e-2 Why King Saul Fails to Recognize David
During the Incident with Goliath
In 1 Samuel 16:14-23 God has brought an evil spirit on king Saul because of the king’s rank disobedience to God’s commands. At this time David is made a personal minister to Saul due to a musical ability that dispels the evil spirit, and the text plainly indicates David is identified to Saul by name, and as the son of Jesse.
However, later in 1 Samuel 17:32-40, David appears before Saul at the time when Goliath the Philistine giant threatens Israel, and David volunteers to fight the giant. It’s important to see that at this point the text does not indicate any of the familiarity of Saul with David that would be expected from the earlier commissioning of David as a personal music minister. Later, as David approaches Goliath, Saul asks Abner, his general, who this young lad is that’s about to meet the giant, and who his father is (1 Samuel 17:55-58), in stark contrast with the earlier identification of the lad to Saul as David, the son of Jesse, and Abner also does not seem to recognize David at this time. Thus the text seems to present a contradiction, but it actually does not.
What we need to keep in mind here is the fact that Saul has undergone changes in mentality and personality since the time he was called to be the king of Israel. At the time of that call, the text tells us God gave Saul a new heart to enable him to govern Israel rightly (1 Samuel 10:9). But clearly Saul received another change in mentality when God sent an evil spirit on him for his disobedience, and it was at this time that David was identified to Saul. The evil spirit was intermittently manifested, as seen in its departure from Saul when David played upon his musical instrument, at which time Saul returned to normal behavior.
The description of Saul’s encounter with David at the time of the Goliath episode shows no evidence of the presence of the evil spirit in Saul so that he evidently was then in a normal state of mind, free from a need for David’s ministry. Subsequently he promotes David to a military-leadership position, and there's no further evidence of the presence of that spirit until jealousy consumes Saul as people attribute greater military achievements to David than to him, and the jealousy grows so strong that he repeatedly tries to kill David, which would be a direct result of the influence of that evil spirit. Yet each time he does this, David’s generosity brings him back to his normal mentality, so the evil spirit subsequently departs from him.
It’s evident that the seeming contradiction over recognition of David by Saul is just a matter of the intermittent effect of the evil spirit upon Saul’s mental state. When he resumed his normal behavior in the Goliath vs. David episode, he would have no memory of his earlier contact with David at the time of music ministry needed to counteract the evil spirit. Apparently, Abner wasn't present at the times when David ministered in music to Saul, which is as expected since a general of the army would be busy with military matters.
This matter is representative of how the Hebrew text at times presents accounts of such a nature that the reader must relate grammar & language to a widened context to understand the teaching fully. This is one of the various unique aspects of the Hebrew text.