Living Theology | 1 Samuel 16

Living Theology is a blog series that draws out the theological principles of each week's sermon text and thinks through how we can apply them to our personal lives. In other words, this series asks how we can live out the theology of Scripture each day.

Sermon Text: 1 Samuel 16

You can watch Pastor Brian's sermon on 1 Samuel 16 here.

In 1 Samuel 16, God tells Samuel to move on from King Saul and anoint the man God has chosen to replace him. It's a tale of two kings as the Spirit of the LORD turns away from King Saul and rushes on to David. And the narrator sets the story up to give us a sneak peak behind the scenes of how he orchestrates his will through the actions of men (and evil spirits?).

Theological Principle #1:

God sees what others cannot.

1 Samuel 16:7 reads: "Do not look at his appearance or his stature because I have rejected him. Humans do not see what the LORD sees, for humans see what is visible, but the LORD sees the heart.”

The word here that gets translated as "heart" (lēḇaḇ, pronounced: ley-vahv) doesn't just refer to a heart; it refers to the inner person. In our culture, it's common to describe the heart metaphorically as "the seat of emotions," especially in contrast to the mind, which we might describe as "the seat of reason." We tend to bifurcate between what we feel (heart) and what we think or know (mind). But the term lebab incorporates both our feelings and our thoughts. Again, lebab is better defined as our inner person—the one that thinks, the one that feels, the one that wills. And it is important to note that the distinction in this verse between what God sees and what humans see is not between emotions and thinking. Rather, the distinction is between what we project to the world about ourselves and what we keep hidden. Humans see what we let them see. Humans see the person that we present ourselves as. God sees us as we truly are.

Now, is that good news or bad news?

For David, it was good news. God could see David's commitment and loyalty. It was something that others took for granted, but God took notice. He saw what was hidden within. He saw beyond physical stature and strength, things that are impressive to mankind but say very little about who a person is.

But this cuts both ways. There is good within us that only God can see. But God can also see the darkness inside that we try to hide from everyone else. He can see the secrets that we've kept inside or hoped everyone has forgotten about. He sees who we truly are, the good and the bad.

This is why the Psalmist sings:

Search me, God, and know my heart;

test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

(Psalm 139.23-24, NIV)

Jesus's words in John's Gospel describe our situation well:

"This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed." (John 3:19-20, NIV)

While this may be a terrifying thought for those of us who know we are hiding evil in our hearts, God does not leave us in this predicament. God, fully aware of the depth of our sinfulness, mindful of every wicked deed and every shameful thought, came to rescue us. Romans 5:8 reminds us that "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (NIV).

In Jesus, God came to us. He lived with us; he became one of us. And in the end, he actually felt the sting of the evil that he had long ago cast out of his presence, dying in our place at our hands on a cross of suffering and shame.

And when he did, he removed all the sin and wickedness that was separating us from him. He offers us a spiritual washing that removes not just "dirt from the body" (1 Peter 3:21) but also the stain of sin from our soul. His Holy Spirit will work within us to heal what is wounded and restore what is ruined and to cultivate new and virtuous fruit, inside and out.

He simply asks us to come to him.

And for those who do, Jesus says this: "But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God" (John 3:21, NIV).

This is also why Jesus taught his disciples not to be like the hypocrites who practice their piety openly to be admired by people:

"Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:1-4, NIV)

Theological Principle #2:

God is sovereign over the actions of humans (and even evil spirits?).

Before we get to the "evil spirit from the LORD," let's look at some of the similarities between the two stories in this chapter.

In verse 16, Saul's servants prompt him to, "command your servants here who are in your presence to look for someone who knows how to play the lyre." (CSB). Saul tells his servants to "find (raʾah) me someone who plays well and bring him to me" (verse 17). Then one of the servants announces that he has "seen (raʾah) a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite" (verse 18), at which point Saul calls for David and Jesse sends him.

Similarly, in the first story, the LORD tells Samuel that he has found (raʾah) someone among the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite to be king. Samuel sends for David who is "tending (roʿeh) the sheep" (verse 11), and Saul sends for David who is "with the sheep." Both stories compliment David (verse 12 and verse 18). Samuel anoints David as God's King (verse 13), and Saul appoints David as his armor-bearer (verse 21).

It's almost as if there are two parallel calling narratives placed side by side, one from God's perspective and one from Saul's perspective. In the end, both narratives call David from the field to the throne room.

Of course, the most notable similarity between these two stories is the mention of the Spirit of the LORD. In verse 14, we read: "Now the Spirit of the LORD had left Saul." This is in contrast with David, upon whom the Spirit of the LORD "came powerfully" (verse 13) or "rushed upon . . . from that day forward" (ESV).

