The Gospel According to David 2 - 1 Samuel 17:12-31
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I am sure that we all have seen pictures and films on the TV which have left a lasting impression on our minds. One which stands out for me dates back to June 1989 and the scene of a solitary Chinese figure standing in front of a line of Chinese Tanks attempting to enter Tiananmen Square. Here is this one, tiny individual who at the outset looks so ridiculous. What does he think he can do faced with the potential onslaught of these vehicles of mass destruction? But it soon transpires that it is the Chinese army which is made to look ridiculous by this man, as the leading tank moves to the right, so does the man, as the tank has to move to the left, so does the man blocking the way ahead and so totally thwarting the progress of the tanks. That picture has now achieved iconic status symbolising how in weakness there is strength. No one expected that to happen- not least the Chinese army.
And you cannot help but notice in reading the Bible that God is the God of the unexpected. When faced with situations which would baffle the greatest minds- God then does something which takes us completely by surprise. That is God’s way. Do you remember how the apostle Paul lays out this timeless truth? : ‘God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of the world and despised things- and the things that are not- to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.’ (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). And with one exception we shall be coming to a little later on, nowhere is this principle better illustrated than the episode we are looking at tonight in what we have called the Gospel according to David, and the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17.
Last week we were looking at the fact that God’s people have enemies and what formidable enemies they are. Here in 1 Samuel 17 we have one particular embodiment of such an enemy in the form of the ‘man of the between’, this nine foot colossus called Goliath. He is so terrifying, so mind numbingly oppressive that everyone, including Israel’s King at the time- Saul- is left feeling totally shattered-v11. And we saw that in the light of the rest of the Bible we all face a fearsome Trinity of enemies which leave the whole of humanity quivering as was Saul and his army were left quaking in their boots- the enemies of sin, death and the devil. And this raises the urgent question: is there any champion who will be able to take on and defeat such enemies for us, and to do so thoroughly and decisively before it is too late? Well, yes there is. But at first sight he doesn’t look much of a champion- to be frank he appears to be rather a nerd. And the way he will go about defeating God’s enemies is in a way we would not have conceived in a million years. And this principle of the surprise of God’s means is wonderfully exemplified for us in this passage from 1 Samuel. So, if you have not done so already, do turn with me to that text.
In verse 11 we are in the Valley of Elah, the place of war, fear and potential carnage. Then suddenly the writer takes us to a more tranquil scene, a pastoral scene if you will, to a little village in the hills of Judah some 15 miles to the East- the village of Bethlehem v12 ‘Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul's time he was old and well advanced in years. 13Jesse's three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war: The firstborn was Eliab; the second, Abinadab; and the third, Shammah. 14David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, 15but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father's sheep at Bethlehem.’
In many ways this is a surprising change of scene by our narrator. Just imagine that you are watching a major feature film directed by Spielberg on the Afghan War. There you are seeing the battle of Tora Bora with machine guns firing, rocket propelled grenades being launched, nothing but murder and mayhem everywhere and all of a sudden the scene cuts and Spielberg presents a delightful image of the village of Dunswell. What has Dunswell got to do with the war in Afghanistan? It would be incongruous, a mismatch. So it is here. What has Bethlehem, which at the time was not much bigger than Dunswell, to do with the Valley of Elah? Well, to most of the characters in the drama, the answer is- not that much. But those of us who have read chapter 16 realise that in this sleepy little village there is more going on that meets the eye. For it is here that there is a young boy whom God has chosen as his King and upon whom we were told in v 13 that ‘the Spirit of the Lord’ had come upon him in great power. And that boy’s name is, of course, David. And what we are told of David in these few verses in chapter 17 doesn’t give much of the game away. They simply serve to heighten the tension and sense of expectation causing the reader to ask- how is what is going on in Bethlehem going to have any effect on the outcome of the battle in the Valley of Elah?
We are told that David was the son of an Ephrathite called Jesse who by now was very old. Those who have read 1 Samuel so far would have picked up on that little detail because up till now the sons of old men haven’t amounted to very much. You have the sons of the old man Eli in the opening chapters of the book who were scoundrels. Then you have the sons of the old man Samuel who were not much better. So what are the chances that this one will be any different? Well, remember God is the God of the unexpected and the user of surprising means. Then we are told that three of David’s older brothers were in the Israelite army on the front line, which presumably means that they were as useless and ineffective as the rest of the troops cowering before Goliath. So things don’t seem that hopeful there.
