This week is Episode 2 of the David Saga. Please read 1 Samuel 17 where David encounters and slays Goliath of Gath.
Last week’s episode opens with Samuel informing King Saul that God has withdrawn his favor from King Saul. Under the pretense of offering a sacrifice, and unknown to Saul, Samuel travels to Bethlehem in Judah to anoint King Saul’s successor. There Samuel anoints a young shepherd boy named David, the eighth son of a man named Jesse, as the next king. The Spirit of God comes mightily upon David and just as decidedly leaves King Saul. In a great plot twist, David, the spirit-filled surreptitiously-anointed king, comes into the household and personal service of King Saul. Saul is being tortured by an evil spirit, and David’s playing of the lyre calms his nerves. The episode ends with the statement that Saul loved David (his unknown successor) greatly.
This week’s episode gives us a different version of the meeting between Saul and David. The scene opens with an armed standoff between the Israelite army on one hill and the Philistine army on an opposing hill. The Philistines had usually prevailed against Israel in these battles. (Judges 13:1, 1 Sam. 4). The Israelites had demanded God give them a king to lead them in their war against the Philistines in the hope that their fortunes would change. (1 Sam. 8:22). This is how Saul became king. (1 Sam. 9). His very purpose was to lead his men into battle. However, against the Philistines, Israel was at a technological disadvantage. The Philistines had mastered iron working, but Israel had not. (1 Sam. 13:19). Only Saul and his son Jonathan had iron weapons. (1 Sam. 13:22).
As the armies face each other across the valley, a large Philistine warrior named Goliath would come out of his camp and into the valley. He would harangue Israel and disparage their God. Each day Goliath would demand a battle of single combat between champions. In a battle of single combat or champion warfare opposing armies resolve their hostilities through the actions of only two men not the two armies, with the losers resolving to taken by the winners to either be ransomed back or to be enslaved. No one on Israel’s side answered Goliath.
Picture King Saul. He is the tallest man in Israel. (1 Sam. 9:2). He is armed, unlike his men, with iron weapons. His primary duty as king is to lead his men into battle. He is Israel’s champion, having been initially chosen by God for this role. And yet, when the time comes for him to perform, he cowers in great fear. v.11. We can almost picture Saul in his tent afraid to even come out. Instead, Saul has promised the man that faces and prevails against Goliath that he will be reward with great riches, Saul’s daughter in marriage, and his family would be forever exempt from taxes. v.25. Saul has abdicated his duties to his nation and is trying to bribe someone to perform them on his behalf. Into this breach, walks David the shepherd boy.
David is a shepherd. In protecting his sheep, he has killed both lions and bears. v.36. Though small, David shows no fear and seems to relish the opportunity to prove himself against the giant Goliath. v.37. Saul gives David his own sword and armor, which David rejects (as will David come to reject Saul’s leadership). v.39. David steps out of the Israelite camp and begins to walk towards the valley occupied by Goliath. David acts like a king.
David is armed with nothing but a wooden staff, a sling, and five smooth stones. Slings were powerful and accurate weapons. Scripture notes that slings were used to successfully hunt hares. (Judges 20:16). David himself tells Saul of how he has killed lions and bears with the same weapon. v.34. However, unlike prey or predator, Goliath is not only well-armed but well-armored with both shield and helmet.
David steps out into the valley and begins to insult Goliath and invokes the name and protection of his God. Goliath only notices David’s staff and not his sling inquiring as to whether he is a dog that David intends to attack with but a stick. David’s real weapon (like his anointing in last week’s episode) is hidden. And so, the giant and the boy face each other. David begins to run towards Goliath, pulls a stone from his purse, and hurls it at the Philistine. The rock sinks into Goliath’s temple, and he falls to the ground. He never sees his death coming for Goliath had never even unsheathed his sword. Standing over the dying Goliath, David is the one that removes Goliath’s sword from its scabbard and uses it to decapitate his victim.
The Philistines break rank and flee in fear. The Israelite army give chase until the Philistines have retreated inside the city gates. And then Israel plunders the Philistine camp. It is David, not Saul, who leads the army to victory.
