Once Upon a Time in . . . Bethlehem

I Samuel 16: 113

Introduction

The story of David starts in Bethlehem, the place of his birth and childhood. As soon as we think of Bethlehem our minds tend to switch to that later king of Israel born in that town. Once Upon a Time in Bethlehem, sounds like a Christmas story and there is indeed a children’s Christmas song with this title. But this morning our story has more in common with Quentin Tarrantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood than Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem.

Whatever we might feel about Tarrantino’s films, they have some similarities with many Old Testament stories. In this case, there’s a monumental unexpected plot twist. Samuel has already anointed one king, but now God wants another one anointed. No one saw that coming. In these events in Bethlehem, there’s an undercurrent of violence. Samuel fears Saul’s reaction to his anointing of a rival. Will Saul seek to have Samuel killed? There’s a community in fear as they meet Samuel making an odd detour from his usual place of ministry. They were asking, “what does this powerful political figure want with us?”. You can sense their apprehension, we’re told that the elders trembled.

There also plenty of blood. In this case it’s that of a heifer being sacrificed. But there’s the anticipation of human blood being spilt now that there are two kings. There’s a key allusion to how human judgement is prejudiced by appearance, whereas God sees the heart. This philosophy or theology is the key to understanding this episode. There’s a clunky piece of theatre that feels decidedly awkward, worthy of a pantomime. Seven sons are paraded before Samuel and each is found wanting. Then there’s a rather uncomfortable and lengthy pause as everyone awaits David being located out in the field. How long might that have taken without a phone and transport? Then there’s another plot twist. The person with the right character turns out to be rather good looking anyway.

Unexpected plot twists, violence, fearful communities, blood, difficulty in understanding characters’ morality and motives, clunky theatrics and good-looking people. These are often the features of Old Testament narrative, and just as often the features of Tarrantino’s films.

Unlike the godless universe of Tarrantino, however, our world—the world of the Bible—has a theological significance and an ethical backbone which can inform, and better still, transform us.

The Homely Eight

As we encounter Jesse and his family for the first time in the Bible, we find he has a large family. Eight sons are mentioned here. Elsewhere, in 1 Chronicles 2:16, we find he also had two daughters. The patriarchal story of David’s anointing has no concern with daughters. We cannot work out too much from the story about other aspects of this family. There is a suggestion that this family has done what many have others have over the past few millennia. It might be that they have seen the sons as fulfilling various roles according to the order of their birth. There are known psychological and societal reasons and consequences for the first, second, third, and last child having particular character and occupation. David—son number eight—appears to so far down the pecking order as to be all but invisible. At the start of the story of his anointing he is literally not visible; being left out in the fields tending the sheep. If he was sociable, charming, outgoing, attention-seeking, and fun, as ‘lastborns’ characteristically are, it seems unlikely that the sheep would have noticed.

In David’s culture, as in some many others, the first handful of sons are expected ‘to make something of themselves’. They are the expected to be the self-made men who will keep their parents in the future and perpetuate the fortunes of the family.

God however seems to have an aversion to the self-made and indeed to judging by appearances. God ‘looks at the heart’. He looks to character. To virtue, to use an old-fashioned term. Fortunately, salvation does not depend on our hearts but here God chooses a person of character for kingship and indeed founding a dynasty. God delights in a good heart.

When anyone is successful in anything it is natural to ask, ‘how did this happen?’. There are three means to success in just about any venture:

  • Innate gifting and fortuitous circumstances.
  • Hard work.
  • Dubious means.

For example, a world class athlete will have to have a set of physical attributes, some circumstances that make training and advancement possible, the will power and desire to work hard day-in-day-out. They might be tempted to add into this mix dubious means such as drugs.

For example, a businessman who founds a business empire will have to have some innate talents. Perhaps a novel insight into a new product or service. Or perhaps just that ability to win people over and persuade them to invest in something. They will have to work hard. They too might be tempted to try dubious methods to. The odd threat and/or bribe perhaps.

The story of David adds something else into the mix. Something that we would normally want to be careful of claiming—he is chosen by God. It turns out he has the physique to be a warrior, a key attribute for a king at this particular point in the life of Israel. As it happens, he has years of training ahead of him in living as an outlaw warrior. Later in life he will resort to dubious means to get what he wants. And yet behind all this human cause and effect lies the hand of God. If God had not sent Samuel to an obscure family to pick an obscure eighth son smelling of sheep dung he would not have become king.

