1 Samuel 16 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

1 Samuel 16
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

(1 Samuel 16:1-23) David.—His early History.—His First Connection with Samuel.—His Meeting with King Saul.

And the LORD said unto Samuel, How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? fill thine horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons.
(1) How long wilt thou mourn for Saul?—The constant references to the influence Saul acquired, and the love and admiration he attracted, is a striking feature in this most ancient Book of Samuel, where the fall and ruin of the first Hebrew king is so pathetically related.

Though it tells us how Saul was tried, and found utterly wanting, still the record, which dwells on the evil qualities which ruined the great life, never loses an opportunity of telling how men like Samuel and David mourned for Saul, and how heroes like Jonathan loved the king who might have been so great. The ordinary reader of the story, but. for these touches of feeling, would be tempted to condemn with far too sweeping a condemnation the unhappy Saul, whose sun, as far as the world was concerned, set amidst clouds and thick darkness. Is it too much to think that for Saul the punishment ended here? that the bitter suffering caused by the solemn anger of his prophet friend, the gloomy last years of unhappiness and distrust, and the shame and defeat of the last campaign, purged away from the noble soul the scars left by the self-will and disobedience? The Divine Voice, so well-known to the seer, at length roused him from his mourning inactivity. Though that instrument, prepared with so much care, was broken, the work of God for which this instrument was created must be done. If Saul had failed, another must be looked for. and trained to fill the place of the deposed disobedient king.

Fill thine horn with oil.—Heb., the oil; probably, as Stanley suggests, the consecrated oil preserved in the Tabernacle at Nob. (On the use to be made of this “sacred oil,” see Note on 1 Samuel 16:3.)

Jesse the Beth-lehemite.—From this day forward the village of Bethlehem obtained a strange notoriety in the annals of the world. David loved the village, where his father, most probably, was the sheik, or head man. “The future king never forgot the flavour,” as Stanley graphically reminds us, “of the water of the well of Bethlehem” (1 Chronicles 11:17). It was Bethlehem, the cradle of the great ancestor, that was selected in the counsels of the Most High as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

This Jesse was evidently a man of some wealth, Mohammedan tradition speaks of him as one who, in addition to his farming pursuits, was famous for his skill in making hair-cloths and sack-cloths.

And Samuel said, How can I go? if Saul hear it, he will kill me. And the LORD said, Take an heifer with thee, and say, I am come to sacrifice to the LORD.
(2) He will kill me.—The unhappy mental malady of Saul must have made rapid progress. The jealous king was indeed changed from the Saul who even, in his self-willed rebellion against the Lord, was careful to pay honour to Samuel. But now the aged prophet felt that if he crossed the king’s path in any way, even in carrying out the commands of the invisible King of Israel, his life would be forfeited to the fierce anger of Saul.

Take an heifer with thee.—And the Divine voice instructed Samuel how he should proceed. There was to be as yet no public anointing of the successor to Saul, only the future king must be sought out, and quietly, but solemnly, set apart for service before the Lord, and then watched over and carefully trained for his high office.

And call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will shew thee what thou shalt do: and thou shalt anoint unto me him whom I name unto thee.
(3) And thou shalt anoint.—From very early times the ceremony of anointing to important offices was customary among the Hebrews. In the first instance, all the priests were anointed (Exodus 40:15; Numbers 3:3), but afterwards anointing seems to have been reserved especially for the high priest (Exodus 29:29). Prophets also seem occasionally to have been anointed to their holy office. Anointing, however, was the principal ceremony in the inauguration of the Hebrew kings. It belonged in so especial a manner to the royal functions that the favourite designation for the king in Israel was “the Lord’s anointed.” In the case of David, the ceremony of anointing was performed three times—(1) on this occasion by Samuel, when the boy was set apart for the service of the Lord; (2) when appointed king over Judah at Hebron (2 Samuel 2:4); (3) when chosen as monarch over all Israel (2 Samuel 5:3). All these official personages, the priest, the prophet, and peculiarly the king, were types of the great expected Deliverer, ever known as the “Messiah,” “the Christ,” “the Anointed One.”

Wordsworth curiously considers these three successive unctions of David figurative of the successive unctions of Christ: conceived by the Holy Ghost in the Virgin’s womb; then anointed publicly at his baptism; and finally, set at God’s right hand as King of the Universal Church in the heavenly Jerusalem.

