1 Samuel 17
In a world of information overload, with all the noise and hype that bombards our daily lives, stories can be powerful form of communication.
A good story cuts through the clutter and captures both our attention and imagination.
A good story’s ability to stimulate our senses – to involve us intellectually and emotionally – awakens us from the boredom and apathy that can mark much of our daily routines.
A good story has a way of quieting all the loudness and discord that divides us and thus, draws us in together in a posture of openness and learning.
Sometimes, however, a story can be so good – universally resonating so deeply across all ages and cultures – that the particular narrative can take on a life of its own.
Take, for example, today’s story from 1 Samuel 17 – the story of David and Goliath.
Perhaps one of the most well-known stories of the Bible; both the appeal and application of the showdown between David and Goliath transcends beyond people of faith.
This story has become folkloric – emblematic of the underdog who overcomes the odds and fells a great giant or obstacle before them.
This iconic understanding of the story of David and Goliath even has become the predominant interpretation within the Church – in sermons, bible studies, and children’s Sunday school classes.
A line from the beloved Christian cartoon series called Veggie Tales sums up what is viewed as the point of this story:
“Sometimes God puts a Goliath in your life,
for you to find the David within you.”
– Veggie Tales, “Dave and the Giant Pickle”
But is that the point of this story? Is the ultimate takeaway of this tale about teaching us how to fight our giants?
Or is it possible that in being so familiar with this story, somewhere along the way we lost the point – the real meaning of what happens here?
Today, I invite us to hear a story we all love – the story of David and Goliath – as if it were the first time.
Let us listen carefully and discover there is much more to this story than first meets the eye.
That this is more than a call for each us to have more courage; it is both a revelation and a reminder of the source from which any true courage we can have comes.
Here is the opening to this story from 1 Samuel, chapter 17.
So, let’s set the stage for one of the greatest showdowns in all of scripture.
In this corner, camped out on one mountain are the people of Israel. In the other corner, camped out on another mountain are the Philistines.
The Philistines have been Israel’s enemies ever since the Israelites occupied the land of Canaan.
During the period of the judges, Samson fought the Philistines.
More recently, the Philistines destroyed the Israelite city of Shiloh and momentarily captured the Ark of the Covenant.
Despite the Lord’s faithful protection, it was the continuing threat of the Philistines that prompted the Israelites to ask for a king to govern them.
Since the coronation of King Saul, the Israelites and the Philistines had tangled on more than one occasion. And now here they both are again – poised for yet another battle – with a valley, the valley of Elah, standing between them.
But this time around, this valley feels like the valley of the shadow of death for Israel.
Because the Philistines have devised a new military strategy.
Rather than launch a full-scale assault against Israel, the Philistines have advanced their champion to represent them in battle.
In the ancient world, rival armies sometimes would agree to let selected individuals from each side decide a conflict between them.
The representative from each side was known as the champion of the people. It was believed the god of each nation would be present in their champion.
Thus, a champion’s victory or loss in battle would be attributed both to that nation’s god as well as to the whole army and thereby decide the outcome of the conflict without excessive bloodshed or unnecessary casualties of war.
For obvious reasons, each side normally would pick their strongest and fiercest warrior person to go to battle.
And standing in the middle of the valley of Elah is the champion of the Philistines,
a man named Goliath from the city of Gath.
Goliath is a juggernaut – a giant of a man at 9 feet and six inches in height.
Besides towering over the average Israelite, Goliath is covered from head to toe in about 130 pounds of bronze, mail armor. In his hand, Goliath holds a spear with a sixteen-pound iron head.
Further protection is afforded to Goliath by a shield-bearer – one of the best Philistine soldiers — hand-picked for his strength, agility, and athletic prowess.
While Goliath is well-armored, the shield bearer’s job as the first line of defense is to ensure that Goliath has no needs of his armor.
Goliath’s voice thunders across the valley as he taunts Israel with the challenge of hand-to-hand combat.
If Israel’s champion can best Goliath in battle, the Philistines will become Israel’s servants.
If, however, Goliath proves to be the victor, then Israel will (again) become slaves to a foreign nation.
Every day, twice a day – every morning and every evening, for forty days, Goliath comes down into the valley, issuing the same challenge from the Philistines.
But from day one, Goliath’s words only lead the Israelites to quake in their boots.
The Philistines’ psychological warfare tactics prove extremely effective, as day after day, no one dares to pick up the gauntlet thrown by Goliath.
Fear increasingly overtakes the army of Israel – including their leader, King Saul.
There is tremendous irony in this.
