Michelangelo’s David?

When you hear the name Michelangelo, different things might come to mind. Michelangelo was a towering figure of the Renaissance period. He was a poet, a sculptor, a painter, an engineer – history has been very kind to the memory of Michelangelo. When you think of Michelangelo the artist, you might think first of the vaulted ceiling of the Sistine chapel, which he painted in various scenes – including the well known Creation of Adam. Or perhaps when you think of Michelangelo the artist, you think of one of his most famous sculptures – a sculpture that is of particular interest to us given our present sermon series – of course I’m talking about his sculpture of David. Most of us have only seen pictures of Michelangelo’s David, though a few may have seen the original in the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy.

That instantly recognizable statue of David is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture. Michelangelo’s brilliant and beautiful sculpture is intended as a celebration of youth and of strength and of the human form. The sculpture presents David in a posture of defiant, yet relaxed readiness – readiness to fight Goliath. David’s sling is slung comfortably over his shoulder.

Of course one of the more significant aspects of Michelangelo’s David is its size. From pictures it’s not immediately obvious, but this David is made out of a massive piece of marble, and stands 17 feet tall. It is a statue of a hero – Michelangelo’s David is a huge, strong, relaxed, heroic figure. The question this raises for us today, however, is how much this sculpture reflects the Hebrew narrative of David and how much it reflects the Renaissance celebration of the glorious human.

Our Old Testament passage for today finds Samuel searching for a king. Samuel has gone looking for a new king because the present king, Saul, has been rejected by God. The story of Samuel’s search for a new king may well be familiar to us, but what I’d like to suggest this morning is that Samuel has gone looking for none other than Michelangelo’s David. God tells Samuel: “I want you to go north, to the town of Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse, for one of Jesse’s sons is the new king.” So Samuel goes off to Bethlehem as he is told. While he is gathered with the elders of Bethlehem, and with the family of Jesse, he is on the lookout for a kingly figure. And while they are all gathered together for a sacrifice, Samuel catches sight of the first of Jesse’s sons. His name is Eliab – he is strong, tall, and handsome. Seeing Eliab, Samuel thinks to himself: “Here he is.” Samuel has found Michelangelo’s David. Muscular and handsome, with the look of strength and perhaps experience in his face. But God speaks quietly to Samuel in his heart, over-riding Samuel’s judgment.  “Samuel, this isn’t the one. Samuel, when you look at this young man you see his physical strength and appearance, but that isn’t what I see – that’s not what matters to me. The heart matters to me.”

Now you would think that Samuel would have learned this lesson – you would think that he would have learned the lesson that God doesn’t evaluate people according to the standards of value that we so often deploy.

Perhaps we need to take a step further back in the narrative to see why Samuel should have learned this lesson. If you go back in the narrative just a little bit, you find the elders of Israel, and the people of Israel, asking for a king. The Israelites had never had a king before, but for a variety of reasons, they decided they wanted a king. Not least among these reasons is the fact that all the other nations have a king. In any case, after a time God finally gives in to their request for a king and charges Samuel with making it happen. Samuel is the kingmaker.

Now where things get interesting for us is in the description of the man chosen to be the first king, Saul. We read in the 9th chapter of First Samuel: “There was a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. He had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than Saul; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.”

You see, Samuel had already found Michelangelo’s David once before – and his name was Saul. The people were enamoured with Saul. They were enamoured with his strength and height and beauty. And when Samuel himself saw this glorious specimen of a human being, Samuel anointed Saul as king. Samuel and the people of Israel thought he would be the kind of king they wanted – Samuel and the people of Israel thought that Saul’s kingship would mean justice and peace – they believed King Saul would lead them deeper into a blessed life with their covenant God.

Very quickly they discovered they were mistaken. Saul turned out to be a disaster. In four short chapters, Saul goes from being anointed king to being decisively out of favour with God. In four short chapters he goes from being crowned king of God’s people, if you will, to flaunting and refusing the terms of God’s covenant. He’s anointed in chapter 10 and by the end of chapter 13, we find Samuel pronouncing that God will seek someone to replace Saul – someone with a heart for God, the heart for God that Saul didn’t have.

So back to the point we were making. You would have thought that Samuel would have learned this lesson. Saul was the tallest, strongest, most handsome man in all of Israel. He was Michelangelo’s David. The people were enamoured with him. But look what it got them – their first king almost immediately turned his back on the ways of God – their first king failed to trust the purposes of God for his people. The external standards of value, those very human standards that Samuel relied on, were irrelevant when it came to the choice of a king.

So here we come back to our passage for today and it’s déjà-vu. Samuel sees the first of Jesse’s sons – Eliab. Here is another strong, tall, handsome young man. And once again Samuel operates from a very human standard of value. For a second time he has found Michelangelo’s David – the hero, the well sculpted human – muscular and handsome, with the look of strength and perhaps experience in his face. Samuel whispers quietly to himself: “Look no further. Here he is.”

How could Samuel get it wrong again?

