Caravaggio, David with the head of Goliath (1606-7), oil on canvas, 125 x 101 cm, Borghese Gallery, Rome
The story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 is one of the most well-known and well-loved Bible stories. It’s non-fiction but told with such dramatic flair, it reads as if it were a made-up story. The story appeals to nearly everyone because no matter how big we are, we’ve all found ourselves in situations where we were in the vulnerable position and someone else was in the power position—whether facing a bully on the playground, or a parent, or a boss at work, or the IRS—we all know what it’s like to feel intimidated. When we listen to the story, we can put ourselves in David’s shoes—or sandals—and vicariously experience victory of the weak over the strong.
David’s courage must have seemed like recklessness to his older brothers and their fellow soldiers. King Saul should have been the one to accept Goliath’s challenge. Wasn’t he a great warrior who stood head and shoulders above his subjects? The best he can do is to offer his armor to David. But it doesn’t fit. David is a youth. We don’t know how old. Perhaps a teenager. Perhaps twenty-something. In any case, he is a pretty boy, not a jock, and Saul’s armor is too big for him. The scene is comical. David puts on the armor and, the Bible says, “tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them” (v. 39). I imagine him teetering like a baby trying to take his first steps. No, David would not use Saul’s armor. He would use what he always used as a shepherd: a staff, a pouch with stones, and a slingshot. He told the king how he had killed lions and bears with these weapons, and figured it would be no different with this “uncircumcised Philistine.”
Goliath was rightfully offended when David came out to meet him in battle. It would be like Woody Allen squaring off in the ring against Muhammad Ali. It must have seemed that the Hebrews were mocking him. Goliath says with contempt, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (v. 43).
David’s trust in God was aided by the element of surprise and the advantage of greater mobility and speed. The Bible says, “David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine” (v. 48). David’s blitz attack is in keeping with the best military wisdom. General George S. Patton said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan later.” Or in the words of Lt. Winters from the movie Band of Brothers, in combat “speed is the key.” Before Goliath even knows what is happening David reaches into his bag, takes out a stone, loads his sling, and lets it fly.
I wonder if David was surprised when his projectile sunk deep into Goliath’s forehead, when he saw the great man sway and then fall heavily to the ground. Although he expressed his confidence that God would help him defeat Goliath, David seems unprepared for this victory; he has to use Goliath’s own sword to chop off his head. David’s victory in single combat over the Philistine champion sent the enemy into a panicked retreat before the pursuing Hebrews. King Saul was so stunned by the lightening quick victory, he turns to Abner, his general, and asks, “Whose son is this young man?” But Abner answers, “I don’t know.” It’s odd that Saul The author of this passage seems either unaware or unconcerned that in the previous chapter David became Saul’s court musician because of his skillful harp playing that drove away the evil spirit that tormented the king. How could Saul not have recognized David?
Scholars have noticed other problems with the story. In 2 Samuel 21, the Bible lists the exploits of David’s men. In that chapter, it says that a man named “Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (v. 19). It’s not clear how we should reconcile this verse with 1 Sam. 17. Who killed Goliath, David or Elhanan? Were there two Philistines named Goliath who both had spears like a weaver’s beam and who were killed by two different men from Bethlehem? Some conservative scholars think that Elhanan may have been another name for David, or perhaps it was simply a scribal error. More liberal scholars have suggested that David didn’t kill Goliath at all. This unknown man Elhanan of Bethlehem did, but the story was later attributed to David, who was by far more famous of the two. I don’t know how to solve these interpretive problems. I think the most important question we need to answer is not, How exactly did it happen? But, What is God trying to say to us through the passage?
I don’t think the lesson is that the weak always defeat the strong or even that if you have faith you will always win. We know from experience this isn’t true. Bullies usually beat up little kids. Employees are usually at the mercy of their employers. And the strong often oppress the weak. David was a unique person, anointed by God’s prophet and filled with the Holy Spirit for the task of leading the nation of Israel against her enemies, like Goliath. So we need to be careful not to draw too direct of a comparison with our situation today.
There are at least three lessons we can learn from this passage.
First, appearances can be deceiving. David appeared no match for Goliath. By all outward appearances David should have lost. But we should realize that looks can be deceiving. It’s not what’s on the outside that matters; it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Second, we cannot fight God’s battles using the world’s tools. David didn’t use Saul’s Philistine-style armor to defeat Goliath. He used the crude weapons of a shepherd. Today Christians sometimes think the way to win God’s battles is to resort to doing things like the world. The world uses power and violence and force to get its way, whether it’s on the play ground or in the realm of international affairs. Jesus calls his followers to put up our swords and use spiritual weapons for spiritual warfare.
Third, the battle is the Lord’s, not ours. If we are going to have strength in our spiritual lives, we have to realize that we are not in control. It is not up to us to fight in our own strength—whether the battle is spiritual, financial, relational, or physical. God wants to be our source of strength. God told the Apostle Paul, who was struggling with a physical ailment, “my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). The same is true for us, as individuals and as a congregation.
It’s easy to get out eyes on the enormity of our problems. Fear can be crippling. But faith is liberating. If we look at ourselves, we see weakness and limitations. We lack the resources we need. Money is tight. The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. We face an uncertain future. But if we get our eyes on God, and put our trust in him, we will be able to charge ahead—not recklessly or foolishly—but in faith, with the assurance that God will empower us to do what he has called us to do, regardless of what giants stand in our way.