The Gospel according to David 1 - 1 Samuel 17:1-11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin by asking a question: as a Christian, how do you go about reading the Old Testament? Well, you may say it is easy; you open it up at the appropriate page and read on. But what difference would there be, say, between a Jew reading the Old Testament and a Christian reading it? While both would be reading the same story, both would be viewing the story quite differently. And the main reason for that is this: the Jew would be reading it as an incomplete story, waiting for the final act in the drama to unfold, whereas a Christian would be reading it as a finished story, with the final act having already been enacted in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who is promised in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New. In other words, we read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament so we can see how all the different patterns come together. In fact this is how Jesus himself read the Old Testament and taught his followers to read it too. Remember how after the resurrection, Jesus met two disciples on the road to Emmaus. At first they didn’t recognise him, they were just so down in the dumps trying to get their heads around the fact that the one they had hoped had come to fulfil the Old Testament dreams was killed and lay rotting in a borrowed grave. That should not have happened to the hero of their Bible, but it had. Of course they thought that because they had not read the Old Testament properly and so Jesus gave them a crash course in how to do just that and said, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken (and by the way, the prophetic books didn’t just include what we call the prophets-folk like Isaiah and Micah, but the historical books like Samuel and Kings).’ He goes on, ‘Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets (what we call the OT), he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ (Lk 24:25-27). That must have been a fantastic Bible study, mustn’t it?
Over the next few weeks we are going to be looking together at a very familiar story to see what it says about Jesus, as an example of reading the Old Testament in a Christian way. It is the story of David and Goliath. This is a great story anyway just as a piece of action drama, akin to Jack the Giant Killer. But that is not the way it is meant to be read, as an inspiring example of the little fellow winning against all odds against the big guy. Although David is central to the story, it is not as David the shepherd boy per se, but David as God’s chosen- the Messiah -and as such the real hero is God. And when we see this and how God works, then this gives us tremendous encouragement and strength as we seek to follow the Lord Jesus, King David’s greater son, today. Just as we saw in the summer that the Book of Ruth was also a book about the Gospel, so is 1 Samuel 17 to which we now turn as we discover the Gospel according to David.
Now before the Good News can be seen and embraced as Good News, we first have to appreciate the bad news to which the Gospel is the answer and what that is we see in the section we are looking at this evening in verses 1-11. The whole episode begins ominously with these words: ‘Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Socoh in Judah.’
Now this was not anything new. The Philistines had been a constant threat to God’s people for years. Back in chapter 4 verse 2 they appear and decimate the Israelite army and carry off the Ark of the Covenant no less -which was a total disaster. But in chapters five and six it is God who himself in a remarkable way brings the Philistines into submission without any need of a lending hand from Israel. But by the time we get to chapter 7 they are back again like the proverbial bad penny ready to drive the Israelite’s out of the land. But under the leadership of Samuel, who prays to God for deliverance, having called Israel back to the Lord in repentance, that is exactly what they experience- rescue. And that is when the people make their big mistake. They implore Samuel to ask God for a King so that they could be like all the other nations. One idea being that such a King would help fight their battles for them and so keep their enemies at bay. They were not content to have God as their King fighting their battles for them his way, they wanted to do it their way, which is like everyone else’s way. And so a King is chosen- Saul. And when he was chosen God said in 9:16 that he would rescue his people from ‘the hands of the Philistines.’ That is exactly what happened in chapter 13 when the Philistines were roundly thrashed. So at the end of chapter 14 we are given a summary of Saul’s reign in these terms, ‘All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines.’ So by the time we get to chapter 17 we are back in familiar territory- here are the blighters again, but, as we shall, with one big difference, and when I say ‘big’ I mean ‘BIG.’ The implication is obvious; Saul, Israel’s King had failed. Here is Israel’s enemy yet again, they have not been subdued, they are still a source of terror and potential annihilation. So what is going to happen?
Now will you notice how the writer goes into some detail as to where these napalm drinking hordes are located in verse 2; they are well into Israel’s territory just about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem- not far. And at the outset of the story we have no indication as to how things will turn out, whether this was to mark the beginning of a dark age for Israel under Philistine rule. Not only that but we have no indication either that Saul and his troops were doing anything to alter the situation. In verse 2 we are simply told that Saul and his men were gathered. They don’t seem to be doing very much, as we shall see, apart from being scared spitless. In fact they seem pretty leaderless.
