus' name that we pray. Amen.