King Saul had made a mess of things by not following all that God had commanded him, so God sent his prophet, Samuel, on a secret mission to pick out the next king from the sons of Jesse in Bethlehem. Although Saul would reign for many more years, God wanted his next king to be getting ready.
Samuel asked Jesse to bring in his sons, and Jesse gladly obliged, first presenting Eliab, who made a definite impression on Samuel. He “looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord’” (I Sam. 16:6).
But God told Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Jesse brought in another of his impressive sons. And another. And then four more. But Samuel still hadn’t found what he was looking for, so he asked if there was another son somewhere. Jesse had to admit there was. The baby of the family was out watching the sheep, and his father had never even contemplated bringing him in.
We all know the rest of the story. David is called, and God says, “This one!” Samuel anoints him, “and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (I Sam. 16:13).
It’s easy when reading this story to fault Samuel for making assumptions based on appearances. But what about Jesse? After all, Samuel had never met Jesse’s sons and knew nothing of them outside of how they looked. But who could have known these men better than their father? Who could have been a better judge of their faith, courage, and leadership skills? Only God.
It’s easy to think that we can know a person’s heart, see their potential, understand their motives. Sometimes we make snap judgments based on bumper stickers or political affiliations, tattoos or accents, jobs or cars. But even when we know a person well, we simply can’t see what God sees. And we rarely catch a glimpse of what can happen when the Spirit of the Lord moves mightily in a person’s life.
So, the next time you’re ready to slap a label on someone or assign a motive to an action or inaction, remember that Jesse was certain it was safe to leave David—the man who would become Israel’s greatest king—out in the field with the sheep. No matter how well we think we know someone and understand their thoughts and motivations, God knows far more. May we be forever humble in our judgments and acknowledge that only God can truly know hearts and judge potential.