Saul, David, and Errors in 1 Samuel 16-17?

In the story of David’s rise in Israel there seems to be a discrepancy in 1 Samuel 16-17. In chapter 16 the narrative tells us about one of king Saul’s servants recommending David (Jesse’s son) to play music for the purpose of combating Saul’s evil/bad spirit/mood. However, after David defeats the Philistine Goliath, Saul asks Abner: “Who is this boy’s father?” (17:55). Saul then sends for David to hear David’s answer: “Jesse from Bethlehem is my father.” (17:58). The supposed contradiction is that Saul earlier heard that Jesse was David’s dad, but then later asks about the name of David’s dad.

Of course some critics talk about errors in Scripture, inconsistent variants in the manuscripts and editions, or they talk about different David “traditions” floating around. Many assume it’s just one of those discrepancies or errors in the Bible and that’s that.

However, as with other similar supposed errors in Scripture, there are good explanations. It’s not right or reasonable to ignore the good explanations when we come to parts of Scripture that seem to be wrong or contradictory. Various commentaries on 1 Samuel 17:55-58 give various helpful explanations of why Saul asked for the name of David’s dad. Below are a few:

This discrepancy depends on the insistence that 16:18–22 must mean nothing less than that Saul informed himself fully on everything to do with David’s father, and on a similar insistence that 17:55–58 must not mean anything more than that Saul was interested to know the name of David’s father. Neither insistence is necessary, nor, in the light of the narrative thought-flow, reasonable. Having been supplied by his servants with an acceptable harpist, it was natural for Saul to “request” (i.e. command) his father to let the young man stay at the royal house. It is not true to life to imagine that means that Saul sent the message directly himself—he would have left that to one of the officers who had found and suggested David. It is not even true to life to imagine that Saul thereafter necessarily remembered the name of David’s father, or cared twopence about him, let alone investigated his background, family and all about him. Similarly, it is not true to life to imagine that in 17:55–58 Saul is simply concerned to know the name of David’s father. Saul has just promised to give his daughter in marriage to the man who kills Goliath, and to make his father’s house free in Israel (17:25). Naturally, when Saul sees David actually going out to meet Goliath, and even more so when he sees him returning triumphant, Saul will be concerned to know not just the name of, but everything about, David’s father and the family which, if he keeps his promise, is now to be allied by marriage with the royal family. And we as readers must at this point be made aware that David is of the house of Jesse, for it is the house of Jesse that has at this moment eclipsed the house of Saul in military prowess, and is destined eventually to supplant it as the reigning house. (Barthélemy, Gooding, Lust, and Tov 1986:19–20)

 J. Robert Vannoy, Cornerstone Biblical Commentarya: 1-2 Samuel, vol. 4 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009), 172.

Here are Bergen’s comments in the New American Commentary:

[Rather than assuming these are contradictory accounts,] A more satisfying reading of the text here is one that sees one or more important plot functions for this flashback section. First, it was included to confirm the accuracy of reports David had heard about Saul’s offer to provide a tax exemption for the family of the Israelite who killed Goliath (v. 25). Saul asked David for his father’s name so that he could properly formulate an edict in behalf of Jesse’s family and perhaps also so that he could learn more about the family background of the one who had earned the right to become the king’s son-in-law.

In a different direction this passage may also function to demonstrate that the Lord’s Spirit was no longer with Saul. Being devoid of the divine Spirit, Saul also was intellectually incompetent. The image presented in vv. 55–58 of a king who cannot remember details related to one of his most beloved and trusted courtiers (cf. 16:21–22) contrasts strikingly with King David later, who, empowered by the Lord, was like an angel of God “to know everything that is in the land” (2 Sam 14:20).

 Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, vol. 7, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 199.

