An Ordinary King


An Ordinary King

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Main Idea: Out of His grace God raises up and anoints an ordinary, unexpected king to serve in His kingdom. This king pictures the true King, Jesus.

  1. Proclaiming the End of Saul’s Kingdom
  2. The Lord Looks on the Heart
  3. David, the “Runt” King
  4. Lessons to Learn from the “Runt” King
    1. David was ordinary.
    2. Because David was ordinary, God could be extraordinary through David.
    3. God made David extraordinary in the pasture.
    4. Jesus would be the truly ordinary-extraordinary.


The book of 1 Samuel is the story of Israel’s search for a king. Ultimately, only God could be their true King, but He had allowed them to have an earthly king to mirror His reign. The first king of Israel was a gifted character by the name of Saul. Unfortunately for Israel, however, Saul turned out to be more interested in his own glory than in leading his people in a godly way. So even after Saul ascended the throne, the search continued.

Chapter 16 leaves Saul behind for a moment to focus on what God searches for in His king and how He goes about choosing that king. The man of the hour is a boy by the name of David, and he is not exactly the king anyone would expect. He will go on to be a great man of God, but his first entrance onto the scene is hardly impressive. In every way he is—to put it bluntly—ordinary.

The story picks up with Samuel in deep distress because of the sin of Saul. Samuel had anointed him, and he seemed like such a promising prospect. But he turned out to be nothing like what Samuel had hoped for. Samuel had a vision of a king that he had gotten from his mother, Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10). He looked for a king who would be faithful to God and faithful to his people, who would trust God and teach the people to do the same, who would use his power to bless and serve others, promoting justice and lifting up the needy. That kind of king would not have to command the allegiance of the people but would win it from them. They would be willing to die for him because they would see that he was willing to die for them.

Saul was not that king. He was faithful only to himself, which has gotten Samuel rather depressed. The one he had hoped in has been exposed as a fraud. Think of the disappointment he must have felt in trusting in someone so deeply, only to be left with false promises and unfulfilled dreams. We have all felt moments of betrayal like this, some more poignantly than others. And as we pick up 1 Samuel 16, Samuel is in the throes of that despondency.

Proclaiming the End of Saul’s Kingdom

In 1 Samuel 16:1-5 God abruptly sends Samuel on a mission to find the next king of Israel, which is not exactly the remedy for depression Samuel would have concocted himself. He is more than a little reluctant to go out anointing a new king, knowing how passionate the current king is about his own kingdom and name and honor. God’s plan sounds like a recipe for disaster.

So God gives Samuel some more detail, essentially providing an alibi for his trip to Bethlehem. Samuel needs to officiate a ritual sacrifice in the city anyway, so God decides to use the official occasion for another, more subversive agenda. The sacrifice would have been a huge affair, with the entire city coming out to a large public arena. Samuel’s primary job in all this is to ensure that Jesse and his sons attend.

As he enters the city, however, tensions are already rather high. Word has apparently gotten out about the “hacked Agag to pieces” incident of 15:33. Samuel’s arrival has the city leaders shaking in their sandals. They want to know, “Are you here to bring a reckoning?” Apparently, if he wanted to confront the city by himself, they were ready to lie down and take it. Whatever else is true of Samuel, this passage shows us that he had a commanding presence.

Samuel orders a consecration for the sacrifice in which all members of the community offer themselves to God. This is the perfect moment for Samuel to inspect the sons of Jesse, who will come marching by him in succession. Word must have spread through the crowd that Samuel’s visit was more than a mere sacrifice, and the atmosphere must have been intense by the time Jesse’s family came forward.

The Lord Looks on the Heart

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and said, “Certainly the Lord’ s anointed one is here before Him.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or his stature, because I have rejected him. Man does not see what the Lord sees, for man sees what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart.” (16:6-7)

Eliab is the oldest of Jesse’s sons, so he naturally comes forward first, looking as kingly as possible. Samuel takes one look at him and thinks he has found his man—good looking, tall, strong. This must be kingly material.