But what about David? Well, we are told in v14 that he was ‘the youngest’. Actually, that could be translated, ‘the smallest’. So he was either too young or too small or both to be in Saul’s army. And already the contrast between the stature of David in v 14 and the stature of Goliath in v 4 could not be greater. We have asked what has Bethlehem to do with the Valley of Elah, but this description causes to ask what has David to do with Goliath? No one would dream of putting these two in the same boxing ring. And the unremarkable nature of David is further emphasised by the description we are given of what he was doing. While his brothers were out doing the exciting stuff of being combat soldiers, David was a messenger boy inbetween his regular job of tending sheep. Not exactly earth shattering stuff is it? It makes David out to be not very much, inspite of what we were told back in chapter 16 that the Spirit of the Lord had come upon him in power. And yet here he goes back and forth to the battle lines carrying messages and packages - all very mundane and all so ordinary, not exactly what you would expect of God’s super hero.
Has it ever struck you how remarkably odd it seems that for practically all of his childhood and a greater part of his manhood, Jesus, David’s greater Son, indeed, God’s Son, spent his time in utter obscurity- for 30 years no less. He wasn’t a child prodigy writing books or composing music like Mozart, although as God the Son he invented words and music- as the Word, the Logos. Not only that, but he spent the greater part of his time sweeping up wood shavings from the floor, mending wobbly stools and hanging doors. He would have been Joseph’s skivvy when he was very young, an apprentice who, had they had it then, would have been making cups of tea for the workmen. Not quite the sort of thing you would expect God to be doing while on earth is it? But that is what he did. Friends, we are not to be fooled by appearances. Sometimes it does seem that God has disappeared into the fabric of his narrative in the world, but that doesn’t mean he is absent. Just because we can’t see him doesn’t mean that he isn’t there- incognito- as it were. God’s ways are not our ways and neither is God’s timescale our timescale- he is still at work, secretly, often silently achieving his glorious purposes in the world to defeat his enemies and to establish his kingdom- as he is doing here with this small boy in Bethlehem and how 1000 years later he was to do it with another small boy born in this place, called Jesus And who knows, maybe it will be from this looked down upon city of Hull, that God will spark a revival which will spread like wildfire, as he did in the 18th century. Why not?
But just in case we have been lulled into a sense of false security as we view this pastoral idyll in the hill country of Judah, the writer reminds us what is still going on 15 miles to the West and the menace which continues to threaten the existence of God’s people-v 16, ‘For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand.’ The terror tactics continue; twice a day for nearly six weeks the Philistine giant had come out to taunt and shame God’s army, and in turn, God himself. By now of course, the nerves of the soldiers and King Saul would have been almost completely shot to pieces. They would have been suffering from PGSS- Post Goliath Stress Syndrome.
Now if Spielberg were to be making a film of this, the next scene would have been with David indignantly striding up to Goliath, sword in hand. But our writer is more subtle, he gradually builds up the tension by giving us lots of detail about that which is, to be frank, quite humdrum, vv 17-20: ‘Now Jesse said to his son David, "Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. 18Take along these ten cheeses to the commander of their unit. See how your brothers are and bring back some assurance from them. 19They are with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines." 20Early in the morning David left the flock with a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. I am sure you feel better for having been told all of that?
But the thing is, this is so realistic. An anxious father, concerned about the well being of his sons away from home at war. So he sends them food, a gift to the commanding officer- maybe with the hope this will cause him to be favourable to his boys and give them a task safely situated away from the heat of the battle, filling water pitches or something- although unbeknown to Jesse no fighting was going on at all. This is history we are reading. And so David gets up early, loads the pack on his back and sets of ‘just as his father directed’. Tell me, how would you sum up the character of David from what we have just read? Would it not be to say that at the very least he can be described as ‘the obedient son’ or ‘the obedient servant’ for that is what he is? And do not those words make you think of someone else, a descendant of David who in Luke 2 as a boy is described in these terms: ‘Then Jesus went down to Nazareth with them (that is his parents) and was obedient to them.’(Luke 2:51) Let me say to those of you who are younger- obedience and respect for parents are things which God highly prizes. We can’t say, ‘I follow Jesus’ if at the same time we are saying, ‘I won’t follow my parents’- their direction, and care. David is an obedient son, Jesus is the obedient Son par excellence and not only does God value that he will greatly use it, as we shall see.
