Following the Spirit

“Be filled with the Spirit”, says Paul.

Throughout generations ministers of the church have emphasized obedience to the Word of God. “Obey the Word! Obey the Word!” they’ve harped and harped, but rarely, if ever, have they mentioned living by the leading of the Spirit. Of course, we should obey the Word. It gives us the revelation of Christ, tells of God’s ways, and instructs us how to live. But it also says that we are to be led by the Spirit. And that’s not something casual, something that we can lay aside and pick back up whenever we want to. We have a living Savior who actively directs his people by his Spirit. It’s imperative that we not only stay within the parameters of the Word, but that we also act and move on the impulses of his Spirit. The Bible’s account of David’s anointing as Israel’s king shows us just how important being led by the Spirit can be.

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The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. Trembling, the elders of the city came to meet him, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to 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.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah. (1 Samuel 16:1-13)

There are several things to see in this story that mark the stark differences that can exist between following one’s own natural inclinations, reasonings, or even street smarts, and the Lord’s leadings by his Spirit.

First, Samuel is a prophet. He knows the Lord’s voice, is intimately aware of his Spirit. At the outset of this story he has an open dialogue with the Lord about what the Lord is asking him to do. How is he going to anoint a new king with the old king around? The Lord gives him a plan. “Go,” he says, “to Bethlehem, take a heifer, and invite Jesse to a sacrifice with you.” Samuel does so. He meets with Jesse and his sons, and sanctifies them for the upcoming sacrifice, and that provides him the cover needed to do the Lord’s bidding.

When Jesse and his sons appear for the sacrifice, Samuel already has the anointing for kingship on his mind. He eyes Eliab and thinks to himself, “Ah, this is the one.” There must have been something about Eliab, an Ironman physique, a charismatic personality, something that made him stand out from the rest of his brothers. But while Samuel is thinking this the Lord interrupts: “No. Don’t look at his height or stature.” In other words, Samuel, don’t look to the things that you normally look to in deciding whom I’ve chosen. The Lord explains. “I don’t see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance. I look on the heart.”

It’s this difference that impels the walk of the Spirit, following the Lord’s leading rather than our own natural reasoning. As natural men, we’re blind to hearts. A man or woman might look the part and act the part, but we can’t see what’s inside, and that blindness compromises our choices, our decisions. We could choose the wrong man, the wrong path, because of the scant information we see. The Lord sees much more. We may not know why the Spirit is leading us the way he is at times, but we can be sure that that leading is based on better information than anything we could muster.

But the leading is a leading, not a full-scale report. When Samuel looked on Eliab, God said that he had rejected Eliab, but he didn’t tell Samuel why and he didn’t tell him whom he had chosen. Samuel only knew that the kid standing in front of him was not the One. So, he called on Jesse for the next boy, and quickly found that he wasn’t the One either. He and Jesse went through the next six boys. He didn’t know who the next king was, except that he knew it wasn’t any of them.

When Samuel had run out of boys he looked up at Jesse and asked him if there were any more. There was one more, the youngest. Jesse hadn’t even thought to bring him up from the sheep pastures. “Go get him,” Samuel told him. But even as he said that, he didn’t know if this young shepherd was the One.

And this brings up another point about following the leading. Samuel wasn’t going to anoint anyone until he knew that it was right, and it didn’t matter what Jesse thought either. He had Jesse helping him out, and he was obviously a good, devout man who had his own ideas about who the next king might be. After Samuel passed over Eliab, Jesse called for Abinadah. The Word doesn’t tell us this explicitly, but we could assume that Jesse looked his sons over and picked the one whom he thought should be king. And he was wrong. While he had a personal stake in the outcome—his family was involved—his opinion wasn’t a substitute for the Lord’s. 

The Lord’s leading is idiosyncratic, individualized for the person who is supposed to follow it.

David finally made it to the ceremony, and Samuel knew right away he was the one whom the Lord had chosen. “Rise and anoint him for he is the One,” he heard the Lord say.

We can weigh the importance of following the leading of the Spirit with this thought. What would have come of Israel, and God’s plan of redemption for that matter, if Samuel had tossed off the leading and anointed Eliab, Abinadah, or one of Jesse’s other sons as the next king of Israel?


WordPeter Smythe