David and Goliath

I Samuel 17

The Story:

The armies of Israel were terrified. They could not meet the Philistine challenge. They huddled in their camp without faith and without hope because they had forgotten their God. There were two large men on the field that day. There was Saul the king, who stood head and shoulders above most of the men of Israel. And there was Goliath who stood somewhere between seven feet and nine feet tall. A giant of a man whose armor might have weighed 125 lbs. and whose javelin was about twenty pounds, with a fifteen pound iron spear head on the tip.

The respective armies were on opposite hillsides with the valley of Elah between them. Though Saul was offering a very large reward to the man who would go out and fight Goliath (vv.25ff), he had no takers. Fear is debilitating. Fear crowds out faith. It is no wonder that the scriptures so often say “Fear not” (e.g. Is. 41:10 etc.). Don’t fear those who can kill only the body, Jesus said, but fear God who can send both body and soul to hell. Among the first words spoken to a young woman of Nazareth by the angel of the Lord were “fear not.” Likewise to Joseph her betrothed; Fear not to take Mary as your wife.

“Fear,” a writer once said, “Is the wrong use of imagination. It is anticipating the worst, not the best that can happen.”

Even though these people were the heirs of Abraham, of Moses, of Joshua and of the Judges, they like many 21st century Americans, had forgotten the hard learned lessons of their forefathers and mothers. They had lost sight of the faith of their fathers and mothers. They no longer took to heart the promises of their God. So they lingered in fear listening to that uncircumcised Philistine mock them, curse them, call out to them in the names of his vindictive pagan deities.

Into the story steps the haqqaton a Hebrew word that is often translated “the youngest” but in our current language probably better translates as “the baby brother” with a note of disparagement. We can see that attitude in I Sam. 17:28-30. 9 (i.e. What are you doing here?) Baby brother had been sent by the father Jesse to bring some supplies to the three oldest brothers (out of eight), Eliab, Abinadab and Shammah. These were impressive looking men whom even the prophet Samuel at first admired until the Lord told him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature . . “ (16:7) The oldest brother wanted to send this baby brother back to the menial job of sheep tending. No one there thought there was any significance to baby brother’s presence.

Remember that this baby brother had been anointed as the next king by Samuel (ch. 16) but in that story he is not even named until after Samuel anointed him and we learn that his name is David. David, the name that will go on to occur about 600 time in the OT, and about 60 times in the NT. David, the name that will be so closely associated with the Christ that he will be called repeatedly the “son of David.”

Eliab said that David should go back to the sheep, but he did not have eyes to see that this baby brother had matured as a man of God while tending sheep. David had learned in the wilderness about the greatness of the creator. He had seen first hand what wonders are there to behold. The fields and meadows around Bethlehem had been his school of faith. He had the heart to see the lion and the bear with his eyes, but to know that the invisible God whom he served was greater. He also had the heart and courage to risk his life to rescue his father’s sheep from the mouths of those wild beasts.

His words in I Sam. 17:34ff suggest that he knew already the lesson Jesus would later teach: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much . . .“ (Luke 16:10) He had done the little things in tending and protecting the sheep. Now this would translate into the big thing as he would confront this enemy of the armies of the “living God” (17:36).

David is ready to confront the enemy, not because he believers himself to be stronger, but because he believes in his God. But first he must confront another problem. The young believer David is being offered well-meaning help by the much older and more experienced unbeliever, Saul. Saul had started well as king and man of God but over the years he had drifted away from God. He no longer had the spiritual eyes to see that David had. His soldiers were like him, with the possible exception of Saul’s son Jonathan. So Saul outfits David with his own armor. This was an honor that any other soldier would have accepted. But David could hardly move in that heavy ill-fitting stuff.

All of us must respond to the call of God as we are. We are not called to wear someone else’s armor. We are called to be only who we are and to use what gifts and opportunities God equips us with. So David took only his staff, his shepherd’s bag and his sling. Then he knelt. He knelt down by the wadi and chose five smooth stones. David’s trust was in God, but that did not mean he was helpless. He had one weapon he was competent with and that is what he would use. Picture him kneeling to gather the stones. Surely he whispered a prayer as he knelt. Five stones. There was to presumption in him that he would only need one. He would be prepared with five. Any experience hunter would understand why he chose ballistically efficient smooth stones, and five in case the first one missed.

Now we come to the denouement, the climax of the story. Goliath is insulting, and thinks that David is going to fight him with only a stick (v. 43).

Then the surprise move by David: he sprinted toward the battle line to meet Goliath, and as he did he took a smooth stone from his shepherd’s bag, placed it in the sling, and flung it with the skill he had honed while tending sheep. It struck the giant in the forehead with such force that the stone sunk deeply into his skull. And the Philistine fell face down to the ground. The Philistine army fled. Now they were afraid, and the army of Israel regained its courage and pursued and routed their enemy. How encouraging it is to others when they witness a great act of faith.

I don’t doubt that David had spent many an hour in the fields with the sheep meditating on the stories of his people, of Moses, Joshua, the Judges. He could not have anticipated how God would eventually use him, but his quiet preparation was vital to the final outcome. He had an imagination shaped by biblical stories and biblical ideas about life, meaning, God and what it means to be a human being. Remember, fear is the wrong use of imagination.

This training would make him a much better king than Saul. And it would leave us with the legacy of his Psalms, those honest and insightful records of spiritual life that continue to resonate with us today. He could not have known all of this any more than any of us can know the long-term effects of lives lived in daily faithfulness.

Much less could he have known that one day the Son of God would be called also son of David. But few in history would ever match the words he said as he went out to meet the giant ( I Samuel 17:45-47).

God uses ordinary people, unexpected people. As I read the four Gospels it seems to me than none of the twelve apostles exhibited as much faith as David had on that day in the valley of Elah. Yet see what they did with such little faith.