(We had technical problems this week and so the video is not yet – and may never be – available. If we can get audio or video, I will post it later in the week.)
This one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. That’s a problem for me because you already know what’s going to happen. You even know details: Goliath is over nine feet tall; David refuses to wear Saul’s armor; he chooses 5 smooth stones for his sling. You may even know (or think you know) what moral I’ll draw from the story and what application steps I’ll suggest.
Maybe you do know what I am going to say … but maybe not. These events are usually framed as a story of faith overcoming insurmountable odds; that’s not how I’m going to tell it. It doesn’t do it justice.
For one thing, it misses an important element of the story because it skips over chapter 16. Chapter 16 provides information that sets up the action in chapter 17.
In chapter 16, God sends his faithful servant, the prophet/priest Samuel, to anoint Saul’s royal replacement, David. At a critical point in the chapter, we read that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power.” One verse later, we learn that “the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul.” This puts us on notice that the story here is not simply about David versus Goliath, but David versus Saul. That’s the primary story the author is telling.
Also in chapter 16, we are told how Samuel discovered the identity of Saul’s replacement. God sent him to the home of Jesse of Bethlehem with a mission objective but almost no details. Years earlier, when God sent this same Samuel on a similar mission, he gave him extraordinarily detailed information. But not this time.
Question: Why did God work one way one time and a different way the next? There are probably many reasons, but one is so that Samuel – and through him all of Israel and all of us – could learn an important lesson. Imagine that God had said, “Go and anoint Jesse’s youngest son, the ruddy and handsome one who shepherds his father’s sheep. You’ll find him on Thursday morning in a field one mile east-northeast of Bethlehem.” That would have gotten the job done, but getting the job done is not God’s only – or even primary – interest. He is interested in developing people.
When Samuel got to Bethlehem and was introduced to Jesse’s family, he immediately jumped to the conclusion that Jesse’s oldest son, the impressive Eliab, was Israel’s future king. Here was a warrior and a leader, if ever there was one. But he was not the person God had chosen.
Samuel did what we often do: he relied on appearances. Yet, he was wise enough to question his own conclusions and spiritually attuned enough to listen for the voice of God. This is what God told him: “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). That, as we will see, is this section’s theme.
Samuel learned that, and so did David, but Saul did not. He trusted his own judgments and distrusted God’s. Saul was, as we saw last week, overly concerned with appearances. His decisions were dictated by what he saw around him, not by who was reigning over him.
Contrast that with David, who looked beyond the appearances to see the sovereign God. That was something Saul could never do. Appearances always obstructed his view of God.
There is an important (and troubling) correlate to this. People who are transfixed by how things appear to them (their circumstances) tend to be the same people who worry most about how they appear to others (their image). They are more concerned with how they appear than with who they are. They invest more time, energy, and money in managing their image than in transforming their character.
And dare we look at ourselves? If we do, will we see that our efforts to manage appearances – that is, to control what people think of us – has led us to be controlled by the way things appear? That dynamic sets in motion a cause-and-effect chain that spirals away from God. And whatever leads us away from God leads us away from our true self.
You see, when life goes as God intends, people are closer to their true self at the end of their life than at any previous time. That is a beautiful thing. Unfortunately for Saul, he was closer to his true self around age 30 than he ever was again That’s when he nearly intersected with God. After that, the vector of his life led him ever further from God and from himself.
We see these things play out in the David and Goliath story. Let’s set the scene and then we will read 17:8-11. The Philistines (who settled on the western coast two centuries before) have amassed their forces on their side of the Valley of Elah. The Israelites have taken position in the foothills on the eastern side. Neither army wants to be the first to descend into the valley because that will give a strategic advantage to those who remain on the high ground.
So, they wait for days, then weeks, and then more than a month. The better provisioned Philistines are confident that they can outwait the Israelites. Their commanders are hoping that Saul’s troops (most of whom are not professional soldiers) will begin deserting, as they had done once before, and go back to their fields. They’re farmers and they’ve been away from their fields for 40 days, which at this time of the year could mean financial ruin.