David is slowly taking the office of king from Saul. In next week’s episode, Saul will begin to realize that his popular authority is now rapidly being ceded to David. The conflict between the two men will soon become an open contest.
The Character of David
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” Of all the people spoken of in Scripture, David best embodies this idea. He is both a scoundrel and a man after God’s own heart. He murders other men to take their wives and yet dedicates himself to serving God. This reading is the first time that David speaks. His words are filled with both self-interest and religious idealism, mixed with a stunning self-assurance otherwise unknown in a Biblical hero.
David’s very first words are “What’s in it for the man who kills the Philistine.” (v.26). As we read through the David saga, this trait of “What’s in it for me” will be a reoccurring theme that drives much of David’s actions. In killing Goliath, David not only expects to receive Saul’s promised reward, but also Saul’s kingship. David will seldom, if ever, act of disinterested selflessness.
On the other hand, David is offended for God. He asks rhetorically: “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” Goliath is not only an affront to Israel but to Israel’s God. And David will avenge this insult to his God. David faithfully trusts that God will also see him through. David will always fight on the side of God’s name, although the separation between David’s interest and the Divine is sometimes difficult to discern.
When David volunteers to confront Goliath, there is no indication that God tells David to go forth on his behalf, David just knows to do so. And unlike men such as Moses (Ex. 4:10), Jeremiah (Jer. 1:6), and others, David never doubts his abilities. David simply knows that God will always be on his side and that he will prevail. Throughout his story, David will walk that fine line between having a humble certainty or faithful confidence and an arrogant cockiness. Whenever David crosses that line, trouble will come into his life. The same self-certainty that will allow David to confront and prevail against Goliath will also allow him to murder Bathsheba’s husband and cause an insurrection.
Finally, we see that David will not yield to anyone. He is God’s anointed, but unlike his descendant, David will never go away quietly. David will never be confused with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. In this reading, David’s oldest brother confronts him and David summarily blows him off. vv.27-28. David knows that his anointed place is to be the sovereign king of Israel and to be under no other person’s authority. He is to be the absolute monarch answerable to no one other than God. It is this absolute sovereignty under God alone that men such as Charlemagne and Henry VIII will seek to emulate.
Usually, the story of David and Goliath is the story of the little guy triumphing over his larger foe. This past Friday, the Wall Street Journal began its article on last week’s stock market downturn with the following observation: “U.S. technology giants have stumbled. In true David and Goliath fashion, it might be the work of amateur investors dabbling with derivatives.” At Conway High School, before our football game in 1987 against Summerville and its legendary coach John McKissick (the winningest football coach at any level at any time), the pre-game talk was on the story of David (Conway) vs. Goliath (Summerville). (We lost the game 0-2 in a torrential downpour.) From a simple perspective, the story tells us that if we have the same confidence in God that David had, and if we too are armed with the rock that is Christ (1 Cor. 10:4), we too can slay our giants. Jesus is a tool that we can use to become better people.
However, the deeper meaning to the story arises when we understand that it is Jesus who is David, not us. Jesus is the one who acts decisively. We are Goliath. The Gospel message is one of death – we are called to take up our instrument of death (Mark 8:34) and to put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13). The Christian message is that our ego, our pride, and our works of the flesh such as licentiousness, anger, selfishness, and dissension, must die. (Gal. 5:16-24). We are the giant that taunts God in our sinfulness. Therefore, we are the one that must die through Christ. To continue the analogy, the church is the rock (Matt. 16:18) in the sling through which Christ accomplishes his work.
From an eschatological perspective, it is death itself who is Goliath. As we read in Ecclesiastes, death comes for all and death is final, for they have no more reward, and the memory of them is lost. (Eccl. 9). Death mocks God, God’s power, and God’s promise. The Christian message is one of Christ’s slaying of death, and his victory over death. 1 Cor. 15: 26, 55. And just as David put Goliath to death by Goliath’s own sword, so does Christ put death to death through his own death.
Please read the whole story in 1 Samuel 17. Where does the story of David and Goliath speak to you today.
Thus David spoke; Goliath heard and came
To meet the hero in the field of fame
Ah! fatal meeting to thy troops and thee,
But thou wast deaf to the divine decree.
PHILLIS WHEATLEY, GOLIATH OF GATH, 1773