Looks Can Be Deceiving
We’re all aware that “what you see is not always what you get.” In spite of the fact that we know we shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover,” we still do. Although this is a very human problem, modern advertising, along with the entertainment industry, has trained us to trust what we see. Appearance is often everything! Sometimes falling prey to the “looks can be deceiving,” trap is relatively harmless. There are times when appearances suggest that we shouldn’t expect too much. So we are pleasantly surprised when we actually get more than we bargained for. Of course, the opposite can be just as true, and we find ourselves disappointed that things are not what they were “cracked up to be.” While getting caught up in the trap of “looks can be deceiving” is not always a life or death situation, there are times when it does have serious, and even deadly, consequences as the picture on the right illustrates. Apparently the Lord sees this as such an important human problem that he included examples of it over and over again in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. This article looks at three examples from 1 and 2 Samuel (although there are many more!). Each example illustrates an important aspect of the “looks can be deceiving” trap that we all should seek to avoid.
Looks Can Be Deceiving: Hannah and the Problem of Judging Too Quickly
Hannah is introduced in 1 Samuel 1 as part of the dysfunctional family of Elkanah. She is one of two wives (1 Sam. 1:2), and is unable to have children. The other wife, Peninnah, is described as her “rival” (1 Sam. 1:6), and has a number of children (1 Sam. 1:2, 4). We are informed that Peninnah constantly provokes her, probably due to the fact that Elkanah “loved Hannah” (1 Sam. 1:5). This difficult situation goes on year after year (1 Sam. 1:7), until on one occasion Hannah rushes to the tabernacle to poor out her grief before the Lord. She is described as being “in bitterness of soul,” and weeping “in anguish” (1 Sam. 1:10). Although the reader is privy to all of this information about Hannah, Eli the priest knows only what he observes. He sees a desperate woman who’s mouth is moving but saying no words. The author tells us that Hannah was praying, but it was unusual in the ancient world to pray silently. Based on appearance, Eli jumps to the conclusion that Hannah is drunk and issues a strong rebuke saying, “How long will you be drunk? Put your wine away from you!” (1 Sam. 13-14). The reader is immediately aware of how wrong Eli is, and Hannah seeks to set the record straight immediately: “No my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor intoxicating drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:16). To Eli’s credit, he recognizes his mistake and seeks to reverse his harsh rebuke with words of blessing (1 Sam. 1:17).
Thus, in the very first story of 1 Samuel we are introduced to the theme of “looks can be deceiving.” Here the purpose is clearly to warn readers against jumping too quickly to the wrong conclusion and thus misjudging someone. Harsh and unfounded judgments often result in the disruption of a relationship. Of course leaders of God’s people need to make judgments. Leaders are to be concerned for God’s flock and to protect them from harm. This involves discerning a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Acts 20:28-31), or exercising discipline when necessary (1 Cor. 5:1-13). When Jesus warns, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1), he is not talking about the wise exercise of leadership that seeks to protect the people of God. Rather, he is speaking of the same sort of error made by Eli, who, not knowing the real facts, simply jumped to the wrong conclusions and then acted on them. This story affirms how important it is that people not judge others merely based on appearances. Fortunately, Eli admitted his mistake and was able to form a warm, lasting bond with Hannah and her family (1 Sam. 2:19-20).
Looks Can Be Deceiving: Playing the Hypocrite
Interestingly, 1 Samuel 1 gives us not one, but two examples of the theme, “looks can be deceiving.” A closer look at Eli reveals another aspect to this theme. Eli is introduced to us in 1 Samuel 1:9. In our English Bibles the introduction seems normal enough and is probably passed over without much thought by most readers. However, a number of the words in the original language have more than one meaning. When the other meaning of these words are applied, Eli’s introduction is totally transformed. For starters, Eli’s name means “exalted.” We’re not used to meeting many people who introduce themselves as “Mr. Exalted.” The meaning of Eli’s name provokes certain expectations. Are you really “exalted?” Next, we are told that Eli was “sitting on the seat.” The word translated “seat” is the normal Hebrew word for “throne,” used, of course, when speaking of kings. We are then told that Eli sits “by the doorpost.” The use of “doorpost,” particularly in a cultic situation (Eli is at the tabernacle), associates Eli with the greatest commandment in the Law. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Moses exhorts Israel to love the Lord and to teach his law “diligently to your children.” This includes writing the words “on the doorposts of your house.” Thus the “doorpost” associates Eli, Israel’s leader, with the task of seeing that others observe the Law. Perhaps now we have a better understanding of why he comes off so forceful to Hannah when he misinterprets her actions. The doorpost is still significant in modern Judaism. This word in Hebrew is mezuzah and it is used to refer to a small rectangular receptacle which many Jewish people place on their doorposts. The receptacle includes a rolled up scroll with a copy of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) and is a reminder to keep God’s Law. The last significant word in Eli’s introduction is the word translated as “house” (NIV) or “tabernacle” (NKJV). This is another unusual selection of terms. Normally this word is translated “temple,” or in the context of kingship as “palace.” If we step back now and reread Eli’s introduction with these other words in mind, it reads something like this: “Now Exalted was sitting on a throne by the doorpost (being a loyal follower and enforcer of God’s Law) of the palace of the Lord.” This is a lofty introduction for Eli and leads the reader to wonder exactly who it is that is being introduced here? Is this the savior Israel has been waiting for? Will he lead Israel back on the path of righteousness? Our appetites are certainly whet by this impressive introduction.
