“Fill your horn with oil, and go.”
God has now thoroughly proven Saul’s failure and has definitively rejected Saul from being king. Further, He has promised twice now that he would replace Saul with a better king: “The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people” (1Sam. 13:14). Again, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” (1Sam. 15:28). Here in Chapter 16, we see the initial fulfillment of that promise.
This is the familiar story of the anointing of David, the little shepherd boy, the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons. Traditionally we draw the lesson that God does not judge by outward appearances, but rather looks upon the heart. This ties in to 1 Samuel 13:14 quoted above. But this lesson goes much deeper and applies more broadly than is normally taught. The lesson is a kingdom ethic which applies to faithful living and service to God in the midst of our enemies. In this narrative, we will see clear examples of its practice: first with Samuel, then with David. It is a lesson which will be illustrated again and again throughout the book of 1 Samuel. Taking this lesson to heart will help us understand the advance of the kingdom in our own time, amidst our own world full of enemies of the gospel.
Job and Calling
The scene opens with Samuel continuing to grieve over Saul. The prophet is at such a low ebb that God has to chide him for moping around: How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? (1 Samuel 16:1). This is probably Samuel’s lowest point in his life. Surrounded by constant failure, even he wavered just the slightest bit and got distracted. He had forgotten for the moment that Saul’s rejection was by God’s Word. Even as difficult as it may have been to stomach, it was God’s express will. And what man of God should forget that? Here we see that even the best and most faithful sometimes do.
The key, however, is that a man of God does not remain in that position for long. He returns to God’s Word very quickly, receives instruction, motivations, and direction. So God motivates Samuel: Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons (1 Samuel 16:1). The message to Samuel here has three components: 1) Spirit, 2) Word, and 3) Application. The first is the reminder that nothing for the kingdom comes by man’s power, but by the anointing of God. It is not go alone, but fill your horn with oil, and go. The horn of oil was preparation for anointing, and thus is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. This is God reminding Samuel, and really all of us, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zech. 4:6). Samuel no doubt understood this. The second aspect is the Word. God draws our remembrance back to His revealed promises. In this case it was His promise to provide a king. But third, God’s promises are never mere abstractions. God’s Law and prophecy are meant to manifest in history. So in this exhortation to go, God’s gives specific application of His promise: go to Jesse the Bethlehemite. The new king would be among his sons.
But Samuel hesitates. He understands what kind of person Saul is. He knows already that Saul will be murderously jealous of his throne. If Saul hears it, he will kill me. He who was ready to kill his own son for breaking a silly and arbitrary law would certainly not hesitate to kill another over alleged treason, even if it were Samuel. Statists are just that consistent. So Samuel balks at God’s command to go anoint another king. Notice, however, that Samuel does not hesitate for lack of faith in general. He would be faithful. His problem was lack of vision: How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me (1Sam. 16:2). He does not ask why or if, but how. But even this can be said to be a lack of faith. For God does not always give us all the “hows” of life. He gives us commands, power, and vision, but expects us to trust Him in connecting all the complex dots of history.
Do your job
Sometimes when we allow circumstances to keep us depressed and distract us from kingdom work, we lose focus. At that point, we often lack vision, and even the most obvious of kingdom solutions elude us. This is, I believe, where Samuel was at the moment. God’s response to the question of how was so simple and obvious it may have provoked a “duh” moment from the prophet. “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do.” (1 Samuel 16:2–3).
God, as can be expected, provided a viable plan of action for Samuel. And the plan was so simple in the fact that it required nothing extraordinary for Samuel to do. Who was Samuel after all? He was essentially a priest, certainly one authorized to perform sacrifices and known to do so regularly. His doing so would not draw any special notice. God’s solution then was for Samuel to use his normal daily activity as a means of carrying out the special mission. In short, God was telling Samuel: “Just do your job. Trust me to create the special opportunities you cannot.”
With renewed vision, Samuel wasted no time in obeying. But his judgment was not yet completely unclouded. Perhaps he had spent too much time already in Saul’s administration, and the image of Saul had come to represent what people should expect of a king, even for Samuel. Bad company ruins good morals, after all (1 Cor. 15:33). Whatever the cause, Samuel began judging the candidates by outward appearance. Looking at the first son of Jesse, Samuel assumed he had already found the next king. We are not told exactly what about Eliab’s outward appearance persuaded Samuel, but whatever it was, God disabused him of the notion and of the principle behind it: “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 on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7). In correcting Samuel’s momentary lapse, God rebuked the entire nation of Israel which had been mesmerized with Saul on the same basis. As Samuel listened to the voice of God, seven sons of Jesse passed by for inspection. God rejected the lot.
