Jesse’s eldest sons gather round the sacrifice. When Samuel “looked at Eliab” he says to himself, “Surely the Lord’s anointed” right there! (16:6 NKJV). The episode gently mocks Samuel’s “blindness” by contrasting his human way of looking with God’s insight.
Eliab must be a big husky guy, for God tells Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him” (16:7 NKJV).
Whereas in patristic and medieval times, Christians sometimes drank too deeply of philosophies that exaggerated the separation between body and spirit, today, they are as likely to be influenced by antidualist ideologies. We are even told that differentiating the internal and the external is just Platonism or Cartesian dualism and has nothing to do with Christianity.
But this text clearly and simply distinguishes the external, physical look of persons from their interior self, characterized as their heart. It contrasts the blindness of Samuel, who is impressed by what’s on show—the visible height and stature of Eliab—with the insight of God, who sees the truth of a human being.
God tells Samuel, “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (16:7 NKJV). This, as we saw in the previous episode, was Augustine’s explanation of the discrepancy between God’s treatment of Saul and David.
The human heart evades literal analysis. It is a wayward thing that humans can know only partially, by contemplation, and that only God can see in full. The heart symbolizes what is personal to the human agent, because it is the concealed force directing all human action.
Two more sons, Abinadab and Shammah, are lined up for viewing and passed over. After seven sons have been displayed, Samuel asks if there are any more in the offing. There is, Jesse says, “the youngest,” out “keeping the sheep,” too junior to be recalled from work and invited to the sacrifice.
This naïve pantomime parade, a childish story of the passing over of the outstanding eldest for the insignificant youth, is put on to show that God is making a break with the natural run of things and starting over, as only God can start over, from the spirit or inside out. The contrast between external spectacle and invisible interior worth is telling us that the authentic measure of sight is God’s way of seeing.
God can see someone that everyone else has forgotten or doesn’t know about: and when they brought the youngest in, “he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to” (16:12). Up the sleeve of the divine providence was a boy who even looks better than his elder brothers. Maybe Samuel was cheered up by this divine joke against himself.