After all, one of Israel’s arguments for having a king like all other nations was to possess a powerful, physically impressive king — one who would go out and fight their battles for them.
They got what they wanted in Saul – a man who was impressive in his appearance and size – being a foot taller than all the people.
But now their dream king, their own Goliath as it were, refuses to go out before them, to be their champion on the battlefield, to fight for them.
Instead, King Saul cowers in fear like the rest of the people before the strength of the Philistines.
“On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.” (1 Samuel 17:11)
The best Saul can do is to try and bribe one of his soldiers to take on Goliath with the promise of great wealth, his daughter’s hand in marriage, and a lifetime tax exemption.
“The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel.”
(1 Samuel 17:25)
Despite this lucrative offer, there are still no takers in facing Goliath.
And then, along comes David – a teenager, to whom we were introduced in the last chapter of this story.
The youngest of eight sons born to a man named Jesse, David, to surprise and shock of his father and his brothers, was handpicked by God and anointed with the Lord’s Spirit to eventually become the next king of Israel – Saul’s replacement.
But that is later. This is now.
For now, David arrives on the scene per his father’s direction.
Taking a break from tending to the family’s flock of sheep, David is sent to check on his three oldest brothers who have gone to war.
David comes with provisions from his father – grain, loaves of bread, and ten cheeses – to give to his brothers and the rest of the army on the battlefield.
After making the 15-mile trek from Bethlehem to the Israelite camp outside the Valley of Elah, David leaves what he has brought with the keeper of the supplies and heads to the frontlines to see his brothers.
We often get the impression that both armies are just standing facing each other – at a stalemate.
But it is more likely over the forty days that the armies are fighting each other
– men are dying on both sides of the battlefield, with a pause being taken twice each day as Goliath steps forward and makes his challenge for all of this to be resolved by a death match between each side’s best warrior.
David’s arrival is timely as he comes on the scene during just such a break in the fighting and hears for the first time what his brothers and the rest of the Israelites have been subject to for over a month – not just the challenge but the derisive and defiant taunts of Goliath.
As the Israelite army retreats in fear based on the imposing giant they see before them, David’s attention is focused on what he hears coming out of Goliath’s mouth – more than a provocation of Israel but a blatant mockery of the living God of Israel.
In response, David, who again has been anointed or filled with the Holy Spirit, exudes confidence rather than fear before this situation.
David is not intimidated by Goliath or his threats.
As he will later declare, while the Philistines perceive their might and power comes from the sword and spear and javelin, David understands his power – Israel’s power – comes from the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel.
“David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear
and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” (1 Samuel 17:45)
Abiding in the Lord’s ability to fell this seemingly undefeatable giant, David starts openly questions about how this challenge is going to be answered.
In response, David is first rebuked by his oldest brother, Jesse’s firstborn son, Eliab. At least eight years David’s senior, Eliab tells David he is out of his element. He is just a boy in a man’s world. He should go back to where he belongs out in the pasture with sheep and not on the battlefield.
“When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness?” (1 Samuel 17:28)
David refuses to be silenced. Word of his boldness reaches the ears of King Saul.
Saul has been waiting for more than a month to shake the hand of a brave man who is prepared to be Israel’s champion.
But when Saul lays eyes on David, he states the obvious.
David is just a kid.
“Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”
(1 Samuel 17:33)
The law calls for Israel to go to war with men “from 20 years and upward.” Goliath has been a mighty warrior for many years — probably longer than David has been alive.
Goliath is gigantic, well-armored, well-armed, and a seasoned gladiator. How can Saul as king send David – who is not yet a man – to face such a giant?
David answers not by claiming any military expertise or athletic prowess.
He simply reasserts his faith – faith in the Lord fortified by his experience of God’s provision in enabling him to fend off lions and bears that threatened the sheep of his flock.
“The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Samuel 17:37)
King Saul, having no one else clamoring to face the giant — and being unwilling to do it himself, affirms David as Israel’s champion.
However, he also hedges his bet.
Rather than relying alone on the Lord’s protection of David, Saul comically attempts to suit David up with the king’s armor.
But David declines the use of heavy, unwieldly armor.
Instead, he arms himself with the kinds of weapons with which he is familiar —
a wooden staff, a sling, and five carefully chosen stones.
As David comes forward to face off against the Philistine’s champion, Goliath, like everyone else, perceives an unworthy opponent – more of an insult and less of an actual threat.
“He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!” (1 Samuel 17:43-44)
Cursing the David’s God, Goliath dares David to come closer.
David, without taking a step forward, insists the Lord God Almighty will give him the victory in this battle – not only will Goliath fall but the rest of the Philistine army will share Goliath’s fate.
