The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? 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.” And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “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. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord‘s anointed is before him.” 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 on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” – 1 Samuel 16:1-11a ESV
The story of the life of King David, considered to be Israel’s greatest king, starts off in a rather less-than-flattering manner. He was born in the city of Bethlehem, the eighth and youngest son of Jesse. David was a member of the tribe of Judah. Judah was one of the sons of Jacob, and it is significant to note that, when Jacob blessed his sons on his deathbed, he said of Judah, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:10 ESV). This prophetic word from Jacob revealed that there would be a king, a sovereign, who would rise up from the tribe of Judah. And of this king, Jacob predicted, “your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you” (Genesis 49:8 ESV).
Which brings us to 1 Samuel, chapter 16. The prophet, Samuel, has been sent by God to the city of Bethlehem to anoint a new king. The current king, Israel’s very first king, had disobeyed God and was going to be replaced. King Saul had been the people’s choice. After the up-and-down period of the judges, when Israel had no king, the people had demanded that they be given one. They were tired of being ruled by judges. In fact, the people told Samuel, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5 ESV). Samuel’s two sons were judges, but they were dishonest and ungodly men, which prompted the demand for a king. Samuel became angry that the people would ask such a thing, but God told Samuel to give the people exactly what they wanted: A king to judge us like all the nations.
“Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” – 1 Samuel 8:7-9 ESV
But Saul’s reign didn’t last long. He ended up being just what the people ordered. God had warned them that Saul would prove to be a less-than-satisfactory king (see 1 Samuel 8:10-18). On top of that, Saul proved to be disobedient to God. And God was forced to remove him as the king, commanding Samuel to break the news to him:
“But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” – 1 Samuel 13:14 ESV
“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.” – 1 Samuel 15:28 ESV
Which brings us to the city of Bethlehem and the house of Jesse. God sent Samuel to Bethlehem with the clear directions to anoint one of the sons of Jesse to be Saul’s replacement. Samuel was a bit reluctant, because Saul was still the king, and he feared what Saul might do if he caught wind that another king had been anointed. But God insisted that Samuel do just as He had commanded. And when Samuel invited Jesse and his sons to a sacrifice where he consecrated them. When he got his first glimpse of Eliab, the firstborn, he immediately assumed he was the one, saying, “Surely the Lord‘s anointed is before him” (1 Samuel 16:6 ESV). But he was wrong. God responded to Samuel with one of the most revealing statements in the entire Bible.
“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.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 ESV
Saul, Israel’s first king, had been chosen based on sight. He is described as “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Samuel 9:2 ESV). But looks can be deceiving. And Samuel had allowed himself to be deceived by Eliab’s outward appearance. But it is important to remember what God had commanded Samuel to tell Saul: “The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14 ESV). This time, the selection process was going to be different. No more kings by consensus. God was looking for a man of character, not stature.
So Samuel had Jesse parade each of his sons in front of him, but one after the other, God repeatedly rejected them, forcing Samuel to announce, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one” (1 Samuel 16:8 ESV). The time came when Jesse ran out of sons and Samuel held the flask of anointing oil in his hands – unused. Samuel, a bit perplexed, asked Jesse if he had any other sons, and Jesse responded, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep” (1 Samuel 16:11 ESV).
There is a lot of conjecture as to why David was not invited to the festivities to begin with. The passage does not indicate that Jesse knew the purpose behind Samuel’s visit. But when Samuel invited Jesse and his sons to the sacrifice, David was left out in the fields to tend the flocks. He was the youngest, the low man on the totem pole. While all his brothers were being consecrated, he was left to care for the family’s livestock.
It is interesting to note that when Jesse informed Samuel about David, he said, “he is keeping the sheep.” The Hebrew word is ra`ah and it can literally be translated, “he is shepherding the sheep.” David was faithfully caring for and protecting the helpless sheep. He was doing his job to feed, guide, and nurture those who had been placed in his care. In Psalm 78, we are given a glimpse into the shepherd heart of David, the one who was about to be anointed the next king of Israel.
He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
to shepherd Jacob his people,
Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
and guided them with his skillful hand. – Psalm 78:70-72 ESV
God was going to choose David because of his heart, not because he was handsome. God was going to anoint David the next king of Israel, not because he was famous, but because he was faithful. Yes, he was the last in line of all the sons of Jesse, but he was far from the least in the eyes of God.
There is a song written by Kittle L. Suffield that sums up the situation with David quite nicely.
Does the place you’re called to labor
Seem too small and little known?
It is great if God is in it,
And He’ll not forget His own.
Little is much when God is in it!
Labor not for wealth or fame.
There’s a crown—and you can win it,
If you go in Jesus’ Name.
David was left in the field by his father. But he was not left out of God’s plan for the future of Israel. David was an afterthought in his father’s thinking, but he would be thought worthy by God to become the shepherd of the flock of God. David was unknown and insignificant, shepherding sheep in the fields of Bethlehem. But God was about to do something with his life, the likes of which neither he nor his father could have ever imagined.