One more. Here’s Matthew Henry:

 Though he [David] had been at court formerly, yet, having been for some time absent (v. 15), Saul had forgotten him, being melancholy and mindless, and little thinking that his musician would have spirit enough to be his champion; and therefore, as if he had never seen him before, he asked whose son he was. Abner was a stranger to him, but brought him to Saul (v. 57), and he gave a modest account of himself, v. 58. And now he was introduced to the court with much greater advantages than before, in which he owned God’s hand performing all things for him

 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 415.

This is a longer discussion, to be sure. The point is that there are reasonable and biblical answers that help us from simply assuming the Bible is wrong. We don’t need to fall into the trap of saying “error” every time we find something in Scripture that doesn’t at first make sense. Finally, we’re just humans with imperfect and finite minds. Now we see in a mirror dimly and are content to trust God’s word as we read it, confessing that “the LORD’s words are absolutely reliable” (Ps. 12:6 NET).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

“X Views on Y” Books (Carson)

Many of us have heard about or even read the various books that have titles something like this: “Three Views on the Church.” On the one hand, these books might be somewhat helpful. On the other hand, we might want to think twice before saying they are helpful without offering any critique or caveat. Speaking of, I just ran across D. A. Carson’s editorial called “Subtle Ways to Abandon the Authority of Scripture in Our Lives.” The whole essay is worth reading, but point number three caught my eye this morning: “Publishing Ventures that Legitimate What God Condemns.” Here’s the first part of it:

Recently Zondervan published Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church; this book bills these two views as “affirming” and “non-affirming,” and two authors support each side. Both sides, we are told, argue “from Scripture.” If the “affirming” side was once viewed as a stance that could not be held by confessional evangelicals, this book declares that not only the non-affirming stance but the affirming stance are represented within the evangelical camp, so the effect of this book is to present alternative evangelical positions, one that thinks the Bible prohibits homosexual marriage, and the other that embraces it.

All who read these lines will of course be aware of the many books that proffer three views or four views (or two, or five) on this or that subject: the millennium, election, hell, baptism, and many more. Surely this new book on homosexuality is no different. To this a couple of things must be said.

(a) The format of such volumes, “x views on y,” is intrinsically slippery. It can be very helpful to students to read, in one volume, diverse stances on complex subjects, yet the format is in danger of suggesting that each option is equally “biblical” because it is argued “from Scripture.” Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses argue “from Scripture,” but most of us would hasten to add that their exegesis, nominally “from Scripture,” is woefully lacking. The “x views on y” format tilts evaluation away from such considerations, baptizing each option with at least theoretical equivalent legitimacy. In short, the “x views on y” format, as useful as it is for some purposes, is somewhat manipulative. As I have argued elsewhere, not all disputed things are properly disputable.

(b) Otherwise put, it is generally the case that books of the “x views on y” format operate within some implicit confessional framework or other. That’s why no book of this sort has (yet!) been published with a title such as “Three Views on Whether Jesus is God.” We might bring together a liberal committed to philosophical naturalism, a Jehovah’s Witness, and a confessional Christian. But it’s hard to imagine a book like that getting published—or, more precisely, a book like that would be tagged as a volume on comparative religion, not a volume offering options for Christians. Most books of the “x views on y” sort restrict the subject, the y-component, to topics that are currently allowed as evangelical options. To broaden this list to include an option that no evangelical would have allowed ten years ago—say, the denial of the deity of Jesus, or the legitimacy of homosexual practice—is designed simultaneously to assert that Scripture is less clear on the said topic than was once thought, and to re-define, once again, the borders of evangelicalism. On both counts, the voice of Scripture as the norma normans (“the rule that rules”), though theoretically still intact, has in fact been subtly reduced.