So here is the scene in verse 3, ‘The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.’ This is the Valley of Elah, a wide valley, which provides a big setting for a big story which is about to unfold with the appearance of a big man-v4, ‘A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp.’ The word ‘champion’ in the original literally means, ‘the man of the between’. It is a vivid way of describing this man who came out of the ranks of the Philistines to stand ‘between’ the two battle lines as a challenger and champion. The famous name ‘Goliath’ only appears twice in the whole story, here and in verse 23, otherwise he is simply referred to as ‘the Philistine.’ But you have to admit it is a name which has a menacing ring to it. Had we read that out of the ranks of the Philistine army stepped, ‘Reginald’, we might have an entirely different picture in our minds. But Goliath, the man of the between, is meant to make the blood in our veins turn to ice. And if the name doesn’t do it, his appearance most certainly will. Just take a look at him at the end of verse 4, ‘He was over nine feet tall. 5He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armour of bronze weighing five thousand shekels (that is 125 pounds); 6on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. 7His spear shaft was like a weaver's rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.’
This is quite some detail which is very unusual for an Old Testament passage and you have to ask the question: why? Why has the writer gone to such lengths to give us all this information which covers everything except Goliath’s inside leg measurement? Well, by way of illustration let me tell you what happened to Heather and I and our youngest son, Philip on our first visit to South Africa a number of years ago. We arrived in Cape Town on a most beautiful day, the sky was blue and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen anywhere. And so our hosts said, you must go up to the top of Table Mountain while it is a clear day like this. Often the mountain is shrouded in cloud, but when it isn’t from the top you have the most amazing panoramic view of the whole City. So we took the advice, made our way up Table Mountain by way of its cable car and saw the sights. On our way down at the bottom of the cable car we noticed on the other side a group of people waiting to go up the mountain. Folk seemed to be making a quite a fuss over them. Then Philip tugged at my sleeve and said Dad, look who that is, pointing to a stocky figure with a huge cigar sticking out the side of his mouth, the cigar being almost as big as the man smoking it- ‘Look’ he said, ‘It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’, and sure enough it was. The thing is he isn’t that tall. I was expecting someone much bigger. Now the man standing behind him, his body guard was huge- built like the former Berlin wall with fists the size of dustbin lids. And yet on the big screen, Arnie appears as a giant. How do they do it? Well, they put lifts in his boots and ensure that all the camera angles are such that he towers over everyone else. Why do they do it? Well, in order to impress; Arnie is meant to appear as the epitome of muscle man so that when he walks on the scene and becomes surrounded by a group of knife wielding maniacs, you just know who is going to come off worse. So it is here. All this detail is given in order to impress us so that at the end of it we think, ‘This man is unbeatable. No one in their right mind would dare to challenge him, unless they have a death wish.’
And so we have his height- 9 feet tall- he is huge, can you imagine the size of the shadow he would cast? When Samuel was told by God to go to the family of Jesse in order to choose God’s King, his anointed one- his Messiah, he was instructed not to be taken in by the outward appearance of a man or the height of his stature- which was good advice given that it was the shepherd boy David whom God had in mind. But surely, most people would think, that hardly applies here- of course you look at the outward appearance of this ‘man of the between’ and you shake in your boots.
Then there is his armour- a bronze helmet, a coat of armour weighing 125 pounds and bronze grieves on his legs. All very impressive- especially to those standing on the other side of the valley of Elah at a safe distance from this Philistine monster- they see a lot of metal, mainly bronze and the Philistines had the monopoly on metal working in this region and here they put it to good effect, together with their superior technology. On our trip to the States each suitcase weighed around 50 pounds and I can tell you we were so glad they were on wheels; can you imagine someone carrying nearly three times that amount of weight around as a metal coat? No weapon is going to penetrate that armour around his chest. From what little we know of Philistine headdress, it would appear that a normal soldier would wear a feathered headdress. But this is no normal soldier, and so he has a helmet of solid bronze, making his head as well as his chest impenetrable. And here he stood in the Valley of Elah- a one man, impregnable fighting machine.
But not only was he massively protected, he was massively armed: the end of verse 6- a javelin of bronze slung across his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s rod, we are told, with its head weighing 15 pounds. If you get hit by that you are not going to get up again are you? What is translated here as ‘javelin’ probably refers to a large curved sword, a scimitar and this was slung across his shoulders. The spear is like a ‘weaver’s rod’. But in what sense? Well, not that it is simply large but it’s appearance is like a weaver’s rod, that is, parts of a weaver’s rod or loom referred to here had pieces of cord attached to it. So it is probably referring to a thong which was fitted to the spear and so enabling Goliath to throw it great distances with pinpoint accuracy, well beyond the range of any normal man. But as we have seen, Goliath is anything but normal. And the account is rounded off by a description of Goliath’s shield, so large that it had to be carried by a man who went out ahead of him- v7. This was in all likelihood a standing shield, which would have given this huge hulk of a man complete protection. So the picture we are meant to be holding in our minds is of an enormous, menacing, seemingly unbeatable, Goth-like warrior that would scare even the most battle hardened veteran to death.
