The “Barbaric” Bride-Price, and Saul’s Sinister Motives

In 1 Samuel 18:17, Saul offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to David. Now, remember that Saul had promised this for the man who killed Goliath, so he’s really just getting around to something he has already promised. He offers his oldest daughter, Merab, to David, asking in return for David to continue to fight his battles, because Saul thought to himself, “Let not my hand be against him, but let the hand of the Philistines be against him.”

Saul is still focusing on how he can get rid of David.

But David declines the hand of Merab, and she’s given to another man.

Verse 20 explains that Saul’s younger daughter, Michal, loved David. And when Saul found out, it pleased him—not because his daughter might then be happy… not because he could then reward David the way he had promised… but because he assumed she would then be a distraction to David, and perhaps at last the Philistines would prevail against David. Saul sends his servants to suggest this marriage to David, and David replies, in verse 23, that he has no way of paying the bride-price.

Now, I would say the concept of the bride-price is salt in the wound of our sensitive, politically correct, romance-is-everything society. Daughters being rewarded to warriors and arranged marriages are barbaric enough. But then the groom has to pay the father-of-the-bride money as compensation? This is basically purchasing yourself a wife like she’s a piece of property, right? Well, no, it’s not that simple—or that barbaric.

We have to understand that the family, for most of history, was an economic unit of society. Your household was your livelihood. And children were a blessing not just because they’re a delight to have around, but because they contributed to the household economy—and with numbers come stability and security. Well, when you had a daughter, she was loved by the family, and she participated in the household enterprise, but it was understood that she was at some point going to leave and become a part of someone else’s household; and she was then going to be contributing and benefiting their family, and their clan. So, as a gesture of gratitude and good faith, the groom would give a sum of money to the father of the bride as a recognition that as he gave his daughter to be married, his household was also losing a valuable contributor to their welfare. That’s the point of the bride price—that’s most of it. The other side of it was that it proved that the groom was, as they say, all in. It was a way of showing that he had skin in the game. He showed he was serious. He really was going to take care of his bride.

David is saying that he can’t give a gift of the amount that would be appropriate for the king’s daughter. That’s what he means when he says, “does it seem to you a small thing to become the king’s son-in-law?” He’s saying: it’s not. To marry Michal, propriety would demand a gift to Saul that David could never afford. So, Saul replies that he’s perfectly fine with receiving no money from David if David is able to deliver to him the foreskins of a hundred Philistines. Now, that seems bizarre, and it is… but collecting a body part of the men you’ve killed was a fairly common practice in order to count the dead, or sometimes as a temporary trophy; and collecting foreskins was the way to ensure that it was actually Philistines he killed, and not fellow Hebrews. Yes, it’s gross. The point, though, is that Saul is simply trying (still) to get David killed. This is stated explicitly in verse 25: “Now Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines.” So this whole time, Saul is just trying different things to get David killed. After he couldn’t do it himself, he’s now tried several ways to get David killed by the Philistines. But David always finds success and victory. In this case, David takes his men and kills twice the number of Philistines Saul required.

Now that’s a way to get a wife!

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And David His Ten Thousands

After David defeated Goliath, spoke with Saul, and made a covenant of loyalty with Jonathan, Saul made David commander of his armies, and he was successful wherever Saul sent him out. As David and the army were returning home from a campaign, the women of the cities were coming out and singing to one another as they celebrated, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” (1 Samuel 18:6–7)

It is a common feature of Hebrew poetry for one or more terms in the first half of a phrase to be increased or intensified in the second half. This rhetorical feature is called numeric progression. An example of numeric progression is, “six things the Lord hates, yea seven are an abomination to him.” This doesn’t mean that the Lord only hates 6 or 7 things, nor that the prophet forgot about the seventh item and then added it. It’s a poetic feature. It’s a form of parallelism. This particular variation of this progression in 1 Samuel 18—1,000 to 10,000—is used elsewhere in Scripture as well. In Deuteronomy 32:30, in the song of Moses, Moses uses two layers of numeric progression in the parallelism in verse 30. He says “How could one have chased a thousand, and two have put ten thousand to flight?” Notice the progression from one to two, and from one thousand to ten thousand? In Psalm 91, David has the same progression in verse 7: “a thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand.” David again, in Psalm 144, says, “may our sheep bring forth thousands and ten thousands in our fields.” And Micah similarly uses the plural in Micah 6:7, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”

