“For Myself a King” — Part One
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“For Myself a King” — Part One

1 Samuel 16:1-7  (ID: 3391)

When Saul’s disobedience prompted the Lord’s rejection of his kingship, Samuel was sent to anoint a new king over Israel. This time God, not the people, chose the king. Paraded before Samuel, Jesse’s older sons were impressive to the human eye—yet God rejected them in favor of the youngest, David. Although we see with the eyes, explains Alistair Begg, God sees according to His sovereign will and purposes.


Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me to 1 Samuel and to chapter 16 and to follow along as I read from verse 1. First Samuel 16:1:

“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’ And Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.’ And the Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.’ Samuel did what the Lord commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ And he said, ‘Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.’ And he consecrated 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 before him.’ 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 sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, ‘Neither has the Lord chosen this one.’ And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen these.’ Then Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.’ And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the Lord said, ‘Arise, anoint him, for this is he.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.[1]

For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, we’re back at 1 Samuel. We’ve been gone for some time, and now we have to make an entry, as it were, back onto the track. If you ever watch NASCAR or Formula 1, you know that you can’t just go screaming right out into the middle of the things. If you’ve been in a pit stop, you need to get up to speed gradually and find your way back into the procedure. And in many ways, today is a bit like that as we return to this chapter. Not all of you who are present now have been present for the first fifteen chapters, and many of us who were present have already forgotten large parts of what we should have remembered. And some are here who perhaps are immediately saying to themselves, “What a strange thing to do! After all, this is the twenty-first century, and it’s one thing even to read the Bible, but now to read this piece from the Bible that seems to bear no resemblance to me at all. And I had come in here hoping that I would find something out that would actually solve my problems and fix me.”

Well, of course, you may. And our conviction is that the Bible actually does the work of God—that all the things that were written in the past, as Paul says when he writes to the church at Rome, were written for our instruction[2]—that is, for our instruction now. The immediate impact of the day was obvious, but now, after all these years have elapsed—thousands of years—our conviction is that when God’s Word is proclaimed, that God’s voice is heard; that beyond the voice of whoever speaks, it is possible that we might be summoned by God, that we might hear from God. Not simply that we might process the information and say, “Well, I understood that part, but I don’t understand this part,” but rather that we actually have a divine encounter with the living God through the Word of God by the power of the Spirit of God. That’s our prayer, that’s our longing, that’s our expectation.

And so, in coming to this, I have brought myself back to it with a renewed sense of diligence, and I’ve chosen as a title for our study this morning just one phrase from verse 1, “For Myself a King.” “For Myself a King.” God is speaking there. “I have provided”—or “I have seen”—“for myself a king” among the sons of Jesse.

Now, we know from what we have studied that the people’s choice of a king—which had been motivated by their desire, you may recall, to be like the nations around them—was actually a rejection of God as their King.[3] When Samuel was responding to the initiative on the part of the people, he actually took it personally. He felt that somehow or another, their reason for asking for a king was because they had decided that he was too old, he was too doddery, he was no longer good and sufficient as a leader. And God had said to Samuel, “No, you need to understand something, Samuel. It is not you they’re rejecting. It is actually me.” So we have this strange paradox that in their desire for a king, they are rejecting the one who is King. And in the king they have, they discover that this is a king who disobeys God. What possible chance is there for a people who have a king now who actually disobeys God, who is the real King? And so, what we discover is that God says, “Well, now for myself I have chosen a king.”

Saul, you see, despite his beginnings, despite the fact that he was big and tall and handsome, had floundered, and he had failed, and he was rejected. In chapter 15, you just need to turn one page, and you will see that there in verse 26. Samuel, in responding to Saul’s request for his companionship, says, “I [won’t] return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” And quite graphically, in the interchange that happens with the tearing of his robe, Samuel uses that immediately as a metaphor, and he says in verse 28, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and [he] has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you”—that little pointer, now, sending us forward as readers and saying to ourselves, “I wonder who this one will be who will replace him.”

Now, the chapter ends, as you will see, with Samuel grieving over Saul. That’s what we read in the final verse of 15. And since there is no break in the original text—the chapters have been put in by the editors so that we might have a sense of balance in what we do—it’s no surprise that 16:1 is still about the grieving of Samuel. And the question that is posed by God is a fair question. He doesn’t ask him, “Why do you grieve over Saul?” God would understand this. But he asks him, “How long will you grieve over Saul?”

