Abinadab was the wealthiest, most powerful king in all the land. He was admired by all his subjects, feared by all his enemies. It was said that the very hand of the divine rested upon him with favor. He could not be defeated in battle; he could not be outwitted in debate; he could not be outshone at a party.
At least, that could have been the story, had his kid brother not ascended to the throne instead of him. Not that Abinadab had much to commend him for kingship either, except for his awesome-sounding name and the fact that the men in his family were rather good-looking. But it was a lowly family, the family of Jesse, from the town of Bethlehem, and Abinadab was only the second-born son, not even the first.
Oh, also, Israel already had a king, by the name of Saul, and like him or not, to try and appoint another, different king was an act of treason.
But still, the prophet Samuel showed up here, in Bethlehem, Abinadab’s home, looking to anoint a new king. Abinadab felt butterflies in his stomach when the aging prophet called him forward. Samuel appraised Abinadab with a scrutinous eye, his lips muttering prayers while he examined. It felt like they were all on the verge of something big.
But after the parade of the seven brothers, and Samuel chose not a one of them, Abinadab’s jitters turned to skepticism. Maybe the prophet was going a bit senile in his old age. “Are these all the sons you have?” Samuel asked Jesse. Abinadab looked over at his brother Eliab and rolled his eyes. What’s with this guy?
It had already been a long and utterly uneventful ceremony, a disappointing interruption of their daily work. And then they had to sit around and wait while someone went to fetch young David from the fields so Samuel could look him over too. Abinadab could not fathom why they needed to bother the boy for all this. Still, when David came bounding into the gathering unsuspected—bright-eyed and clearly delighted at his invitation to the Important Meeting—Abinadab couldn’t help but smile at his youthfulness. Samuel was smiling too, and out of the corner of his eye, Abinadab saw Samuel reach for his anointing oil . . .
Personally, I imagine David entering the scene like Frodo bursting into the conversation about what to do with the Ring. Most of the big men admire his courage, smile at his pure heartedness, and wave him off as too small, but Gandolph can see him as the One strong enough to bear the burden of the Ring.
I always picture David as short, not unlike a Hobbit, although the text doesn’t explicitly say that he’s vertically-challenged. Maybe because I always see him in pictures standing next to Goliath, and Goliath can make anyone look short. Or maybe it is because the text does say Saul was a head taller than other men, and I think of David as contrasting Saul in every way. Also, I imagine David might not even be full grown at this point in the narrative, and the Lord clearly tells Samuel not to consider his height.
But whether David was 5’6 or 6’6, the point, I think, is that he represented the small people. As the youngest son of the eight sons of Jesse, (Jesse, the grandson of a foreign woman), David stands for the marginal people, the unnotable, the insignificant. Least likely to succeed. Most likely to remain in the shadows.
Of course, those of us who know the rest of the story know that eventually power will go to David’s head, and even this pure-hearted young boy will eventually make major mistakes. But for now, he is practically a child compared to his brothers and practically a nobody compared to Saul, but it is here we learn that God doesn’t play our comparison games.
This is astonishing news to me. I can’t seem to stop comparing—I am drowning in it. Devastatingly insecure one minute and gloatingly prideful the next. I can’t stop the game, but it turns out God doesn’t play at all. The whole way I’ve learned to see myself by measuring myself against others turns out to be exactly where God’s blind spot is. He doesn’t see like that. God sees us differently than we see ourselves and trying to understand that is like trying to imagine that there are different colors in heaven than what we’ve got here on earth. It is too hard to fathom that when God looks at us, he isn’t comparing like we are. He isn’t chatting with the angels about who’s put on weight or who’s the best pray-er. He delights in each individual person, independent of ratings.
How do we competitive people even begin to wrap our minds around the startling perspective of God? I still remember the first time a girl confessed having an eating disorder to me. Crying and broken she talked about her sisters, who were skinny, her friends, who were skinny, and herself, who wasn’t skinny. I wanted so badly in that moment to have a different body type myself, just so I could be one less thin person in her life. There was no good way to convince her that the comparisons didn’t matter.
