Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 20, 2021
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 Commentary
As we continue to trace the development of the monarchy in Israel and use that history to reflect on the relationship between human leadership and divine sovereignty in our own lives, we come to this famous story of David and Goliath. It is the second chapter in the story of David’s rise to power in Israel. How did the young shepherd boy we met in I Samuel 16 become the most powerful king in Israel’s history? Here’s one key piece in that success story.
This story is so well known that one wonders if it is worth preaching a sermon on it. I mean, this account of a mere lad with a slingshot conquering an monstrous giant with impregnable armor and invincible weapons is so much a part of Western culture that even the unchurched know it. So, why bother? Well, like many other stories, there’s more going on here than meets the eye at first. (I think of Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis on one end of the spectrum and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl on the other.) And what’s really going on here has tremendous implications for our time in history.
On a purely literary level, there are marvelous thematic threads running through the story, suggesting that this is not a simple, straightforward tale of bravery in the face of insurmountable odds. Take, for example, the fact that David comes from Bethlehem (house of bread, literally) with bread for his brothers on the battle front, and then both Goliath and David threaten that they will give the bodies of their enemies to the birds and beasts as food. More importantly, David’s fainthearted brothers accuse him of having a wicked heart, when, in fact, he is the man whose heart God has seen (16:7), so that he is the man after God’s own heart (13:14). And most centrally, David has been delivered from the paw of the lion and the bear, and he is confident that the hand of the Lord will also deliver him from the hand/paw of Goliath (vs. 37).
On the surface, this is a story about youthful bravery in the face of an overpowering bully. David is cast as a simple youth. Previous mention of him as a warrior (16:18) does not come up here, because that is not the point. He is nothing more than a shepherd who occasionally runs errands for his father, particularly shuttling supplies to his brothers on the battlefront with the Philistines. When he arrives on the front lines and hears Goliath, David comes off as cocky and mouthy when he boldly volunteers to do what the entire Israelites army is afraid to do. In spite of his arrogant bravery, he doesn’t stand a chance against Goliath.
The writer of the story has taken pains to point out the size of the challenge facing David. Goliath is literally a giant, by one measurement 9 feet 9 inches tall (think of the top of his head being 3 inches short of a basketball rim). He is an experienced warrior who is armored and armed in way that makes him impregnable on defense and invincible on offense. His armor may weigh more than David and the head of his spear was heavier than a shot put. Goliath is so convinced of victory against any Israelite (let alone a stripling like David) that he is willing to risk the fate of his entire army on the outcome of one-on-one combat.
David doesn’t stand a chance. His brothers know it, the army knows it, Saul knows it, but David doesn‘t. Even though he knows that his defeat will mean slaughter and slavery for his people, he is willing to battle Goliath, because he knows that this battle has nothing to do with chance. It has everything to do with God.
We hear the first hint of that when David hears Goliath roar his defiant challenge. David feels the disgrace of his countrymen fleeing in fear from this giant, but he is mostly outraged because his people are “the armies of the living God.” This is not just about Philistine versus Israelite; it’s about the living God– not a dead, non-existent, powerless god like Dagon of the Philistines, but the living God who has repeatedly acted in history to save his covenant people.
Indeed, David has experienced the saving power of the living God in his own life again and again. When a lion or bear would attack David’s flocks, David would grab the beast by the hair and drag it away. And if it attacked him, he would kill it with his bare hands or his shepherd’s staff or maybe his soon-to-become-famous sling. But David knew full well that the victory in such overwhelming battles came from the living God. “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”
Those were David’s private words to Saul, but David wanted to make sure that all Israel and all Philistia knew the power of the living God, so he augmented those words in his challenge to Goliath. After Goliath cursed David by his Philistine gods, David gives one of the most stirring professions of faith in all of history. “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, Yahweh of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day Yahweh will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down….”
And so, the battle is joined. In a flurry of verbs (15 active verbs in all), David attacks Goliath. With one slung stone and one whack of the giant’s sword, the battle is over. The brave youth has summarily defeated the invincible giant. All because of the power of the living, covenant- keeping Lord of Israel.
The question is, how shall we preach on this story? It has been used for centuries to encourage the oppressed to battle the oppressor—from elementary school children and their playground bullies to African American slaves and their plantation masters. And that is legitimate. I mean, David did a brave and bold thing here. He is an action hero and we can all use such heroes. He has loomed large in Israel’s history for his actions in this story.
Or shall we preach on the reality of the living God who comes to the aid of believers in their struggles with the Goliaths in their lives? Shall we emphasize David’s bravery or God’s gracious salvation? David clearly comes down on the latter. For him, this story is not about him, but about God. That, he says, is why this has all happened. I will defeat you “and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel,” not a lifeless god like the Philistines worship, but the living God of Israel.
Further, and perhaps more important for us today, “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.” We are called to be people of action in the face of defiant evil, but how are we to battle? This story is in the Bible to remind us that our God saves in ways different than ours. The cross of Christ is the most obvious and important example of that truth.
How does this truth translate into our modern-day battles with Goliath? To answer that we must be able to identify David and Goliath. Is David any oppressed person or assembly of persons? Is Goliath one person, or an organization, or a system, or a government either foreign or domestic? Here’s how The New Interpreters Bible applies this story. “The story embodies the hope of all persons when they are faced with overwhelming and evil power that there is a way to overcome that power and win the future. This story has been told and retold especially by the weak, the oppressed, the marginal, and the powerless… who know that their only hope lies in the living God.”
So, can we apply this story to the battle for racial equity or the struggle for gay rights or the disagreements between red states and blue states? Is this a text that has implications for social justice? Or is it a story about a deeper spiritual struggle, not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12)?
I do not pretend to know the answer to those complex questions. I merely want to point out how complex they are and urge you to be careful how you apply the major theological points of the story as captured in David’s speeches to Saul and Goliath. As Brueggemann puts it, David “calls Israel away from its imitation of the nations and calls the nations away from their foolish defiance of Yahweh.” The story is not first of all about human bravery, but about divine deliverance for those who rely on the living God who saved us by the One who was pierced by nail and spear.
What qualifies a person to be the main leader of a nation or a state or a church? Commitment to certain causes? Level of education or experience? Personal charisma or moral rectitude? Mental acuity or psychological stability? Campaign promises? Demonstrated loyalty to the organization? Those are the kind of questions people asked in the last election in my country. Interestingly, and sadly, very few seemed to be looking for the one characteristic that made David Israel’s greatest king—a heart commitment to the living God, a deep trust in the saving power of the God of Scripture. Given our standards, is it any wonder that we are always in turmoil?
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