Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 24, 2018
1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49 Commentary
North American television might eat up 1 Samuel 17’s story. It, after all, bristles with the kind of military might and imagery that networks like the CBC and Fox News make their living on. They love to do close-ups on war’s most powerful human figures that are soldiers of one shape or another. Even 1 Samuel 17’s narrator seems enamored by its weaponry and battle. In fact, only its figurative if not literal smallest character recognizes the true source of strength and power.
Yet I imagine even David might fascinate television and movie producers. After all, as today’s Old Testament lesson unfolds, he’s Israel’s king-in-waiting, anointed but still far from its throne. In fact, David’s anointing seems to have changed nothing in Israel. The Philistines are still threatening to wipe the nation right off the map.
1 Samuel 17’s testimony to Israel’s enemy’s enormous military might is unrelenting. “The Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Socoh in Judah” (1). The Philistines aren’t, in other words, just armed to the teeth. They’re also an occupying force. They’ve stationed their soldiers, after all, on Israelite ground, on the very land God had promised Israel’s ancestors.
The mighty Philistines also have “a champion named Goliath” (4) who isn’t just very tall. He’s also heavily armed. Frederick Beuchner says he stands “nearly seven feet tall, twirling his twenty-five pound spear with the careless ease of a cheerleader twirling her baton.” Goliath is the ancient form of the newest tank or speediest jet.
Yet Goliath and the Philistines aren’t the only ones who are prepared to try to solve things militarily. Verse 2 reports, “Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines.” Of course, the Israelites haven’t been able to militarily prepare for war very well. When, after all, Goliath taunts them, “Saul and all the other Israelites were dismayed and terrified” (11). What’s more, “When the Israelites saw [Goliath], they all ran from him in great fear.”
So we’re not surprised to read that when someone volunteers to fight the Philistine titan, Saul and the Israelites assume they must militarily prepare him to do so. David, after all, would no longer be going to war with the kinds of evil spirits that torment Israel’s king (16:23). Harps may defeat those enemies. Battling towering giants like Saul and the Philistines in an entirely different matter.
David is, of course, a veteran of hand-to-hand combat with bears and lions. But since he has no experience fighting human “champions,” Saul assumes he must arm him to the teeth conventionally. So after telling David to “Go and the Lord be with you” (37b), “Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head” (38).
However, since David is “not used to” (39b) being so heavily armed, he quickly sheds his conventional armaments. He “arms” himself, instead, with “five smooth stones from the stream” (40). With them in his hand, he approaches Philistia’s champion, Goliath.
And, of course, as most even moderately biblically literate children know, though it seems like an absurdly uneven match-up, David strikes down Goliath. Though he’s armed with little more than the faith that “the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands,” Israel’s next king kills Goliath.
Yet while David’s victory is militarily unconventional, 1 Samuel’s 17’s denouement is decidedly militarily conventional. When the Philistines see their dead champion, they run for their lives. However, Israel’s newly emboldened warriors hound and slaughter their bodies all the way to Gath and Ekron. And when they’re done with that they return to loot the Philistine’s campsites. David even brings Goliath’s head back to Jerusalem and put his weapons in his own tent.
But, of course, this military solution only proves to be a temporary solution to Israel’s Philistine problem. After all, even after their champion’s death and their panicked flight from the Valley of Elah, the Philistines continue to threaten and fight the Israelites. It’s the Philistines who, in fact, eventually kill Jonathan and force Saul to take his own life. Only David is finally able to deal with and defeat the Philistine threat.
So it’s tempting for those who proclaim 1 Samuel 17 in the 21st century to focus on its conventional military failure. Goliath is, after all, not just tall. He’s also armed to the teeth. David is, to say the most, lightly armed. Yet David triumphs over Goliath.
So those who proclaim our Old Testament lesson may want to use it to point to the folly of relying on military might for protection. That’s certainly a biblical truth. But to limit 1 Samuel 17’s application to reminding hearers of how much we depend on God to militarily deliver us is to water down its full truth.
So those who proclaim 1 Samuel 17 might invite those who hear us to contemplate, with Craig Barnes, the identity of the various “champions” who shout out to God’s people. Barnes suggests they may a giant rift in our family or wound in our heart, doubt or illness that threaten our well-being.
Some of those giants that menace God’s people are societal and structural rather than personal. Homelessness and poverty, violence and neglect intimidate God’s people. Racism and materialism also seem to stand at least seven feet tall in our society.
Having identified some of those “champions” that menace God’s people, those who proclaim 1 Samuel 17 might move on to explore how we usually respond to those threats. As Barnes notes, we generally respond to force with force. The Israelites respond to Philistine force by trying to arm a young shepherd to the teeth.
There are parallels in that to our culture’s response to various giants. Is there unrest somewhere in the world? We send in the military to solve it. Is there crime and violence in your neighborhood? We beef up our police patrols and impose mandatory minimum sentencing. Do we perceive some kind of legal threat? We take our assailants to court.
Yet as Barnes goes on to point out, our society insists there’s no place for ordinary people to address our world’s towering giants. And if ordinary people do think we can make a difference, our culture makes sure to load us down with some kind of “armor.”
What’s more, when, as Scott Hoezee notes, Goliath swaggers out to taunt the Israelites, no one seems to think about what God thinks of it all. When God’s people consider how to respond to various threats and taunts, we don’t naturally seem to ask ourselves how the Lord would want us to respond. God’s adopted sons and daughters of all times and places essentially think and act as if God is dead, powerless or uninterested.
It takes the David on whom everyone seems to look down to re-inject the living God into 1 Samuel 17’s conversation. Seven times in verses 45-47 the young shepherd refers to the God who he believes will deliver him from this champion. David fears no evil as he prepares to walk into his own valley of the shadow of death. He, after all, trusts that the Lord is with him.
While the kind of strength and power that characterized Goliath and the Philistines impress our culture, our text reminds us that God sides with oppressed and powerless people. Yet some of the people to whom we proclaim 1 Samuel 17 feel no more recognized or appreciated than David.
This gives those who proclaim our Old Testament lesson’s gospel an opportunity to reflect with our hearers on how our mighty God walks with us into our valleys to face our giants. God even walks with us into and through the valley of the shadow of death. Our only hope finally rests not in any kind of might or violence, but on God’s gracious determination to carry out God’s good purposes and plans for us.
In his inimitable style, Frederick Buechner describes Goliath: he “stood 10 feet tall in his stocking feet, wore a size 20 collar, a 9 1/2 inch hat, and a 52-inch belt. When he put his full armor on, he looked like a Sherman tank.
“Even stripped to the bare essentials, he had plenty to carry around, and flesh and bones were the least of it. There was the burdensome business of having to defend his title against all comers. There were the mangled remains of the runners-up.
When he tried to think something out, it was like struggling through a hip-deep bog. When he tried to explain something, it was like pushing a truck uphill. His dark moods were leaden and his light moods elephantine. He considered under-arm deodorants a sign of effeminacy.”
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