Now, if we think about this just for a moment, we recognize that as the writer to the Ecclesiastes tells us, there is “a time to mourn,” and there is “a time to dance.”[4] In other words, in the unfolding story of life, God has provided for us within our psychology, within our personality, within our physical being, mechanisms for both joy and for sorrow, so that we respond to circumstances in light of how they affect us.

And what becomes perfectly clear here is that Samuel is not some distanced prophet from all that has unfolded. He is the one who brings the very word of God to bear upon these people and upon their lives, but he is not removed from the events themselves. He knows that God has done great things for the people. And so it grieves him to see the people as they are. After all, we remember, he says, “I will not sin by ceasing to pray for you.”[5] It’s part of the responsibility of the shepherd of the people. He’s cared for them, he’s prayed for them, and now, as he sees them suffering on account of the disobedience of Saul, it grieves him. Saul’s failure grieves him. It’s an occasion of sadness for him.

Samuel was consumed with the glory of God. Therefore, when God’s glory was tarnished, he grieved.

You say, “Well, okay, we get that, but…” Well, I want you to get it. I want to get it. You go back to 15:26: “And Samuel said to Saul, ‘I will not return with you.’” I always like to say to myself, “Now, if I could stand there for just a moment, what would that sound like?” Well, it’s just conjecture, of course. How do you think he said it? Saul said to him, “Would you come back with me?” And he said, “Definitely not. I’ll go nowhere with you. Loser! Failure!” Probably not.

Actually, if grief be told, I think he would have said, “No, I’m sorry. I won’t go back with you. Do you know what you’ve done, Saul? You’ve done what you shouldn’t have done.” In other words, the role of the shepherd is not the role of condemnation when those in whose company they live stumble and fall. The role of the shepherd is a grieving role, on account of the fact that if it means anything for us to be united in heart and mind and purpose, then it has to mean something when those whom we love and for whom we have affection stumble and fall.

Surely Samuel had an affection for Saul. That matters! If he didn’t, why grieve? Samuel was consumed with the glory of God. Therefore, when God’s glory was tarnished, he grieved. If he didn’t really care about the glory of God, if he only cared about his own glory, then there would be no reason for grief. Samuel loved the people under his care, and therefore, he grieved on account of their suffering.

I wonder, too, whether we would have to say that, given that he had invested the greater part of his life in this venture, that part of his grief was born of self-pity—that on his bed at night, he said, “You know, I can’t believe this. It was God who asked me to do this. I only did it because he said. He told me about that guy. That guy’s a disaster. Lord!” He cried.

I stopped in my study, and I said to myself, “What makes me cry?” And then I said, “What makes me smile?” And then I said, “You know, probably this is a real indication of where we are in terms of our spiritual progress: when we learn to smile at the things that should make us sad and when we fail to grieve over the things that do make us sad.”

Leadership demands that. Whether you lead in a school, in a nursery, in a business, in a factory, on a workbench, wherever it is, leadership—and not least of all in the church—leadership brings with it peculiar privileges, but the privileges do not exist apart from the perils. Not just the peril of pride, but the peril that comes from realizing that the burdens that one bears in leadership are in large measure directly tied to those whom we lead. That’s why the writer to the Hebrews, when he’s closing out his letter, reminds the congregations to whom he writes, “Make sure that you submit to those whom God has entrusted over you as leaders. Do that,” he says, “because, remember, they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who must give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning.”[6] So Samuel is groaning instead of rejoicing.

And when you look at the text, you realize that God’s corrective to him is a necessary corrective. He says, “Listen, how long are you gonna grieve over Saul? Don’t you realize that I’ve rejected him from being king over Israel?” In other words, “I’m sovereign over this,” he says. “This has not taken me by surprise. It’s time now, Samuel, to forget those things which are behind and to press on.”

A Straightforward Assignment

And so he gives him a very clear assignment. He says, “Fill your horn with oil, and go.” I don’t know, there’s just something about that; I want to put it on the front of a T-shirt or something. It’s so good, you know. I’ve been trying to find somebody I could say that to during the week. “So what do you want me to do now?” “Fill your horn with oil, and go.” “Well, all right.”