Then we are to add to what we can see, what these people heard-v 8, ‘Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, "Why do you come out and line up for battle?’ Good question. Why were they there if they were not there to fight? If ,as seems to be the case from verse 2 that they were in effect leaderless, with Saul cowering along with everyone else, this question would have been designed to unsettle them, very much like the broadcasts made by the Japanese to allied troops in the jungle, constantly taunting them throughout the night, causing their nerves to fray. But the man of the between had another proposal to slaughter and mayhem, v 8, ‘Am I not a Philistine, (literally ‘the Philistine’) and are you not the servants of Saul (literally slaves of Saul)? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us."’ In other words, ‘Am I not the Philistine, the one you are looking at, huge, powerful, invincible, the embodiment of all Philistines- why should you the slaves of Saul fight someone like me? Here is an idea which will save us all a lot of trouble, choose for yourself a man to fight, if he wins we become your slaves, if I win (and this is a no brainer for I will) you become our slaves. Who is it to be?’
‘Choose for yourself a man’. Did you know those words have already been spoken before back in chapter 8 when the elders of Israel approached the prophet Samuel and asked him to ‘choose a man to be our King to lead us.’? So they had already chosen a man- Saul. He was the one who is described as standing head and shoulders above all the other men of Israel (10.23). In other words he was the closest thing to a Goliath the Israelites had. So all he had to do was don his battle kit, go down and fight. ‘All he had to do’- easier said than done. And maybe there was a pause after verse 8 and the challenge, giving the Israelites time to choose their man so he could come down from the hillside into the valley and fight. And so Goliath waited, and waited and …..nothing. Frustrated, disgusted and full of disdain, Goliath then shouts, "This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other." – v10. ‘Defy’ is too weak a word, it is more like, ‘I mock the ranks of Israel, I scorn God’s army’. The Philistine was as powerful and as frightening in his words as he was in his appearance. And both had their desired effect which was total, brutal and immediate- v11 ‘On hearing the Philistine's words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.’ The word ‘dismayed’ doesn’t do the original justice, it is more like ‘shattered’, Saul and all the Israelites were devastated and paralysed with shear naked terror.
So what is the point of all this? Is it like psycops- a way of instilling fear and a sense of hopeless in the reader? Well, yes, that is precisely what it is intended to do. This is the ‘bad news’ which is the prelude to any ‘good news’. You see, we have here embodied in this ‘man of the between’ a frightening instance of something we see appearing throughout the Bible- the enemy of God and his people. To scorn God’s people, who are the apple of his eye, is to scorn God. Do you remember the words of the risen and ascended Jesus to Paul (or Saul as he was then known) as he was on the Road to Damascus to annihilate more Christians? ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Christians are being persecuted, so Jesus is being persecuted. That it is an attack upon the honour and glory of God which is the main concern of this passage is underscored by the use of the word translated ‘defy’ in the pew Bibles. It is the word ‘harap’ which appears 6 times throughout the narrative. As we have seen this is better translated, scorn, or mock, deride, taunt, disgrace. It is not simply the armies of Israel that are being mocked, it is God and as such this Philistine represents all those who in their rebellion would mock the living God-and that may be what you are doing. And when faced with an enemy such as this- what do you do? Well, we see what most of us would do, we would be with Saul and his soldiers hiding, sick with fear waiting for the inevitable defeat. That is, unless God raises up a champion on our behalf who against all odds and all expectations will do it for us.
Let me mention three enemies, who like, Goliath, mock and taunt us today- they are enemies often mentioned in the Bible. There is sin. That malignant, moral virus with us from birth and which we cannot shake off which rots us from within and which no philosophy has ever been able to master. ‘Man’, says Thomas Hobbs is, ‘the most cunning, the strongest and most dangerous animal.’ ‘Man’ wrote Rousseau, ‘seek the author of evil no longer. It is yourself.’ Sin is a bilious, dreadful monster which makes man the monster who taunts God. How is this enemy to be brought into subjection? Then there is death, waiting there at the end mocking all our efforts and achievements, snatching away from us our loved ones, causing mother’s to weep for their lost children, spouses to collapse into despair at the loss of their wife or husband. And of course there is the devil, the ultimate challenger of God with powers which make Goliath’s weapons look like toys. Sin, death and the devil, those are real enemies friends, and we, like these Israelites can do very little except cower and wait for the inevitable. And we are meant to recognise that and feel it. So that we cry out, ‘Who will rescue us? Is there a champion, a man of the between who will fight for us?’ And without anticipating the end of this story, the Christian can say- ‘Yes there is. So we can say with confidence with the apostle Paul: ‘No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ And that is the Gospel, to which this story points. But that is for another day. Let us pray.
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