Finish the job
This would have been an easy time for Samuel to give up. God’s promise did not materialize even after all the human resources seemed to have been exhausted. The human perspective of the situation would have yielded no more vision or possibility. But Samuel did not rely merely on a human perspective. He trusted God’s Word even when it seemed to have lead to a dead end. Since He knew God’s Word must be true, he began to ask questions. “Are all your sons here?”
Jesse answered that there was one left, the youngest, but he was out tending the sheep. This was another hurdle for Samuel. Remember that this was something of a formal event. A sacrificial dinner with Samuel the man of God was a big deal. Jesse had been invited specifically, and this was a tremendous honor. Jesse brought all of his sons to this event—except David. The fact that David had not been invited even to attend at this monumental, possibly once-in-a-lifetime event shows that his father did not consider him of much account at this point. And to call him in now would mean an awkward delay as Samuel hung out with seven impressive-looking sons he had already rejected, and who would be dismayed at the old man for thinking the youngest could possibly be more fit than them. And another thing: as a shepherd fresh from the field, David probably had not had a bath in a while. Not the kind of guest you want crashing your dinner party. Can you imagine how embarrassed Jesse and his sons could have been?
Samuel defeated all these temptations to call it quits: “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here” (16:11). In Samuel’s perseverance we see that faithfulness is not just doing your job, but doing your job until it is finished. And we must persevere to the end no matter what forces would have us fail God by quitting. The servant of God serves and does not sit until the king has been anointed.
At the Word of God, Samuel anointed David. This was done in the midst of his brothers and must have come as quite a shock to them. Much like Joseph’s brothers who mocked the young man as he told them they would bow to him some day (Gen. 37:5–11), so David’s brothers had to have been irked watching their youngest sibling receive such authority. That the oldest, Eliab, did not really accept it as true is seen in the tensions between them in the next chapter (17:28–29).
The anointing with oil was matched by the anointing of the Spirit. Simultaneously, the Spirit left Saul and an evil spirit began to torment him. This orchestration of the Lord would lead to the second instance of the kingdom ethic we are discussing, and to the first meeting of Saul and David. Whatever else was to befall later, the real transition of the kingship had been accomplished. All else from here on out would be the outworking of that reality in history. As with some many other parts of redemptive history, including this very narrative with Samuel and Jesse’s sons, that outworking will include many twists and turns, principles counterintuitive to human understanding, and victories secured only after apparent defeats.
A king who serves
Tending sheep as they graze involves some free time. Somewhere along in his youth, likely to confront his boredom, David learned to play the harp. Sitting upon hillsides watching sheep graze and grass grow day after day afforded David lots of time to practice and improve. Over time he had grown quite skillful.
Throughout these months and years, however, he had no idea he was being prepared to be invited to the king’s court. He had no idea his hobby would ever take him anywhere, let alone where it would take him. Even after he was anointed king, he surely would not have thought that it was his private musical talent that would get him recognized by Saul’s administration. Yet this is exactly what happened. God can prepare us for big things through small means, and without us knowing until the moment.
The evil spirit with which God tormented Saul led to his administration’s attempt to find a remedy. They decided to bring in a harpist whose playing would sooth the problem. By happenstance, one of the servants, who remains unnamed, had had some familiarity of David and remembered his skill on the harp. Verses 14–19 record this process and Saul’s call for David to be sent to aid him.
David plays for Saul and the evil spirit departs. Saul loves David and promotes him to armor-bearer. This shows that he trusted David’s loyalty to the death and trusted David with his own life (this will prove to be true in later chapters). Saul requests from Jesse David’s permanent employment. David’s harp skills served Saul well on numerous later occasions as well.