No, but what he’s saying to him is… Because remember, the prophet says, “He gave me beauty for ashes. He gave me the oil of joy for mourning. He gave me the garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness.”[7] “The grieving’s over now. We’ve done with the grieving. Now I have a very straightforward assignment for you. You can understand it perfectly: fill your horn, and let’s get going.”

What a wonderful thing it is when you go on and you read further down in the text, and verse 4: “[And] Samuel did what the Lord commanded.” How good is this? You see, Samuel stands out to us, as we consider him in these chapters, not on account of the originality of his ideas, not because he’s a peculiar initiative taker—because there’s no evidence of either, actually. No, the way we see him is as somebody who just does what he’s told. “[And he said,] ‘Fill your horn with oil, and go.’ … [And] Samuel did what the Lord commanded.” How spectacular is that? That doesn’t seem very big, does it? Most of the commands of God don’t involve any great drama. No, Samuel is helpful to me here.

Now, I wonder if Samuel had not said to himself—and again, this is just conjecture. I shouldn’t do this, but I do it all the time. I wonder if under his breath he said, “Oh, ‘Fill your horn with oil, and go’? We did this once!” In fact, he might have said, “I put the horn in a box in my study, actually, down on a lower shelf, because I figured I was done with this forever. One time was enough as far as this is concerned. On the basis of the whole Saul thing, I’m not really up for filling my horn with oil and giving it a second go.” But God says, “[Not so fast! Not so fast.] I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided”—or “I have seen”—“for myself a king among his sons.”

So he’s gonna be sent to Bethlehem. A Bethlehemite is someone from Bethlehem, the way a Glaswegian is somebody from Glasgow. And the Lord has seen among the sons of Jesse a king for himself. Now, you say, “Well, why are you translating that as ‘seen’ when in the text it says, ‘for I have provided’?” Well, actually, because the verb in Hebrew is the verb “to see.” And that verb is repeated seven or eight times throughout the text, all the way through this chapter. I won’t take time to detail them for you. But it is not always translated as “see” or “looks.” Here in verse 1, it is translated as “provide.” Down in verse 17, it is actually translated as “provide” again. This whole chapter is actually about seeing—about who’s seeing what, and how it is that God sees in a way that man does not see. And we’ll see that as we continue.

He’s being dispatched to Bethlehem, down the road about eleven miles—not very far in our time but quite a long way then. Bethlehem ought to immediately ring bells for those of us who know our Bibles. Those of us who studied Ruth together, however long ago it was, will perhaps remember some of the drama and beauty of those scenes—the end of chapter 1, where you have these two widowed ladies arriving in Bethlehem, and the writer simply gives us a sentence, “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of [the] barley harvest.”[8] And you’re supposed to get not only an understanding of the geography but a sense of the sights and sounds and smells and everything that’s involved in it. “They came to Bethlehem.” “Oh, Bethlehem?” Who would have thought that in that unlikely place, Ruth would meet Boaz, they would get married, and the Jesse that Samuel is to go and meet is Ruth and Boaz’s grandson. So the one that we’re looking for is actually Ruth’s great-grandson.[9] It’s very exciting.

You go forward a thousand years to Bethlehem, and who would have thought that in this tiny little place in the middle of nowhere, the next chapter in God’s sovereign plan was about to unfold? Samuel could never have understood the extent to which his obedience was vital in the ongoing story of God. Most of us will not understand. Sometimes we will obey out of sheer commitment to obey, and we may live our lives and never know what that act of obedience has actually meant in the providence of God, either for a bystander or for a family member or for somebody within our sphere of influence. Obedience to God’s command is always right.

But you will notice that he is a reluctantly obedient servant. He responds with a question, verse 2: “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” That’s pretty good. Saul is increasingly unhinged by this time, and he’s capable just of about anything. So Samuel says, “I want to obey, but I don’t want to get killed”—which is fair. I don’t think any of us would judge him on the basis of that. And so the Lord said, “[Well, listen.] Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ And [then] invite Jesse to the sacrifice, … I[’ll] show you what you [will] do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” So, there you have it. It’s a straightforward assignment: “Fill up your horn with oil, and go.” “Okay, I will, but I don’t want to get killed.” “That’s okay, I’ve got that covered. Take a heifer with you.”

