By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: from 1 Samuel 17
This week I’m continuing my sermon series on popular stories and characters from the Hebrew Scriptures; characters we might define as heroes. Among those I’ve preached on so far, none can compare to the fame of David.
The arch of David’s life is pretty remarkable; starting out a humble shepherd boy, the baby of his family, he becomes a warrior and military hero and, in time, King over all twelve tribes of Israel. He’s Israel’s most famous king; but he’s not without his faults. He commits adultery and orders the death of a member of his own army to cover up his affair. And his family life was always in a shambles. His fathering skills would have earned him a C at best. He’s an ancient illustration of the timeless phenomenon of people being crushed beneath the weight of fame and success. For sure, David’s best days are those youthful years before he bore the heavy weight of the crown. Those were the years when David achieved the big things we expect of heroes.
This morning we are looking at a story from those early years, the story of David and the Philistine giant, Goliath. As I’ve done over the past couple of Sundays, rather than reading a few short verses of scripture, I’ll be telling the story of David and Goliath, which encompasses the entire 17th chapter of 1st Samuel.
The setting for this story is the Valley of Elah, the valley where the giant Goliath will meet his demise. Goliath is a Philistine. The Philistines were a confederation comprised of five city-states, including Gath, the hometown of Goliath. The cities were all strewn across the southern coast of ancient Canaan during the Iron Age. Now, the Israelites have been repeatedly threatened by the Philistines; they are a persistent enemy – like a boomerang – that just keeps coming back around. And so, locked in battle once again, both armies take a stand on the opposing sides of the mountain with the Elah Valley between them. The Israelite army is under the command of their king, Saul. Now among the ranks of the Philistines, one man clearly stands out because Goliath of Gath is around 6’9”. We’re given an elaborate description of how he is outfitted for battle. His armor is extensive and his weapons are impressive. Incidentally, during this period of history, the Philistines had a monopoly on iron and they certainly used it to their advantage militarily.
Goliath issues a challenge to the Israelite army. He challenges them to send one man to fight him; one man who will represent the best Israel’s army has to offer. If that one man beats Goliath, the Philistines will become slaves to the Israelites. But, if Goliath beats the Israelite soldier, the Israelites must become slaves to the Philistines. Understandably, no Israelite is jumping at this offer. We’re told that they are “greatly afraid.” In fact, our bible author uses two different Hebrew words to describe their fear. One entails a fear that includes reverence and awe, such as one might feel in the presence of a god. The other word describes the kind a fear that breaks or shatters, that consumes and stops someone in their tracts. This is an all-encompassing fear.
Now the two armies are at a stalemate and every day, morning and evening, for forty days, Goliath steps forth to issue this challenge. Imagine how that must have worn down the Israelites.
But then David shows up. Probably just a teenager at the time, he’s described one chapter before as having beautiful eyes, rosy cheeks, and a unique condition of the heart that pleases God. Later on, our bible writer will tell us that David was a man after God’s own heart. It’s not an impression shared by his older brothers, however.
David, who ordinarily spends his days tending sheep, is sent to the battle lines by his father to check in on his brothers and to deliver care packages from home to his brothers and their commander. When David arrives, he soon observes the defiant Goliath taunting and intimidating the Israelite soldiers. It is more than David can tolerate; he is offended by what he sees and hears; offended on God’s behalf. Interestingly, David’s brothers in the army begin to criticize him. Why has David abandoned the family’s flocks to come out to the front lines? They even accuse David of having an evil heart. But the battle about to unfold will get to the heart of the matter.
David is undeterred by his siblings’ criticism. He approaches King Saul and announces that he is the one who will accept Goliath’s challenge. He will be the one to pick up the gauntlet. When Saul questions David’s age and ability, David explains that in the same way he has protected his father’s flocks from bears and lions, so will he protect the Israelite army from this heathen bully Goliath. Saul lends David his armor and fighting gear but the young David is too small to even move effectively in it. And so David casts the armor and weapons of war aside and heads toward the battle line. The giant Goliath is offended and wonders aloud if this is some sort of joke. But David redefines the challenge. This is not a battle between a giant, seasoned warrior and an inexperienced teenage boy. Boldly David asserts his credentials. He comes at Goliath in the name of the Lord of hosts, the living God of the army of Israel. David is the proxy for a God that Goliath has unwisely disrespected and grossly underestimated.
And sure enough, in the story we’ve all come to know and love, David, with merely a stone and a sling, puts an end to this giant Philistine bully. Proclaiming this to be the Lord’s battle, David slings the stone that lodges in Goliath’s forehead and he face plants dead on the ground… at which point David, with a certain cinematic flair, stands over top Goliath, draws out the giant’s sword from its sheath and using it to decapitate his enemy. A war hoop rises up from the Israelites who descend victoriously upon their enemy, destroying them as they attempt a retreat.
I attended my 25-year high school reunion. It was the first reunion I attended.
Many of my high school classmates still live in my hometown and had attended prior reunions. I, however, had not. I decided this was a biggey, so I’d go. Besides, eventually curiosity gets the better of us and we want to see how all those people turned out. I know, it’s silly, even a little petty, but it’s pretty normal. Now, Windber is a tiny town. It has only one elementary school and one secondary school that incorporates grades 7-12. We moved there the summer before my 7th grade year. Perhaps it was because I was new and perceived as an outsider. Perhaps it was because I was shy and not very athletic. Perhaps it was because I was small and socially awkward. But, whatever the reason, for six years a classmate we’ll call Katie made my life miserable. I became the target, the butt, of all of her jokes. I was an especially easy target in gym class. Katie was a big girl, very strong and very athletic. She could have mopped the floor with me. Mimicking my adolescent lisp catapulted Katie to comedic fame. She was a modern Goliath, taunting me, not for forty days and nights, but for six long years. The teasing continued, unabated, until graduation day. So, fast forward to the summer of my 25th high school reunion. I entered the park pavilion (yes, we had our class reunion at a park pavilion) and looked around. I could have sworn I’d never seen any of these people before in all my life… That is, with one exception. As I scanned the pavilion seeking a familiar face, there she was: my adolescent nemesis, Katie. She no longer gave me knots in my stomach. In fact, she aroused no particular emotion at all, save my fascination with my own memory and the fact that, of all the people with whom I’d enjoyed fun and made happy memories, none of them had etched themselves in my mind’s eye to the degree Katie had.
