Scripture provides three accounts of David’s music ministry to Saul (1 Sam. 16:14-23; 18:10-11; 19:8-10). Because the results of his ministry to Saul in the first account were different from the results in the other two, some have wrongly concluded that David’s music was unreliable and even have dismissed the value of the first account for addressing the issue of the morality of music without words.
A close examination of key differences between the first account and the latter accounts, however, provides the right explanation of the differing outcome in the latter accounts and underscores the value of the first account.
David’s Music Ministry Delivers Saul from Demonic Affliction (1 Sam. 16:14-23)
God judged Saul by sending an evil spirit to afflict him (1 Sam. 16:14). To relieve him of his affliction, Saul’s servants sought a skillful harpist to minister to him (1 Sam. 16:15-16). In some unexplained way, they had confidence that such a ministry of music would deliver Saul from his affliction.
Saul’s servants found David and brought him to Saul (1 Sam. 16:17-22). Whenever the evil spirit troubled Saul, David’s playing made Saul better and caused the demon to depart (1 Sam. 16:23).
The passage does not say anything about David’s singing any words to Saul as he played his harp. In fact, the passage stresses David’s playing through three explicit references about the playing of the harp (1 Sam. 16:16, 18, 23).
It was David’s instrumental harp music, therefore, that caused the evil spirit that tormented Saul to depart from him. Had his music been amoral, it could not have had this effect for good.
Because the music did drive out the evil spirit, it was a force for good. We thus learn that David’s instrumental music was not amoral.
Saul Tries to Kill David Twice in spite of David’s Music Ministry to Him (18:10-11)
Whereas David’s music ministry had previously delivered Saul on repeated occasions for an unspecified amount of time (1 Sam. 16:23), the next account (1 Sam. 18:10-11) records that Saul tried to kill David twice (18:11) in spite of his ministering musically again to Saul (18:11). What caused there to be such a dramatic difference on this occasion compared to the previous ones?
In between these two accounts, we read of David’s valiant defeat of Goliath (17:1-54). Following several verses that speak then of Saul’s inquiry about whose son David was (17:55-58), we read of the covenant that Jonathan and David made (18:1-4).
The next five verses provide key information that explains the differing outcome of David’s music ministry to Saul on this later occasion:
1Sa 18:5 And David went out whithersoever Saul sent him, and behaved himself wisely: and Saul set him over the men of war, and he was accepted in the sight of all the people, and also in the sight of Saul’s servants.
6 ¶ And it came to pass as they came, when David was returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick.
7 And the women answered one another as they played, and said, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.
8 And Saul was very wroth, and the saying displeased him; and he said, They have ascribed unto David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed but thousands: and what can he have more but the kingdom?
9 And Saul eyed David from that day and forward.
These verses reveal that Saul became very upset when the women lauded David more highly than they did Saul (18:8). He then became jealous of him and suspicious of him from then on that he would seek to take the kingdom from Saul (18:9).
Right after reading about this key change in Saul’s attitude toward David, we encounter the first of two accounts that record that David’s music ministry to Saul did not benefit him as it had done before:
1Sa 18:10 ¶ And it came to pass on the morrow, that the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, and he prophesied in the midst of the house: and David played with his hand, as at other times: and there was a javelin in Saul’s hand.
11 And Saul cast the javelin; for he said, I will smite David even to the wall with it. And David avoided out of his presence twice.
This passage specifies that this account took place on the very next day after Saul’s becoming intensely upset at David and becoming suspicious of him (18:10a). This time when the evil spirit came on Saul, he raved madly in his house. The text also specifies that Saul had a javelin in his hand on this occasion.
Prior to this point, we never read of Saul sitting in his house with a javelin in his hand. Nor do we read of him being afflicted by the spirit to the point of his raving madly. Both these differences point to the same reality—a vital change in Saul’s disposition toward David.
The natural explanation for Saul’s having a javelin in his hand now is that he apparently was so suspicious of David’s potentially trying to take the kingdom from him that he wanted to have a weapon to protect himself should David try anything to harm him. Because of the dramatic change in Saul, David’s music ministry that was the same to him “as at other times” (18:10) did not deliver Saul now from his spiritual affliction.
Saul’s intense jealousy and mistrust of David prevented him from benefiting from David’s music ministry as he had done before. He now degenerated to letting the wickedness of his heart come out in two attempts to kill David.
David’s music thus was not unreliable or ineffective on this occasion. Rather, Saul, as the listener, forfeited on this occasion the value of David’s ministry to him because of his hardness of heart toward David.
Saul Again Tries to Kill David in spite of His Music Ministry to Him (19:9-10)
Saul’s two attempts to kill David show that Saul was now not just opposing David—more importantly, he was also actively fighting against God, who had chosen David to become king in place of Saul. Saul had thereby now set himself in opposition to the Lord and His anointed one (cf. Ps. 2).
Because Saul was now opposing both God and David, he continued to degenerate spiritually and be hardened in his sinfulness (1 Sam. 18:17, 21, 25). He became more and more afraid of David and became his enemy continually (1 Sam. 18:29).
In spite of further events (1 Sam. 19:1-5) that led Saul even to swear by the Lord that David would not be killed (1 Sam. 19:6), we read of another time when Saul tried to kill David despite David’s music ministry to him while he was being afflicted by the evil spirit:
1Sa 19:9 And the evil spirit from the LORD was upon Saul, as he sat in his house with his javelin in his hand: and David played with his hand.
10 And Saul sought to smite David even to the wall with the javelin; but he slipped away out of Saul’s presence, and he smote the javelin into the wall: and David fled, and escaped that night.
This final account shows that Saul’s hardness of heart toward David and opposition to God again caused him to forfeit the benefit of David’s music ministry to him.
David’s Instrumental Music Was Not Amoral and It Was Not Unreliable
A careful analysis of the flow of these various events in the lives of David and Saul shows that David’s earlier music ministry profited Saul by delivering him from spiritual affliction caused by an evil spirit. Because Saul was delivered by David’s instrumental music, we understand that it was not amoral.
Moreover, the latter accounts do not show that David’s music was unreliable or lacked the spiritual ability to deliver Saul consistently. Rather, the greatly heightened wickedness of Saul’s heart on those occasions prevented him from receiving the benefit of David’s music ministry to him.
For the same reason, the latter accounts also do not negate the importance of the first account for showing that David’s instrumental music was not amoral. David’s instrumental music ministry to Saul thus was not amoral and it was not unreliable.