The Greater David (1 Samuel 17)
We’ve just read about one of the most well-known and inspiring events in all of Scripture. Even if you’ve never been to church before, chances are that you’ve heard the story of David and Goliath. It’s a story of fear and courage, of the triumph of the underdog. I did a quick search in Google News this week and found dozens of articles that mention David and Goliath in relationship to sports teams, even about Facebook and Microsoft (the Goliaths) fearing young, upstart companies.
You have to admit that it’s a bit strange talking about David and Goliath on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday marks the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before he was killed, and was welcomed as the king who came to save his people. But as we’re going to see today, it’s not that unusual a passage after all.
If you’ve ever been to the eye doctor, they’ve do all kinds of things to you to test your eyesight. And then, near the end, they put this contraption in front of your eyes with different lenses. They make you look through the lenses and they ask you, “Is this one clearer, or this one?” I’m always scared of giving the wrong answer! The result, though, is that they end up finding the lens that allows you to see the chart on the wall most clearly. You may have been living with the wrong prescription for years without even knowing it, and it’s only when you see through a better lens that you realize what you’ve been missing all along.
I’m going to suggest that many of us need a new lens through which we can see the account of David’s defeat of Goliath. The lens we have right now is okay, but we may not be seeing what we’re supposed to be seeing as clearly as we should. So today I’d like to flip some lenses before you and and ask, “Is this clearer, or this one?” And I want to begin with the normal lens through which we normally view this story.
Our Normal Lens: Facing the Giants
You may have seen a movie a couple of years ago called Facing the Giants. The movie is about a football coach and team that has to stare down the giants of fear and failure. He challenges his players to believe God for the impossible on and off the field. It’s a modern day story of facing obstacles that are much bigger than ourselves, and digging down deep to overcome them even though the odds are stacked against us.
This is the lens that I think most of us use when we read the account of David and Goliath. We begin chapter 17 with the Philistines and Israel nose to nose and ready for battle, each on a mountain looking at the other side, and with a valley in the middle. Then you have this fearsome man coming out repeatedly. When I say fearsome, I’m not kidding. His height is reported as 9 feet, 9 inches. Some later versions have been found which say that he was only 6 feet, 9 inches – still tall! This may have been an attempt to tone down the height. This guy is huge!
And not only that, he has other advantages as well. They had a huge advantage in military technology. You read in verses 5 to 7 that he has all of this equipment on: a bronze helmet, a coat of mail, armor on his legs, and a javelin of bronze. The coat of mail alone weighs 125 pounds. The shaft of his spear is compared to “a weaver’s rod.” Some scholars think that this is because the technology in the spear was so new that the Israelites didn’t even have a word for it yet. They had to compare it to something they already new. This was the beginning of the iron age, and the Philistines had an advantage not only in the size of Goliath, but in their military technology as well.
So you can understand why the people of Israel were terrified. Verse 16 tells us that Goliath came out every day, twice a day, for forty days and took his stand, taunting the nation of Israel. And everyone was terrified, including Saul. We read in verse 11 that they were “dismayed and terrified.”
And then David comes along. David is not even supposed to be there. He’s not even in the army. When his brother sees him, he completely dismisses David and why he’s there. But David, the most unlikely of people, refuses to wear Saul’s armor. He refuses to accept that someone is defaming God’s name. Instead, he responds to Goliath’s taunt by promising to defeat Goliath. As he goes out to battle, he cries out: “The whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 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” (1 Samuel 17:46-47). And then David kills Goliath with a sling and a stone.
It’s hard not to be moved by what happened. And it’s not hard to look through this lens and make application to our lives. This is the normal Sunday school application of this story. You are going to face giants in your life. You don’t stand a chance against these giants. You’re probably going to be afraid at times. But don’t forget: the bigger they come, the harder they fall. You may not be big and powerful in yourself, but with God on your side, you can face the giants in your life.
I’m going to suggest to you this morning that this lens is letting us see the story at some level, but it’s really not the best lens through which to view the account of David and Goliath. It’s leaving some things blurry that really should be clear, and it’s probably making some things clear that really aren’t even there in the first place.
The flaw in this approach is that it assumes that the author of 1 Samuel 17 gave us this story so that we would emulate the example of David. There is no question that David is worthy of emulation here: he alone acted in faith and trust in God when everyone else reacted in fear and doubt. He alone trusted the promises of God when everyone else chose to see the obstacles as bigger than the promise.
But you have to ask yourself: did the author write this passage to lift David up as a moral example for us to follow, or did he have some other purpose?
The problem with this lens is that we start to read the Bible as a set of moral examples to follow. You start to see the Bible’s message as “God blesses those who live morally exemplary lives.” And this approach starts to make people the hero of the text, rather than God.
David is praiseworthy here, but as we’re going to see in a minute, it’s for a reason. And I can’t be like David. I don’t have the power. If you tell me to walk out of here and “Be like David!” I’ll last until Tuesday at the latest before I fall apart in fear again. Not only this, but this lens obscures the message of the Bible, which isn’t that God blesses those who get their acts together, but that God showers his grace on unworthy people who don’t deserve it, and who let him down over and over again.