“This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.” (1 Samuel 17:46)
The Philistine giant then initiates hand-to-hand combat with David. But David does not play by these rules. He uses different tactics.
As Goliath, burdened by his armor and weaponry and hiding behind his shield-bearer, ponderously advances toward David, David, unencumbered, runs nimbly and quickly to meet the Philistine.
David’s choice of the sling as his weapon neutralizes all of Goliath’s advantages.
David can stay at a distance – launching his artillery from outside of Goliath’s reach.
David can keep slinging stones while Goliath has to chase him.
But things don’t even get that far as David takes out his first stone, slings it toward the Philistine’s forehead, and fells Goliath with a single shot.
To our modern ears, this sounds ridiculous.
We picture a child’s toy – a slingshot – taking out a behemoth of a man with one throw and we dismissively roll our eyes.
David, however, was not using a child’s toy.
He was employing a powerful weapon not just used by shepherds to protect their flock from wild animals but also commonly wielded by many ancient armies.
Picture a leather pouch attached on two sides by a long strand of rope. Imagine a rock or lead ball being place into that pouch and that pouch being swung around in increasingly wide and faster circles, until one end of the rope is released, hurled the rock or lead ball forward.
Eiten Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defense Forces, recently did a series of calculations demonstrating a typical-size stone hurled by an expert slinger has a stopping power roughly equivalent to a modern handgun.
In the book of Judges, slingers like David are described as being accurate within “a hair’s breadth.”
An experienced slinger could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of up to two hundred yards.
The Romans even had a special set of tongs made just to remove stones that had been embedded into some poor soldiers body by a sling like David’s.
David, staying out of Goliath’s reach, used a missile against a rifle.
Walking right up to Goliath but still far enough away that Goliath’s sword and javelin are useless), David kills Goliath with a single shot to the head – right between the eyes.
And what’s the moral of this story?
What’s the normal Sunday school and sermon application of this passage?
C’mon. We’ll all heard it.
You are going to face giants in your life. We all have “Goliaths” that stand in our way Maybe it’s a financial difficulty. Perhaps it’s not having a job. It could be a battle against cancer or some another disease. It might be marital or family problems we’re facing. It may be an ongoing struggle with anxiety or loneliness, or some other frustration in life.
Whatever your “Goliath” is, we can’t live in fear but like David, we have to walk by faith to face and overcome the giants of adversity before us.
Believe in yourself. And with some good analysis, persistent elbow grease, a little ingenuity, and of course, having the Lord on your side, you can become the hero of your own story.
While this may sound great and may even be what we want to hear, what happens when we don’t slay our personal giants?
If I can’t save my marriage, if I don’t land that job, if my anxiety gets the best of me, if the cancer kills me – if my Goliath overtakes me, what does that mean?
That I didn’t have enough faith? That I wasn’t good enough – strong enough, smart enough, capable enough?
This is the problem with taking the Bible and turning its redemptive message into a bunch of individual moral examples – lessons for life and examples to follow or shun.
The word of God is not some sort of “holy” Aesop’s fables.
The people we encounter in the scriptures are not intended to be examples for us to follow.
The author of 1 Samuel 17 doesn’t share this story so that we would emulate the example of David.
David is not the hero of this story. God is the hero of this story.
The Lord alone is the hero, the champion, of the entire narrative of the Bible.
Repeatedly in the lead-up to his face-off with Goliath to the moment he steps onto the battlefield and in the aftermath of victory, David isn’t counting on himself to defeat the giant that stands before him.
David consistently makes it clear that it is not his strength or the strength of Israel that will defeat the Philistines.
“All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (1 Samuel 17:47)
David recognizes, David trusts, David acknowledges it is the Lord God who is in charge, it is YHWH who will deliver not only him but all of Israel from the hands of their would-be enemies.
Contrary to how we tell this story, David is not the underdog. David certainly doesn’t see himself as the underdog.
David only perceives the Lord as being greater than anything or anyone that the Philistines can throw at Israel.
Identifying David as the underdog is to become victim to the same trap that the Israelites and King Saul, Goliath and the Philistines fall into – namely, looking for our strength and our salvation in all the wrong places.
Despite all the hype – all the taunts from the Philistines, all the fear on the part of the Israelites, there isn’t much of a contest, a fight, to write about.
Because with one fell stroke, the Lord ends the battle before it even gets started
– choosing to reveal His power and might through whom He has chosen and empowered – David.
And to push this further, David, in this moment, isn’t fighting against his own personal giants – the obstacles before his hopes and dreams, his goals for his life.