Sadly, our initial impression of Eli proves to be a mirage. Over the next few chapters (1 Sam. 2-4), the biblical author begins to reveal another image of Eli which proves to be more accurate. 1 Samuel 2-4 reveals three physical flaws regarding Eli. The reader is told 3 times that Eli is old (1 Sam. 2:22; 4:15, 18), twice that he is blind (1 Sam. 3:2; 4:15), and twice that he has a weight problem (1 Sam. 2:29; 4:18). If we wonder why the inspired author chooses to dwell on these unflattering physical flaws of Eli, the answer lies in the fact that these physical imperfections suggest spiritual imperfections. One example will have to suffice for the sake of brevity. In 1 Samuel 2:12-17 the reader learns that Eli’s sons are wicked and steal the sacrificial meat that belongs to the people and to God. In 1 Samuel 2:29, we also learn that Eli partakes in these stolen sacrifices. The result is that he and his sons are “fat.” In other words, the spiritual wickedness of Eli and his sons (stealing and eating sacrificial meat that does not belong to them), manifests itself in a real physical way. The consumption of stolen meat makes Eli fat. Thus Eli’s weight problem becomes a symptom of a much more serious spiritual failing. What we learn from this revelation is that Eli comes off very impressively when first meeting him, but upon closer inspection, we learn that he is not like anything he appears to be. Eli, Mr. Exalted, may project an image of royalty and law-keeping, but upon closer inspection, he is nothing but a blind and fat old man. Eli’s example contrasts strongly with Hannah’s. Hannah is not concerned with image or putting up a false front. She is real and authentic. It may not be a pretty picture, but she is honest before God. As a result, God is able to do a great work in her life. Unfortunately, Eli keeps the pretense up until the very end, and as a result, he meets a tragic end. God literally knocks Eli off of his throne (the same word as in 1 Sam. 1:9) when he dies (1 Sam. 4:18). The lesson is simple, but harder to live out. God’s people are not to put up false fronts and pretend to be someone that they are not. God desires honesty. He’s not worried about how messy we might look. When we are real and truthful, God can and will do a great work in our lives.
Looks Can Be Deceiving: David vs. Goliath and Walking By Faith
Our final example takes us to 1 Samuel 17, the famous story of David’s defeat of Goliath. Although we did see a short physical description of Eli in our last example, it is very rare that the Bible gives a detailed description of anyone. Think about it. Wouldn’t you love to have a chapter, or even 5-10 verses dedicated to a physical description of David, Paul, or Jesus? That’s why the lengthy description of Goliath found in 1 Samuel 17:4-7 is so unusual. Why such a lengthy and detailed description of one of Israel’s enemies? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the author wants us to experience the same fear and intimidation factor that Saul and the Israelites experienced. With our gaze fully focused on this gigantic, intimidating bully, we are left to wonder who could possibly defeat such a well-equipped physical specimen? While everyone in Israel, including Saul, cowers on their side of the battlefield, we are reintroduced to the shepherd boy David (1 Sam. 17:12-22), who upon hearing the taunts of this giant Philistine, completely overlooks his intimidating looks and only sees an enemy to be killed because he has defied “the armies of the living God” (1 Sam. 17:23-26). As he confronts Goliath, David not only believes that God will overcome his foe, but that there will be a lesson in this victory for all. In his speech before killing Goliath, David says, “Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword or spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands” (1 Sam. 17:47–emphasis mine). This statement makes clear that David is not looking at the physical, but rather at spiritual realities. As Paul would later encourage believers to do, David “walks by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Once again we are confronted with the theme “looks can be deceiving.” This time, however, the theme exhorts God’s people not to fear intimidating circumstances, but to trust the outcome to the Lord.
Fear easily overcomes us when the physical obstacle in front of us looms large. It could be a lost job, a divorce, or a diagnosis of cancer. The natural response is one of fear, anxiety, and depression, but the message of God’s Word is to trust in him and not allow whatever enemy we are facing to intimidate us into losing our faith. Looks can be deceiving! This was an important enough message that God wrote it across the pages of 1 and 2 Samuel. We have only looked at 3 examples, but there are many more. So important was this theme, in fact, that God spoke it out clearly to Samuel when he began to fall prey to the trap of “looks can be deceiving.” When God called Samuel to go anoint a new king among the sons of Jesse (1 Sam. 16:1), Samuel quickly concluded upon seeing Eliab, Jesse’s firstborn, that he was “surely the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 16:6). God quickly rebuked Samuel with the familiar words, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). In other words Samuel, “looks can be deceiving!”
This article was inspired by my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.