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1 Samuel 15:34 - 16:13

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 is part of the Deuteronomistic history, which runs from Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. This portion of the Old Testament is an interpretation of Israel’s history in light of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and the subsequent exile in Babylon. Its purpose is to translate the prophets’ message into story, narrating God’s grace and mercy toward Israel and Israel’s persistent rebellion against God. A secondary purpose is to draw a contrast between the southern kingdom (Judah), with its stable monarchical dynasty reaching back to David, and the northern kingdom (Israel), marked by two centuries of political chaos. The Deuteronomistic history, in other words, exists in part to defend the idea that legitimate kings are those descended from David and that David was, in certain respects, an ideal king. 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 plays a crucial role in that purpose by introducing David into the story.

This passage raises several theological issues. One relates to divine foreknowledge and repentance. In previous chapters, the reader is told that God chose Saul to rule (9:16-17; 10:24) and that Saul was uniquely qualified: “There is no one like him among all the people” (10:24). Saul, however, proves to be a problematic choice. He usurps Samuel’s role by offering sacrifice (13:8-14) and fails to exterminate the Amalekites’ sheep and cattle (chapter 15). The text says that, in response, God “regretted” and “was sorry” that he had made Saul to be king (15:11, 35). The King James Version states that God “repented” for making Saul king. Modern translations (including the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, and the New Revised Standard Version) prefer “regretted” to “repented,” but the theological issue remains: God realized, with sorrow, that the choice of Saul was a mistake.

This sort of passage raises the question of God’s foreknowledge. On the traditional view, supported by numerous biblical texts, God has perfect and exhaustive knowledge of all things, including those things that lie in our future. God, in other words, is never surprised. This passage, however, portrays God as being surprised by how badly Saul turned out. It is similar to the way God is depicted in Genesis 3, where God does not seem to know where Adam and Eve are located and has to ask them whether they had eaten from the tree of knowledge. It is similar as well to those places in Exodus and Numbers (e.g., Exodus 32) where God seems bent on destroying Israel until Moses persuades him not to do so and where, as a result, “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14).

The immediate theological questions are whether God does or does not have foreknowledge of all things and whether God experiences regret and sorrow for having made a bad decision.

There is, however, a prior question: Does the Bible provide us with a fully consistent teaching about God? The truth is that some biblical passages portray God as possessing complete knowledge of the future and others depict God as learning what is going on as events take place. In some texts, God has no cause for regret because God ensures that everything works out the way God intended. In other texts, things happen in a way that God did not foresee, and the result is sometimes regret. It is therefore a mistake to demand more consistency from scripture than it wants to provide. Instead, we should realize that it is not the purpose of the Bible to give us a single, fully consistent doctrine of God. So, we should not be surprised when we read in 15:29 that God “does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind” and in 15:35 that “the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” These two statements seem contradictory, and perhaps they are, but the scribes who created the Bible did not have a problem with this sort of contradiction, and the careful student of the Bible will wisely follow their lead.

Another issue for interpretation relates to 16:7 (“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”). The affirmation of this verse seems pretty straightforward, until we get to 16:12: David “was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.” According to verse 7, outward appearance is of no importance—why then does verse 12 even mention David’s physical appearance, noting that, like Saul (9:2), David is handsome? Perhaps we find a clue in the fact that Samuel is told, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature” (16:7) (emphasis added). Since David is fairly young (16:11), we can assume he is short, unlike Saul. If God is telling Samuel not to focus on height as a criterion for kingship, David’s handsome appearance is merely being noted and is irrelevant to his being chosen by God. Or perhaps the reference to David being handsome is to introduce David as a sympathetic character without implying that his physical appearance is his qualification to be king. After all, 13:14 tells us that God was searching for “a man after his own heart” and God tells Samuel that “the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7). It is possible that the notice of David’s appearance was not the focus of the text but was instead simply thrown in to make sure that David did not compare unfavorably with Saul.

If the text’s focus is David as a man after God’s heart, what exactly does “after his heart” mean? The frustrating truth is that 1 Samuel does not expressly state what it is about David’s heart that makes him a man after God’s heart. There are, however, passages in the Deuteronomistic history that provide some clues. In 1 Samuel 2, Eli’s sons are corrupt priests. God tells Eli, “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind” (2:35). So, within God’s heart are certain expectations about the priesthood. Eli’s sons have egregiously failed to live up to those expectations, and God will find a priest who does live up to them. In 1 Kings 11:4, we read that “when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David.” Here, David’s heart is “true” because, unlike Solomon, he maintained loyalty toward God.

Affirmations of David being a man after God’s heart and having a “true” heart stand side by side with features of David’s character that are emphatically not pleasing to God. These include his adultery with Bathsheba and (at least for modern readers) his willingness to kill his political enemies. So, being a man after God’s heart does not suggest anything close to moral perfection. It simply means that David has the traits necessary to Israel in the way God wants it to be led.

(If you have an interest in scholarly debates, here’s an additional consideration: Many scholars who study this passage believe that being a man after God’s heart means that David is a man of God’s choice. This interpretation is not implausible, since in the Old Testament the heart is that part of the person where intellect and will reside. Also, 1 Samuel 15-16 are about God rejecting the man formerly chosen to be king and the selection of a new king. If this interpretation is the correct one, the main issue is not so much the character of David’s heart, but instead the fact of God’s choice. However, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Deuteronomistic history is in fact interested in the character of David’s heart.)

Finally, in connection with David’s function as king, the notice that he was tending the family’s flock of sheep (16:11) tells the reader that, in spite of Samuel’s warning about the predatory nature of kings (8:11-16), David will be a different sort of king—a good shepherd. This is part of the Old Testament’s tendency to idealize David.

1 Samuel 15-16 is a pivotal moment in the Deuteronomistic history and performs several narrative and theological functions: 1) It introduces us to David; 2) it tells us why David will be an important figure in the subsequent narrative; 3) it presents him as the truly authentic king of Israel after the abortive, false sta