Question: "What does it mean that God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7)?"
Answer: People tend to judge the character and worth of others by looking at outward appearances. If a person is tall, good-looking, well-built, and tastefully dressed, then he or she possesses physical qualities that humans generally admire and respect. Often these are the physical qualities we seek in a leader. But God has the unique ability to see inside a person. God knows our true character because he “looks at the heart.”
In 1 Samuel 16, the time had come for Samuel to go to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint Israel’s next king. As Samuel looked at Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, Samuel was impressed with what he saw. “Surely, this is the man the Lord wants me to anoint,” said the prophet (verse 6).
But God told Samuel, “Don’t look at his appearance or how tall he is, because I have rejected him. God does not see as humans see. Humans look at outward appearances, but the LORD looks into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, GWT).
Saul, Israel’s first king, was tall and handsome. Samuel may have been looking for someone like Saul, and Eliab’s appearance was quite striking. But God had a different man in mind to anoint as Israel’s king. The Lord had earlier revealed to Samuel that He sought a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14).
Samuel looked at all seven of Jesse’s older sons, but the Lord rejected them all as His choice for king. God was looking for one who had a faithful heart. David, Jesse’s youngest son, whom they had not even bothered to call, was out tending the sheep. After Samuel passed over the other sons, they sent for David, and the Lord said, “This is the one” (1 Samuel 16:12).
David was God’s choice—imperfect but faithful, a man after God’s heart. Although the Bible says he was handsome (verse 12), David was not a striking figure. But David had developed a heart after God. In his time alone in the fields, shepherding the flocks, David had come to know God as his Shepherd (see Psalm 23).
Appearances can be deceiving. The outward appearance doesn’t reveal what people are really like. Physical looks don’t show us a person’s value or character or integrity or faithfulness to God. Outward qualities are, by definition, superficial. Moral and spiritual considerations are far more important to God.
God looks at the heart. The heart in Scripture is a person’s inner moral and spiritual life. Proverbs 4:23 explains that everything we do flows from our hearts. The heart is the core, the inner essence of who we are: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45).
To everyone who saw him, Judas Iscariot looked like a faithful disciple, but his appearance was deceiving. The other disciples had no idea of what was going on inside Judas. Jesus was the only one who knew Judas’s heart: “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (John 6:70). God’s perspective is higher, deeper, and wiser than ours.
Second Chronicles 16:9 says the eyes of God are continually roaming throughout the earth to strengthen people whose hearts are fully committed to Him. God can peer into our hearts, examine our motivations, and know everything there is to know about us (Psalm 139:1). God knows if a person will be faithful. God sees what people can’t see.
King David was far from perfect. He committed adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11). But God saw in David a man of deep, abiding faith who was wholly committed to the Lord. God saw a man who would depend on the Lord for strength and guidance (1 Samuel 17:45, 47; 23:2). God saw a man who would recognize his sin and failure and who would repent and ask the Lord for forgiveness (2 Samuel 12). God saw in David a man who loved his Lord; a man who worshiped his Lord with all his being (2 Samuel 6:14); a man who had experienced God’s cleansing and forgiveness (Psalm 51) and had come to understand the depths of God’s love for him (Psalm 13:5–6; 106:1). God saw a man with a sincere and personal relationship with his Creator. When God looked at the heart of David, He saw a man after His own heart (Acts 13:22).
Like Samuel, we can’t see what the Lord sees, and we must rely on Him for wisdom. And we can trust that, when God looks at our hearts, He sees our faithfulness, our true character, and our value as individuals.