So, when the women are singing praises about Saul and David. The fact that they go from “thousands” to “ten-thousands,” is not necessarily a direct jab at Saul. It’s a common and expected rhetorical progression. The women singing likely did not intend to anger the king by implying David’s superiority. But, nevertheless, they ascribed to Saul the thousands, and to David the ten thousands, and Saul is quite perturbed by that choice of wording. He takes offense at their placement of David in the intensified half of the parallelism, so he becomes suspicious of David and keeps his eye on him from that point forward. And (in a somewhat ironically prophetic manner) he says, “what more can he have but the kingdom?” (1 Samuel 18:8)

Now, that could be taken as a bit of an overreaction on Saul’s part. David hasn’t given Saul any reason to think that he wants to be king; and, as far as we know, Saul is still unaware that David actually was anointed to be king. But, in reality, Saul’s point is that if David has been given honor above the king himself, it is a great threat to the king. Remember, we have very little capacity to understand the significance of public honor and shame in that culture. And for Saul to recognize (rightly or not) that David is being honored above him—the king himself—then, for all intents and purposes, David has become the leader of Israel even though he has no crown. This is extremely significant; and the words of Samuel from chapter 15 may be ringing in Saul’s ears—that Yahweh would give Saul’s kingdom to another man, a neighbor who is better than Saul. Saul thus gives in to jealousy, anger, and fear, and, as we know from the following narrative, this leads to disastrous results.

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The Political Friendship of David and Jonathan

In 1st Samuel 18, after David killed Goliath and then spoke with Saul about receiving his reward, Jonathan, it says, “loved him as his own soul.”

Today, people can’t accept strong, deep friendships between men as just that. We think it’s weird, or somehow inappropriate, or we cheapen those strong masculine friendships with terms like “bromance” and jokes about getting a room. And it does certainly make it worse now that various perversions are so prevalent. But what’s going on here in 1st Samuel 18 is not in any way romantic. In fact, though there certainly seems to be a genuine brotherly affection between David and Jonathan that develops, I don’t think this is even primarily an emotional or affectionate love being spoken of.

In certain contexts, the term love has definite political overtones. To us, the word love almost always has a passionate meaning to it, but the Hebrew term primarily refers to choosing to be devoted to someone. In a political context, then, this devotion is what we might call loyalty, or allegiance. That’s what seems to be going on here. Jonathan (who is quite a bit older than David, remember) evidently does become a close friend of David’s, but what’s significant to note is Jonathan’s response of allegiance and loyalty to David in contrast to Saul’s jealousy and fear of David.

The content of the covenant between David and Jonathan is not explained, but a covenant is simply a solemn compact taken with oaths of loyalty; the covenant made here probably has something to do with Jonathan’s personal allegiance to David as the man who would one day lead Israel. It’s not clear how much Jonathan knows, but his transferring of his robe and armor to David implies a recognition of a transference of Jonathan’s own status as heir to David.

At the cost of his own inheritance and potential rise to the throne (at least in the eyes of his father and the typical expected custom), Jonathan swears fealty to David, because he recognizes that God’s will must be honored and pursued above all else.

In contrast to Saul’s reaction to David of jealousy and fear, Jonathan models the proper response to the Lord’s anointed: loyalty. Now, we see this in concrete historical terms in the life of Jonathan and David. But, without reading into the text, we can still extrapolate the principle out that leads to our response to Christ. The actual, primary meaning of the event is not directly to point to Christ. But the leap is not as far as we might at first think. David, as the anointed king who would become the ancestor of the ultimate anointed king (the Messiah who would redeem and reign over the whole earth), actually becomes a paradigm and a type (a foreshadowing) of that messianic king. So, as we see Jonathan’s response to the arrival of the anointed king, we do see a model of our own proper response to the anointed king Jesus: loyalty.

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That Goofy-Looking King David

In a recent post on King David, we saw that (unlike humans) God looks on the heart… because he can. The contrast of that familiar verse (1 Samuel 16:7) is not: man rarely looks at the heart, but he really should more often. The point is that man is only able to look as far as the outward appearance; but God is able to examine the thoughts and intentions and character of the inner man. You may want to read that article before going on.