I could have quoted 1 Samuel 16:7 to her: “The Lord does not look at the things human beings look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart,” and maybe I did quote it. It’s been so long I can’t remember.
The perplexing part of the biblical story though, is that David gets to be handsome. After God tells Samuel not to look at outward appearance, it turns out David’s not so shabby: “He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.” This hardly seems fair. If it didn’t actually matter, then why couldn’t David have been more like the rest of us—sagging, flabbing, and all? Why does he get to be beautiful? Walter Brueggemann says that for the people reading this story, it is “important to assert and celebrate that among the marginal there are beautiful people, that among the little ones there is the potential for greatness.”*
My whole life the church tried to teach us girls that what really mattered was our inward beauty. It’s like the Lord told Samuel, “God looks at the heart.” But when I think back on that girl with the eating disorder, what I really want her to know is that she was beautiful on the outside too, even if people in her life had never taken the time to notice.
David himself nearly went entirely unnoticed. All those handsome features out tending sheep. He was the youngest brother out of eight, and no one thought he mattered enough to invite him to The Big Important Meeting with Samuel. He may have been good-looking, but he was still overlooked. Like most of the beauty in the world, David was almost passed over for a more obvious option. “Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here.” But God saw differently. God found beauty lurking in the hidden places; he brought forth in triumph what no one else had bothered to see. Where our English Bibles record the Lord telling Samuel, “I have chosen one of his sons to be king,” the original Hebrew sounds more like this: “I have seen one of his sons to be king.” God saw kingship, beauty, worthiness where no one else had even thought to look. Playing the comparison game keeps our vision extremely limited. God has a wide peripheral, and it allows him to spot colors we never knew existed.
So this is what I think about beauty: You may not seem to match the hues of your fabulous neighbors, and that can make you feel insecure. But in God’s eyes, you are a shade like no other, a miraculously unique color, filling the world with your shine. Maybe when God told Samuel not to look at outward appearances, he wasn’t telling Samuel to shut his eyes, but to open them wider.
These months at Covenant, I’ve been utterly amazed, walking the prayer paths and labyrinth, and seeing how strikingly different things can look one month from the next. This year has been a bright parade of wild flowers—blue, then orange, red, then yellow. From bluebonnets to cactus blossom to Indian blankets—a new wildflower blankets the earth every few weeks. Last week everything was turning brown—shriveling, drying up in the drought and the heat. Dismal. Lifeless. Except for the scattered patches of wild sunflowers which seem to have shot up out of nowhere, taller than any of the flowers before them, as if to stand up to the drought in defiance. It is a beautiful, glorious thing to watch them waving in the wind, amidst the sea of browning grass, as if proclaiming their praises to a God who never leaves any place truly barren.
David was like a splash of color in the browning reign of King Saul, an unlikely wildflower sprouting up in the midst of ruin, to remind us that the world is never truly hopeless, that beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places, if only you have the eyes to look.
When a political drought strikes the nation of Israel, God commits treason by finding beauty in the rubble, in the margins, in the lowly spaces. It is there God spots a new king.
So what if following God means we keep an open eye for beauty in unexpected places? And it might just be that spotting beauty will require an act of treason—that is, we will have to abandon our loyalty to the old regime—the tyranny of our misperceptions, the dictatorship of other’s demands, the domineering power of comparison and pledge our allegiance to God’s view of the world rather than our own dismal view of ourselves.
May we stop comparing and put on God spectacles instead, such that the small people no longer seem insignificant and the marginal places no longer seem so uninviting. This will feel like we have a fighting chance at life after all. It will feel like we are beautiful, all of us. It will feel like the world is lit up with colors. May we keep our eyes peeled for the utterly unexpected—whether it be the glorious truth about ourselves or the utter majesty of the kid next door. May we see ourselves and each other through God’s eyes, never blind to the beauty that lurks in every corner of creation. Amen.
* Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation Commentary, 124.