On each of those forty days, a Philistine champion has challenged the Israelites to representative combat, winner takes all. If the Philistine wins, Israel must surrender. If the Israelite wins, Philistia must surrender. In ancient times (and not so ancient – Idi Amin suggested something similar in the 1970s), representative combat was practiced around the Mediterranean, and certainly around the Aegean, from whence the Philistines hailed.
But Israel had never engaged in representative combat. When they saw the size of the Philistine champion, they thought that was a wise tradition to maintain. The guy was a giant. His armor was state of the art. He carried a showpiece of a sword and had a bronze scimitar (that is the word the NIV translates as javelin) strapped to his back. He had an enormous spear with a fifteen-pound iron point.
Talk about appearances! Fighting this guy appeared to be a death sentence. No one, not even King Saul (who was head and shoulders taller than everyone else in Israel), dared to face him.
Now, our text, beginning with verse 8:
8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” 10 Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” 11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.
The sight of this warrior set Saul and his army (which included David’s three oldest brothers) trembling. Saul found himself between the rock and the proverbial hard place. If a champion did not fight this monster of a man, his troops would begin to scatter, just as they had done in the days leading up to the Battle of Micmash. But if Israel’s champion fought and lost – and who could imagine winning against that guy – they would lose everything.
During the forty days this was going on, David was making provisioning runs from Bethlehem to the front lines. On this day, he had arrived in time to hear the Philistine’s taunts. Verse 10, which the NIV translates as “I defy the ranks of Israel!” is literally, “I heap shame on the ranks of Israel.”
When Saul and his men heard this, (verse 24) they “ran from him in great fear.” Listen to what they were saying (verse 25): “See how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy [literally, shame] Israel.” But David (verse 26) heard something different. He heard this man shaming “the armies of the living God.” David heard more than an insult against the soldiers. He heard an “assault on the living God.”
David heard something different, and it affected him differently than it did the others. They were filled with fear. He was filled with indignation.
David also saw something different than what everyone else saw. They saw an invincible warrior. He saw an uncircumcised Philistine. They saw an adversary too big to challenge. He saw a target too big to miss.
By now Saul had realized that he could not outwait the Philistines, so when he heard that someone was willing to challenge their champion, he had him brought to him. But when he saw David, he said: “You can’t fight him! You’re just a boy and he is a hardened warrior.”
David’s response makes clear how differently he saw things. Saul saw a fighting man. David saw a beast: “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God.”
To David, this Philistine was no unassailable champion. He was a brute who dared to defy his creator. In verse 37, the word translated “paw” of the lion and “paw” of the bear is the same word translated “hand” of the Philistine. David looked past the armor and the weapons and saw just another brute.
When we are overawed by appearances, we miss things. When Saul and his soldiers looked at Goliath in his armor, they saw an unstoppable giant, but they missed what David saw. They missed the fact that his man was so weighed down by his state-of-the-art amor that he moved very slowly. They missed the fact that his armor, which covered almost all of him, didn’t cover his forehead. When they looked at Goliath, they saw humiliation and defeat. When David looked, he saw certain victory.
Perhaps David saw something else. For the past forty days, the Philistines had been getting exactly what they wanted: delay. Time was on their side. Goliath didn’t need to win in personal combat; he merely needed to postpone the beginning of the conflict. That may have been what Goliath’s daily challenge was really all about. It was theatrics, diversion. I suspect the Philistine commanders didn’t want anyone to accept the challenge. Delay was their goal – and the longer the better.
Saul, who was without options, agreed to let David fight, and outfitted him in his own armor. He may have hoped that his men would recognize that armor and think that he had gone to face the foe – he was, remember, always thinking about his image. But after trying on Saul’s armor, David wisely opted not to wear it. He said that he was not used to it. His style of fighting depended not on defense but on offense, not on being able to stand in one place and slug it out but on being able to move quickly to an advantageous position.