And Samuel did that which the LORD spake, and came to Bethlehem. And the elders of the town trembled at his coming, and said, Comest thou peaceably?
(4) Trembled at his coming.—The appearance of the aged seer, with the heifer and the long horn of holy oil, at first terrified the villagers of the quiet, secluded Bethlehem. The name and appearance of the old seer was well known in all the coasts of Israel. Why had he come thus suddenly among them? Had their still remote township then been the scene of some unknown and grave crime? What was happening in Israel, which brought Samuel the seer to little Bethlehem?

And he said, Peaceably: I am come to sacrifice unto the LORD: sanctify yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice. And he sanctified Jesse and his sons, and called them to the sacrifice.
(5) Peaceably: I am come to sacrifice.—The answer at once re-assured the villagers. He had simply come to perform the usual rite of sacrifice among them. The reasons of his coming were unknown, but his mission was one alone of blessing. There was nothing unusual in his sanctifying Jesse and his sons. This was evidently the principal family in the place, and the village sheik and his sons would be the fittest persons to assist in preparing for, and then carrying out, the sacrificial rites.

And it came to pass, when they were come, that he looked on Eliab, and said, Surely the LORD'S anointed is before him.
(6) He looked on Eliab.—There was something in the tall and stately presence of the eldest born of Jesse which reminded the old man of the splendid youth of Saul. Eliab seemed to Samuel in all respects a fit successor to the great warrior whom the Lord rejected. But the Divine voice gave no reply back to the prophet’s mute questioning; and the other sons of Jesse, an imposing band of gallant youths, passed in review before the old seer, and were severally introduced to him; but the Divine voice only warned the seer that these external advantages of mere human beauty and strength, were no mark of true greatness.

But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.
Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, Neither hath the LORD chosen this.
Then Jesse made Shammah to pass by. And he said, Neither hath the LORD chosen this.
Again, Jesse made seven of his sons to pass before Samuel. And Samuel said unto Jesse, The LORD hath not chosen these.
(10) Seven of his sons.—These seven, with David, the youngest, make eight. In 1 Chronicles 2:13-15 only seven of the family are recorded: one apparently of that bright band of youths died young.

And Samuel said unto Jesse, Are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep. And Samuel said unto Jesse, Send and fetch him: for we will not sit down till he come hither.
(11) Are here all thy children?—For a moment the prophet is uncertain. The command from the Eternal Friend to come and anoint “the son of Jesse of Bethlehem” had been definite, but the sons of Jesse had passed before him, and no sign had been vouch-safed to him indicating that God had chosen one of these youths of whom the father was so fond; so the seer asks, “Are these all thy children?”

There remaineth yet the youngest.—Why David was kept in the background is uncertain. He, clearly, was different to the stalwart band of elder brothers who were grouped round their father. Although fair to look on, his beauty was of a very different type to that of his brothers, probably, compared with Saul and his own brothers, little of stature, with reddish-brown hair and a fair complexion. His father and the men in the village thought less of him than of his dark, tall brothers: at all events, Jesse thought him of too little account to present to Samuel. But, as so often, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and in a moment Samuel saw that in the ruddy shepherd boy—small of stature, and held of little account in his father’s house—he beheld the future king of Israel.

And he sent, and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to. And the LORD said, Arise, anoint him: for this is he.
Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward. So Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah.
(13) Anointed him in the midst of his brethren.—The history here simply relates the bare fact that the young shepherd was anointed in the presence of his brethren. No words of Samuel on this occasion are recorded; we are left, therefore, uncertain whether any reason was given for the choice of David, or any explanation of this peculiar anointing. It would seem most probable that Samuel kept silence for the present respecting the high destinies of the boy standing before him, and that he merely anointed him as one chosen to be his assistant in the sacrifice he was about to offer, stating probably that the Spirit of the Lord had directed him thus to associate the young son of Jesse with himself, and to adopt him in some way as a pupil in his prophetic school. From this time forward much of David’s time was doubtless spent in Samuel’s company. From him he received his training in poetry and music, for which he subsequently became distinguished; from the wise seer, too, the future king derived those early lessons of wisdom and learning which enabled him later to fill so nobly the great position for which he was thus early marked out. David was, before everything, Samuel’s pupil, and the last years of that long and memorable career of the prophet were spent in moulding the life of Israel’s greatest king.

