What does it mean that God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7)?

After Saul had been rejected by God to continue as king of Israel (1 Samuel 15), God sent the prophet Samuel to anoint a new king. God revealed that the new king would be a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite (1 Samuel 16:1). Though Samuel feared going at first, he obeyed God's command and went to Bethlehem. God instructed Samuel to say that he was there to sacrifice to the Lord and to invite Jesse to the sacrifice. Samuel consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them.

When Samuel saw the oldest, Eliab, he thought "Surely the LORD's anointed is before him" (1 Samuel 16:6). In response, God instructed Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or the height of his stature, 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" (1 Samuel 16:7). Jesse called his other sons to pass before Samuel, but none of the seven sons who had passed by were chosen by God. So Samuel asked if all the sons were there, to which Jesse replied that the youngest was out in the fields tending the sheep. "And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, 'Arise, anoint him, for this is he.' Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah" (1 Samuel 16:12–13).

The previous king, Saul, had been tall, standing above his peers (1 Samuel 10:23–24). It seems Samuel believed the next king would be a similarly imposing figure, like Eliab. However, in saying that He looks at the heart, God was explaining to Samuel that He knows what is in every persons' heart. God is more concerned with a person's heart—his character—than with his physical appearance. The next king would have a kingly heart rather than a kingly appearance (1 Samuel 13:14).

Solomon declared of God, "You, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind" (1 Kings 8:39). The psalmist in Psalm 44:21 asserts that God "knows the secrets of the heart." The Lord is the Supreme Creator who designed the human heart, mind, and soul. He is omniscient and the Bible is clear that God can see and know what is in every person's heart. Jesus, while He walked this earth, was able to discern the inner workings of the hearts around Him. Luke 9:47 explains, "But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side." This knowledge of the human heart is noteworthy because Jeremiah 17:9 explains, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" Humans cannot know the thoughts and inner feelings inside someone else's heart, and we are often self-deceived about our own motivations and deepest desires. But God sees straight into the hearts of men.

In the passage in 1 Samuel 16, God contrasted the outward appearance against the inner workings of the heart, declaring that the heart was more important than outward looks. This sentiment is echoed in Isaiah 29:13 when God points out about the Israelites, "This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me." Despite the Israelites' outward actions and spoken words, God knew their hearts were not in line with their appearances. Jesus also said the same of the Pharisees: "So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:28). With these two examples, God makes it clear that He is more concerned with the inner hearts of people rather than with their outwardly conforming to religious standards—God looks at the heart and is not fooled by our facades. Jesus said that the most important commandment was, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37). God desires our deep love, loyal devotion, and full attention more than our outward obedience.

If our hearts are "desperately sick" and as "deceitful" as Jeremiah proclaimed, how can we love God with all our hearts as He commands? The psalmist in Psalm 119:32 says, "I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart" and asks in verse 36, "Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!" When David was confronted with his own sin and deceitful heart, he pled with God, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10). Turning to God and asking Him to work within our hearts is the only hope of having a heart in right standing with God. We can join with David in praying, "Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts" (Psalm 139:23).

God promised in Ezekiel 36:26, "I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." God is capable of doing a work in our heart that results in a new, clean, enlarged heart of soft flesh that inclines toward and responds to the leading of His Holy Spirit. Knowing that God "looks on the heart" and that our hearts in their current fallen state are "desperately sick," we can surrender to God and ask Him for a heart that rightly loves Him. David exclaimed in Psalm 51:17, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." Rather than outward obedience, grand gestures, or even the desire to self-direct our hearts by our own will power, God is looking for hearts that are broken over our own sin and completely dependent upon Him to do a good work within us (Philippians 1:6).

It was this type of heart that David had and why he was chosen as Israel's next King. Acts 13:22 explains, "And when he had removed [Saul], he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, 'I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.'" It was David's heart of dependence upon the LORD that qualified him as Israel's next king and not his outward appearance. As God explained to Samuel "man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). May we, too, have a heart like David's.

Related Truth:

What is the heart, according to the Bible?

What is the significance of the command to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength?

When the Bible talks about receiving a new heart, what does that mean?

In Christ, how does God see me?

The attributes of God, what are they?

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