The Conflicting and Confounding Characterization of a King

By Adam Brown –

Who is David?

In 1 Samuel 16, we are introduced to David for the first time in the Bible. In this chapter, David says nothing at all.

He is beckoned twice. First, Samuel calls him from the sheep field to be anointed the future king of Israel. Then, Saul calls him from this same sheep field to become the king’s music therapist. In both instances, David comes saying nary a word. And yet, in both summonses, David’s character is described.

In 1 Samuel 16:12, the narrator records,

“Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.”

In 1 Samuel 16:18, one of the king’s servants is recorded as testifying,

“Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him.”

Whereas verse 12 is focussed exclusively on external physical descriptions of David, verse 18 captures inner character qualities of David. It might seem, therefore, that we have been given an inside and outside summary of who David is.

And yet, we must inquire of the source of this information. The description in verse 12 is coming from the narrator and should, therefore, be considered trustworthy. The description in verse 18, however, is coming from an anonymous servant in King Saul’s court. We have no idea who this servant is, how he might know David; whether he is reliable, or if he is a scoundrel. Therefore, we cannot be certain that the description of David in verse 18 is trustworthy.

We immediately discover that David does, indeed, possess the musical talent that the servant vouched for. David becomes an able music therapist in the court of the king. We also know from his aforementioned anointing that the LORD is with David. Finally, from verse 12 we can affirm that – what with his ruddy appearance, his beautiful eyes, and his handsome exterior – David is indeed a man of good presence. As for the rest, time will have to tell. Is David these things or not?

Having read all of David’s biography in 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings, I can report that all of these qualities do emerge, at least vestiges of them do appear. Does that mean that Saul’s servant is trustworthy? Perhaps.

However, one cannot help but wonder why the writer chose to characterize David in this introductory chapter through the mouth of a shady secondary character? Let me offer two reasons.

Saul’s Servant Foreshadows the Masses (Both then and Now)

Just as the servant identifies these character qualities in David, so also the masses will identify these same qualities. People are drawn to David as he carefully cultivates a public persona to match the early testimony of this servant.

Likewise, many Bible readers today are drawn to David because they too see these qualities in David. The danger now, as in David’s own day, is the flatness of this characterization. David may be these things, but he is not only these things. His character arch is far more complex, which is why, I believe, the trustworthy narrator remained silent in verse 18.

The Testimony of Saul’s Servant is Put in Tension with the Testimony of David’s Brother

In the next chapter, David’s own brother, Eliab, will offer a second chance at indirect characterization of David. In 1 Samuel 17:28, Eliab rebukes his brother, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.” David, the quintessential younger brother retorts, perhaps with a fraternal whine, “What have I done now?”

Whereas we are quick to embrace the testimony of Saul’s unnamed servant, we are equally apt at quickly dismissing the testimony of David’s named brother. It is true, Eliab might have motive for resentment, having been passed over at Samuel’s anointing for his youngest brother. However, we don’t know if Eliab wanted to be king. He might just as easily have been relieved that the burden fell to David instead of him. We simply don’t know.

Whatever the case, of the two witnesses, Eliab is a much stronger witness than the unknown servant. We know his name and we know his relationship to David. Therefore, we cannot easily dismiss his insight, that David is motivated by an evil heart.

Both characterizations are indirect, through the voice of other characters. Neither can be called a direct characterization, which comes from the voice of the narrator. This means that their conflicting testimonies must be taken and weighed with equal scrutiny.

Final Thought

When reading Old Testament narrative, we must be careful in our evaluations. God has recorded this history through the conventions of ancient Hebrew storytelling. For today’s lesson, keep this in mind: Be quick to trust the narrator and God, but slow to trust any of the other characters.

Who is David? If we take the testimony of Saul’s servant and of David’s brother into consideration, it seems David is sure to be complex, conflicted, and difficult to pin down.

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