David again, recognizes and declares, he is fighting a would-be adversary of the Lord.
Goliath is not standing in the way of David reaching his full potential and living an abundant life. Goliath is daring to challenge the purpose and plans of the living God for Israel – and thus for all creation.
If we stand back from the story of David and Goliath, the much bigger story of the Bible emerges.
The message of this moment is not about teaching us how to fight our giants and to succeed as the underdog.
The point of this story is not the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
What we have here in 1 Samuel 17 is a prelude to the Gospel – to the good news for all humanity – the greatest story ever told.
Goliath here doesn’t just represent the Philistines or any challenge we face. The picture painted of Goliath is that of the ultimate giant before us – the obstacle in front us so well protected that we cannot penetrate it, – the threat we face that so well armed it can hurt and even kill in so many ways,– it is the enemy before us that is so great no ordinary human being can defeat it.
Goliath represents the decisive battle we cannot win as humanity. Our shared Goliath is the obstacle of sin, the threat of the devil, and the enemy of death.
And David’s entrance into this story isn’t the introduction of the underdog but the foreshadowing of the coming of someone much greater.
David enters into this battle against Goliath as a representative of all the people, as their substitute, through whom God brings the victory that Israel couldn’t win for themselves.
To everyone watching, David comes in weakness – lacking the worldly measures of power and strength, experience and even the proper armor for battle.
As David emerges on the battlefield, it is almost like he is being led like a lamb to the slaughter – a sacrificial lamb.
And yet, through David’s perceived weakness and lack, the Lord defeats the giant, the Goliath that no one can conquer, and brings salvation to Israel.
In this way, in this moment in time, David prefigures the coming of Christ – the Lord God our hero, our champion not working through a human agent but coming down to become human in Jesus – to conquer our true Goliath – sin, the devil, and death itself.
Jesus too, came from Bethlehem as a shepherd. Jesus too, was perceived as weak and unimpressive in the eyes of Israel and Rome – not up to the challenge of the battle before us.
And yet, the Goliath of all human sin, of the schemes of the devil, and of even the inescapable finality of the grave did not stand a chance before Christ.
As we stood to the side, we witnessed Jesus on the Cross confront and defeat our greatest foe – disarming the principalities and powers, atoning for all our rebellion and idolatry, and then through His resurrection from the tomb – transform death from a final ending into the gateway of a new, everlasting beginning.
If there is a lesson to be learned in 1 Samuel 17, it is this.
Like Israel, we are absolutely helpless before Goliath. The battle against our true Goliath is one that we cannot win on our own. We need the Lord to meet and conquer the ultimate challenge before us.
Contrary to popular belief and ironically far too many best-selling Christian books, this isn’t a story about turning the impossible odds of our underdog lives into spectacular triumphs of the victorious Christian life by slaying our personal giants.
We are not called to run out and find our stones of self-improvement in order to arm ourselves for battle.
For the message of 1 Samuel 17, the message of the Gospel is not God blesses those who get their act together, those who live morally exemplary lives.
No, the message of the Gospel is the Lord showers His grace, God rescues and redeems; God helps those who can’t help themselves.
Embracing the Gospel is yielding before the revelation that we are not the hero of our own stories – in part or in whole.
Embracing the Gospel is recognizing and submitting to God in Christ as the hero not just of our story but of the human story.
Our hope, trust, and confidence in our lives and our circumstances must be in Christ alone as the champion of the fight for our lives, for this world, for all creation.
For we cannot heal ourselves of that which afflicts us.
On our own, we cannot withstand the temptations and assaults borne of evil – all the lies, all the corruption, all the injustice – both festering within our own minds and hearts and pressing in all around us in this world.
By ourselves, humanity cannot resist or defeat the unavoidable specter of death.
And beloved, we are not called to fight such giants.
We are called to follow our champion, our great shield and defender, our giant slayer in Jesus Christ.
The next time we face these giants, the next time we come up against their taunts and their weapons provoking our fear and insecurity, our retaliation and our violence, our inclination to run for cover or to just give up, let us lean into the presence and character of Christ.
Let us abide – through prayer, through being in the Word, through service to others, let us abide in the work of Jesus.
Abiding in Christ isn’t about trying harder to be a good Christian so we can triumph.
Abiding in Christ is about trusting in victory of the One who when he cried “It is finished!” utterly crushed all that stands against us and made us more than conquerors in Him.
Abiding in Christ is living out of the promise, the assurance that there is no sin in our lives that God cannot forgive, that there is no idol that enslaves which the Lord cannot overthrow, that there is no death – no loss, no failure from which Jesus cannot resurrect us. Amen.