With the Spirit of the LORD having abandoned Saul, we find out that "a harmful spirit from the LORD began to torment him" (verse 14). How should we understand this? Did God send a demon? Would God send a demon? There are a few possibilities for what might be going on here. First, we have to keep in mind that "a harmful spirit" (rûaḥ raʿah) may be a play on words with the Hebrew word raʾah that we saw above. It's a very broad word that can mean bad, evil, deficient, broken, unhelpful, wrong, etc. We shouldn't necessarily assume that it refers to a demon. Secondly, though there are indications from the text that the "harmful spirit" is "from the LORD," the text does not necessarily say that the LORD sent the spirit (as the CSB says). Finally, the word for "spirit" (rûaḥ) doesn't necessarily indicate an individual personal being. This word is used in a variety of ways: wind, breath, disposition or attitude, mindset, and others. It's even possible that this "harmful spirit" that was "tormenting" Saul maybe similar to what we call panic attacks or anxiety disorder.

But let's say God did send an evil personal spirit to terrorize Saul. Why is this surprising? Is it because it seems mean? A just punishment can't really be called "mean." After all, Saul had spurned the Spirit of the LORD that had been with him for so long. Is it unjust for God to withdraw his empowering Spirit and to replace it with a spirit that fills Saul with terror over his disobedience? In fact, this seems like a perfectly appropriate punishment, given how Saul had wasted the presence of the Spirit of the LORD.

Maybe it's surprising because it would seem that God and evil are teaming up, and aren't they supposed to be on opposite sides? Well, kinda. Except the relationship between God and evil isn't really like two teams struggling to defeat one another. If God had no purpose for evil, it would not exist. God has a purpose for the evil in this world, personal and impersonal. If we do not believe this, then we have no real hope that evil will ever be vanquished, no hope that the world will ever be set right.

We see an even more striking example of God using evil to accomplish his purposes when Satan himself comes from God's presence to trouble Job (Job 2:1-8). Similarly, Joseph recognizes the purposes of God in his brothers' wicked attempt to sell him as a slave (Genesis 37:18-28; 50:15-21). When Saul scorned the Spirit of the LORD that had empowered him to have the success that he had, God's judgment was to withdraw his spirit and the protection that came with it. But even in this judgment we can find mercy. Saul certainly didn't receive what Job received. In fact, God seems actually to have provided the solution to Saul's affliction through the presence of David, who, by the way, had now received the Spirit of the LORD that Saul had spurned. We might even say that it is by means of this judgment on Saul that God brings David into the residence of the king. God is sovereign over Saul. He is sovereign over "evil" or "harmful" spirits. And he is sovereign over his plan to lead his people.

Applying God's Truth

So how can we live out the truth of these theological principles today?

  1. Confess our sins. Shame is a painful reaction that many of us have when we think about some of the things that we've done and some of the thoughts we've had. And the more shame we feel the more difficult it will be to confess. But the further we push our failures down into the darkness the more we become those who "hate the light" (John 3:20) for fear that our deeds will be exposed. But the forgiveness that we have in Christ gives us the strength we need to be honest about our failures. After all, God already knows what we've done, and he has told us to confess so sins. So it seems that the hesitancy we have to confess is rooted in caring more about what people think of us than about what God wants from us. Or maybe it means that we don't trust as much as we think we do in the forgiveness Jesus has earned for us. Ideally, confession and repentance would be immediate, but they rarely are. And the longer we wait to confess, the more difficult it is, often. Still, our confession should be judicious. Humble-bragging on social media to get sympathy (or attention) from others is not the place for confession. We should confess to someone we trust. If we've sinned against another person, we should confess to them as well. And—when the church is gathering—there's really no reason not to do this at least once a week.

  2. Be careful not to neglect how we present ourselves to others. This is important. In our zeal to focus on our inner selves, we can easily fall into the trap of neglecting the outer self. This is a false dichotomy. Even though our text makes the point that God looks on the heart, it does not say that God ignores the outward appearance. In fact, this chapter goes out of its way to mention both the inward and outward virtues of David. But we must remember that how we present ourselves to others is not limited to what we look like, whether we take care of our appearance. Yes, our text mentions that David was "handsome," but it also tells us that he was "skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence" (verse 18, ESV). These are all outwardly observed. Furthermore, it is important for Christians to consider how we present ourselves because the world is watching us, waiting for us to stumble and fall and discredit our testimony. Christian leaders are even commanded to be "above reproach" and "well thought of by outsiders" (1 Timothy 3:2, 8, ESV).

  3. Trust that God is good. The inability to understand why a "good God" would allow such evil to happen has led many to "de-convert" from the faith (we used to call this apostasy). But a good God allowing evil to continue is no surprise to the people we meet in Scripture. A source of frustration? Sure. Read Habakkuk. But this is not a mystery that the Bible tries to sweep under the rug. God does not ask us to understand why he allows evil. He only asks that we trust, even in the presence of evil, that he is still good.

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