I’m not saying that we should throw out this lens completely, but I’m going to suggest that we try another lens to see if it will help us to see this passage more clearly.
The Lens of a Greater King
Let me give you a new lens for a minute. This lens may seem strange at first. It may take a bit of time to get used to, but let’s see how it works.
There are a couple of details that are fairly easy to miss, but that really help us grasp what this passage is really about. The first is the wider context. What in the world was the author trying to prove by giving us this account?
As you look at this passage, you realize that it’s not an isolated account buried among other random events that took place. The author has arranged these skillfully in order to communicate a message.
If you look earlier in 1 Samuel, you see that Israel didn’t have a king. But they began to cry out to God for a king who would reign over them so that they could be like the other nations. God granted their request, but before he did so, he said to his prophet Samuel: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (1 Samuel 8:7).
As you read 1 Samuel, you know that God gave Israel their first king. His name was Saul. And he shows some promise early on. It’s not too long, though, before Saul begins to get himself into all kinds of trouble. Saul does things his way instead of humbly obeying God’s commands. And there’s a mounting sense of tension in chapters 13 to 15 as Saul makes one bad decision after another, as he does things his way even if what he does is a complete rejection of God and his ways. It gets so bad that the prophet Samuel eventually said, “Now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command” (1 Samuel 13:14). And even later: “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors–to one better than you” (1 Samuel 15:28).
So there is a sense of mounting tension that God has rejected Saul, and that Israel needs a better king. And then you get to chapter 16, and you discover that God has selected this new and better king. David is anointed as king, but he hasn’t yet taken the throne.
And then you get to the story of what happened with Goliath, and where do you find Saul? Verse 11 says, “On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.” It should have been Saul’s job to accept the challenge on behalf of Israel, but instead he was cowering in fear. And then David comes in and responds, as God’s anointed, in faith and trust in the Lord. See if this lens makes sense. The author is not saying, “All of you should muster the courage you need to face giants.” Instead, he’s saying, “Israel needs a better king.” David is that better king.
But wait. There’s more. There’s another detail that’s easy to miss. Verse 4 says that Goliath is – what? – a champion. What does that mean? In ancient times, rival armies would sometimes agree to let selected individuals from each side decide a conflict. This reduced casualties and other costs. I almost wish we did this today! The two would be called champions, and they would represent all the people. Their victory would be attributed to the whole army, and so would their defeat. For obvious reasons, they would normally pick their strongest person to go to battle.
Back then, many of the cultures believed that the god of each nation would be present in that champion, and that god would go to battle along with the representative. Whichever champion won, that god would be vindicated.
And so David went into battle as a representative of all the people, as their substitute, winning the victory that they couldn’t win for themselves, so that God would be vindicated and the forces of evil defeated. He was their substitute. But you see, David came in weakness. He was so unimpressive that nobody would think God would triumph through him. He went almost as a sacrificial lamb. But God used his apparent weakness to destroy the enemy, and David’s victory was imputed to all of them. David stands in the place of many, and through his obedience God brings salvation to Israel.
If you see the story of this chapter through this lens, things look very different. It’s no longer saying that you need to get your act together so that you take on the giants in your life. Instead, it’s saying that we need a better king. We need someone who can take on the battles that we can’t win, so that his victory becomes our victory. We need him to fight on our behalf as our substitute, and as our champion. We need a king like David. We don’t need to try harder so that we triumph! We need a substitute who will come in weakness and trust, and who will win the victory that we couldn’t win ourselves.
That’s a much better lens through which to view the account of David and Goliath, I think. It’s a bit bewildering at first, only because we’re so used to seeing this account through the other lens. It’s much more in line with the structure of the text, I think. We need God’s anointed king who will triumph and win victory on behalf of his people.
But there’s one more lens that will help us see even more clearly.
The Lens of Jesus Christ
On Palm Sunday, two thousand years ago, an even greater King arrived. We read in Matthew 21 that the crowds that followed him shouted:
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Israel needed a better king, and that king was David. And now an even better king has come, a Son of David, to win the victory that we can’t win ourselves. Jesus comes as our champion, our substitute. God’s anointed king arrives, and although, like David, he appears weak and insignificant, he fights for his people, knowing that the battle is the Lord’s. Jesus is the true and better David. He stands alone as our substitute, the one in place of the many, and through him God wins salvation for his people.
When we see the account of David and Goliath through the lens of Jesus Christ, it’s not about trying harder. It’s about the King who entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and went to the cross in weakness, who triumphed over sin and death in our place, and vindicated God’s name. It’s about God’s anointed king who has triumphed on behalf of his people.
Father, as we enter this week, we’re overwhelmed with what Jesus faced as he entered the streets of Jerusalem that Palm Sunday almost two thousand years ago. He came as a greater King, as a true and better David, to win the victory that we could not win for ourselves.
He came not in strength, but in weakness. But through the weakness of the cross he triumphed over evil, and his victory has become the victory of all who trust in him.
As we enter this week, may we do so seeing Jesus as the true and better David, the one who stood alone in the battle that nobody else could win, and through whom you have brought salvation to your people. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.