The story of David and Goliath is a touchstone passage in an at large cultural sense.
What do I mean by that? I mean it is a story of a person, yes, but also the story of a culture. It’s very infrastructure is designed for a specific purpose: to give hope to an oppressed people. David, a shrimpy teenager unskilled in the ways of war, was able to fell Goliath, a behemoth of military might. David became a symbol to the nation of Israel, in that though they are small, and though outmatched by their enemies in every way, that does not mean they are to be discounted. The implicit meaning is that, through God, all things, even the unimaginable defeat of a giant, is possible.
We know this story. We’ve been told this story countless times since our childhood. In fact, I’m a little surprised I didn’t talk about it earlier during Vacation Bible School! It has become a bedtime story in many ways. Dare I say it, the story as it is traditionally told has become more legend than history, in that it’s underlying meaning has become more of the point than the story itself. What we get out of it has taken on a life of its own. Part of that is our own doing. The lectionary selection omits the more humanizing aspects of the story. Part of that is how culture works, because we like to boil down everything to its basic meaning. So why not really chew on this passage a bit with me today? You might find something you hadn’t thought about before.
A Boy Stumbles Into War
Let’s set the stage. Israel was in their never ending war with the Philistines, their ancient enemy.
A battle is about to be waged in the Elah Valley. Goliath, champion of the Philistine makes his way to the front of the battle line. This towering figure, 9 feet tall, wearing armor that weighs 125 pounds, carrying a spear with a 15 pound head and with a shaft nearly five inches in diameter, bellows a challenge. If anyone can defeat him in single combat, the battle is over and the Philistine army will become the slaves of the Israelites. However, if he wins, the Israelites will become the Philistines’ slaves.
Essentially, he’s invoking a very old but interesting challenge. Why have needless bloodshed? Why not boil this battle down to 2 people fighting, and call it a day? It would be a tempting challenge to anyone… if the fight seemed at all fair. But that’s just the thing. It’s not really that fair of a fight. Who in their right mind would want to fight a soldier twice as tall as anyone in your army? With armor thicker than anything can pierce? With a spear as thick as a man’s leg? The man was a war machine! By all accounts, this is a fight that cannot be won!
OR SO IT WOULD SEEM!
Enter the young boy David. The youngest son of a relatively unknown man in the smallest of towns in the least impressive region of Judah.
By all accounts, his life was going nowhere. He was last in line of inheritance, which means what he would receive would be next to nothing. He was relegated to shepherd duty while his brothers were at war. He was on his way to go deliver supplies to these brothers when he overheard the hubbub.
Goliath had issued this challenge for 40 days straight, and for forty days, it went unanswered. David overheard the challenge, as well as what the other soldiers were saying in response: “Do you see this man who keeps coming out? How he comes to insult Israel? The king will reward with great riches whoever kills that man. The king will givehis own daughter to him and make his household exempt from taxes[i] in Israel.”
This, I’m sure, sparks interest in the boy David. Riches! Fame! Women! A tax-free existence! His eyes grow large at the thought. He had already been anointed by the prophet Samuel, but that event had gone on with little fanfare. David saw now an opportunity to seize upon this anointing, and take life into his own hands. Kingship wasn’t just going to give itself to him. Why not work at it a bit?
So he inquires more about the riches the victor would receive, formulating a plan, and at that moment, his brothers arrive upon him and chastise him. What’s there runt of a brother up to this time? And why wasn’t he back home, where it was safe, watching what few sheep they had left? The arrogance on this kid! He came all this way just to see the battle!
David, ever the quick thinker, puts a quick end to his scheme. “What did I do? I just asked a question.”
Well, news of David’s questions got passed on to the King, Saul, who called him to his quarters. Upon entry, David dispenses of all pleasantries and niceties, and confidently shouts out: “Don’t let anyone[j] lose courage because of this Philistine!” “I, your servant, will go out and fight him!”
