Facing the Giants (1 Samuel 17:1-31)

Every heart is a battlefield, and every lifetime a war.  The story of David and Goliath has become so familiar as to provoke disinterest, but in truth the story tells us everything about the way we handle life’s inevitable conflicts.  If we peel back the layers of our own modern “twists” on this ancient story, we find a fascinating story that initially smells of fear yet in the end screams of victory.

1Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. 2And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered, and encamped in the Valley of Elah, and drew up in line of battle against the Philistines. 3And the Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. 4And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. 5He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. 6And he had bronze armor on his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. 7The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron. And his shield-bearer went before him. 8He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. 9If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” 10And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.” 11When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

What’s going on here?  The ancient world observed a practice known as ish habbenaym—literally “the man between two.”  A battle would begin with a one-on-one battle between two chosen “champions.”  Why?  Because the ancient world saw their victory as not merely their own, but the blessing (or judgment!) of their respective God/gods.  The winner of this initial “grudge match” would have an enormous impact on troop morale—which helps us understand why armies would actually turn and flee if their champion was defeated.

Goliath was one such champion.  Later Hebrew manuscripts tell us that he was “four cubits and a span,” making him over 6 feet tall.  But earlier Hebrew manuscripts tell us that he was “six cubits and a span,” making him somewhere between nine feet and nine foot nine.  His armor alone weighed roughly 150 lbs—the head of his spear weighed an additional 15.  And notice the blend of bronze and iron weaponry.  Historians have been quick to note that Goliath’s armament was a blend of a variety of different cultures, which only serves to highlight Goliath’s backstory.  His impressive height, his array of weaponry—this was a hired gun.  He had probably traveled extensively, sort of a mercenary hired out to win battles.  He’d killed before—probably many times.  And judging by his raucous speech, he truly had come to believe himself untouchable.

The irony?  There truly was one man in Israel “head and shoulders” above the rest.  Saul.  Of all the people in Israel, this would have been the man you’d expect to face the giant.   But no.  The text is clear: Saul was no different than the rest of the men: weak in the knees, weak in the heart, weak in the soul.

The truth is, most of us will never face physical combat.  But we each have a giant that looms over us on the horizon.  For some, it’s a Goliath of temptation.  For others, it’s a Goliath of trials and suffering.  For all, it’s a Goliath that presses us toward the question: Is God in this? 

While Saul was the most likely candidate for a warrior, the true warrior would come through David.   Now mind you, roughly five years had passed since David’s anointing.  He was now a 17 year old boy—yet despite his anointing he remained a shepherd until his time of succession.  When he arrives at the battlefield, he comes not as a soldier, but as a delivery boy.

 12Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years. 13The three oldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle. And the names of his three sons who went to the battle were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah. 14David was the youngest. The three eldest followed Saul, 15but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. 16For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.

 17And Jesse said to David his son, “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers. 18Also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See if your brothers are well, and bring some token from them.” 19Now Saul and they and all the men of Israel were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines.

 20And David rose early in the morning and left the sheep with a keeper and took the provisions and went, as Jesse had commanded him. And he came to the encampment as the host was going out to the battle line, shouting the war cry. 21And Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. 22And David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage and ran to the ranks and went and greeted his brothers. 23As he talked with them, behold, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him.

 24All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him and were much afraid. 25And the men of Israel said, “Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. And the king will enrich the man who kills him with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father’s house free in Israel.”

 26And David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” 27And the people answered him in the same way, “So shall it be done to the man who kills him.”

 28Now Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spoke to the men. And Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.” 29And David said, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word?” 30And he turned away from him toward another, and spoke in the same way, and the people answered him again as before.

 31When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul, and he sent for him.

Once again we see a contrast.  Two men.  Two kings.  Saul hid in fear.  David stood in faith.  The truth is most of us are more like Saul than David.  When trouble looms ahead, I’d much rather hide—sink myself into career, into entertainment, into hobbies, even sin.  Men especially can flee from their responsibilities as men.  How?  Video games—whose players extend well beyond teenagers these days—give me a false sense of accomplishment.  Pornography grants me a false sense of intimacy.  Why focus on being productive when I have Call of Duty?  Why focus on marriage when I have an internet connection and no one’s watching?

It takes a man like David to step up in faith and say that I’m willing to do the unthinkable, and with God accomplish the impossible.  And if our faith is placed in God alone, then we are reminded that it is not the purity of our faith that saves us—it is the object of our faith.  Your impossible circumstances may only be a matter of perception.  Are you focusing on the problem, or are you focusing on the Solution?

We need to give a “to be continued” today.  Tomorrow we’ll come back and finish this story of David and Goliath, to answer how Jesus is the true and better David.

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