So, David took his staff and his sling, which was all he wanted and, he was sure, all he needed. When we think of a sling, we think of a slingshot, usually a child’s toy with a heavy rubber band. But the sling David took was a weapon that was used by armies all over the world. There were two kinds of artillery in ancient warfare: bows and arrows and slings and stones.
A slinger whirled his sling so fast that the stone came out at over a hundred miles an hour. And the stones were no mere pebbles. Archeologists have found slingers’ stones the size of tennis balls. Imagine getting hit by a rock traveling a hundred miles an hour! And the rocks that David would have used were special rocks. The valley of Elah is filled with barium sulphate – a rock with approximately twice the density of normal stones. Analysis suggests that such a rock, thrown at the speed at which David would have thrown it, would have the stopping power of a 45-caliber bullet.
And then there is the accuracy with which slingers could fire their weapon. Ancient documents talk about slingers hitting their target at more than a hundred yards away. Ancient art shows slingers knocking birds out of the sky. When David stepped out onto the field of battle, he did not think of himself as the underdog. He knew Goliath didn’t stand a chance.
And what about Goliath? There are some interesting hints in the text about him. In verse 44, Goliath says to David, “Come here, and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!” Why did the invincible warrior say, “come here”? Why did he not go to David? I suspect that moving around in all that armor was difficult.
Goliath was outfitted for hand-to-hand combat, an idea that terrified every other Israelite soldier. But David had no intention of getting close enough to this guy for hand-to-hand combat. He realized that Goliath was powerless against him at a distance. Even his spear was too big to throw accurately.
Notice also how Goliath taunts David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” But David doesn’t have sticks. He has a staff. So why does Goliath say “sticks”? Since the 1960s, many theorists have concluded that Goliath suffered from acromegaly, a benign tumor on the pituitary gland that causes an overproduction of human growth hormone. One of the symptoms of acromegaly is blurred or double vision, which happens when the tumor gets large enough to put pressure on the optic nerve.
Whether Goliath had this condition or not, it not really the issue. This is: Saul and his army were paralyzed with fear because they were controlled by appearances. David was able to act and succeed because he saw beyond the appearances.
The story of David and Goliath is frequently used to admonish God’s people to be brave. But bravery is a fruit, not a root; and you cannot have the fruit without the root. The root of bravery is not will power. Expecting people (including ourselves) who lack the root to bear the fruit – to conjure up courage out of the thin air; to be brave by sheer will power – is expecting the impossible.
Planting the root is God’s work, not ours. We can, however, cultivate it. How do we do that? How did David?
For one thing, he listened to and thought about God’s word. The author and editors of 1 Samuel bring this out in a variety of ways. Whereas Saul remains ignorant of the Torah throughout his life (even though as king he was required to personally hand copy the Book of the Law and read it regularly), David displays a comprehensive knowledge of God’s word. This is the David who wrote Psalm 1: “Blessed is the one … whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” That meditation is one of the reasons David saw things differently, saw things from God’s perspective. Without it, I suspect, he would have been as frightened as everyone else.
Secondly, David cared more about who he was than what he looked like. He would have looked great in the royal armor, but he wasn’t thinking about how he looked. People who focus on how they appear are the same people who cannot see God beyond the appearances.
Here is something else: David was able to trust God in the present because he had a history of trusting God in the past. (Think of the lion and the bear.) We do our best to arrange our lives so that faith will not be necessary, but that leaves us unprepared for the time when it is. Because David had trusted God before, he could do it again.
The only way to be ready to trust God in the future is to trust him in the present. That’s not easy to do but, once you’ve done it, you’ll be able to do it again. God provides us with opportunities to trust him that are suited to our circumstances and ability. What opportunity is he giving you right now? Will you trust him and obey or will you let fear – always the adversary’s chief weapon – stop you?
Last thing: I mentioned earlier that we don’t plant the root – God does that; or, rather, he did it. The root of courage, the root of joy, the root of eternal life is not a thing but a person. In the Bible, he is known as the Root of Jesse, the Son of David, the anointed one, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings. We call him Lord: our Lord, Jesus Christ.
 Bergen, p.192