Now, we’re not gonna delay on this. What is God doing here? He’s actually telling Samuel to declare not all of what is gonna happen but some of what is gonna happen. Right? In other words, there is concealment in this. And it is proper, under certain circumstances, to conceal some of the truth. And concealing some of the truth is not necessarily telling lies. It is impossible to read this text and remove God from it, because God is the one who tells him, “Take a heifer and say this: ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’” So we can’t have God telling his servant to tell lies. So what is he doing?

Well, it is the distinction between partial truth and untruth. It is true that he is now going to make a sacrifice. It is only in the context of sacrifice that the anointing would take place. But he doesn’t have to lead with the horn of oil. Right? You don’t have to walk down the street going, “I’m going to Bethlehem, going to anoint a king! Going to Bethlehem, anoint the king!” You’ve got the band playing now. Saul’s gonna kill him for stuff like that! So what does he do? He’s going with his heifer. “We’re off to Bethlehem. Doing some sacrificing.” Right?

It makes perfect sense. Doctors do it all the time. I’m not being facetious. Mercifully, they do. Every prognosis does not need to be shared in its entirety in a certain moment. There is a distinction between partial truth and untruth. And that’s the distinction that is present in this context. And that’s why he’s instructed in this way. He’s got to be sensible in his approach.

And he is to call Jesse, to make sure that he is present, because the Lord has seen among his sons a king for himself. Once again, another point on the journey of life for Samuel simply to do as he’s told. It makes perfect sense. You remember the beginnings—1 Samuel—when he’s a boy in the temple with Eli. He wakes in the night; he thinks it’s Eli that is calling him. That happens a couple of times, and finally Eli twigs what’s going on, and he says to him, “The next time you hear this, you say, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’”[10] And that is the genesis, if you like, of the ministry of Samuel. And so we fast-forward now, and we discover that that is exactly what he’s doing again: “Samuel did what the Lord commanded and [he] came to Bethlehem.”

Obedience to God’s command is always right.

Now, his appearance, you will see in verse 4, caused the people, the elders, the town council who came out to meet him, to tremble. Now, we don’t have all the background to this, but their question is straightforward: “Do you come peaceably?” I wonder if it is not that the whole news of what had happened to Agag has spread like wildfire. And when you go back to the dreadful scene at the end of the chapter 15, you will remember that “Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.”[11] So, not to put too fine a point on it, they were looking at each other and essentially saying, “I hope he’s got that Agag stuff out of his system.” Right? Because he did a dreadful thing there—under God’s command. “Have you come peaceably?” “Yes, I’ve come peaceably.”

A Significant Adjustment

Okay. Well then, so far, so good. The people are assembled. The straightforward assignment has to this point been completed. But now, in the choice of a suitable candidate, there needs to be a significant adjustment. I’ve labored over any kind of outline for this address, and that’s as good as I can do right now: a straightforward assignment, to this point complete, and now a significant adjustment to be made in the thinking of Samuel.

You’ll notice that in verse 6… Or even you could say a realignment—the assignment and then the realignment; the realignment of his thinking, which needs to be corrected immediately from verse 6. “When they came”—that is, when all the sons of Jesse appeared—“when they came, he looked on Eliab,” and he said to himself, “‘Surely [this is] the Lord’s anointed.’” That’s a quick judgment, isn’t it? That’s a fast response—and especially when you think about the last time he was involved in one of those, the last time a big, tall, handsome fellow showed up, and they made him the king. Didn’t work out real well. Goodness, are you not even thinking here for a moment? Last time, the package looked fantastic. But when they got to the contents, the contents were useless. The big, strong, powerful, handsome fellow collapsed like a broken deck chair. And now here you are with your horn of oil and ready to go, and the first person that shows up—Samuel, are you kidding? “He looks like the one for me, yes.”

Now, something about his outward appearance, about his stature, sent him in that direction. And so, here is the need for the realignment. Here is the need for the adjustment to his thinking. Verse 7: “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 sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’” And so then Jesse called the next one in the list, and he was rejected; and the third son, he was rejected; and seven sons in all, and we have reached now verse 10, with Samuel saying, “The Lord did not choose these.”

