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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 16

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-13



1 Samuel 16:1-13.

THE rejection of Saul was laid very deeply to heart by Samuel. No doubt there many engaging qualities in the man Saul, which Samuel could not but remember, and which fed the flame of personal attachment, and made the fact of his rejection hard to digest. And no doubt, too, Samuel was concerned for the peace and prosperity of the nation. He knew that a change of dynasty commonly meant civil war - it might lead to the inward weakening of a kingdom already weak enough, and its exposure to the attacks of hostile neighbours that watched with lynx eyes for any opportunity of dashing against Israel. Thus both on personal and on public grounds the rejection of Saul was a great grief to Samuel, especially as the rejection of Saul implied the rejection of Jonathan, and the prophet might ask, with no small reason, where, in all the nation, could there be found a better successor.

It was not God’s pleasure to reveal to Samuel the tragic events that were to stretch Jonathan and his brothers among the dead on the same day as their father; but it was His pleasure to introduce him to the man who, at a future time, was to rule Israel according to the ideal which the prophet had vainly endeavoured to press upon Saul. There is a sharpness in God’s expostulation with Samuel which implies that the prophet’s grief for Saul was carried to an excessive and therefore sinful length. "How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel?" Grief on account of others seems such a sacred, such a holy feeling, that we are not ready to apprehend the possibility of its acquiring the dark hue of sin. Yet if God’s children abandon themselves to the wildest excess for some sorrow which bears to them the character of a fatherly chastening; if they refuse to give effect in any way to God’s purpose in the matter, and to the gracious ends which He designs it to serve, they are guilty of sin, and that sin one which is greatly dishonouring to God. It can never be right to shut God out of view in connection with our sorrows, or to forget that the day is coming - impossible though it may seem - when His character shall be so vindicated in all that has happened to His children, that all tears shall be wiped from their eyes, and it shall be seen that His tender mercies have been over all His works.

It was to Bethlehem, and to the family of Jesse, that Samuel was to go to find the destined successor of Saul. The place was not so far distant from Ramah as to be quite beyond the sphere of Samuel’s acquaintance. Of Jesse, one of the leading men of the place, he would probably have at least a general knowledge, though it is plain he had not any personal acquaintance with him, or knowledge of his family. Bethlehem had already acquired a marked place in Hebrew history, and Samuel could not have been ignorant of the episode of the young Moabite widow who had given such a beautiful proof of filial piety, and among whose descendants Jesse and his sons were numbered. The very name of Bethlehem was fitted to recall how God honours those that honour Him, and might have rebuked that outburst of fear which fell from Samuel, whose first thought was that he could not go, because if Saul heard of it he would kill him. Well, it is plain enough that, with all his glorious qualities as a prophet, Samuel was but a man, subject to the infirmities of men. What an honest book the Bible is! its greatest heroes coming down so often to the human level and showing the same weaknesses as ourselves! But God, who stoops to human weakness, who fortified the failing heart of Moses at the burning bush, and the doubting heart of Gideon, and afterwards the weary heart of Elijah and the trembling heart of Jeremiah, condescends in like manner to the infirmity of Samuel, and provides him with an ostensible object for his journey, which was not fitted to awaken the jealous temper of the king. Samuel is to announce that his coming to Bethlehem is for the purpose of a sacrifice, and the circumstances connected with the anointing of a successor to Saul are to be gone about so quietly and so vaguely that the great object of his visit will hardly be so much as guessed by any.

The question has often been raised, Was this diplomatic arrangement not objectionable? Was it not an act of duplicity and deceit? Undoubtedly it was an act of concealment, but it does not follow that it was an act of duplicity. It was concealment of a thing which Samuel was under no obligation to divulge. It was not concealment of which the object was to mislead anyone, or to induce any one to do what he would not have done had the whole truth been known to him. When concealment is practiced in order to take an unfair advantage of any one, or to secure an unworthy advantage over him, it is a de- testable crime. But to conceal what you are under no obligation to reveal, when some important end is to be gained, is a quite different thing. "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing;" providence is often just a vast web of concealment; the trials of Job were the fruit of Divine concealment; the answers of our Lord to the Syrophoenician woman were a concealment; the delay in going to Bethany when He heard of the illness of Lazarus was just a concealment of the glorious miracle which He intended by-and-bye to perform. One may tell the truth, and yet not the whole truth, without being guilty of any injustice or dishonesty. It was not on Saul’s account at ail that Samuel was sent to anoint a king at Bethlehem. It was partly on Samuel’s account and partly on David’s. If David was here-after to fill the exalted office of king of Israel, it was desirable that he should be trained for its duties from his earliest years. Saul had not been called to the throne till middle life, till his character had been formed and his habits settled; the next king must be called at an earlier period of life. And though the boy’s father and brothers may not understand the full nature of the distinction before him, they must be made to understand that he is called to a very special service of God, in order that they may give him up freely and readily to such preparation as that service demands. This seems to have been the chief reason of the mission of Samuel to Bethlehem. It could not but be known after that, that David was to be distinguished as a servant of God, but no idea seems to have been conveyed either to his brothers or to the elders of Bethlehem that he was going to be king.