So then, the prophet Samuel has been sent to anoint Saul’s replacement—to find the man that God had chosen to be king over Israel. Jesse has seven of his sons come before Samuel; and each time, the Lord tells Samuel no, that’s not him. Samuel thus says to Jesse, “the Lord has not chosen these; are these all the sons you have?” Jesse explains that there remains the youngest, but he’s keeping the sheep. So Samuel has him send for David, and verse twelve says that David “was ruddy, had beautiful eyes, and was of good appearance.”

Now, wait a second. Why does it say David was handsome? Why does it draw attention to his appearance? Folks generally react to that revelation for two basic reasons. First: we’ve been taught our entire lives that David was a scrawny, unfortunate looking preteen. And second: we’ve assumed and read right into the text a contrast between his good-looking brothers, and the homely-looking David—who gets a pass only because, although Samuel withdrew in disdain, the Lord was paying attention solely to David’s heart.

We’ve often heard that David was a “redheaded, snot-nosed little kid.” But that’s not the picture Scripture gives at all. He’s a young man. And it doesn’t say, “unlike his brothers, he wasn’t pretty to look at.” He’s much younger—and evidently not as physically imposing as Eliab—but he nevertheless is physically appealing.

“Ruddy,” by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean red-haired. It doesn’t say anything about his hair at all. It’s much more likely that it’s talking about his skin—his complexion. And some of the translations that render it as “healthy” are closer to the idea. It means a glowing, healthy youthfulness—not redheaded.

We tend to assume a contrast between his physical appearance and his heart, but that’s not really what seems to be going on. God has just said that man only looks “to the eyes,” but the Lord looks all the way to the heart; but then it draws attention to David’s “beautiful eyes” (meaning he had bright eyes, he was healthy and vibrant, he was handsome). The point is not that although he was scrawny and ugly, he had a good heart.

He has a really great personality though.”

The point is that David is the whole package. His youth is a problem—Jesse brings attention to it, and then Saul in the next chapter points it out as a problem for the battle—but his appearance wasn’t anything unfortunate.

And he wasn’t necessarily small and scrawny either. I don’t think that Saul, who was physically impressive, was being a blundering idiot when he offered his armor to David. And when David put Saul’s armor and sword on, the reason he gave for not using it is not that he was tripping and falling because of how oversized it was for him, but rather that David had not tested them—he hadn’t trained in them.

Samuel is introducing David to us as the paradigmatic, archetypal model of a righteous and godly king—with exemplary features, both physical and spiritual. Put aside your preconceived notions about David. We’re learning about the real man—the 11th-century shepherd who became the most powerful military leader in Israel… The king whose descendent will sit on the throne of Israel and rule all nations with a rod of iron, establishing perfect and everlasting justice and peace over all earth—far as the curse is found.

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Why God Looks On the Heart

As I mentioned in my post on the nature of reciprocal honor, I’ve been teaching through First Samuel recently. Today, I’d like to share a thought about a familiar verse—man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.

Chapter 15 of First Samuel concluded with Samuel pronouncing God’s judgment on Saul, and then mourning over Saul’s downfall. Chapter 16 then begins with God telling Samuel to get up and move on. God tells him to fill his horn with oil and go to Bethlehem, because the Lord has chosen one of the sons of a Bethlehemite, named Jesse, to be king.

When Samuel arrives in Bethlehem, he invites Jesse and his sons to a sacrifice; and when Jesse’s sons arrive, Samuel begins looking for the one who would be the next king. He sees Jesse’s son, Eliab, who is physically imposing, and Samuel thinks that surely this is the one. But then we get that familiar statement in verse seven. The Lord says to Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” A more literal, or formal, translation, would be something like this: “man sees as far as the eyes, but the Lord sees to the heart.” In other words, all we are able to see is the outside, but the Lord is able to see the inner thoughts and motives of the person’s character.

When God gave Saul as Israel’s king, he gave the people the kind of physically, outwardly impressive individual that they, like other nations, would find desirable—someone whose outward stature is striking, with no specific regard for the stature of his soul. The Lord, on the other hand, knows the thoughts of man, as Psalm 94 says, and he is after a man whose inward character is upright, who will thus lead the people righteously.