God, however, is unimpressed. Eliab’s appearance, height, and physique do not even register as relevant qualities. God never looks down from heaven and says, “Wow, that’s a nice physique,” or, “Sweet haircut,” or even, “Nice résumé.” His standards are different from what most of us value because He looks on the heart.

In one sense this is good news. Most of us have tried to measure up to the world’s criteria, but few people ever feel as if they have succeeded. The stress of trying to have the perfect body, a successful career, a conflict-free family—all these have eluded us. It comes as refreshing, freeing news that God is not particularly concerned with our earthly successes.

In another sense, though, this is a bit problematic. Who among us has the kind of heart God would want? Our outward appearance may not be top-notch, but if we are honest with ourselves, our heart condition is usually worse! We spend hours caring for our bodies (decaying as they are), or on our résumés (trivial as they are in eternity), but many of us never think about the quality of our hearts. If that is the case, then we are more concerned with the approval of others than the approval of God.

“The Lord sees the heart.” This may be challenging news for some of us, but it is surprising to see Samuel struggle to grasp this concept. Samuel is God’s man, the prophet who should be attuned to the way God sees the world. And with Saul he had just made the mistake of allowing impressive credentials to blind him to a wicked heart. Is he really about to make the same mistake again, choosing Eliab because he looks like a king? Apparently so. This is such a counterintuitive lesson that even Samuel needs a consistent reminder. And so do we.

We are not given specific reasons why Eliab, Abinadab, Shammah, or the rest are rejected (vv. 8-11). Outwardly they may seem qualified, but God weighs their hearts and finds them lacking. One by one Jesse trots his sons out, and one by on Samuel shoots them down. It is an Old Testament version of Cinderella, as the brothers fruitlessly try to cram themselves into the glass slipper that is Israel’s kingship. But so far, no Cinderella. All seven come and go, and everyone looks around awkwardly. Samuel asks what must be a strange question: “Jesse, did you, perchance, forget about any of your kids?”

David: The “Runt” King

Samuel asked him, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” he answered, “but right now he’s tending the sheep.”

Samuel told Jesse, “Send for him. We won’t sit down to eat until he gets here.” So Jesse sent for him. He had beautiful eyes and a healthy, handsome appearance.

Then the Lord said, “Anoint him, for he is the one.” So Samuel took the horn of oil, anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and the Spirit of the Lord took control of David from that day forward. Then Samuel set out and went to Ramah. (16:11-13)

Jesse finally speaks up: “Oh right, there is the youngest one. I didn’t think to have him come all the way down here.” Several factors here imply that David is not the sort of man who seems fit to be a king. The first is his position as a shepherd. Keeping the sheep was not a coveted position in Israel. Slaves and social rejects were shepherds. Though demanding, it was a job that required no real skill set. No wonder the older brothers pawn this duty off on their baby brother.

The second aspect working against David is the way his father describes him. He is the youngest son, an English translation of the Hebrew word haqqaton. Haqqaton can mean, literally, “the youngest,” but it also carries the connotation of “the tiniest” or “the smallest.” Essentially David is the runt. His own father fails to invite him to the event because the prospect of David’s being a king is laughable.

We are given more of a clue into Jesse’s omission with the physical description of David. In contrast to his brother Eliab, who is imposing and strong, David is described as boyish and weak. Western readers may be tempted to read about David’s beautiful eyes and handsome appearance as if these were complimentary attributes. They are not. The author points them out to show that David looks more like a cute kid than a possible warrior. The text intends to show us that David is outwardly unimpressive, even to those who knew him best; yet this is the one God chooses.

Lessons to Learn from the “Runt King”

David Was Ordinary

It is easy to rush past the realization that David was an ordinary person, especially if we are acquainted with some of the extraordinary events of his life. How can the David, who wrote most of the Psalms, who knocked off Goliath, be an ordinary man? Is he not the standard after which all future kings will be measured? Is he not the pinnacle of extraordinary?

David’s life was certainly not ordinary but not because of any greatness in himself. The great aspects of David’s life are all the result of the Spirit of God. Even some of the more magnificent scenes from his life paint him as an ordinary man: he challenges Goliath to a fight but only because his father sends him to the battle with sack lunches for his older brothers; he writes dozens of psalms but only because he has time on his hands while sitting in a pasture or hiding in caves.

