Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

The Giant Killer

by Leonard J. Vander Zee

Scripture: I Samuel 17
Date: June 27, 1999
Location: South Bend Christian Reformed Church

      If there's any story in the Old Testament that nearly everyone knows something about, it this one. As a result, this story does not just belong to communities of faith any more, it's become secularized. You know all those famous statues of David from renaissance Florence? They were not really meant to pay homage to the biblical figure of David. For example, Donatello's lovely marble statue of David originally had the following inscription: "To those who fight for the Fatherland, the gods will ever lend aid against the most terrible foes." David is coopted for the politics of Florence.

In our culture, it’s not just a story any more, it’s a metaphor. Apple enthusiasts, like me, never tire of seeing Bill Gates' giant Microsoft pitted against the David of the little but infinitely superior Macintosh. Then again, I heard one commentator speak of how the bombing of Yugoslavia enabled Milosovitch picture himself as a David against the Goliath-like warplanes of the NATO allies. The ultimate act of secularization was done by none other than Calvin Klein who had a handsome, virile man take the unmistakable pose of Michaelangelo’s David in an ad, but in , you guessed it, Calvin Klein underwear. I’m sure you can picture it. But our business here this morning is to reclaim the biblical story and wrest it from the clutches of the likes of Calvin Klein.

I wonder if you noticed something as we read this long story (and we even left out part of it). The famous action that forms the center of the story, the action caught in that children’s song, "Only a boy named David", takes exactly two verses. David ran, took a stone, slung it, struck Goliath. Goliath fell. David cut off his head. That’s the core of the story as everyone remembers it. That’s two verses out of fifty four.

Which ought to tip us off to the fact that this is not primarily a story about a great shot with a sling, or killing a giant, or even a great military victory. It’s a story about how people see things. It’s a story about the powerful imagination of faith.

But let’s introduce everyone. That’s what the narrator does.

First we have Goliath. With what relish the narrator tells us about Goliath of Gath. He paints a vivid picture of this huge hulk of a man "nearly seven feet tall, twirling his twenty-five pound spear with the careless ease of a cheerleader twirling her baton." But there is more to it than just Goliath the man. It's the very idea of Goliath. As Eugene Petersen puts it, "Goliath--his size, his brutality, his cruelty-- centered [Israel's] world. Goliath was the polestar around which everyone took his bearings." Goliath mesmerized the Israelites into trembling fear.

Next in the cast of characters comes Saul, and with him, the armies of Israel. "Now Saul and all the men of Israel were...fighting with the Philistines." But it appears that they were doing anything but fighting. They are doing nothing. Old Saul is immobilized by fear, fresh out of ideas, and, of course, so is his army. They could do nothing except talk about how terrible the situation was. And their army gossip just generated more fear in an endless vicious cycle of immobility and hopelessness. The Philistines didn’t need to do much but send out Goliath, and all Israel shook with fear and knuckled under. They could imagine no alternative.

Into this volatile mix comes the most important character, David. Next to Goliath and Saul, David is a non-entity. The last of eight sons, a shepherd. Not much is to be expected here. He carries the lunch boxes back and forth while the brave older brothers are down in the valley of Elah fighting the Philistines. The narrator obviously wants us to savor the contrast between David and nearly everyone, especially Goliath.

But once David is introduced into the story, something happens. Goliath shouts his boasts over the valley one too many times--for it says, momentously, at the end o verse 23, "and David heard". David heard. From that moment on we know that something is going to happen. Goliath no longer occupies center stage, David does. This kid who carries the lunch boxes, this youngest brother, this shepherd boy, sizes up the situation in a brand new way.

David talks. It’s important to see that while we have been focused on David for all of chapter 16 and a good part of chapter 17, this is the first time we hear David’s voice. David’s first speech, the first of three decisive speeches in the story, is somewhat cautious and covert. But it reveals a lot about David. It tells us two things. First, he’s thinking about going up against Goliath, because he asks what will be done for the man who answers Goliath’s challenge. But more importantly, David’s first speech reveals his deepest motivation. It was not David’s glory, or even Israel’s glory, but God’s glory, that David is most concerned about. "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" Here David's injects the first theological note into the story. Here, for the first time, we hear the name of God, and it comes from the lips of David.

With David’s first speech we get a whole new world-view. Up to this point everything has been literally God-less. As Goliath’s booming voice echoed over the valley, nobody evidently thought about God. God was dead, or impotent, or God just didn’t figure into the equation.

Into this God-less situation, David interjects a godly question. "Doesn’t the living God make a difference here? If God has so identified himself with Israel, do you think that he is indifferent to the slurs of this uncouth giant against his own people? Do you think God will allow this uncircumcised Philistine to trample his name in the mud? David sees the whole thing differently. While Saul and the Israelites can only see a totally invulnerable and overwhelmingly powerful man shouting at them across the valley, David sees an uncircumcised Philistine. The boy from the fields brings with him a whole new view of things. It is the vision of a God-bathed, faith-powered imagination.

David’s simple question instructs us about the life of faith. Where you start, what questions you ask, makes all the difference. It’s embarrassing and tragic that if someone were to overhear our thoughts and words as we worry over our families, our work, or some other challenge or problem, they would never guess we had a living God. We can be theoretical believers, but practical atheists. We profess to believe in God, but how often does God figure into the equation of our life? How oten are we mesmerized by the giant? How often does our faith open up a whole new world of possibilities?