And the Spirit of the Lord came upon David . . . (14) But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul.—This “Spirit of the Lord” which on the day of his anointing by Samuel came upon the shepherd boy, was the “Holy Ghost, or good Spirit of God,” and is clearly and formally opposed to those evil spirits which (to use the words of Bishop Pearson) “must be acknowledged persons of a spiritual and intellectual subsistence, as the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him. Now, what those evil spirits from the Lord were is apparent from the sad example of Ahab, concerning whom we read, There came out a spirit and stood before the Lord, and said, I will entice him; and the Lord said unto him, Wherewith? and he said, I will go out, and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And the Lord said, Thou shalt entice him, and thou shalt also prevail; go out, and do even so. From whence it is evident that the evil spirits from God were certain persons—even bad angels—to which the one good Spirit as a person is opposed, departing from him to whom the other cometh” (Bishop Pearson, Creed, Art. 8).

The effect of this descent of the Spirit of the Lord upon David was that the shepherd boy grew up into a hero, a statesman, a scholar, and a wise, far-sighted king. The effect of the departure of the Spirit from Saul was that from that hour the once generous king became a prey to a groomy melancholy, and a victim to a torturing jealousy of others, which increased as time went on, and which goaded him now and again to madness, ruining his life, and marring utterly the fair promise of his early years.

But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him.
And Saul's servants said unto him, Behold now, an evil spirit from God troubleth thee.
(15) An evil spirit from God.—The form in which the evil spirit manifested itself in Saul was apparently an incurable melancholy, which at times blazed forth in fits of uncontrollable jealous anger. When Saul’s attendants, his officers, and those about his person, perceived the mental malady under which their king was evidently suffering, they counselled that he should try whether the evil influence which troubled him could not be charmed away by music.

There is no doubt but that King Saul’s nervous, excitable temperament was peculiarly subject to such influences. We have some striking instances of this power exercised by sacred music over the king in the incidents related in 1 Samuel 10:10; 1 Samuel 19:23-24, where the songs and chaunts of the pupils of the prophetic schools had so powerful an influence over Saul. The solemn declaration of God through his prophet Samuel, that the kingdom was taken away from him and his house, weighed upon his naturally nervous and excitable mind. He became gloomy, and suspicious of his dearest friends, and, as we know, at times sought to take their lives; at times would command terrible massacres, such as that of the priests at Nob (1 Samuel 22:17-19). As the sad life advanced, we see the nobler traits in his character growing fainter, and the evil becoming more and more obvious. It was a species of insanity, fatal alike to the poor victim of the malady and to the prosperity of the kingdom over which he ruled. History gives us not a few similar instances of monarchs given up to the “evil spirit from God,” and who, in consequence, became a prey to insanity in one form or other.

Let our lord now command thy servants, which are before thee, to seek out a man, who is a cunning player on an harp: and it shall come to pass, when the evil spirit from God is upon thee, that he shall play with his hand, and thou shalt be well.
(16) And it shall come to pass . . . thou shalt be well.—It has been a well-known fact in all ages that music exerts a powerful influence on the mind. We have several instances in ancient Greek literature, where this influence is recommended to soothe the passions or to heal mental disease. Pythagoras, whenever he would steep his mind in Divine power, was in the habit before he slept of having a harp played to him; Æsculapius, the physician, would often restore such sick souls with music. (See reference from Censorinus, De die natali, quoted by Keil.)

“Priests would call

On Heaven for aid: but then his brow would lower

With treble gloom. Peace! Heaven is good to all.

To all, he sighed, but one—God hears no prayers for Saul

At length one spake of music.”—HANKINSON.

And Saul said unto his servants, Provide me now a man that can play well, and bring him to me.
Then answered one of the servants, and said, Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, that is cunning in playing, and a mighty valiant man, and a man of war, and prudent in matters, and a comely person, and the LORD is with him.
(18) Then answered one of the servants.—The Dean of Canterbury calls attention to the fact that the word in the original here rendered “servants” is not the same as was translated by “servants” in 1 Samuel 16:15-17. In each of these passages the Hebrew word rendered “servant,” no doubt signifies officers connected with the royal court. Here the different word hann’-ārim lays stress on the royal attendant in question being a young man. Probably, the one spoken of in this place was a contemporary of David, very likely a youth trained with David in Samuel’s prophetic school at Naioth in Ramah, and consequently able to speak thus in detail about the young shepherd pupil of the great seer.

Cunning in playing.—As a boy, it is certain that David possessed rare gifts of poetry, and, no doubt, of music. It is probable that some of his early Psalms were originally composed while watching his father’s sheep among those hills and vales round the village of Bethlehem, where “in later centuries shepherds were still watching over their flocks by night, when the angel host appeared to them to tell them of the birth of a child in Bethlehem.”

