As soon as Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this youth?” And Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.” And the king said, “Inquire whose son the boy is.” And as soon as David returned from the striking down of the Philistine, Abner took him, and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. And Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?” And David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.” | 1 Samuel 17:55-58
This Sunday I preached through 1 Samuel 17, well most of it anyway. I decided to end at v.54, just after David has put Goliath’s armor in his tent. The reason for this is that the last few verses are a bit confusing and we didn’t really have the time to get into it, so we will do that here.
Just after David defeats Goliath, Saul asks his commander Abner: whose son is this youth? The reason that this is odd is because he has already met David. This isn’t something where he sees something happening from across a field and needs an identity; he is the one who sent David out there. Not only that, but in the last chapter we saw David working in Saul’s court and even becoming his armor bearer. What’s up?
One explanation for this has been that Saul knows David, but is only asking about who his father is. This doesn’t make sense with chapter 16, where Saul specifically asks Jesse whether David could come work for him, saying:
Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight. 22
Another explanation is that Saul was so overwhelmed by the evil spirit that he couldn’t recognize his former musician. Again this isn’t possible, because the evil spirit seemed to leave him at the end of chapter 16:
And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him. 23
What is going on then? People get very excited when they find ‘mistakes’ in the Bible, because it can be used to doubt the divine inspiration. Mistakes like this are so blatant and simple (an author forgetting what he wrote in the previous chapter?) that the only possible reasons are:
the author doesn’t know what they are doing
the reader is missing something
An error like this can not be explained away; it is either intentional or the result of an inept writer. The complexity that is contained in the rest of the Bible makes the first option impossible. We are left to believe that we are missing something. Most likely in this case, the explanation is that the story is not chronological. The sequence of events is:
David is annointed
Spirit comes on David and leaves Saul
David and Goliath (Saul finds out who David is)
David is called into Saul’s service
David helps soothe the evil spirit from Saul
Why would the author mix the events up? He is telling a story. Chapter 16 is the telling of God’s Spirit moving from Saul to David, and it makes sense to follow through with how God uses His Spirit in David to soothe the evil spirit in Saul. Chapter 17 then develops David’s character by showing us that his strength is in the confidence and value that he finds in God. This little back and forth between Saul and Abner is to accentuate the absolute nothingness of David; he isn’t even worthy of being known. Yet here he is, standing in front of the king, with the head of Goliath in his hand.