 D. A. Carson, “Editorial: Subtle Ways to Abandon the Authority of Scripture in Our Lives,” Themelios 42, no. 1 (2017): 2–3.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Gospel is Sprinkled Throughout Scripture (Melanchthon)

Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici (Fundamental Theological Themes) was published early on in the Reformation – in 1521 when Melanchthon was only 24 years old. Melanchthon’s Loci is something of a summary of the main Christian themes in Scripture. Martin Luther hailed the Loci more than once and said it should be included in the canon of the church – that is, in the church’s essential theological books. To be sure, it is an excellent piece of Reformation literature that is well worth reading. Below is a section I ran across this morning which I thought was quite helpful:

 So far do I write on the promises [of God], all of which ought to be related to that first one which was made to Eve. It signified to Adam and Eve that sin, and death, the penalty of that sin, would at some time be abolished, namely, when the progeny of Eve should bruise the head of that serpent. For what do the head of the serpent and its cunning signify but the kingdom of sin and death?

If you should relate all promises to this one, you will see that the gospel is sprinkled throughout the whole of Scripture in a remarkable way; and the gospel is simply the preaching of grace or the forgiveness of sins through Christ. And yet as I said a little while ago, all promises, even those of temporal things, are testimonies of the goodwill or the mercy of God; he who trusts in them is righteous because he thinks well of God and has given praise to him for his kindness and goodness.

He who hears the threats and acknowledges the history does not yet believe every word of God; but he does who, in addition to the threats and the history, believes also the promises. It is not merely a matter of believing the history about Christ; this is what the godless do. What matters is to believe why he took on flesh, why he was crucified, and why he came back to life after his death; the reason, of course, is that he might justify as many as would believe on him. If you believe that these things have been done for your good and for the sake of saving you, you have a blessed belief.

Philip Melanchthon, Loci Communes “Justification and Faith” in Melanchthon and Bucer, p. 104-105.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Praise-Seeking Pastors [or Shaggy Donkey Ears] (Luther)

I probably don’t have to explain the celebrity pastor ethos that is a major problem in Christianity today. In fact, some pastors want to be famous and well-known. Social media has made this problem worse. Anyway, in the “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings”, Martin Luther had some cutting things to say about pastors/theologians who think they are quite significant and desire fame. After explaining the essential importance of Scripture for theology, Luther mentioned prayer, meditating on the word, and suffering – all of which bring humility and dependence on the Word. Then he wrote this – and this is how he ends his “Preface.” Read it a few times!

If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it – if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears. Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, “See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.” That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels. To sum up: Let us be proud and seek honor in the places where we can. But in this book the honor is God’s alone, as it is said, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” [1 Pet. 5:5]; to whom be glory, world without end, Amen

Martin Luther, “Preface to The Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd Edition (Fortress Press: Minneapolis), p. 42.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Clarity of Scripture (Bavinck)

One wonderful aspect or attribute of Scripture is that it is clear in the matters of salvation. This has been called the perspicuity of Scripture. The Westminster Confession explains this teaching quite well in chapter 1, sections 6 & 7. One thing the Confession says is that both learned and unlearned people can attain a sufficient understanding of the Scriptures. “Sufficient” in this sense means sufficient unto salvation. Herman Bavinck also wrote well on this topic:

The doctrine of the perspicuity of Holy Scripture has frequently been misunderstood and misrepresented, both by Protestants and Catholics. It does not mean that the matters and subjects with which Scripture deals are not mysteries that far exceed the reach of the human intellect. Nor does it assert that Scripture is clear in all its parts, so that no scientific exegesis is needed, or that, also in its doctrine of salvation, Scripture is plain and clear to every person without distinction. It means only that the truth, the knowledge of which is necessary to everyone for salvation, though not spelled out with equal clarity on every page of Scripture, is nevertheless presented throughout all of Scripture in such a simple and intelligible form that a person concerned about the salvation of his or her soul can easily, by personal reading and study, learn to know that truth from Scripture without the assistance and guidance of the church and the priest. The way of salvation, not as it concerns the matter itself but as it concerns the mode of transmission, has been clearly set down there for the reader desirous of salvation. While that reader may not understand the “how” (πως) of it, the “that” (ὁτι) is clear.

The above quote is found in Herman Bavinck, ed. John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 477.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015