Katie was my Goliath. I think the reason why the story of David and Goliath is so popular with children is because so many children do, in fact, have a Goliath (or a Katie) in their lives. But in truth, age and experience never entirely rid us of the lump in the throat or the knot in the stomach that develop when someone or something threatens us. Let’s face it, life can be scary and, deep within, we need to know that there is someone who can protect us from our Goliaths; deep within we need to know that there is someone bigger than our giants and that we are not really alone when we walk the lonesome valleys of our lives. Children may be afraid of the dark or bogey men or monsters under the bed. But we adults are not immune to fear.
The story of David and Goliath is a military story, a story about conflict, a story about fear and intimidation. But, even more importantly, it is a story about God and God’s people. It is a lesson about keeping proper perspective with regards to those things that cause us fear because, when the story opens, the Israelites seem to have lost that perspective. They have forgotten who, or rather whose, they are. They find themselves staring across a valley facing off against a scary giant. You know, valleys and giants are more than literal things. Valleys, metaphorically, are those low points in our lives. Those times and places when we become discouraged, we feel alone, we lose hope; we hit an all-time low. And giants are those things in our lives that threaten us and intimidate us and fill us with so much fear that we are frozen in our tracks. We have all walked our share of lonesome valleys and we have all found ourselves face to face with threatening giants.
Before David’s arrival, Goliath’s challenge goes unanswered. All the Israelites do is hunker down and tremble – they worry, they wait and they watch. And, as they wait and watch, they begin to worry even more. Once again, they have lost perspective. They’ve allowed this threat to define them and consume them. When David, this naïve youth, arrives on the scene, he can’t believe what he sees. This heathen Philistine is insulting his countrymen and they are doing absolutely nothing about it. David is offended, but not because of personal ego or pride. Not even because of national pride or patriotism. No, David is offended because, in his mind, it is God who is being disrespected. David asks the question: “who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” That word for “defy” in Hebrew can also be translated “blaspheme or curse.” David understands that this is not simply about his people being threatened or disrespected; this is about his God being disrespected.
David is a man after God’s own heart and David never thinks of himself apart from his relationship with God. God defines him. God’s Spirit rests upon him. God’s presence is the frame for David’s reality. He sees his world differently because he knows he belongs to the living God.
Friends, when we worship the living God, everything that happens in our lives gets redefined by that reality. Everything we endure is held within that frame. We are not on our own; we belong to the living God. We don’t walk our valleys or face our giants alone. God is in the battle with us. Those who place their trust in the living God do not view this world’s threats in the same way. David’s countrymen have become paralyzed with fear. But David sees this whole situation differently. The faithfulness of the living God and the fate of his people are bound together because they belong to one another. David knows that and that knowledge gives him a completely different attitude toward Goliath. Friends, when we believe in a living God, we see things differently.
Here’s another interesting thing: David is the most poorly equipped person on this battle field. King Saul, a tall, strong man scripture tells us, tries to equip David with the standard military uniform and defense. But it is all too big and too clumsy for David to even move in. And, most importantly, it is unnecessary because this battle doesn’t really belong to David. This battle belongs to the Lord who makes the battles of his people his own. So David, poorly equipped, is nevertheless empowered to do (with minimal resources) what the entire well-equipped army couldn’t; because they wouldn’t. David can fell a giant with one stone because this battle is really being fought by the Lord. Brothers and sisters, to believe in the living God means we also believe God will provide the resources we need to respond to the giants we face. David gains a victory not because he has physical might or military prowess, but because the Spirit of the Lord is on him and this battle belongs to the living God.
And David’s motivation isn’t his own glory. David’s motivation is God’s honor. Who is this Philistine that he would blaspheme the living God? Just who does this giant think he is? There’s a difference in the language used by the other Israelites and by David. When David gets to camp and begins to inquire about Goliath, members of the army label Goliath as the man who has “come up to defy Israel.” This is their battle; this is their honor on the line. But, David’s speech gives witness to a different reality. This giant blasphemes God. Just before the battle begins, David proclaims his faith with these words: “This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand… so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.” David fights not for his own glory, but for God’s honor.
Friends: there is no denying that there are times when we stare across the valley at a big, old, nasty giant. We face any number of giants. But, when we place our trust in the living God, we need not fear. Indeed, we can proclaim in the words of the psalmist: “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in times of trouble.”
Brothers and sisters, we will all face our Katie’s and our Goliath’s; our own, personal giants. We can’t outgrow them or outrun them. They will take the form of oppressive social structures; superiors who seek to humiliate us; friends who betray us; financial challenges that bleed our savings dry; a life-threatening disease or addiction; and a host of others. But we should never lose hope or give up the fight because the battle is not ours alone. When we seek the honor of the living God, the battle is God’s fight.
There’s victory even in the valley when we place our trust in the living God who is bigger than all our giants. We can’t ever forget who we are and whose we are. We worship a God who is bigger than our giants and who lifts us up out of our valleys. Glory be to the living God. Amen.
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