Just how David joined Saul’s court isn’t clear. There are two overlapping accounts.
David the musician
The first account is a partial summary of Saul’s life. In this version, David enters the court as a musician, employed to play the harp to Saul and keep the tormenting spirit at bay:
1 Samuel 16:18-21 One of the servants said to Saul, ‘One of Jesse’s sons from Bethlehem is a talented harp player. Not only that—he is a brave warrior, a man of war, and has good judgment. He is also a fine-looking young man, and the Lord is with him.’ … So David went to Saul and began serving him. Saul loved David very much, and David became his armour bearer.
David the hero
David also came to Saul’s attention in the Goliath-slaying battle with the Philistines. As armour bearer, David would have had every right to be there, but his brothers had a different view:
1 Samuel 17:28 But when David’s oldest brother, Eliab, heard David talking to the men, he was angry. ‘What are you doing around here anyway? What about those few sheep you’re supposed to be taking care of? I know about your pride and deceit. You just want to see the battle!’
Perhaps they were just jealous of David’s access to the king.
At this stage, Saul saw David as a boy, not a warrior. Even so, David ended up as a hero in the eyes of Israel, including Saul:
1 Samuel 18:2 From that day [shortly after the battle of Goliath/Philistines] on Saul kept David with him and wouldn’t let him return home.
So how did David meet Saul?
The problem with overlapping accounts is that they don’t give us a timeline that fits the template of a good modern story. You have to forget the idea of a prescriptive timeline of this then that, and think more about the overall picture.
Firstly, it shows us that David was multi-talented. He could sing, play the harp, and fight giants. He was the hero, loved and admired by all. Not only that, Saul needed David for his own sanity.
Secondly, it’s not impossible that the timeline isn’t completely inaccurate. Maybe the title of armour bearer was more for ceremonial activities than for serious battles, or maybe David first came to the court’s attention in the slaying of Goliath, but around the same time he was also recommended as a musician to treat Saul’s moods. He eventually became indispensable, and ultimately wasn’t allowed to leave.
This is consistent with Saul’s approach to building his army:
1 Samuel 14:52 The Israelites fought constantly with the Philistines throughout Saul’s lifetime. So whenever Saul observed a young man who was brave and strong, he drafted him into his army.
And David was quickly promoted:
1 Samuel 16:5 Whatever Saul asked David to do, David did it successfully. So Saul made him a commander over the men of war, an appointment that was welcomed by the people and Saul’s officers alike.
But David’s success led to the people making up songs about David. Saul knew he’d been rejected as king, and he instantly recognised the threat:
1 Samuel 16:8-9 This made Saul very angry. ‘What’s this? They credit David with ten thousands and me with only thousands. Next they’ll be making him their king!’ So from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David.
A possible timeline
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- David keeps playing his harp, making Saul temporarily happy. He becomes Saul’s armour bearer, does that well, gets promoted, and starts leading campaigns.
- Somewhere in all that, Saul comes to love David and rely on him, and eventually refuses David permission to visit his family at all. Jonathan becomes David’s best friend.
- Then it all goes wrong. David does too well, the village women start singing songs about him, and Saul worries that this might be the man who will replace him as king.
- The relationship goes downhill from there.