To which Saul replied, “What, are you kidding me? I can’t let you fight this warrior! None of these soldiers can stand up to him! You are but a boy, but Goliath? He’s been a warrior since he was a child! There’s no way I’m going to let you put yourself–and all of us, by the way–at risk!
But David, calm and confident only as a teenage boy can be, begins to make his case. David defends his right to fight by saying that, in defending his father’s sheep, he’s killed both bears AND lions, and Goliath? He’s no bear! He’s no lion! He’s no worse than any of that.
And then, to seal the deal, he brings in God. “God saved me from the power of those lions and bears, and God’s going to save me from the power of this Philistine.”
After this rousing speech, Saul figured he might as well let the boy put his metal where his mouth was. After all, nobody else has been willing to fight the Goliath from Gath. This battle’s a foregone conclusion, so why not get it over with? He decides to even give David a fighting shot by lending him his armor and weaponry. However, after David puts it on and figures that he can’t move, decides to decline the armor in favor of his own gear: a staff, a sling, and five smooth stones.
What we Take from the Battle
The rest is history, as they say. David fells an overconfident Goliath with naught but his skill and a smooth, sharp stone right to the forehead. Thus usually ends the story. But that’s not really the end, because the end is far more gruesome than we like to admit.
After David knocks the giant out, he takes Goliath’s own sword, climbs atop his body, and slices off the giants head, decapitating him in an overt show of victory. And that’s how Goliath is killed; not with a slingshot but with his own weapons. In the aftermath, David carries the giant’s head all the way to the capitol, extolling the victory and praising God as he goes. This was, after all, a war. There’s no such thing as a pretty war. David makes an example of Goliath, which indeed earns him fame and fortune, as it was promised him by both Samuel and the soldiers.
The grim reality of the war is often not what we think it is. We tend to sanitize our heroes, scrub the grime off of them and buff there histories to a cool shine. The truth is, as we shall see in future installments, David is far from perfect. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, and take matters into his own hands. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t accomplish great things in his time. But David was no squeaky clean champion.
We can see this in his own ambition. His brothers recognize the arrogance in their brother who perhaps should have stayed at home. We can see this in his grandiose speech before Saul. For all we know, he might have been telling the truth, or his ridiculous claims at having slain lions and bears may have been an elaborate exaggeration, cooked up to earn him a place at Saul’s table. Be it the truth, or an embellishment, it worked. He got what he sought out. He also probably got a bit more than he bargained for; most of the rest of his life, he’ll spend it on the run from a king who wants nothing more than David’s head on a platter.
So David wasn’t perfect. But that doesn’t mean that God can’t use him. And it doesn’t mean that David isn’t a person fit to be king either.
The name of this series is “A Man of God’s Heart.” How does David show us this in this story? In a couple of ways. First of all, David was perceptive enough to know that, though Goliath is huge and a skilled warrior, he’s also perceptive enough to see that Goliath moves slowly. David could see that his downfall was speed, and a quick strike to the head with a small object was something David could manage. After all, David had spent years wasting time in the fields, throwing rocks with his sling, perfecting his aim. He could manage a stone to the forehead, and improvise the rest. In this case, the most powerful weapon isn’t always the biggest one, but the right one.
So David was perceptive. David was also patient. Patient enough to wait for the right moment. David was cunning enough to persuade the king into letting him fight. And David was persistent enough to follow through with his plan.
In all these things, David proved himself in this battle that yes, he could lead armies, and perhaps even be worthy of being king. So though he wasn’t perfect, God could still inspire courage in the people of Israel through his story. Even if David was being selfish, that doesn’t mean that he can’t inspire greatness, tenacity, and faith in his people of Israel.
God knows that everyone one of us isn’t perfect, without some flaw. But even still, God can even use these flaws to perform greatness. Even in runty 12 year old shepherds with big mouths, God can find a use for them. And God can find a use for even you in his kingdom. Thanks be to God.