David became extraordinary, but we must not miss that every extraordinary event in his life happened in spite of his own ordinariness. David had access to the power of an extraordinary God because he did not think he was extraordinary in himself. This is in strong contrast to Saul, who was fully convinced of his own greatness, a folly that led God’s Spirit away from him and brought him crashing back down to earth.

Contemporary North American society would have us all be Sauls instead of Davids. And for the most part, the church repeats these lies in Christianized forms. Thus we teach people that they are special, unique, like a snowflake. In one sense, of course, this is true: we each have unique DNA, fingerprints, and defining experiences. But in another, more profound sense, none of us is all that special. Yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, but we do the Bible a great disservice when we try to show how these truths lead to self-esteem boosting and puffing up our egos. Even the prophet Elijah, the greatest prophet in the Old Testament, was—according to James—“a man with a nature like ours” (5:17). David did not achieve greatness because he nurtured narcissism.

Or we encourage people to get involved because “God needs them,” as if God were shorthanded and in need of some talented leaders. But the God who created the universe out of nothing is not wringing His hands for lack of personnel. This may not make us feel particularly special, but the gospel does not aim to make us feel that way. God is special and we are not. Our entire faith consists in making much of Him because of His majestic uniqueness.

David was ordinary. We are ordinary. Accepting this is a big first step in being used by God because Christianity is a large collection of nobodies worshiping a great big Somebody.

Because David Was Ordinary, God Could Be Extraordinary through David

God does not revel in the ordinary for its own sake. In David’s life, as in ours, He is interested in doing some extraordinary things. And that only happens as the Spirit of God is allowed to work. Samuel threatened that God would revoke His Spirit from Saul, and this passage ends with that same Spirit rushing upon David. This Spirit would make the extraordinary possible.

This is the case throughout Scripture. It is only by the Spirit of God that Joseph, a foreign criminal in Egypt, can become the second-most-powerful man in the world (Gen 41:38-41). Only by the Spirit of God could Gideon take 300 men and defeat an army of 100,000 without a single casualty (Judg 7:19-25). And the same Spirit enabled the early church to defy the Roman Empire, testifying boldly about Jesus even when it cost them their lives (Acts 7:55).

Zechariah would sum up all the great and powerful people in the Bible by saying, “‘Not by strength or by might, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts” (Zech 4:6). Only as we cease trying to be Saul can God be truly extraordinary through us. Too many of us have tried to become David by pursuing the path of Saul. But God will not share His glory. So He takes the ordinary, the plain, and the outcast and pours His power into them. Only one person in our lives can be seen as great—it is either God or us.

This is a strong blow to many of us who have been fed a steady diet of praise. Our parents, teachers, and peers have convinced us that we are distinguished, extraordinary, and just plain awesome. And perhaps we are more talented than some others around us. But the danger of relying on our talents and skills is that we run the risk of following Saul, not David. When it comes to making a lasting impact in God’s kingdom, no one has what it takes, no matter how talented.

This is why David, even after he becomes a king, can pen a song like Psalm 23. He sees himself as a sheep, and sheep are dumb. They focus on the patch of grass immediately in front of them and know nothing else. Essentially every predator alive can easily dispatch a sheep. If a sheep thrives, it is always because of the care of the shepherd, not the skill of the sheep. David knew this intimately—that the Lord was his shepherd—and he embraced his “sheeply” role.

God Made David Extraordinary in the Pasture

Being anointed is a momentous occasion, and David must have been elated. Samuel, the most important prophet in Israel, comes on a covert mission to anoint David, reports that God Himself has chosen David, and as the oil pours down his head, the Spirit of God rushes on him. This is not an experience anyone present would soon forget.

But as often happens in situations like this, this mountaintop experience was followed by monotony and drudgery. Samuel returns to Ramah, and David goes back to tending sheep. No elite training program for future kings. No interviews with the Israel Gazette. No fittings for kingly robes and crowns. Just more of the same.