Now this detail of David getting up early, leaving his flock, packing his gear is signalling to us that we are now reading the story from David’s point of view, this is how David experienced things, how he viewed what was taking place in the Valley of Elah which was significantly different from the way everyone else was viewing things. For as we were reminded in Chapter 16, (whether others can see it or not) this is a young boy upon whom the Spirit of the Lord had come in great power and so we should not be surprised to discover that he sees things as the Lord sees things. In other words, we are being given not just David’s perspective on these events, but God’s, and that is the perspective which matters most of all and makes all the difference in the world.
So what does the Lord’s anointed see and how does he respond? Look at the end of verse 20, ‘He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. 21Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. Can you imagine the lure of such a scene to a young lad? There is going to be some action and David is not going to miss this, v 22 ‘David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and greeted his brothers’. That is perhaps what he expected to see, but he was going to be rather surprised, disappointed and disturbed- 23 As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. (That was to make the difference, this was the turning point in the story, the turning point in Israel’s fortunes, indeed the fortunes of the world)). 24When the Israelites saw the man, they all ran from him in great fear.’
It is interesting that now it is ‘seeing’ Goliath which instils fear into the troops, whereas back in v11 it was ‘hearing’ Goliath. This is how man sees the enemy and it crushes him. But is that the perception that really matters? According to something God said to Samuel back in chapter 16:7 the answer is no, ‘The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ The soldiers on that day, including David’s brothers, looked at David’s appearance and were not impressed. They look at Goliath’s appearance and were singularly impressed to the point of almost throwing up their hands in surrender. But God doesn’t do that and neither does his servant- David, and what is more, neither should we- but we do. The church looks at the might of the world, listens to the mockery of the media and the apparent triumph of secularism and cowers. She panics and tries to play the world at its own game by trying to look impressive, using the world’s techniques-and invariably fails. Do we honestly think that the God of the universe who could take a star like our sun with its power of 386 billion, billion mega watts, and snuff it out like a man snuffs out a candle is going to be daunted by this so called giant? Hardly. And David didn’t think so either. In fact he was affronted by the arrogance of this Philistine and couldn’t understand why the soldiers were more concerned about their own safety than God’s glory-v26, ‘David asked the men standing near him, "What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?"’ Now we are beginning to see what it means to be anointed with the Spirit of the Lord in great power. It is not that there is some physical transformation like the Incredible Hulk or some physical manifestation like falling down, but there is a spiritual reformation, a stirring inwardly of a love and passion for God such that one would rather die than see his name besmirched in any way. I have mentioned to some of you before the story of Henry Martin. In 1805 he left England for India and later moved to Iran in order to share the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Martyn was a first class scholar at Cambridge University. He translated the New Testament into Hindi and Persian so that Muslims who spoke those languages could hear about Jesus. His Christian devotion was so intense, his love for Christ so deep that he could hardly bear the thought of any disgrace being brought to the name of Christ. In Shiraz a year before his death at the age of thirty one, somebody said in his presence that the crown prince of Persia had killed so many Russian Christians in battle that Christ had taken hold of Mohammed’s skirt and begged him to stop. This is how Henry Martyn reacted when he heard that statement, he wrote in his journal, ‘I was cut to the soul at this blasphemy. I could not endure existence if Jesus were not glorified; it would be hell to me, if he were to be always thus dishonoured.’ Now, that is the kind of passion which gets things done for the sake of the Kingdom, that is the kind of passion that brings down giants.
Of course there will be opposition, those who maybe out of personal shame will want to quash such enthusiasm like David’s brothers in verse 28. They impugn impure motives to him, but David won’t be silenced, he is so upset by what he is seeing and hearing he just moves around the camp site from one group of soldiers to another trying to get at least some of them stirred up-v29.
And friends, that will always be the way. If you are concerned about the lost, if you are passionate about the way Christ is being maligned in the church and outside it and want to do something about it, you will meet opposition, often from those you had hoped would be your supporters- family and friends, church authorities. But again this was something David’s greater son, Jesus was to experience as well. In Luke 4 we read of Jesus announcing in his home town of Nazareth that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him and so infuriated were the people he had grown up with at his presumption, as a mob they tried to kill him. Later, in Mark 3 we read of Jesus own mother and brothers wanting to section him because they thought he was overdoing it a bit. And then there was the greatest rejection of all was when he was taken, mocked as a pretender King and crucified. Of course they didn’t realise that in this, this apparent nobody, the lad from up North, was defeating the enemies of God’s people once and for all and establishing his name as being the name at which every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord of all. That was certainly a surprising means of God. But that is a story for another day and we are left with the cliff hanger of verse 31, ‘What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him.’
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