One of my most vivid memories of Sunday School as a child was colouring in a picture of of little boy David standing on a hilltop with his flock of sheep. Now, finally, we meet shepherd boy David!

At the end of the last chapter, God had removed his protection from Saul’s reign. Now, God tells Samuel to dry his tears and fill up his oil horn, ’cause Saul’s replacement is in Bethlehem.

Samuel, however, isn’t so sure that he wants to make the journey. Understandably, he fears the repercussions if Saul finds out that he is gallivanting around anointing overthrowers. So God provides him with a cover story – he is to bring a heifer along, so he can tell anyone who asks that he is going to make a sacrifice (though it isn’t clear why he would be choosing that location in particular).

Samuel anointing David, Dura-Europos Synagogue, Syria

Samuel anointing David, Dura-Europos Synagogue, Syria

For reasons that aren’t stated, the elders of Bethlehem are terrified of Samuel. They meet him “trembling” (1 Sam. 16:4), asking if he comes in peace. There’s no given reason for the elders to be afraid. I might have thought that, given the new animosity between Samuel and Saul, they might be afraid that Samuel’s presence might cause problems. But their question, “Do you come peaceably?” (1 Sam. 16:4) suggests that it is Samuel himself that they fear.

According to God, the chosen one is one of Jesse the Bethlehemite’s sons. Samuel goes to Jesse and has him parade his sons before him.

When the first comes out, Samuel is wowed. He is certain that Eliab must be the new king. But God tells him not to judge a book by its cover, or “the height of his stature” (1 Sam. 16:7).

Seven sons in total are presented, but God rejects them all. Perhaps confused, Samuel asks if there might not be some more sons hidden away somewhere. Jesse confesses that that the youngest remains, but he is out tending sheep. I suppose this is meant to highlight David’s humbleness, that even when the running was down to just eight people, he was still not considered to have enough of a chance to be brought in. Once again, we see the point made that God is choosing the leaders, that they are not – like Abimelech – seeking out power for themselves.

David is fetched. He is a “ruddy” boy with “beautiful eyes” (1 Sam. 16:12). God gives a nod and Samuel anoints him. His job done, Samuel heads back to Ramah.

As with Saul in 1 Sam. 9, David’s name isn’t revealed until the last possibly moment. Even though the intended audience almost certainly knew who the story was about, the technique adds a slight suspense (or, at least, the humour of knowing that suspense is intended).

Saul’s illness

The scene changes and we come to Saul. The spirit of God has left him and, in their place, God sent him an evil spirit that torments him. The description is of episodes or fits, so it could be something like epilepsy.

His servants recommend finding a musician who can play through Saul’s fits, perhaps to calm him. Another servant says that he has heard of a particularly fine musician, a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite. I think you can guess who he has in mind.

Despite the Sunday School colouring picture of the young boy barely able to hold up his shepherd’s crook, this David is described as “skilful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence” (1 Sam. 16:18). It could be that this description was earned after the spirit of the God came into David, though, since there’s no indication of the passage of time.

Saul is impressed by his new musician, and quickly makes him armour-bearer.

Christopher Rollston provides some other examples of stories from the Near East in which kings – particularly kings who took power by suspicious means – who were chosen for their kingship by their respective gods. Whether or not David overthrew Saul, the fact remains that Saul failed to establish a dynasty and David took over. Tongues wag in a situation like that.