And the Least Shall Be the Greatest: Royal Résumés and Social Equality

This will be the first post of a short series exploring the theme of God’s […]

Will McDavid / 5.24.12

This will be the first post of a short series exploring the theme of God’s particular preference for what seems small, crude, or inadequate by worldly criteria. Today, we look briefly at the account of David’s selection as king from 1 Samuel 9-16:

After the Israelites first abandoned the notion of God as king of the nation in favor of a more objectified source of political power, God graciously provided one for them – He gave them what they wanted. Tuned to its most Christian pitch, the idea of a king can be radically egalitarian. A king poses as a figure for the entire nation, simply because the king does not earn his position but is chosen almost arbitrarily. King George VI of the recent movie “The King’s Speech,” for example, did nothing to earn or even desire his position – it was conferred on him by sheer grace, even gratuity. Because of the arbitrariness of his position, the king theoretically could just as easily have been anyone else, provided they had the good fortune to be born in the royal family. Although it seems unjust from a meritocratic, opportunity-focused American culture, the fact that the king does not earn his position is what allows him to be an everyman, a stand-in for a nation.

Who, therefore, should be the one to unify and constitute a nation? With Plato’s Republic and a long tradition of political thought, a good guess would be someone intelligent, virtuous, humble, personable, successful, and perhaps physically fit. If we didn’t buy into this idea, American candidates for office could save millions on trying to portray themselves as the most successful, the most ethical, or the best educated.


All of these are laudable traits in a political leader, but God’s notion of kingship cut against the grain of any expectations. Who can constitute a nation? God sends Samuel out to the countryside, where he runs into a boy searching after donkeys who tries to pay the prophet for help finding them. This insignificant boy, “from the least of the tribes of Israel ,” whose “family is the humblest of all the families” in that tribe, feels hopelessly overwhelmed by this arbitrary – and frankly irrational – choice of the next king (1 Sam 9.21). Why the tribe of Benjamin, the youngest (and therefore the least by rules of primogeniture) of all the tribes? Because it removes absolutely any chance of meritocracy. If God’s choice extends to greatest tribe, or to the religious leaders, or to wealthiest and most accomplished people in society, what’s left for the rest of us? In Saul’s choice, God demonstrates profoundly that social prestige, outward religious devotion, and career success cast not the slightest pale over God’s valuation of us.

David’s example is even more vivid.  Samuel finds Jesse’s eldest (and therefore greatest) son and heir to be physically attractive, tall, imposing – in a word, kingly. And yet “the Lord does not see as mortals see,” and the chosen one ends up being the youngest, the kid who wasn’t even invited to see the great prophet with all his brothers! Had one of the first seven sons deemed worthy to see the great prophet been chosen, they would not have symbolically represented the man below them, the man left out in the fields, the man with the sheep. In choosing the lowest and least, however, God chooses everyone. Since anyone else could have been a more logical choice than David (or so his dad thought), David represents the complete gratuity of God’s favor and functions as a living symbol that His favor is utterly unearnable.

In choosing the least, God chooses the whole – for the great Hebrew writers, nothing less would do. Later, we’ll look briefly at this ‘theme of the least’ for Jesus Christ –perhaps been best summed-up in Simeon Zahl’s “Nazareth principle,” the idea that God brings good out of the most random and unlooked-for places.