Humans always tend to look on the outward appearance when evaluating someone’s suitability for a task, but God is more concerned about what is in a man’s soul. However, the point of verse seven in fact isn’t simply that man looks only at the outside but ought to look at the heart. The point is that the outside is all that we can see, but God is able to see the heart.

We don’t have the ability to see a man’s thoughts and motives; we have to make judgments based on people’s words and actions. Even so, we should be able to discern their character to a certain degree by their actions. We should be able to watch the actions of Saul as he repeatedly sloughed off responsibility, and was reluctant to follow the instruction of the Lord, and be able to say that man’s character isn’t what it should be. But the point here is that that’s all we have to go on, whereas the Lord has the ability to see a man’s soul. And while he accommodated himself to the people’s wishes and standards when he selected Saul, he’s going to choose Saul’s replacement in accordance with his own standards. This will be a man after God’s heart, rather than a man after the people’s heart. 

That’s what’s going on with this selection process. The contrast is between men choosing someone whose appearance looks like someone they want as king, and God now choosing a man whose heart looks like someone God wants as king. It’s introducing David as the paradigmatic, archetypal model of a righteous and godly king. Unlike man, who only has the ability to see as far as the outward appearance, God can look to the deepest parts of our soul, and evaluate us accordingly.

Proverbs16:2; Ecclesiastes 12:14; Jeremiah 17:10

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Honored by God: The Role of Reciprocal Honor

I’ve been teaching through First Samuel recently, and two of the main themes running through the book are (1) that God is providentially providing righteous leadership to his covenant people, and (2) that, as God puts it in 1st Samuel 2:30, the Lord will honor those who honor Him. That second focus is what I’d like to talk about briefly in this post: the Lord will honor those who honor Him. That can be a rather jarring claim. So here are four important points that need to be understood about this principle—which comes up several times throughout Scripture.


First, this is different from the idea that “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not biblical. God helps those who recognize that they cannot help themselves, and so turn to God for strength and aid. “God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible. “God honors those who honor Him” is all over Scripture, and that’s an entirely different claim. But that leads to the second point to keep in mind.


Second, we need to define the term honor. In our day, if the term honor is used at all, it’s often in jest or in mocking. But it also generally means nothing more than personal integrity. Honor is a synonym for integrity or character, right? But that’s not what the word meant until very recently. When you hear the word honor in the Bible, you should be thinking “respect, praise, accolades, status.” It’s in the context of a community, and it has to do with one’s recognition and reputation within a community. Now, there’s too much to say about the concept of honor—far more than we have time for just in a short introduction.

There are overlapping contexts of honor, different kinds of honor, different standards for honor, and on and on. But for our purposes, I just want to explain two kinds of honor, because it’s important for God’s statement in chapter two of 1st Samuel—that he honors those who honor Him.

First, there is what anthropologists sometimes call “horizontal honor.” Horizontal honor is defined as “the right to have respect among a society of equals.” Think about a gang: there’s a code of honor; and as long as you abide by it, you have the respect of the other members. To fail to live up to the honor code results in shame—your reputation in the community is soiled.

But there’s also what is called “vertical honor.” Vertical honor isn’t primarily about mutual respect within a community. Vertical honor has to with praise, esteem, admiration, and accolades. And there are three varieties of this. First, a society of equals can give a member of the group vertical honor. In other words, someone is not only living up to the code of conduct, they excel at it, and so they receive special recognition from the group.

Another variety of vertical honor would be from a subordinate to a superior. This would be the kind of honor paid to patrons by their clients in a patronage relationship. When someone agreed to be someone’s patron, the client owed their patron their loyalty and praise—they were to retell the stories of their patron’s courage, grace, wisdom, etc. to spread and better their patron’s reputation.

The third kind of vertical honor is that given by a superior to a subordinate. This can be done by association—as in the client-patron relationship. The client is honored by his association with an honorable patron. That’s also the case with slaves. So, for example, to be a slave in the household of Caesar was far more reputable than to be the slave in a small lower-class household. That’s why the apostles claim with pride the title “slave of Christ.” To be a slave in the house of the King of kings and Lord of lords is the highest honor. So we have honor by association. But honor can also be bestowed on a subordinate by a superior. A superior can give recognition and praise to someone, and that then raises their status of honor, esteem, and reputation.

