But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on [Eliab’s] 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.”
It is only on rare occasions in the history of Israel that its monarchy was not a debacle. Certainly the initial period was less than ideal: although Saul was physically impressive (he was tall and handsome) and capable as a military leader, he ignored God, disobeyed his commands, and ended up being an unmitigated disaster as the leader of God’s people.
So not long after the people chose to have a king like the other nations (1 Sam 8:5), the Lord sends Samuel off to Jesse’s place, with cow in tow for a sacrifice, to anoint the next king of Israel.
When Samuel arrives he sees Eliab, Jesse’s eldest son. As far as Samuel can see, Eliab is an ideal choice: strong, tall, charismatic. He appears to be the perfect candidate for the kingship.
But God tells Samuel that he sees differently than we do. Our view is necessarily limited by our finitude, background, culture, personal history, and time and place. God does not see things in this way: the Lord looks not on the outward appearance, but on the heart (16:7). God can see what we cannot: the inner motivations and intentions of the heart.
To say that God sees the big picture and we don’t is not particularly controversial, but there’s more going on here. We can also translate verse 7 like this:
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 according to the eyes, but the LORD according to the heart.”
That is, God sees and chooses according to his own heart and will. So when God chooses David—Jesse’s youngest son—to be king, the choice is not so much about how God is on David’s heart but how David is the one on God’s heart.1
David is chosen to be the next king of Israel not because he’s perfect and in tune with God’s plans and purposes, nor because he’s necessarily morally better than everyone else, but because God chose according to his own will. What this is really about is God’s choice of David to be the head of an everlasting kingdom; later on, in 2 Samuel 7, we see God establishing David as the first ruler of this dynasty. This everlasting throne is established according to the will of the Lord:
“And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord GOD! Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have brought about all this greatness, to make your servant know it.” (2 Sam 7:20)
Here we see both aspects of God’s choice of David: God sees what is on the heart of the future king of Israel, and he chooses according to his set will and foreknowledge.
This particular fact—that God chooses according to his heart, and not simply on the basis of our hearts—is a very good thing when it comes to me, because my heart, very often, is decidedly not just like God’s heart. If God were to choose me on the basis of how much my heart desired God and his ways, I’m certain I would be quite out of luck.
But that’s not the plan he’s shown us: for God, before the creation of the world, chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in his sight (cf. Eph 1:4).
You see, God’s point of view spans eternity. And he shows us his point of view by revealing his plan to us, in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). He gives us the viewpoint that the shepherds, almost a thousand years later, shared in Bethlehem. They went to see a little baby only just born: tiny, weak, and helpless. But they came away knowing the truth of the words of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14; cf. v. 20). They saw the king not according to the eyes of man, but as God sees. They were granted the vision of God, according to his will: Jesus the king, the saviour, the Messiah.
- This insight comes from John Woodhouse’s excellent commentary on 1 Samuel, in the Preaching the Word series. It’s hands-down the best commentary I’ve come across, on any book. ↩