David’s faithful imagination did exactly that. Everyone heard his impertinent question, and they hauled him to Saul, before whom David makes his next speech. Saul takes one look at David and almost dismisses the whole idea. "Forget it. You’re just a boy." It was preposterous that this kid from Bethlehem, this lunch-box carrier, should go up against Goliath. Saul has no faith and no imagination.

But David will not be dismissed so easily. He tells Saul a story. "When I was shepherding sometimes a lion or a bear would come and grab a lamb from the flock. I went after it, struck it, and killed it. I have killed lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of those." So far, David sounds like a brave but foolish young man. For certainly there’s a difference even between a lion or a bear and huge Goliath of Gath with all his armor. But David’s speech does not end there. First he tells his experience, and then he offers his interpretation. "The Lord.", David says. "The Lord who saved me from the paw of the bear and the lion will save me from the hand of this Philistine." As Dale Davis puts it, "David will not be delivered because he has true grit, but because he knows the true God.

At the heart of David’s second speech is the power of God-soaked memory. By looking back in the right way, David was able to look forward in the right way. Looking back in faith enables us to look forward in faith.

This is important. Faith is sustained in our present difficulties and challenges by the way it remembers the past. Each of us who trust in God carries a memory bank of God’s past goodness and grace. But we often don’t make withdrawals from the bank. It’s almost as though we enter into each new situation, each new problem with a kind of theological amnesia. It is utterly crucial for our present faith to remember God’s past mercy and deliverance. It is crucial for our prayers today that we see and remember how God has answered our prayers in the past. That’s one of the reasons why you find godly people keeping a journal. It’s a record of God’s faithfulness. In God’s economy, no experience in life is wasted. It’s our job to properly remember and interpret God’s past mercy, so that we will trust him for today, as David did.

Finally Saul gave his blessing, "Go, and may the Lord go with you". And after the humorous scene in which Saul tries to make David wear his armor into battle against the Philistine, David goes out to meet Goliath in his shepherd clothes. But first he stops at a brook to pick out five smooth stones, put them in his pouch and take his sling in his hand. He doesn’t just pick out any stones, but smooth ones. And not just one, but five. After all, he might miss with the first four. He took his time to do the job right even while Goliath's approaching steps shook the ground. .

Here’s another lesson in faith. David’s faith in God was absolute, but it was not other-worldly or reckless. He did not run up to the giant, kneel down and pray God to strike him down. He used the means he had at hand, the weapon with which he was most familiar, the one which through hours of practice he had mastered.

David said to Saul, "the Lord...will save me from the hand of this Philistine". But not without a sling and a stone. The victory is God’s, but he seldom fights our battles for us. The victory over Goliath is the Lord’s victory, but not without David’s bravery, skill, and cunning. So we ought to pray and work. Pray and train ourselves. Pray and plan. Pray and use the means that God has placed in our hands, the gifts that God has given us. These are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin. We will see often in the story of David that it’s a story about human skill and strength, in the interest of God’s blessing and purpose. David trusts in God, but, in a sense, God also trusts in David and gives this marvelous human being full rein to use his skill and talents. Everything depends on God, and, at the same time, everything depends on David, and on us.

It’s also important to see that David’s means, the sling and the stones, were not the typical instruments of human power. Not that David’s a wimp. Anything but. In his gutsy speech to Goliath, David shows that he can match Goliath word for word. "I will strike you down, and cut off your head, and will give the dead bodies of the Philistines to the birds and the wild beasts." There’s no reason for the giant to have all the juicy lines, and David shows he can shout about corpses and carrion just as well as Goliath. But in one way he does not match Goliath. As David says in his speech, "the Lord does not save by sword and spear". All through this chapter the theme of weakness against conventional strength has been building. All the important people like Eliab and Saul, and most of all Goliath, think David’s too weak. Nor does he have the right equipment. He refuses to be a little Goliath and pile on Saul’s armor and sword. He’s going to do it his way and God’s way. As the Apostle Paul says, "God chose what is foolish in this world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in this world to shame the strong." (I Cor. 1: 27)

It's right here that we must see the connection in this great story between David and David's greater son, Jesus Christ.

"God chose the weak things of this world to shame the strong." Paul's words show us how this story of David and Goliath points us directly to Jesus Christ, the Son of David. David fought a decisive battle that saved Israel from losing its identity as God's people by being swallowed up into Philistine paganism. In that battle the seeming seeming weakness of David's single-minded faith long with his skill with a sling was stronger than the brute human strength of Goliath.

On the cross the most decisive battle of human history was fought. One naked, bleeding man hung on a cross, helpless, exposed, dying. And up against him were all the hosts of evil in the universe. Not much of a match, you would think. Beneath the cross they mocked and taunted him, like Goliath taunted David. "He claims to save others, let him save himself." But in his weak and accursed death on the cross Jesus Christ won the battle that liberated the whole universe from the strangle hold of Satan's power. The one who is called the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root and offspring of David, fought the ultimate Goliath of Satan himself, and humiliated him. Jesus Christ forever after became for us the sure sign that "The Lord does not save by sword and spear, for the battle is the Lord's and he will give it into our hand." Luther certainly had David and Goliath in mind when he wrote the bracing words to his victory hymn. "And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him."


Rev. Leonard J. Vander Zee is editor in chief for Faith Alive Christian Resources and was previously the ordained pastor of the South Bend Christian Reformed Church of South Bend, Indiana for 16 years. He is the author of the books, "Catch Your Breath: Bowing but Not Scraping," "Christ, Baptism and the Lord's Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship."

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