True ‘Romance’

The hand of God would have been an encouragement to David when times were hard. But we centuries later might well ask what is the basis of this David-God ‘romance’. The text simply tells us that God chose David on the basis of his heart and not any of the usual visible traits that make people successful.

This leaves lots of questions. Why was there a false start with Saul? Why is Saul doomed to failure and David to success? The Bible has different concerns—it tells us ‘things’ about God and about all of humanity. It tells as that God looks to the heart. The counterpoint being we look to external appearances.

The problem of the heart is of course that ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). That goes for David, Saul, Samuel, you, and me. God didn’t choose David for his perfect heart. He picked David because his frail human heart was good enough to make a good king—albeit one who made some terrible mistakes. His heart was not a heart that desired power for prestige and selfish ambition. It has been said that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” others have suggested that “Power attracts the corruptible”. The evidence of these two anecdotes is never far away. Yet, for all his failings David did not fundamentally usurp God’s authority.

At the heart of today’s story is the human condition. The sinfulness that means that we think, and do, wrong; the brokenness that turns our hearts to things that are less than healthy; the weakness that means we do not do as many things of value as we might.

Jesus Christ, the ultimate heir of David’s line, dealt with the ultimate consequences of sin once and for all. Our turning to him in repentance and faith removes the barrier between us and God. This is the gospel and we should praise God daily for this gift of grace. This is not, however, the full gospel. Too often we have made the gospel one dimensional. Last time I looked we the Church are a company of the broken. We still sin, we still do what we should not, and we still do not do what we should.

God did not finish with David when he was anointed King; he’d just got started. Neither does God finish with us when we first bow the knee to Christ. Our initial repentance and faith are the start. For us, as for David, the Spirit is given as a sign of things to come. The Life of Faith and our ongoing development in Christ is something that the Church has historically spoken of in different ways. Whatever language we might use it is vital we look to God for ongoing transformation.

In being so adamant against the critics of Christianity that it is not about being good and thus earning salvation, we too often neglect goodness. The most fundamental attribute of God is that he is good. God delights in goodness, his perfect goodness and the good heart that is growing in us.

Different Christian traditions use different words to describe our ongoing Christian transformation. Discipleship is the term we are most comfortable with in my context. Becoming more Christlike is another. Although too often this seems to become What Would Jesus Do, which is not the same thing at all. The latter is about primacy of action and not character. It can also be oddly legalistic. Sanctification, until the last 20 years, was a popular term rooted as it is in the theology of Saint Paul. Spiritual Formation is a term used in some circles and recognises our need to be transformed; that we are not a finished work. It also tends to link to actual disciplines that will enable it to happen. The cure of souls is a very old-fashioned term but is helpful in recognising that we tend to carry around aspects of character that are unhealthy and need fixing in Christ. For whilst God can transform us in the twinkling of an eye, we all carry degrees of frailty that need an ongoing work of Christ that require prayerful effort in the form of self-honesty and discipline. The cultivation of virtue is another way of speaking of our transformation. I like this term. With terms like virtue and vice we can cut to the chase of what we mean without hiding behind generalities and slogans.

David Unchained

In I Samuel 16: 1–13 we read of David being released to be who he is. His indirect encounter with God, through Samuel, sets him on the path to be king. His surrender to this anointing marks a new life. David is no longer slave to family or cultural expectation. His encounter with God has turned expectation upside down. This is the effect of the gospel today. We don’t have to be constrained by things that enslaved us in the past we can move forward, having broken free.

David went from being a shepherd to shepherding God’s people. In Christ our gifts can be used in a variety of ways, but we all have things to offer the world at large and the community of God’s people.

What does it mean for us to be more Christlike, to fulfil our potential in Christ? What do we need released from? What virtue should we be cultivating? What cure does your soul need? What do you need to step into to mature in Christ? The terminology matters less than the recognition and openness to a transformation that comes from God. It is firstly about who we are, and only secondly about what we do.

David was first a person with a right heart—not a perfect heart. This led to him being appointed and anointed king. The road ahead was a very long one. As he journeyed with God he was refined and transformed. Compared to David, we can fix our eyes on Jesus Christ and a clearer destination. In so doing we can be transformed by the living God to be what he created to us to be.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

One thought

  1. Just read this today. Thanks for the reflection man. I find the distinction between a right heart and a perfect heart particularly helpful/challenging and insightful.

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