The arrangements for the public worship of God in those times - while the ark of God was still at Kirjath-jearim - seem to have been far from regular, and it appears to have been not unusual for Samuel to visit particular places for the purpose of offering a sacrifice. It would seem that the ordinary, though not the uniform, occasion for such visits was the occurrence of something blameworthy in the community, and if so this will explain the terror of the elders of Bethlehem at the visit of Samuel, and their frightened question, "Comest thou peaceably?" Happily Samuel was able to set their fears at rest, and to assure them that the object of his visit was entirely peaceable. It was a religious service he was come to perform, such a service as may have been associated with the other religious services he was accustomed to hold as he went round in circuit in the neighbourhood of Ramah. For this sacrifice the elders of Bethlehem were called to sanctify themselves, as were also Jesse and his sons. They were to take the usual steps for freeing themselves of all ceremonial uncleanness, and after the sacrifice they were to share the feast. A considerable interval would necessarily elapse between the sacrifice and the feast, for the available portions of the animal had to be prepared for food, and roasted on the fire. It was during this interval that Samuel made acquaintance with the sons of Jesse. First came the handsome and stately Eliab. And strange it is that even with the fate of the handsome and stately Saul full in his memory, Samuel leapt to the conclusion that this was the Lord’s anointed. Could he wonder at God’s emphatic No I Surely he had seen enough of outward appearance coupled with inward unfitness. One trial of that criterion had been enough for Israel.

But alas, it is not merely in the choice of kings that men are apt to show their readiness to rest in the outward appearance. To what an infinite extent has this tendency been carried in the worship of God! Let everything be outwardly correct, the church beautiful, the music excellent, the sermon able, the congregation numerous and respectable - what a pattern such a church is often regarded! Alas! how little satisfactory it may be to God. The eye that searches and knows us penetrates to the heart, - it is there only that God finds the genuine elements of worship. The lowly sense of personal unworthiness, the wondering contemplation of the Divine love, the eager longing for mercy to pardon and grace to help, the faith that grasps the promises, the hope that is anchored within the veil, the kindness that breathes benediction all round, the love that beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things, - it is these things, breathing forth from the hearts of a congregation, that give pleasure to God.

Or look at what often happens in secular life. See how intensely eager some are about appearances. Why, it is one of the stereotyped rules of society that it is necessary "to keep up appearances." Well-born people may have become poor, very poor, but they must live to outward appearance as if they were rich. Between rivals there may be a deadly jealousy, but they must, by courtesy, keep up the form of friendship. And in trade a substantial appearance must be given to goods that are really worthless. And often, men who are really mean and unprincipled must pose as persons very particular about the right and very indignant at the wrong. And some, meaner than the common, must put on the cloak of religion, and establish a character for sanctity.

The world is full of idolatries, but I question if any idolatry has been more extensively practiced than the idolatry of the outward appearance. If there be less of this in our day than perhaps a generation back, it is because in these days of sifting and trial men have learned in so many ways by hard experience what a delusion it is to lean on such a broken reed. Yes, and we have had men among us who from a point of view not directly Christian have exposed the shams and counterfeits of the age, - men like Carlyle, who have sounded against them a trumpet blast which has been echoed and re-echoed round the very globe. But surely we do not need to go outside the Bible for this great lesson. "Thou desirest truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part Thou shalt make me to know wisdom;" "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." Or if we pass to the New Testament, what is the great lesson of the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee? The Publican was a genuine man, an honest, humble, self-emptied sinner. The Pharisee was a silly puffed-up pretender. The world seems to think that all high profession must be hollow. I need not say that such an opinion is utterly untenable. The world would have you profess nothing, lest you should not come up to it. Christ says, "Abide in Me, so shall ye bear much fruit." It was on this principle that St. Paul professed so much and did so much. ’’The life that I live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."

There is nothing to be said of the other sons of Jesse. Only the youngest one remained, apparently too young to be at the feast; he was in the field, keeping the sheep. "And Jesse sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance" (marg. eyes), ’’and goodly to look to. And the Lord said, Arise, anoint him, for this is he." Though goodly to look at he was too young, too boyish to be preferred on the score of "outward appearance." It was qualities unseen, and as yet but little developed, that commended him. Greatly astonished must Jesse and his other sons have been to see Samuel pouring on the ruddy stripling the holy oil, and anointing him for whatever the office might be. But it has often been God’s way to find His agents in unexpected places. Here a great king is found in the sheepfold. In Joseph’s time a prime minister of Egypt was found in the prison. Our Lord found His chief apostle in the school of Gamaliel. The great Reformer of the sixteenth century was found in a poor miner’s cottage. God is never at a loss for agents, and if the men fail that might naturally have been looked for to do Him service substitutes for them are not far to seek. Out of the very stones He can raise up children to Abraham.

