God will welcome many to his glory in eternity. Yet this good news touches a sensitive issue: it’s clear from the Bible that God draws some—but not all—to join him.
So how does he make his choices?
Does he measure the quality of human conduct, as in a naughty versus nice equation? Or before creation did he foresee those who, by grace, would behave well enough to please him? Or are his choices strictly arbitrary—disconnected from anything in us?
Debates about this were lively in seminary both when I was a student and when I taught. And the various assumptions and answers in the debates usually seemed Bible-thin. Yet in my Bible reading the question never seems to have troubled the writers—or the Spirit who guided them.
In my reading this morning, for instance, I came to the contrasts between Saul and David in 1 Samuel. On the one hand Saul was chosen by God and then rejected; and then David was also chosen but he stayed chosen and was eventually elevated to the highest standing imaginable.
What’s going on here?
Let’s look at Saul first. As context the text alerts readers to a value conflict: God preferred to lead his people by using spiritual guides—“judges”—but Israel wanted kings instead. A king in that era was always a dominant military-political leader: someone who could form and lead successful armies. In the imagery of a pyramid-based society the king was the peak figure: bigger, stronger, wealthier, and wiser than all the other warriors around him.
So God gave the people what they wanted. Saul was born to “a man of wealth” (1 Sam. 9:1). What’s more, “There was not a man among the people more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.”
Yet as the story of Saul unfolds we find a man who initially vacillates between weakness and strength. He then hardens and turns into a rigid leader. But his firmness is self-centered rather than God-centered—despite his still doing many God-related activities.
The discriminating feature was Saul’s pragmatic disregard for God’s word—he would pick and chose what he wanted to obey. And another value shaped his choices: “behold, [Saul] set up a monument to himself” (1 Sam. 15:12).
So the prophet-judge Samuel confronted him on the core issue: “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God” (13:13). And, in a separate violation of trust, “you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel” (15:26).
It seems that in Saul God selected what the people wanted: a self-concerned king for a self-concerned people. For both the nation and their king God was just a useful resource. Saul was devoted, ultimately, not to God but to monument building and to his personal security.
So what about David?
The narrative offers a preview in the setting just noted—in 13:14—“The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart.” Yet this man, David, isn’t identified until chapter 16. And there God’s choice startled both Samuel and David’s own family!
This selection was what we might call ‘un-pyramid-like’—or, better, a divine reversal of human expectations. Instead of finding a man with a commanding presence, God chose a castaway son—the youngest boy of eight who was relegated to shepherding chores.
Once again the defining issue in the moment of selection was David’s heart. He told Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature [speaking of David’s impressive-looking older brother, Eliab], because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (16:7).
In the next chapter we discover what a God-centered-heart looks like when David confronted the giant Goliath. This despite the scorn of his outwardly impressive brother, Eliab, who chastised David for leaving “those few sheep in the wilderness.” But David wasn’t daunted by the question of birth-order or appearances. His heart had a different focus.
David was, in fact, upset by the giant’s arrogance. Goliath was a man—who just happened to be gigantic—ready to “defy the armies of the living God” and who needed to “know that there is a God in Israel!” (17:26&46). David’s focus was on God and not on human issues: “I come to you [Goliath] in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”
There’s a pattern here. Let’s trace the language of rejection. Saul was all about outward appearances and status; and in the process he rejected parts of God’s word. So God rejected him.
So, too, Eliab—who had seen his younger brother chosen and anointed by Samuel because of his heart for God—was angry with David for challenging Goliath who was, by the way, challenging God and his armies! Why, we ask, didn’t Eliab challenge Goliath instead of David?
In this account, then, God has an eye for hearts. So let’s extend the point: he created all of us, but who among us responds to him? In the Bible we find that no one is ever forced to love him. Yet he loved the world and sent his Son to express that love. But humanity, without exception, despises his love in favor of loving “darkness rather than light” (in John 3). Adam’s enduring ambition to be godlike always distracts us.
Yet in some hearts—mainly among the humbled, least godlike, sorts—he persists and draws a response. He woos humbled hearts with his humble words. And his word always offers the Son as its ultimate focus—as in Psalm 2. And as in the gospel portrayal of a crucified king.
So do we have an answer here to how God decides? Could it be that many are called but few are chosen? That he choses those whom he knows will eventually respond to his winsome love? And that even before the creation he knows whose hearts will be most tender in a fallen, proud world? Perhaps the poor, the weak, the lame, and the unlikely shepherd boys?
I think we may have the biblical answer.