Now, the only reason I go through all of this is because understanding something of the culture and concept of honor as a “reputation worthy of respect and admiration,” and how that’s gained, is important to understanding how Scripture uses certain words in relation to both God and man. For example, we know that God blesses us in many ways by His grace. But we are also told to bless God. How can that be? Well, it means something different based on whether the superior is giving or receiving the blessing. When we bless God, that means to give him praise, to recount his mighty works, to worship him together. When God blesses us, it refers to him giving us gifts out of his grace and love. We see something similar with the word “glory,” which is closely related to honor. We give God glory by praising him, speaking of him or representing Him in a way that causes other’s to raise their opinions of him. But God is also said to give us glory. And Paul speaks of pursuing immortality and glory. The same is true with the word “honor.” When God says in 1st Samuel that he will honor those who honor him, it’s not mutual respect between peers that we’re talking about. It means that God will give recognition, esteem, accolades, and a good name to those who give God praise, loyalty, reverence, and obedience.


But that leads to the third point to remember, which is that, in the church age, we don’t have any warrant to expect God to bless us materially or to give us a status of honor in the world in this life as compensation for our devotion to Him. We do still have, in the New Testament, passages like John 12:26, where Jesus says, “if anyone serves me, the Father will honor him,” so the principle still stands, but the context of our honor and reward is the bema seat and the kingdom, not the here and now. Now, there are times when God will give honor to believers in this life, whether just amongst believers, or, at times, in the world. But, generally, the honor and blessings we look forward to, as the New Testament authors make clear, will not be received until the judgment seat of Christ, as we enter the kingdom—where God will dispense rewards and honor based on how we as believers live out the Christian life, and how we’ve stewarded the resources he’s given us for our walk.


And that leads to the final clarification to remember. We need to remember that the context of this reciprocal vertical honor is covenantal, not salvific. In other words, in salvation, God gives us honor and status by our association with Christ through no merit of our own, but only by His grace, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. But, within the context of the Christian life, how we live has great bearing on the rewards and honor we receive at Christ’s return. This is different than saying God saves those who live lives of faithful obedience. It’s a separate conversation from how you are justified—how you receive forgiveness for sins. Our works, our personal merits, how we live… none of that earns salvation. The only thing that determines whether you will enjoy the forgiveness of sin, and eternal life in the presence and fellowship of Jesus Christ, is faith in the sufficiency of His death on the cross in our place. The only relevant question for your salvation is what are you trusting for that salvation. The only way to receive eternal life is by placing your trust for salvation in Jesus Christ alone. But, now that we have been justified, now that we have received eternal life and been reconciled to God, given a new nature, and called to walk after Christ—we need to start walking! And we can do that well, or not so well. And as we seek to live out the Christian life, growing in our knowledge of, love for, and obedience to Christ, we look forward to the day when we stand before him and are given rewards, of which honor is one of the most important aspects; and we ought to live our lives now in light of the fact that we can receive rewards and honor, or lose that honor for failing to live as Christ has called us to live. And sometimes that’s not fun to think about because we all know that we fail every day. But Scripture teaches that we ought to live lives of faithfulness to God, trusting that one day he will bestow rewards and honor on us in measure. And again, this doesn’t speak to our security—to our salvation—the issue is one of reward and honor, not eternal destiny.

And as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3, some will be saved, and yet will suffer the loss of rewards and honor—they will be saved, but as through fire. They will suffer loss. So Paul encourages us to keep in mind the fact that we will receive rewards and honor as we seek to live lives of service to Christ worthy of our calling. Paul says in 2Corinthians 5:9–10, “whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or bad.”

So although it plays out differently in our time (the mechanics are different under the New Covenant than under the Old, and we have to wait longer), the principle is still the same that God will honor those who honor Him. In the larger canonical context of the Former Prophets (which is where Samuel falls in the Hebrew Bible), this account of the rise of Samuel, and later of David, challenges the readers to honor the Lord so that they too may experience a renewed relationship with their king, culminating in the restoration of the nation under the authority of an ideal king—and we know that that promised king is Jesus Christ.

I hope this was helpful, but to explore further the themes of honor, shame, patronage, and how they affect the biblical world, I would recommend reading Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, by David deSilva.

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