Little did Saul know that he had just invited his replacement into his court. But the biblical theology in the text here makes it clear that a change in kingdoms had just taken place. When sending David to Saul, Jesse sent gifts along as well. One of these gifts was a skin of wine (16:20). As we noted in the sermon on Hannah and the Nazirite vow, the appearance of wine in such Old Testament narratives usually marks the beginning of a new kingdom. This was true of Noah (Gen. 9:20–21), Abraham and Melchizedek (Gen. 14), Saul himself (1 Samuel 10:3) later King David (2 Sam. 16:1–5), Nehemiah (Neh. 2:1ff), and of course Jesus at the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:14–20; see also Matt. 26:17–29; Mark 14:12–25). It is true again here. The irony is that the new kingdom was not Saul’s. His kingdom had been rejected and definitely ended. The Spirit and Word had departed from him. The new king in view here was David.
Yes, God does not judge by outward appearances, but according to the heart. God does not need great warriors who stand a head taller than everyone else. He can use the teenage underlings among us, and indeed He delights in confounding the proud by doing so. It is not might but faithfulness which God uses.
We should extend this principle further than just God’s choice of a king. It is a kingdom ethic in general. God prospers and advances His kingdom through faithfulness, not through human measures of any sort. Further, He is not limited by human measures.
1. Do your job
God’s advice to sulking Samuel here is one of the most important lessons in the entire book of 1 Samuel. It is one of the most important lessons in the Bible in respect to dominion. It is the answer to the question of how God’s people are to act in the midst of a hostile world and a corrupt civil government. Samuel was afraid Saul would kill him if the king discovered he was about to anoint a new king. Saul very likely might have killed him. In the face of his circumstances, Samuel was confused as to how to proceed. God responded by sending Samuel on a mission that was based upon his basic profession. In short, as we noted, God was saying, “Just do your job.”
Like Samuel, we have been given a mission by God. Mankind is called to have dominion in the earth (Gen. 1:26, 28). Christians are called to disciple the nations, teaching them everything Christ has commanded us (Matt. 28:18–20). That includes the whole Law. Scripture provides multiple general and specific commands that integrate with this mission. We are promised the earth (Matt. 5:5) and kingship (Eph. 2:6; Rev. 1:5–6). We have the anointing for this task. Yet we are surrounded by enemies both foreign and domestic, as well as governed by many unscriptural policies and leaders. We see the enormity of the mission, how far the promises are from manifesting substantially, and the apparent power and authority of the opposition. We do not see how in the world our efforts and small numbers can make headway against those who control every major institution, the major political parties, the mainstream media, the schools, the airwaves, phone lines, the banks, the police, and the drones. So we sulk, or sidetrack ourselves. “How can I do that? They’ll crucify me!” We think this way because we inherently trust in might and not His Spirit.
To this, God essentially replies, “Shut up, and do your job.” And your job is primarily faithfulness. Your job is not to win because you are a head taller than the opposition. Your job is to do whatever you have been gifted to do, and do it in utter faithfulness to God. Your job is not to outflank and out-gun, out-resource and outspend your enemy. Your job is to trust in God’s might and God’s resources while working to do what He gives you to do at the moment. It is His prerogative to bring you the Jesses, the Jesse’s sons, and the right one of Jesse’s sons—all without the Sauls of this world even knowing until God’s kingdom has been definitively claimed.
The path to dominion is constant faithfulness to His Law no matter what may come. This means that you should simply do your job, and get busy and serious about doing it. Just as God commanded Samuel the priest to get busy doing things that priests do, so He calls you to get busy homemaking, or accounting, or video editing, or engineering, or building, or digging, or whatever. God has not only provided the holy things like His Word and corporate worship; He has also provided the all-too-often-demeaned normal parts of life: your extended family, your business, your friends, your job, your grocery store. All the things we take for granted or treat as parts of a daily grind—these are the things we should engage in with the most optimistic eagerness. It is from these things that God provides most of the opportunities for us to advance the kingdom in subtle but meaningful ways. You don’t have to lead a large ministry or wear your theonomy on your sleeve. In fact, many who do these things are often less effective in the big picture than those who are in the trenches of family life, businesses, local communities, and do nondescript volunteer work.
In doing such things, we may find here or there that God’s Law places limitations upon how we conduct business or with exactly whom we align. This may seem to make success less likely in some cases. But here again, the point is that faithfulness means trusting Him at His Word even when our own estimations urge us to do otherwise. He will have us to be faithful. If we are not, no matter how many Saul-like victories we have, or how many victory parties we throw, we will not be on the path to victory in God’s terms.
