21 June – A heart after God’s own
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
When it comes to hearing such a Bible story as the one we have heard this morning – the anointing of David as king – we are at a disadvantage in making sense of it: we know how the story ends. The disadvantage here is that the story then becomes simply a story. It might be an interesting story – perhaps providing a good structure for a TV miniseries – but there is nothing much here but history, nothing much here but the past. And the thing about the past is that it is easy – we have it already sewn up; it is already comprehended. What is hard is not what these stories seem to convey to us but our own stories, for these are not yet finished, not yet past, and so we don’t have the comfort of knowing how it all ends up.
Our reading this morning is one filled with the tension of change and not knowing what is going to happen next. Samuel, who initially opposed the establishment of the kingship in Israel, has come to have a lot invested in Saul and now grieves that Saul has been rejected by God. At the same time, he is afraid of Saul, and goes to anoint the new king under the cover of fulfilling a religious duty. Samuel is convinced that he can see in David’s brothers the qualities he noticed also in Saul, but is told not to look to appearances. The principle contrast between the impressive-on-paper Saul and David is the contrast between the strong man and the man with heart. And from this point to the end of 1 Samuel the story is filled with the tension of the struggle between David and Saul.
These tensions are not what we are used to calling “creative” tensions. This is a messy business. It is the tension of shifting times, the uneasiness of knowing that something is changing but not quite knowing what or how. None of the players in the story have read forward to end; they are like us: David is no better a bet than Saul was. No one knows where things are heading, what tomorrow holds, who will live or die. The tension is going to last no small number of years for the actors in the story. David is anointed in the episode we’ve heard this morning, but then nothing actually happens in relation to the kingship for years, and even after Saul dies there is an ongoing struggle between him and Saul’s son and military commander as to the appropriate succession. At the same time, even though he has been told that he is to become king in Saul’s place, David remains devoted to Saul, even as Saul declines into a kind of manic-depressive madness.
The story is about the presence of the new in the midst of the old but there is more going on than simply the cycles of history, with fresh green growth replacing that which is withered and dying. Theologically, there is underway here is the process of establishing in Israel God’s own “heart” (cf. 1 Samuel 13.13f; 16.7).
The story of Saul and David is unfolded in such a way as to display the stark contrast between the two. David is something new in the history of Israel; there has been nothing like him before, and nothing like him again until Jesus. David is vitality and freedom, contradicting king and priest as it is necessary simply to survive, that God’s own promise be fulfilled. He moves through the pages with passion and energy. In contrast, Saul is heavy and slow moving, caught in up in ritual and sacral duties, even summoning for advice the dead Samuel via a witch, twisting and turning, seeming never to “get it”.
Of course, David is far from perfect. The labels “adulterer”, “coward”, “murderer”, “vengeful” could all be applied at certain times, and a few other labels besides. The Hebrews were not afraid to tell the truth about the great figures in their sacred stories. Yet, for all this moral imperfection, there is something extraordinary taking place here – something of such scope that it provides a large amount of the backdrop to the attempts of the early church to speak of what it had met in Jesus (who was himself proclaimed the “son of David”; see, for example, Matthew 15.22; 20.30; 21.15). Flawed as he is, David trusts himself to God. By contrast, Saul lives by transactions with God. It is an economy in which he fails miserably and he ends up bewildered as to what has happened. But David at his best is simply alive – vibrantly alive to God and to what is happening around him. Trusting himself to God, he is secure. And so he is free. And so he can act – not with impunity but without fear.
David can act in this way because, in return for his trust of God, God trusts him. This is not say that David is trustworthy: there are no shortage of instances to be cited where David fails. And yet – and yet – God gives over to David “the kingship” of which he was previously jealous. God effectively gives up his own claim to be king and settles for “having” a king, one who will stand in God’s place in the world.
Here our familiarity with these stories almost blinds us to just how extraordinary a shift is taking place here. God invests in David in a way which hasn’t happened before and will not happen again until the humanity of Jesus himself. Biblical scholars even suggest that David himself was the model the Scriptural writers used to give shape to the humanity of Adam in the garden, created in God’s image to have dominion over creation in communion with God (Cf. Brueggemann, W. (1973). In man we trust: the neglected side of biblical faith. Richmond, Va., John Knox Press, p44. The ideas of Brueggemann in this book have been important for developing this sermon). The kingship under David, and much more so under Solomon and the many who then followed, was certainly an imperfect work, but it became the sign of a new humanity – a humanity which bears the image, the kingship, of God. Perfection of this humanity was coming: a shoot from the stump of Jesse, the key of David, as we sing in Advent. Jesus himself is the one who finally trusts completely, and in that trust finds himself fully secure, and fully free.
But staying with David for the time being: if there was one true actor in the story of Hannah – God himself, as we noted when we looked at the birth of Samuel a few weeks ago – there are now clearly two on the stage. The first remains the God who continues to be faithful to the people despite their turning from him in their request for a king, and the second is the actual king who now steps onto the stage. This one is a game-changer because he has the elements of the kind of heart which is required for God to be free to be God and the king himself to be free to be a human being. For David does not know what will happen next, whether Samuel’s anointing is the action of a true prophet or a crazy old man. He doesn’t know whether all Saul’s efforts to kill him will succeed or not. He knows only himself in relation to God, and this is enough for him and for God. Everything else is only a matter of detail.
What else do we need but this – God in God’s place, and we in ours?
The story, then, is not told to tell us about God and his kings, but about us ourselves. It is not David’s kingship which matters here but the new, partly formed humanity seen in David’s career: a humanity after God’s own heart in the heart of David and offered for us all – a humanity which is learning not to fear, which is learning how to love, which can acknowledge its failures and seek forgiveness, and keep moving with God.
In Saul we see a man who did not know himself trusted, but sought always to do the “right” thing – the thing which “God” would do, were God in his place. This is an anxious place to live – always running back to check that I’m doing OK, that Mummy or Daddy or mentor approves. There is no sense of trust here, only a sense that there is but one way – “God’s way” – and it is required of us to read (or guess) God’s mind. A large part of the church even has a slogan for this, cast in the form of a question: WWJD? – “What would Jesus do?” The implication here is that Jesus always did exactly what God required. Faith – our faith – then becomes a kind of religious science by which we discern or “divine” what would be the godly act in any situation. This is not a free life but a fearful one: I am ever wondering whether I am doing the right thing.
But in, in contrast to Saul, we see in David one who is free to say Yes or No, to fight or not to fight, to act or not to act, because his relationship to God is not on the basis of what he does, but on the basis of a common heart: being a son to a father, and not a servant to a master, as it were.
The point here is not that we ought to have a heart “for” God, as Christian lingo sometimes puts it. Rather, such heart as David had does God: the glory of God is a human being fully alive (paraphrasing Irenaeus, d. c. AD 202), fully aware that as a daughter, a son, we are trusted, loved, free.
The gospel is that God looks not to appearances and efforts but to the heart, and declares that the human heart might yet belong to him: that we might know ourselves as God’s children – brothers and sisters of David and David’s greater son Jesus, the sign and promise of such a life.
By the grace of God, may all his people be open to such renewed and cleansed hearts by the implanting within us of God’s own Spirit, for the sake of life and of love. Amen.