Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 21, 2015
I Samuel 17 Commentary
Some years ago when last the Lectionary included this famous story, I consulted my son’s “Student Bible” as it was the handiest Bible to grab while I worked at home that day. This particular version of the Bible inserts some textual explanations and elaborations into the biblical text inside little colored boxes. Midway through I Samuel 17 one such little box is titled “Deadly Rocks” and the explanation claims that the “five smooth stones” David picked up from the riverbed probably were larger than baseballs and could probably have been hurled by David at speeds in excess of 100 MPH.
I suppose that’s a helpful little explanatory comment but ironically it is almost completely at variance and cross-purposes with the text! The idea seems to be, “How did little old David take out big, bad Goliath? Well shucks, if you got clocked in your temporal lobe with a baseball-sized piece of granite going 100 MPH, you’d probably keel over dead as a doornail, too!” Major league ball players drop like shot elephants when a fastball at 95 MPH nicks them in the shoulder or hits on their strong helmets. Goliath didn’t stand a chance.
In short, there’s a perfectly logical explanation here. It’s all a matter of simple physics meeting up with simple physiology.
The whole arc of this narrative is precisely to say that what brought Goliath down was not David’s skill with the slingshot nor the precise flight path of his smooth-stone projectile. Rather, it was all the work of the LORD God of Israel that won the day and made all the difference in the world. David’s skills were not insignificant—and it’s not as though Goliath collapsed from some divine-induced cerebral stroke of some kind—but the whole point of David’s confidence was not his talents but the presence and work of Yahweh, the God of Israel. As David says in verse 47, “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.”
It was Yahweh whom Goliath had defied and insulted, not King Saul and not Israel’s soldiers or people. What Goliath could not see was who his true opponent was (and how outmatched little old Goliath was on account of that truth, too). It’s not an uncommon problem in the Old Testament. Pharaoh had the same difficulty back in Exodus 5 when, having heard Moses plea for the release of the Israelites, Pharaoh responded “Who is Yahweh that I should listen to him?” The rest of the Book of Exodus is God’s extended answer to Pharaoh’s question.
Goliath would learn the same truth but in shorter order and in far more brutal a fashion than even Pharaoh did.
But the question is less about why the likes of Goliath didn’t know this truth and more why the people of Israel—from King Saul on down—didn’t know it. This Old Testament lection is paired in the Year B Lectionary with Jesus’ calming the storm at sea in Mark 4:35-41, and it’s not difficult to see a connection between the Israelites being unaware of Yahweh’s power even vis-à-vis someone as big as Goliath and the disciples being unaware of Jesus’ power vis-à-vis even a big storm on the Sea of Galilee. The people of God seem forever unaware of the power of their God and of his ability to take care of his people.
Of course, knowing that and acknowledging that is no guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen to God’s people in this life. The history of the church is not exactly free of persecutions, martyrdoms, and dreadful accidents befalling even those who are actively engaged in God’s service somewhere. Being a believer is not a ticket to a pain-free, accident-free, completely safe life (sorry, Joel Osteen, but you’ve got it wrong, pal). But being a believer does mean having the faith that says that however God works it out, at the end of the day God’s purposes will not be thwarted ultimately. God will accomplish what he sets out to do, and though he may use us and our skills and our efforts to get it done, at the end of the day the glory is all God’s because it is the almighty working of God that is able to do far more than we can imagine (or accomplish on our own no matter how hard we work).
What kind of a difference would it make in the life of the church if more of us did have this kind of a firm faith in God’s ability to take care of himself and his own people? Certainly it ought not lead to laziness in the church or elsewhere in life. Knowing that all is in the Lord’s hands has never meant letting our own hands go idle. But it might mean doing our work on God’s behalf with greater joy, with greater confidence, with a firmer sense that God can and will prosper our work (and so we don’t have to work ourselves to death or toil to the point of exhaustion in the arrogant belief that it’s finally up to us to make the church successful or to make this or that church program effective).
And it might also mean that our posture over against the wider culture is likewise one of hope and grace. Too often church leaders come off as a little desperate, a little too worried that the atheists of the world—lately those of the Richard Dawkins variety—are somehow going to win the day because their bully pulpit is larger, their voice louder, their anti-religion opinions more strident. And so sometimes when some in the church respond to cultural forces or the foes of the faith, they come across as flailing around a bit in a kind of panic and anger that characterizes those who have forgotten that truth—and the God of all truth—is on their side.
Like the Israelite troops who cowered in their foxholes day after day when Goliath and his shield bearer sallied forth with the daily insult, so too many in the church today hang back in their pews and shake their heads over this or that cultural movement, political proposal, or atheistic screed, wishing that someone would do something but evincing precious little confidence that much can be done. Or, worse, someone does try to do something, does try to fight some kind of a battle, but then does so on the world’s terms, exchanging the cross of Christ for the culture-war equivalent of machine guns and hand grenades (or in the case of I Samuel 17, swords and spears). We just cannot believe the Word of God alone is strong enough to get the job done, that the Holy Spirit can use our witness and the force of our Christ-like examples of humility to accomplish much worth talking about.
In I Samuel 17 and in Mark 4 we see the same thing: terror in the eyes of God’s people. And in both cases David and Jesus come to those people of God with the same question, “Where is your faith?” It’s a question we need to keep asking.
In his fine book on David, Leap over a Wall, Eugene Peterson states that the image in the David & Goliath story that most arrests his attention is the one of young David kneeling down by the brook to gather up his five smooth stones. Peterson thinks that the whole David saga is finally about becoming human, about awakening to the reality of a God-infused world. David begins to show just this awakening to reality in this scene. As Peterson puts it, “While David knelt by the brook, the world was bounded on one side by the arrogant and bullying people of Philistia and on the other side by the demoralized and anxious people of Israel. To the north of the brook the powerful but stupid giant; to the south of the brook the anointed but deeply flawed king. No one could have guessed that the young man picking stones out of the brook was doing the most significant work of the day . . . The only person fully in touch with reality that day was David. The only fully human person in the Valley of Elah that day was David. Reality is made up of mostly what we can’t see. Humannness is mostly a matter of what never gets reported in the newspapers. Only a prayer-saturated imagination accounts for what made holy history that day—the striking immersion in God-reality, the robust exhibitionism of David-humanity” (Eugene Peterson, Leap over a Wall, Harper-Collins, 1997, pp. 44-45).
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