Commentary on 1 Samuel 15-16 (God Rejects Saul and Anoints David)

Between chapters 8 and 15 in 1 Samuel, Israel has received the king she requested in the person of Saul. From the beginning, we know that Saul was not a man “after God’s heart” and although Saul has some military successes against Israel’s enemies, especially the Philistines, his disobedience of God’s commands would eventually cause him to lose his kingship.

Chapter 15 is where this finally occurs. Samuel, the prophet who speaks for God, commands Saul to launch a military campaign against the Amalekites, the long-time enemy of Israel who attacked Israel as she left the slavery of Egypt (see Exodus 17). God had previously promised that the Amalekites would be punished for their wicked actions against Israel. We know that the Amalekites attacked Israel when she was weary from the trek out of Egypt. But even worse, they came up behind the Israelites and massacred the weakest members of Israel who were bringing up the rear of the Israelite caravan. Amalekite aggression against Israel continued for hundreds of years, right up to the present day.

Given that the attack on the Amalekites was to execute divine judgment, Saul was instructed to kill everyone in the battle and to kill all of the livestock. The Israelites were not to get any financial gain from this attack as they were merely the instruments of God’s justice.

Unfortunately Saul disobeys God in two ways: he keeps Agag, the king of Amalek, alive, and he keeps the best livestock from Amalek alive. God grieves over Saul’s blatant disobedience and He instructs Samuel to confront Saul. When Samuel asks Saul why the best livestock were kept alive, Saul blames the soldiers and then adds that the livestock will be used to sacrifice to God, hoping this will get him off the hook.

Samuel then utters profound words to Saul in verse 22:

“Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

Even if Saul was planning on sacrificing the livestock, which is debatable since it appears to be an excuse, God wants obedience first. Sacrifice without obedience is pointless. A person who follows the rituals of worship, but flagrantly disobeys God’s other commands, does not please God. The consequence of Saul’s sin is that God rejects him as king. Saul begs for Samuel to change his mind, but God has made His decision.

In a sad epilogue, Samuel must kill King Agag himself, since Saul failed to do so. Afterwards, he returns to his home, never to see Saul again. From that day on, God’s prophet will never again counsel Saul, as God has turned His back on Saul’s reign over Israel.

Chapter 16 opens with God telling Samuel to stop grieving Saul, as He is ready to select a new king. The king will be a son of Jesse of Bethlehem. In order to prevent Saul from realizing what is going on, Samuel takes a cow with him and tells the elders of Bethlehem that he is there to perform a sacrifice. Samuel also invites Jesse and seven of his sons to the sacrifice.

Before the sacrifice occurs, Samuel has each of Jesse’s sons stand before him to see which one God will anoint as the new king of Israel. Each of Jesse’s seven sons parade in front of Samuel, but God doesn’t choose any of them.

Samuel is surprised that God doesn’t select the oldest son of Jesse, Eliab, because he is both tall and handsome, and seemingly perfect for the role of king. God responds to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

This verse is the very heart of 1 and 2 Samuel and one of the most instructive verses in the entire Bible. Robert Bergen, in 1, 2 Samuel: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary), writes, “The Lord alone has the capacity to observe and judge a person’s ‘heart’ (Hb. lēb), that is, one’s thoughts, emotions, and intents. On God’s scales these matters outweigh all other aspects of a human life.”

After having dismissed seven of Jesse’s sons, Samuel asks if he has another son, and Jesse informs him that he does, but that he is the youngest and is tending sheep. They send for him and God tells Samuel that this boy, the youngest of eight sons, is to be anointed the new king of Israel. The boy’s name is David. In verse 13, we learn that the Spirit of the Lord immediately came upon David “in power.”

Verses 14-23 end the chapter with the story of how David comes to be an armor-bearer for King Saul, the very king he would some day replace. God has sent an angel of judgment to Saul because of his disobedience, and this angel torments Saul. Saul’s servants suggest to him that finding someone who can play the harp when Saul is tormented will make him feel better.

Saul agrees and the servants recommend David. One servant describes what he knows of David, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the harp. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the LORD is with him.” Thus David is brought into the royal household and becomes a trusted member of King Saul’s entourage.

Why was this young shepherd-boy chosen by God to be king some day? He wasn’t as tall or as good-looking as his older brothers. We know that God’s choices do not always line up with man’s choices, because God sees the heart and we do not. Think about David’s descendant, Jesus of Nazareth. He was an unlikely candidate as well. Dale Ralph Davis, in 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart (Focus on the Bible Commentaries) writes:

Perhaps at no time did the living God disclose a more flabbergasting choice than in the case of David’s greater Descendant. The vote was in. The folks at home said, “He’s just one of us” (Mark 6:3). Others complained, “He has too much fun” (Matt. 11:18–19), and still others objected, “He’s not from the right place” (John 7:41–42). But the clincher for many was: “Messiahs don’t suffer” (Matt. 27:42–43). And what clout did this opinion pack? None. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” (Ps. 118:22; see 1 Pet. 2:4). What should we deduce from that? We should realize Yahweh made his choice (Ps. 118:23a), and we should relish it (Ps. 118:23b). There is a delight we should have over Yahweh’s unusual, unguessable ways. It honors him when we revel in his surprises.