His father puts him back on sheep duty, which is where we find David even years later. His dad is apparently unwilling to have his chief sheep-keeper taken away from his duties, so despite the magnificent anointing, the next few scenes of David’s life always start out in the pasture. Even when David’s life starts to display a little more action, the trend is not in the upward direction. David will soon go from the pasture to the cave, hiding out and on the run for years from the increasingly jealous and insane Saul.

Can you imagine David’s thoughts? “I have been anointed king! I know my destiny! But look at everything that is happening. Has there been a mistake?” We do not know if David entertained these thoughts, but we do know that God was not merely sloppy with His timing. God was using the pasture to prepare the king.

Years spent watching sheep would have been monotonous and obscure. There is a reason we are not given a catalog of David’s daily events during this time: they would have been the same every single day. Walk the sheep from here to there. Lead them to water. Retrieve a wandering lamb. Sit. Wait. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. But the pasture was also where David honed some of the most vital skills in his life. It was where he sharpened his slingshot accuracy. It was where he grew in courage, fending off lions and bears from his helpless flock. It was where he learned humility, cleaning sheep excrement off his robes and sandals day after day.

No wonder Psalm 78:72 says that David “shepherded them with a pure heart and guided them with his skillful hands.” A pure heart and a shepherding attitude come from the pasture, not the palace.

This is still what God does with us today. Mothers who feel undervalued, changing diapers for unappreciative infants, experience their own pasture and can do so with joy if they realize that in whatever they do, it is for the Lord (cf. Col 3:23). Businesspeople often work dead-end jobs, unnoticed even by their own supervisors, but if they work with faithfulness where they are, God often does magnificent things. Students, many of whom are eager to get out into the world and “make a difference,” pore over their books, learning material they may never use. But God is at work in them, forging their character, patience, and integrity. We ought not to despise the pasture or resent our suffering: these are God’s laboratories for molding our hearts to look how He wants.

Jesus Would Be the Truly Ordinary-Extraordinary

We need constant reminders that David’s story is not about us. I have heard enough sermons that say, “Look at David! He wasn’t much, but he became king! So don’t judge a book by its cover because sometimes good things come in small packages.” A little rah-rah, a little motivational talk, and we can all go out and act the part of David in our lives.

But these stories are not primarily about us. We may see some of ourselves in David, but his story is not meant to resonate with our lives. It is meant to remind us of someone greater. David prefigures Christ, who would be the truly ordinary-extraordinary.

Consider that David is anointed by the Spirit of the Lord, only to spend the next 15 years in obscurity and suffering. Jesus was a carpenter with a regular, blue-collar job. He was not a rising ruler. He was not even a rabbi. Apart from a short story in Luke, we know nothing of His life from the time of His birth until He is 30 years old. When Jesus bursts on the scene, He is anointed, and the Holy Spirit rushes upon Him. But instead of marching on Jerusalem, Jesus’ next stop is the wilderness, for 40 days of wandering and temptation.

Jesus’ time on earth would be largely spent in obscurity, and those moments that were not obscure were filled with suffering. But the Father would use this life of suffering to save the world.

David’s anointing is not an anecdote telling us to hang on until God puts us on the throne of victory. Jesus is already there. The gospel reminds us that He has won the victory, and if we want victory, it only comes by sharing in His victory, not anticipating our own. The most ordinary king of all, an obscure man from Galilee, has been raised to the most extraordinary position of all. If we know Him, our lives will never be truly ordinary again.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. How does this passage help you understand God?
  2. How does this passage of Scripture exalt Jesus?
  3. Do you really believe God looks at the heart? Why or why not?
  4. When we look at how the world views us, in what ways does it encourage you to know that God values the deepest part of who we are—our hearts?
  5. How does it encourage you to know that God raises up the “ordinary” folk for His purposes?
  6. In what ways do you think God wants to work the “extraordinary” using the ordinary in your life? Write your thoughts.
  7. In what ways is God using your days in the “pasture” to shape you?
  8. In sports, it is often said that athletes should “let the game come to them.” In what ways did David “let the game come to him”?
  9. What barriers did David have to move beyond in order to be the man God called him to be?
  10. What barriers do you have to move beyond in order to be the woman or man God called you to be?