The reason for this, again, is that it is by God’s power and not ours that we shall prevail. Thus we engage in seemingly impossible, long-term missions by simply taking one transaction, one word, one diaper, one step, one day at a time—but doing so with an eye to uncompromising faithfulness. Over time, God honors the faithful, brings them victory, and eventually builds the kingdom around them. Over time, He brings about His promises and His people glorify Him by defying human measurements and remaining faithful against the humanly-estimated odds. Humanists and God-haters think they are marginalizing us and pushing us out, but they are merely laying up wealth and infrastructure for God’s people to inherit later. In the meantime, we brave the insults and keep an inward smile, knowing that God shall bring it to pass. I call this part of the kingdom ethic “covenantal subversion.” We do our jobs quietly and unassumingly, yet always with an aim at advancing the kingdom. It requires an ethic of quiet, hardworking faithfulness.
So again I say, “Do your job.”
2. Stick to your knitting
But it is not enough merely to fill your horn with oil and go. It is not enough to do your job, to go and meet your Jesse and make your sacrifice. It is not even enough to have carried out your job to a great degree. You must stay and endure until the mission is completed according to God’s Will.
We see here Samuel assessing Jesse’s sons again and again, yet despite their fine appearance, none are chosen as king. Finally, Samuel reaches the apparent end of the line. All the fine young men have been inspected, and God has not chosen any of them. Well, now what? From a human perspective, one had to wonder. But Samuel knew God’s Word had to be true, and therefore something about the circumstances had to be corrected. He mulled, then inquired: Are these all your sons, Jesse?
We should reason and work the same way. When circumstances do not seem to line up with God’s promises, we should assume that the task of kingdom building is not yet complete. Not a difficult deduction, eh? But the simple fact should not only put us in motion, but keep us in motion for the kingdom all of our lives, and every hour of every day. Is the job done? No. Then keep at it.
This is especially true when things seem difficult or impossible. The faithful will not compromise or abandon God’s Word because the situation seems difficult, or because the promises seem too ideal, too unreachable, or fail to materialize as we think they should. Instead, the faithful must turn a type of skepticism against the world. It is the world, history, the circumstances that must be out of order, that must change, because God’s Word must be true. In short, we do not judge God’s Word by our circumstances; we judge our circumstances by God’s Word.
Since this is so, even when it seems like we have reached a dead end, we must not quit but must return to His Word. It is here where the unchangeable things of life are found. It is here where we find the principles which must not be compromised. Let all else change but these. Let God’s Word be true, and every man a liar (Rom. 3:3–4). It is from here that we develop the proper foundation by which to judge the world (1 Cor. 6:2). With such a foundation, we can see through circumstances, and know when, where, and how to question them properly.
3. God’s uses the “foolish” things to confound the wise
One of the most interesting parts of this narrative is how David’s skill with the harp lands him in the royal court with King Saul himself. Of course we know that David’s musical talent was later used by God to compose most of the Psalms. But here, initially, it got him a sort of chaplaincy with the government. We can learn a few good lessons from this.
First, the clearest lesson is that God uses small things to advance his kingdom. We will see this clearly in the next chapter when David defeats Goliath. But we see it here clearly, too. Young David, neglected as the shepherd boy who apparently did not merit even an invitation to dinner—and this estimation even from his own father. Yet this was the one who should rule Israel: a young man who spent his free time playing the harp.
We should be of the same mind, which is to say at the same time that we should be of the same heart. In a time when national greatness is measured in aircraft carriers, and political power is measured by money and approval ratings, we must realize that the kingdom of God is measured first and foremost in faithfulness. For such reason, the objects of God’s most power social dynamics may be the weak, the small, the nameless and faceless, the momentary, the insignificant in man’s eyes. He may even use musicians.
And take a note on that nameless and faceless point: it was not David’s skill alone that God used, though that was the goal. But God used a middle-man to find David and bring him into the picture with Saul. Among Saul’s servants, one of the young men answered (16:18). Who was this young man? He goes nameless and faceless, and we never hear of him again. Yet he was necessary, vital, in God’s eyes, for God used him as the vessel which remembered David and brought David to Saul. How had he known of David? Why had he remembered his harping as opposed to that of the dozens of other harpists throughout Israel? We have no idea.
