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Saul's questions about the identity of David in 1 Samuel 17 create a rather difficult problem in light of 1 Samuel 16, especially 1 Samuel 16:14-23. It would appear from chapter 16 that by the time of David's slaying of Goliath Saul had already been introduced to David and knew him quite well.
The traditional way of resolving this dilemma in nonevangelical circles is to suppose that these two accounts stem from independent traditions. Thus the confusion over whether David's debut at court preceded his conquest of the Philistine is unnecessary, since the stories come from different sources and do not intend to reflect what really happened so much as teach a truth. However, this resolution of the matter is not attractive to most who take the claims of the Bible more straightforwardly. The difficulty continues: how could Saul--and Abner too--be ignorant about this lad who had been Saul's armor-bearer and musician?
Some have blamed Saul's diseased and failing mental state. On this view, the evil spirit from God had brought on a type of mental malady that affected his memory. Persons suffering from certain types of mania or insanity often forget the closest of their friends.
Others have argued that the hustle and bustle of court life, with its multiplicity of servants and attendants, meant that Saul could have easily forgotten David, especially if the time was long between David's service through music and his slaying of Goliath. Yet a long period of time does not appear to have separated these events. Furthermore, David was a regular member of Saul's retinue (1 Sam 16:21).
A third option is to suggest that Saul was not asking for David's identity, which he knew well enough. Instead he was attempting to learn what his father's social position and worth were, for he was concerned what type of stock his future son-in-law might come from. (Remember, whoever was successful in killing Goliath would win the hand of Saul's daughter, according to the terms of Saul's challenge.) While this might explain Saul's motives, does it explain Abner's lack of knowledge? Or must we posit that he also knew who David was but had no idea what his social status and lineage were? Possibly!
The most plausible explanation, and the one favored by most older commentators, is that the four events in the history of Saul and David in 1 Samuel 16--18 are not given in chronological order. Instead, they are transposed by a figure of speech known as hysterologia, in which something is put last that according to the usual order should be put first. For example, the Genesis 10 account of the dispersion of the nations comes before the cause of it--the confusion of languages at the tower of Babel in Genesis 11.
The fact that the order has been rearranged for special purposes in 1 Samuel 16--18 can be seen from the fact that the Vaticanus manuscript of the Septuagint deletes twenty-nine verses in all (1 Sam 17:12-31 and 17:55--18:5).
E. W. Bullinger suggested that the text was rearranged in order to bring together certain facts, especially those about the Spirit of God. Thus in 1 Samuel 16:1-13 David is anointed and the Spirit of God comes upon him. Then, in order to contrast this impartation of the Spirit of God with the removal of the Spiritfrom Saul, 1 Samuel 16:14-23 is brought forward from later history. In the straightforward order of events, Bullinger suggests, it should follow 18:9.
First Samuel 17:1--18:9 records anevent earlier in the life of David, which is introduced here in a parenthetical way as an illustration of 1 Samuel 14:52. This section is just an instance of what 14:52 claims.
The whole section, therefore, has this construction:
A) 16:1-13. David anointed. The Spirit comes on him.
B) 16:14-23. Saul rejected. The Spirit departs from him. An evil spirit torments him.
A) 17:1--18:9. David. An earlier incident in his life.
B) 18:10-30. Saul. The Spirit departs and an evil spirit troubles him.
Thus the narration alternates between David and Saul, creating a didactic contrast between the Spirit of God and the evil spirit that tormented Saul. The focus is on the spiritual state of the two men, not the historical order of events.
All too frequently, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are given the label "Historical Books" rather than the more correct label "Earlier Prophets." They aim at teaching lessons from the prophetic eye of inspiration rather than simply providing a chronicle of how events occurred in time and history.
That these texts appear in topical, rather than chronological, order is the best explanation, especially when we note how the theology of the text is embedded in it.
E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech (1898; reprint ed., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1968), pp. 706-7.