Becky and I bought a new coffee maker less than two years ago. It was a kind of sleek looking thing – it was black with a good German name printed in silver on the front. It looked good on the counter. We liked the look of our coffee maker, and the coffee it made. But right away we found a problem with it – the little scale on the side that tells you how many cups of water you had put in would get air bubbles in it, so it was useless. It was so annoying. And within a few short months the thing went on the fritz – the control panel wouldn’t let the coffee maker function properly. So about a year ago we brought it back to the store. But rather than getting a different coffee maker – we traded in the old one in for a new one in the same model. You know, it looked kind of sleek – it was black with a good German name printed in silver on it. It looked good on the counter. We liked the look of our coffee maker, and the coffee it made. (Does all that sound familiar.) And just this past week that one died. This one refused to believe that there was water in the tank. I put water in the tank, and turned it on and off, and unplugged it and plugged it in – and no matter what I did, it refused to believe there was water in the tank. It would not turn on. Should I have been surprised?

We humans are suckers for making the same mistake twice – well, maybe I shouldn’t speak for you, just for myself. I’m a sucker for making the same mistake twice, and apparently Samuel was, too. Perhaps we can hardly blame him.

But let’s keep moving along with the narrative. You’ll recall that as each of Jesse’s sons passes in front of Samuel, God whispers in his ear: not this one. And after all the sons have passed by, Samuel asks: “But this can’t be all of them – is there another?” In the text we read Jesse’s response: “There remains the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” Now that is actually a pretty generous translation of Jesse’s words. In his contemporary translation of the Bible, Eugene Peterson gets closer to the meaning when he translates Jesse’s words as follows: “Well yes, there’s the runt, but he’s out tending the sheep.”

Not just the youngest son, but the runt – the runt of the family. This is no Michelangelo’s David. Yes, the text does go on to say that David was handsome, with beautiful eyes. But the point is made so decisively –

David is not the one you would have expected as king;

David wouldn’t have been anyone’s first choice;

David is not obviously a hero;

David is the runt of the litter, the last son, out doing the most menial of work. This is no Michelangelo’s David – no 17 foot, chiseled warrior. God does not look on externals, does not judge women and men by the scales of value that we so often deploy. He is concerned with our hearts, with the attitude and character that makes us who we are.

Very often we encounter new people in our lives – perhaps at a party, or at a church function, or at our place of work, or in some community organization. And as soon as we meet new people, we are making mental evaluations of them – sometimes we don’t even realize it – sometimes we do. Our attention is immediately draw to the question of who they are

–       what kind of cloths are they wearing (hip? retro? stylish? clean?)

–       are they physically attractive?

–       are they comfortably middle class?

–       are they going to make me feel awkward by what they say or do?

And in so many cases, all of these mental evaluations end up in our dismissal of the other person – we may not be unkind to them, but we very quickly rule people out – wouldn’t want too get close to him or her – not someone I want for a friend. And even in those situations where our evaluation is positive, there often isn’t a whole lot of depth to it – it’s based on externals.

At one level the meaning of this text is familiar enough – looks can be deceiving. It might look like a good coffee maker but it’s actually a piece of junk. She may not look like someone you want to get to know, but she might turn out to be a wise, faithful friend. He might look like someone you’d like to keep your distance from, but it might turn out he can teach you a thing or two about courage or forgiveness. At one level this text comes to us with a reminder we need – looks can be deceiving. Our superficial judgments about people are an affront to them and to the God who has created them in Christ Jesus.

All of that is true. But this text also actually pushes further, and deeper than this. In verse thirteen, we read: “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed David in the presence of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.”  Once again Eugene Peterson gives a getter sense of what the passage says. He translates: “The Spirit of God entered David like a rush of wind, God vitally empowering him for the rest of his life.” (repeat?)

Unlike the Renaissance celebration of the glorious human, which in many cases was based on, or led toward, a forgetfulness of God – unlike Michelangelo’s Renaissance sculpture of hero David – the ancient Hebrew narrative does not present David as any kind of hero in his own right. The ancient Hebrew does not present David as the glorious human capable of anything he could wish. Rather, the ancient Hebrew narrative presents David as one who has entered into dynamic encounter with the living God. The God who breathed life into the nostrils of the first human, breathes with grace and power into the life of David. To the extent that David is portrayed as champion of the powerless, as a faithful worshipper of God, as a seeker of God’s truth and justice – to the extent that David is a faithful king, it does not owe to his human beauty and strength – it owes to the power of God in his life – it owes to the life-giving Spirit of God rushes upon him.

We gather momentarily around this table with the risen Jesus – who breathed his life-giving spirit upon his disciples. The good news of our Christian faith, is the news that God continues to send his Spirit upon us – continues to rush into our lives encountering and renewing us – continues to bless us and equip us for life in the kingdom of Jesus. In the words that Eugene Peterson has used to translate the description of David’s anointing, here is my prayer: “May the Spirit of God enter us like a rush of wind, God vitally empowering us for the rest of our life, our life on the way with Jesus.” Thanks be to God, Amen.


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