Well, what are we to say of this? At one level, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, that appearances can so easily be deceptive? I just gave away a book that I purchased a few weeks ago by Malcolm Gladwell on meeting strangers. And in the book, Gladwell is saying, “Why is it that we can meet these strangers and make deductions on the strength of these meetings, deductions that are often wrong and are often immediately superficial?”[12] Well, it’s basically all we’ve got to go on, isn’t it? Because we see with our eyes.

But God sees in a different way. God is not deceived by—or impressed, either—by outward appearances. Because, as verse 7 makes clear, he sees a person’s heart. But it was at this point that I found myself saying, “I don’t know but that there isn’t more to this seventh verse than this.” I mean, it just seems so obvious, you know: “We look on the outside, God looks on the inside. And God looked on the inside of Eliab, he looked on the inside of Shammah, he looked on Abinadab, or whatever it was, and when he looked on their insides, they didn’t seem like they were good. Then he looked on somebody else’s inside, and that person looked good, and on the basis of inside, he chose him.” No, I don’t think so. So, now I’m stuck in my study.

And somebody that we just invited to come to Basics 2020—Old Testament theologian from Australia by the name of John Woodhouse—he bailed me out on this. He actually says that verse 7 is saying more than that: that “God’s point of view” is according to “his own will and [to his own] purpose.” In other words, it is according to his heart. And he gives a literal translation of the second half of verse 7. And in that more literal translation, he translates it, “But the Lord [looks] according to [his] heart,” not according to the individual’s heart.[13] In other words, God views things from the perspective of his eternal counsel and will, from the eternal perspective of his purpose from all of eternity. So he is not looking to see if this person meets all of the qualifications necessary for being put in this position—because nobody meets all the qualifications that are necessary for the position.

Now, I said to myself, “Okay, now this is helping me. This is helping me.” It’s helped me when I think about what we looked at in passing in chapter—was it 13?—that God was looking for a man “after his own heart.”[14] The preposition “after” is the same preposition as “according to.” So the same thing is being said: the Lord is looking for a man according to his heart—God’s heart. So the picture is not a man who’s a particularly good man who has a lot of God in his heart. It is rather a picture of God, who has a man in his heart[15]—the man of God’s own choosing.

We look at this scene and say, “Well, it must have been for these superficial reasons that they were ruled out, and it must be because the fellow who’s finally selected was special.” Well, he was special in some regards, but that wasn’t the issue. It wasn’t that he was special. It’s that God is sovereign.

Now, as I sat there and thought about this, I said, “Well, what am I going to do with this? Maybe I shouldn’t even tell anybody about this. You’re not supposed to let anybody know this kind of thing. Just leave verse 7 the way it is. After all, 90 percent of the commentaries don’t even interact with this. They all simply say, ‘God looks on the inside. You look on the outside. Let’s move on.’”

So I said, “Well, I wonder how strongly Woodhouse feels about this.” This is how strongly he feels about it. He says, “This understanding”—i.e., the understanding I’m alluding to now and to which we will return this evening—“this understanding of verse 7,” he says, “is very important. In fact,” he says, “in my opinion, [it is] the key to understanding the whole of 1 and 2 Samuel! More than that, it is really the key to understanding life, the universe, [and] everything!”[16] Yeah! So I’m going, “Wow! Everything! Like—Trump. Everything! Impeachment. Everything! Brexit. Everything! Everything!”

Well then, we better pay some attention to that notion. But since our time is gone, we’ll have to do it this evening.

Let us have a moment of prayer:

Father, help us to see that your purposes from all of eternity are clearly not about us but about you. We want to live under your smile. We want to live in harmony with one another. We want to marvel at your electing love that chose us not because we were top of the class or stood out in the crowd, or because you saw something in us that you thought you might use, but you loved us because you loved us. Thank you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.

[2] See Romans 15:4.

[3] See 1 Samuel 8:5, 7.

[4] Ecclesiastes 3:4 (ESV).

[5] 1 Samuel 12:23 (paraphrased).

[6] Hebrews 13:17 (paraphrased).

[7] Isaiah 61:3 (paraphrased).

[8] Ruth 1:22 (ESV).

[9] See Ruth 4:18–22.

[10] See 1 Samuel 3:4–9.

[11] 1 Samuel 15:33 (ESV).

[12] See Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019).

[13] John Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader, Preaching the Word, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 286.

[14] 1 Samuel 13:14 (ESV).

[15] Woodhouse, 287.

[16] Woodhouse, 287.

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.