Who was that “neighbor,” better than he, who was destined to succeed Saul, and at whom Samuel hinted in his rebuke? It does not appear that the prophet himself knew this at the time his words were uttered. But he knew that another dynasty was to be provided, and that its founder would doubtless be a man after God’s own heart, since it would be a man not forced (so to speak) upon him, not selected with regard to a temporary exigency, but chosen freely by Himself from among the thousands of Israel, as the man best suited, by the qualities of his mind and spirit, to be the father of a race of kings over his people.
It is a remarkable fact, that while Saul thus incurred Divine displeasure for the willfulness of his conduct, there is no reason to question that his popularity was great with the people, and his power continually increasing. He had many qualities which the multitude admired; and even the very qualities which drew down the anger of the Divine King upon him, were not such as an oriental people regard with much disfavor in their sovereign—or deem to be unbecoming the kingly character. It was while thus powerful and popular, his throne sustained by the consummate military talents of his cousin Abner, and the continuance of his race guaranteed by several noble sons, at whose head was Jonathan—whose fine qualities and pious temper opened large promise for the time to come, even to those who had sufficient discernment to regard the father’s principles of government with displeasure—it was at such a time, in his pride of place, that the hand of the prophet, in the sentence which he declared, wrote “Ichabod” upon all that he had and all that he hoped for. The king knew that this was no vain word. He seemed to take it lightly at first; but, nevertheless, the iron entered his very soul, rankling and cankering there. He brooded over his doom in his saturnine mind. He became irritable, suspicious, despairing—and occasionally fell into a gloom of mind bordering close upon madness.
Samuel, on his part, was deeply concerned at what had passed. Let those who ascribe all this to the ill-will of the prophet at Saul’s not proving that subservient tool to him which he had calculated on finding him—let them consider his manifest reluctance at every step which he was constrained to take. So now, even after sentence had gone forth, “he mourned for Saul,” and interceded urgently and perseveringly for him. So far from the act of deposition being his, it is clear that it was most grievous in his eyes, and if it had been left to himself nothing of the kind would have taken place. He liked the man; and although compelled to reprove the king, he would probably have been willing to have let him run his course, looking forward to the succession of Jonathan as a sufficient remedy for the errors of his father’s reign.
It is important to bear this in mind—and not only was the deposition of Saul’s dynasty not Samuel’s act, but the appointment of a successor was against his inclination, and the choice of the person was far from being that which he would have made. Eventually this adverse state of his feeling even subjected him to a gentle rebuke from the Lord he served; and he was ordered to go to Bethlehem and anoint, for the throne of Israel, one of the sons of Jesse (descended from Boaz and Ruth), who would there be indicated to him. Even then, Samuel shrank from this task, which added all that was wanting to confirm the doom of Saul. He sought to shun the duty by expressing apprehensions for his safety, should Saul hear of the transaction. This was overruled, and the prophet went to Bethlehem. Yet he took such steps as appeared requisite to avert suspicion. He took a heifer with him to offer a sacrifice, for which there must have been some apparent ground not precisely stated. Some Jewish writers supposed there had been a man slain in the neighborhood, and as it was not known by whom the act had been committed, Samuel, to whom such a case would naturally be referred, went to sacrifice a heifer according to the law, as laid down in Deuteronomy 21.
To the feast which followed the sacrifice, and to which the offerer invited whom he pleased, Samuel called Jesse and his sons. These sons were eight in number, but the youngest, David, was considered by his father too insignificant to be included, and he therefore remained in the field, tending his father’s sheep. When Jesse’s sons passed before Samuel, he was struck by the noble presence of Eliab, the eldest, and at once concluded that the Lord’s anointed was before him. For this he was rebuked as formerly described; and, surprised, at the absence of the expected indication from above, he asked Jesse whether he had any more children. Then it was that Jesse seemed first to remember that he had another son, and he answered, “There remaineth yet the youngest, and he keepeth the sheep.” David was then sent for, and no sooner did he appear than the word for which the prophet waited came: “Arise, anoint him, for this is he!” Samuel then did anoint him, but whether in the presence of his brethren or of Jesse only, does not appear. The latter is most probable, for the brethren of David do not subsequently evince any recognition of his high destination; and it is little likely that Samuel, who anointed Saul secretly, when there was no direct danger to apprehend, should have anointed David in the presence of several persons, when there was much to be apprehended from the wrath of Saul. Had the transaction been in any way public, it could scarcely, under the circumstances, have been kept from the knowledge of the king at a time when, had a word been breathed to that effect, it had been death both to David and to Samuel. There were those at Saul’s court who were well acquainted with David and his family, and he at length came to have at that court enemies not a few; yet no one seems to have been aware of the fact of this anointing. The conviction that David was the man appointed to succeed him, seems to have gradually dawned upon the mind of Saul from circumstances, and to have been confirmed beyond question when David eventually fled to Samuel. At that time the fact of the anointing may have become known to him, but then Samuel was on the borders of the grave, and David beyond his reach. It may be doubtful that David himself clearly understood the purport of the act. It does not appear that Samuel declared its object, and prophets were anointed as well as kings. We rather think, however, that a young man of so quick apprehension could not but have understood what was meant by this anointing; and we ascribe the apparent unconsciousness of the destinies awaiting him, which his earlier history exhibits, and his declared and often acknowledged loyalty to Saul, simply to that excellent disposition which enabled him to see that it ill became him to take any steps to hasten the purposes of God, but that it rather behooved him to pursue the even path of his duty, leaving Him whose choice had fallen upon him to accomplish, in His own good time, the purposes of His will.
Now, it is clear that if this important matter had been left to Samuel, he would have taken no step at all towards carrying out the sentence he had been compelled to pronounce; and being at length obliged to do so, it is equally clear that, had it been left to himself, the choice would have fallen upon Eliab, not on David; and had the choice been left to Jesse, any one of his seven other sons would have been preferred to the youngest. It is altogether most evident that the designation of David to the kingdom was the immediate act of Providence, without the least intervention of human wisdom or contrivance.