But it was not a mere arbitrary arrangement that David should have been a shepherd before he was king. There were many things in the one employment that prepared the way for the other. In the East the shepherd had higher rank and a larger sphere of duties than is common with us. The duties of the shepherd, to watch over his flock, to feed and protect them, to heal the sick, bind up the broken, and bring again that which was driven away, corresponded to those which the faithful and godly ruler owed to the people committed to his sceptre. It was from the time of David that the shepherd phraseology began to be applied to rulers and their people; and we hardly carry away the full lesson that the prophets intended to teach in their denunciations of "the shepherds that fed themselves and not the flock" when we apply these exclusively to the shepherds of souls. So appropriate was the emblem of the shepherd for denoting the right spirit and character of rulers, that it was ultimately appropriated in a very high and peculiar sense to the person and office of the Lord Jesus Christ. But long ere he appeared King David had familiarized men’s minds with the kind of benefits that flow from the sceptre of a shepherd-ruler - the kind of blessings that were to flow in their fullness from Christ. Never did he write a more expressive word than this, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." On the groundwork of his own earthly kingdom he had drawn the pattern of things in heavenly places, for describing which in after times no language could be found more suitable than that borrowed from his first occupation.

But in full harmony with the character of Old Testament typology, the glory of the thing symbolized was infinitely greater than the glory of the symbol. Much though the nation owed to the godly administration of him whom God ’’took from the sheepfold, and brought from following the ewes great with young, to feed Jacob His people and Israel His inheritance," these benefits were shadows indeed when compared with the blessings procured by the great "Shepherd of Israel," "the good Shepherd that giveth His life for the sheep," whose shepherd care does not terminate with the life that now is, but will be exercised in eternity in feeding them and leading them by living fountains of water, where God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.

There are other points of typical resemblance between David and Christ that demand our notice here. If it was a strange-like thing for God to find the model king of Israel in a sheepcot at Bethlehem, it was still more so to find the Saviour of the world in a workshop at Nazareth. But again; King David was chosen for qualities that did not fall in with the ordinary conception of what was king-like, but qualities that commended him to God; and in the same manner the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Elect, in whom His soul delighted, was not marked by those attributes which men might have considered suitable in one who was to gain the empire of the world. "He shall grow up as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground; He hath no form nor comeliness, and when we shall see Him there is no beauty that we should desire Him." In bodily form the Lord Jesus would seem to have resembled David rather than Saul. There is no reason to think that there was any great physical superiority in Christ, that He was taller than the common, or that He was distinguished by any of those physical features that at first sight captivate men. And even in the region of intellectual and spiritual influence, our Lord did not conform to the type that naturally commands the confidence and admiration of the world. He had a still, quiet manner. His eloquence did not flash, nor blaze, nor flow like a torrent. The power of His words was due more to their wonderful depth of meaning, going straight to the heart of things, and to the aptness of His homely illustrations. Our Lord’s mode of conquest was very remarkable. He conquered by gentleness, by forbearance, by love, by sympathy, by self-denial. He impressed men with the glory of sacrifice, the glory of service, the glory of obedience, obedience to the one great authority - the will of God - to which all obedience is due. He inspired them with a love of purity, - purity of heart, purity after the highest pattern. If you compare our blessed Lord with those who have achieved great conquests, you cannot but see the difference. I do not mean with conquerors like Alexander, or Caesar, or Napoleon. Napoleon himself at St. Helena showed in a word the vast difference between Christ and them. ’’Our conquests," said he, "have been achieved by force, but Jesus achieved His by love, and to-day millions would die for Him." But look at some who have conquered by gentler means. Take such men as Socrates, or Plato, or Aristotle. They achieved great intellectual conquests - they founded intellectual empires. But the intellect of Jesus Christ was of another order from theirs. He propounded no theory of the universe. He did not affect to explain the world of reason. He did not profess to lay bare the laws of the human mind, or prescribe conditions for the welfare of states. What strikes us about Christ’s method of influence is its quiet homeliness. Yet quiet and homely though it was and is, how prodigious, how unprecedented has been its power! What other king of men has wielded a tithe of His influence? And that not with one class of society, but with all, not only with the poor and uneducated, but with thinkers and men of genius as well; not only with men and women who know the world, and know their own hearts and all their wants, and apprehend the fitness of Christ to supply them, but even with little children, in the simple unconsciousness of opening years. For out of the mouths of babes and sucklings He hath perfected praise.

Now let us mark this also, in conclusion, that besides being a King Himself Jesus makes all His people kings to God. Every Christian is designed to be a ruler, an unconscious one it may be, but one who exercises an influence in the same direction as Christ’s. How can you accomplish this? By first of all drinking into Christ’s spirit, looking out on the world as He did, with compassion, sympathy, self-sacrifice, and an ardent desire for its renovation and its happiness. By walking "worthy of the vocation wherewith you are called." Not by the earthquake, or by the tempest, but by the still small voice. By quiet, steady, persistent love, goodness, and self-denial. These are the true Christian weapons, often little thought of, but really the armour of God, and weapons mighty to the pulling down of strongholds and the subjugation of the world to Christ.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 16". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/1-samuel-16.html.
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