Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Keeping Up Appearances in 1 Samuel 16:5-12

1 Samuel 16:5b-7 says:

And [Samuel] sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “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.”

But shortly afterwards (16:11-12), we read:

Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

So the Lord doesn’t look take appearances into account, but the text seems to make a point of saying how handsome is David. How should we understand this?

One commentary notes, ‘Appearance may not be what counts for God’s choice, but the text almost seems to delight in saying that he could be handsome anyway. “This is the one!” God declares (v. 12b). This handsome one must also be the one with the heart to be God’s anointed.’ The same commentary goes on to suggest:

The irony of this text is that when David appears, he, too, is handsome. This text does not argue against our efforts to make ourselves, our communities, our programs attractive. It is a question of priorities. Appearance alone is no substitute for matters of the heart, but if we tend faithfully to matters of the heart, the grace of God within will often show an attractive face to the world.

Bruce C. Birch, ‘The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections’, in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, edited by Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), vol. 2, pp. 947–1383 (pp. 1099, 1100)

King David wrote many lovely psalms.
I can appreciate the sentiment, but this explanation seems to take with one hand what it gives by the other. As Birch says, it’s almost as though the text delights in David’s appearance; the only thing David doesn’t seem to have is a kitten and a fireman outfit. Now what I’m going to say isn’t anything earth-shattering, but it seems to me that even though the Lord reveals to Samuel that God sees the heart and ignores external appearances, the narrator of this passage could not help but note the external appearances because the narrator is not God! So the tension between 16:5b-7 and 16:11-12 is not a contradiction but a difference in perspective because those responsible for the text of 1 Samuel retained the boundary between their editorial work and the narrator. It is the narrator and not God who makes the comment about David’s good looks.

So I’m not convinced by Birch’s explanation when he applies the passage to church programmes and similar. If anything, the passage could elicit almost an opposite interpretation—that because appearances don’t truly matter to God, we, our communities, our programmes don’t need to look attractive, either. I’m not sure this holds. But what we do have in the passage is a description of David, a man who looks every inch a monarch and looks as though he conforms to the stereotype, but who then goes on to be a completely different kind of king and leader to what everyone else was expecting.


  1. This must be why I am so beautiful ;)

    - The Smiling Pilgrim

  2. Yes, I definitely think it's the human perspective that creeps in with the recognition of David's good looks. What is a hero without good looks?

    I have been going through the OT lately, beginning with Genesis and steadily plodding away. I am now all the way up to Joshua. It's hard going. Sometimes the only way I can make sense of it is to see the human perspective creeping in.

    1. Yes, it is hard going. I can appreciate why so many people have problems with Joshua and Judges especially.