In the same way, your life is in contact with a thousand otherwise nameless and faceless people. You have no idea how God may use you to remember or to be remembered in the grand design for his kingdom. Since God sees fit to use such creatures as instruments for His glory, to minister to governments, and eventually to exalt and depose kings, let us not despise such as they cross our paths, or as they fail to appear on TV. Let us rather acknowledge that the kingdom of God is advanced by just such means—the weak and the small, doing their daily duties—and not so much by the celebrities and power players.
Second, dominion begins with spiritual warfare. We now understand that God uses small things, that victory comes not by might but by His Spirit, and that our job is primarily one of steadfast faithfulness. Along with these things we must learn the lesson of David’s harp. Saul could subdue kingdoms through arms, but he could not subdue the evil spirits once God’s Spirit departed from him. Swords and spears had accomplished much in terms of forcing men into fear and subjection, but they were powerless as Saul sat tormented—terrified as the Hebrew word indicates—under the oppression of an evil spirit. No might of man could aid him, let alone prevail, in such warfare. This called for . . . a harp.
So Paul reminds us that we do not wage war according to the flesh, and the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but have divine power to tear down strongholds (2 Cor. 10:3–6). Do not forget, therefore, that dominion begins and is thoroughly maintained by prayer, by praise, by mercy, by self-sacrifice, by worship, by the arts, and similar things. If your dominionism is not thoroughly saturated with these things, and with the earnest desire to pursue such things, then you need to repent and reset.
This does not mean, however, that prayer and worship, especially corporate prayer and worship, constitute the totality of our dominion effort, as some of the higher liturgists among us seem to believe. It certainly does not mean that the visible, institutional church in itself constitutes the only effectual sphere of the kingdom in this world, as truly high liturgy churches have practiced for a long time (and this is the logical conclusion of the emphasis on so-called “high” liturgy). Prayer and corporate worship are necessary but not sufficient conditions for kingdom advance. There are many more aspects as well, including law, business, entrepreneurship, and courage, to name a few—all of which take place in the arenas of the individual, the family, the state, the market, etc.
We should also note that Paul’s instruction in this area is not “spiritual” only in the sense of prayer and piety, but also in the area of the intellect. For he says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). We should, therefore, encourage the study of all arts and sciences in subjection to God’s Law and consider this part of proper spiritual warfare. This is the liturgy of life, the sacrifice of total obedience to him, and it is our logical service.
Considering the true nature and scope of spiritual warfare will drive us to see that no merit is added to prayer and worship by dressing them in ruffles and draperies. On the contrary, if anything, the adornments constitute a distraction from the real thing. Let us be careful in this area, while acknowledging the absolute necessity of prayer and the arts if dominion is to be God’s dominion. This is once again teaching us that the battles are won by God’s Spirit, not our might, and that God pleases to use the plain, small, and unobtrusive things to confound the wisdom of this world.
Third, the faithful men in God’s kingdom must not only be so humble, but remain so humble. David landed in the court of Saul, and yet did not think himself to have arrived at some great station: he was humble enough to be a servant merely playing the harp for the king. From here, however, he blossomed quickly into a fine young soldier and commander. He was advanced to the honorable position of Saul’s armor-bearer. As we shall see later (chapter 18), David was eventually set at the head of all the men of war and waged Saul’s battles for him. Yet here we are told that whenever the evil spirits visited Saul again, David would return to the harp and perform that humble service (16:23). David did not consider it beneath him to leave his high command and perform a seemingly small task.
Paul tells us to have the same mind, which is also the mind of Christ:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5–8).
We can understand, then, that David was a type of Christ in this regard, as in others, and that we are called to emulate the example of humility and service as well. Even if God exalts us to some high estate or important station in life, our spirit must remain one of service and humility. Again, it is not our might, but His, and we must work faithfully in this spirit until the job is done. This is the kingdom ethic.
When we consider these narratives, we recall the simple obedience and courageous faith of Samuel (which David will soon emulate), and the humble servanthood of king David. We need to understand these lessons and embrace them. For it is only by these that the Goliaths before us will fall, and the wicked governments that turn against us and even grow murderously hateful toward God’s church will be escaped, withstood, and outlasted. It is a question of victory and inheritance, and these will not be gained by our might, but by His Spirit.