These gifts of poetry and music were further cultivated and developed in the prophets’ school of Samuel, and there the young pupil of the seer no doubt quickly acquired among his companions that reputation and skill which induced the “young man” of the court of Saul to tell his afflicted master of the shepherd son of Jesse, famous for his “cunning in playing.”

And a mighty valiant man, and a man of war.—The description of the Bethlehemite David at a mighty valiant man can well be explained from what is related in 1 Samuel 17:34-35, about the young shepherd’s prowess in the conflicts with the lions and the bears. A question has, however, been raised respecting the expression “a man of war,” as it would seem from the narrative of 1 Samuel 17 that the combat with the giant Philistine was David’s first great military exploit. It has, however, been suggested that, in addition to the combat with those wild beasts, which we know in those days frequented the thickets of the Jordan, and were a terror to the Israelitish shepherds, David had most likely been engaged in repelling one or more of the Philistine marauding expeditions so common in those wild days. Bethlehem, we know, was a strong place or garrison of these hereditary foes of Israel. (See 2 Samuel 23:14; 1 Chronicles 11:16.)

Wherefore Saul sent messengers unto Jesse, and said, Send me David thy son, which is with the sheep.
And Jesse took an ass laden with bread, and a bottle of wine, and a kid, and sent them by David his son unto Saul.
(20) And Jesse took an ass.—It was and is ever customary in the East to acknowledge obedience and subjection with a present. Jesse, the sheik of Bethlehem, would thus be expected on sending his son to the court of Saul to acknowledge his sovereign by some token of homage.

The nature of Jesse’s gifts shows how simple and primitive were the customs of the Hebrew people at that time.

And David came to Saul, and stood before him: and he loved him greatly; and he became his armourbearer.
(21) And he became his armour-bearer.—But probably only for a very short time. David returned, we should conclude, to Samuel, whose pupil and friend we know he was. The seer was watching over the young man with a view to his lofty destiny. Saul apparently, from his question in 1 Samuel 17:55, “Whose son is this youth?” had forgotten all about him. There is no “note of time,” so we are not able to determine how long a period had elapsed between the events narrated in this chapter and the combat with the Philistines told in 1 Samuel 17. It is, however, likely that the king’s malady, which was making rapid progress in this period of his reign, had already obscured his once powerful mind; his memory for the past was likely enough to have been treacherous.

And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, Let David, I pray thee, stand before me; for he hath found favour in my sight.
And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.
(23) David took an harp, and played with his hand.—“The music,” beautifully writes F. D. Maurice, “was more than a mere palliative. It brought back for the time the sense of a true order, a secret, inward harmony, an assurance that it is near every man, and that he may enter into it. A wonderful message, no doubt, to a king or a common man, better than a great multitude of words, a continual prophecy that there is a deliverer who can take the vulture from the heart, and unbind the sufferer from the rock. . . . As the boy minstrel played, the afflicted monarch was refreshed, and the dark clouds rolled away.”

“He is Saul, ye remember in glory—ere error had bent

The broad brow from the daily communion, and still, though

much spent

Be the life and the bearing that front you, the same God did


To receive what a man may waste, desecrate, never quite

lose.”—BROWNING: Saul.

And the evil spirit departed from him.—Many instances besides those recorded above (see note to 1 Samuel 16:16) might be quoted of the beneficial effects of music and singing upon a disturbed spirit, or on a mind diseased. The holy Elisha, we are told, when “disturbed in spirit,” would call for a minstrel, and after listening to the sweet, soothing strains, would write and speak his prophetic utterances.

In modern times a well-known instance of this strange power over a troubled spirit is that of Philip V. of Spain, who, we are told, was restored from the deepest melancholy and depression by the sweet voice and words of Farinelli. Luther speaks of this power of music over the sick and weary soul as “one of the fairest and most glorious gifts of God, to which Satan is a bitter enemy, for it removes from the heart the weight of sorrow and the fascination of evil thoughts.” Basil’s words on this subject are worth quoting:—“Psalmody is the calm of the soul, the repose of the spirit, the arbiter of peace. It silences the wave, and conciliates the whirlwind of our passions. It is an engenderer of friendship, a healer of dissension, a reconciler of enemies. It repels demons, lures the ministry of angels, shields us from nightly terrors, and refreshes us in daily toil.”

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