You’ve probably heard the expression, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We live in a world today where the outside appearance of people seems to be increasingly important. In this digital and visual age, it is easy to turn on TV, watch YouTube or pick a magazine that presents images of what is deemed to be perfection. Never mind the touch ups and airbrushing that goes on to make people look that way! But it is not only in today’s world that there is a caution against judging a book by its cover.
It happened even in ancient times. The boy Samuel who heard God calling to him in the night, who bravely said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Grew into man and became judge over all Israel. Before too long the people of Israel began to grumble and complain because Samuel’s sons who were also judges did not follow God’s ways and were taking bribes. The people wanted a king like peoples who lived in other lands. Samuel warned them against having a king saying, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.” (1 Samuel 8:11 – 15)
Even with this terrible picture of what a king will do in the land, the people insisted. They forgot that when God freed the people from slavery they were freed from ever having a King other than God. But the people insisted and God guided Samuel to appoint Saul of the house of Benjamin as king. “He had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” (1 Samuel 9:2) Once Saul was anointed by Samuel, it says, “As he turned away to leave Samuel, God gave [Saul] a new heart.” (1 Samuel 10:9)
Things went well for a while. That new heart that God gave Saul helped in him to listen to God and follow in God’s ways. But it didn’t last. Chapter 15 closes with these words, “Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Samuel 15:35)
Now a new king is needed. The first King even though he was handsome and stood head and shoulders above everyone else, was missing something. What God asks Samuel to do next is pretty risky. God sends Samuel to see Jesse, to choose one of his sons as king.
As you can imagine Samuel is terrified, he says, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” (1 Samuel 16:2) So the Lord tells him to take a heifer with him and tell people he’s come to make a sacrifice to the Lord and Jesse will be invited. As Samuel comes to the gate of the village where Jesse lives, the people at the gate want to know if Samuel comes in peace. He says, “Peaceable; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” (1 Samuel 16:5) But that is only part of the story!
What happens next reminds me of a something from the show, “America’s Top Model.” Samuel as Tyra saying, “I have standing before me the handsome sons of Jesse. Which one is still in the running to become the next king of Israel?” When Samuel sees Eliab, he thinks because he’s tall and looks good, “Surely he’s the one.” But God gives Samuel a warning, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
Sage advice. We often make snap judgements about people based on outward appears. The author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking tells the story of Harry Daugherty and Warren Harding. Daugherty was a behind the scenes political genius and Harding an aspiring politician. When Daugherty first met Harding, he was overwhelmed by a thought, “Wouldn’t that man make a great President?” (Blink, page 75) The problem was, Harding wasn’t that intelligent. “He liked to play poker and golf and to drink and most of all, to chase women. … As he rose from one political office to another, he never distinguished himself. He was vague and ambivalent on matters of policy.” (Blink, page 75) So what did Warren Harding have going for him? He was very good looking and he only got better looking as the years passed by. He was a great looking president but according to Gladwell, most historians agree he was one of the worst American presidents. Appearance is not everything!
As Samuel stands there with Jesse, he calls each of his sons forward. But none of his handsome sons will do. Samuel finally asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” (1 Samuel 16:11) The youngest is missing. He is off keeping the sheep. David may not have been as handsome as Jesse’s other sons but he is described as, “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes.” (1 Samuel 16:12) In that moment a new king is chosen – a king that shows us God’s way of picking.
Tradition would have the eldest son be the one chosen – God chooses the youngest son. Often we choose people because of their looks or because of their stature – God chooses the one who was off tending the sheep – the Shepherd. God looked on David’s heart and chose him.
That is not to say that David was always the best kind of human being. He wasn’t. We’ve heard the story. David was a champion on the battle field and in many ways a great king. But his personal life was a mess. When he saw something he wanted, he took it. Like Bathsheba – even going so far as to have her husband killed so he could claim her. His children were at war with each other and David did nothing to stop it. More than once David, stood before the Lord repenting, asking for forgiveness for all that he’d done wrong. This is the big difference between Saul and David. They both did things that displeased God, but David always returned to God, asking for mercy and forgiveness.
We can imagine David praying our Psalm for the day, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” (Psalm 51:10 – 11)
It is a prayer many of have prayed at some point in our lives. As we’ve chosen the not so good paths, taking roads that lead only to dead ends and heartbreak for us or for others. But hear the good news. If God can look on David’s heart, the heart of someone who did so many terrible things, and call him to be the king of Israel, God can do the same for us. God looks on our hearts the good and the bad, and loves us and calls us beloved children.
There is nothing we can do, nothing we can say, nothing so terrible in us that would cause God to turn away from us. God’s love is unshakable. We are indeed God’s beloved children today and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.