The conquering King - 1 Samuel 17
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One of the most colourful and successful Generals of World War Two was undoubtedly George S Patton of the Third Army. He was a military genius, although at times, downright certifiable. However, he did have one or two important things to say about leadership such as this: ‘You young lieutenants have to realise that your platoon is like a piece of spaghetti. You can’t push it. You’ve got to get out in front and pull it.’ That is where leaders are meant to be- out in front leading. And that is where King Saul was meant to be at this point in one of Israel’s darkest hours, a darkness underscored by the ominous opening words -‘Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Socoh in Judah.’ Remember how the people wanted a King like all the other nations who would fight their battles for them? That is what Saul was meant to be doing. But not on this day, he, like the rest of the army, was cowering in fear. Such is a leader like ‘all the other nations’. No, what was needed was a leader unlike all the other nations, and as we shall see, that is precisely what God provides in more ways than one.
First, we have an uncompromising enemy. The scene is set for us in verse 3. This is the Valley of Elah, a big valley, which provides a big setting for a big story which begins with the appearance of a big man-v4, ‘A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp.’ 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, ‘Percy’, we might have an entirely different picture in our minds. But ‘Goliath’ 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 as we see in verses 4ff.
This is quite some detail which is very unusual for an Old Testament narrative and you have to ask the question: why? The answer is to impress us into thinking ‘This man is unbeatable.’
We have his height- 9 feet tall- he is huge, you can imagine the size of the shadow he would cast. Then there is his armour- a bronze helmet, a coat of armour weighing 125 pounds and bronze grieves on his legs-in other words-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 seriously armed- verse 6- a javelin of bronze was slung across his shoulders. What is translated here as ‘javelin’ probably refers to a large curved sword, a scimitar. The spear is like a ‘weaver’s rod’, that is, just as parts of a weaver’s loom had pieces of cord attached to it, so here is a thong which was fitted to the spear to enable Goliath to throw it great distances beyond the range of any normal man. And of course, 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 some poor fellow who went out ahead of him- v7. So the picture we are meant to be holding in our minds is of an enormous, menacing, seemingly unbeatable, Goth-like warrior who would scare even the most battle hardened veteran spitless.
Then we are to add to what was seen, what was heard-v 8, ‘Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, "Why do you come out and line up for battle?” with the unspoken question left hanging in the air ‘If you are not going to fight?’ Good question. He then rubs in the humiliation even further with an idea - 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. What about it?’ Well, that would have sent Saul reaching for the Valium!
And so frustrated, disgusted and full of disdain for the lack of response, Goliath shouts, "This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.". ‘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- Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed [literally ‘shattered’] and terrified.’
What we have here embodied in Goliath is a frightening instance of something we see appearing throughout the Bible- the enemy of God. To scorn God’s people, is to scorn God. And that this is the main concern of the passage is underscored by the use of the word translated ‘defy’ in the church Bibles. It is the word ‘harap’ which appears 6 times throughout the narrative. 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- both past and present, both inside the church and outside.
And this raises the urgent question: is there any champion who will be able to take on and defeat such enemies for us, and do so thoroughly and decisively before it’s 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, a sheep herder. And the way he will go about defeating God’s enemies is one we would not have conceived in a thousand years. And so we come to an unimpressive hero whose name is David.
In v14 we are told that he was ‘the youngest’ of Jesse’s sons. 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- it is a no contest.
And still terror tactics continue; twice a day for nearly six weeks the Philistine giant came out to taunt and shame God’s army, and in turn, God himself.
Now this detail in verses 17-20 of David getting up early, leaving his flock, packing his gear and so on is signalling to us that we are now reading the story from David’s viewpoint, which is 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, what we are being given is not just David’s perspective on these events, but God’s, and that is the perspective which matters.
So what does the Lord’s anointed see and how does he respond? Look at the verses 22ff.
David is 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, ‘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 but 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. Let me tell you something: In 1805 a 25 year old young man named Henry Martin 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 and that is the kind of passion we desperately need today.
Well, eventually David’s antics of moving amongst the troops causing unrest reaches the ears of Saul which is where we pick up the story in verse 31: ‘What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him.’ What was it that was overheard and reported back to Saul? It was the words of David asked the men standing near him, " Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" The answer should have been-‘a lunatic’- for only an utter fool would defy the armies of the living God.
So what happens when the future King meets the failed King? Verse 32: ‘David said to Saul, "Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him."
Note two things:
First, we have an imperative, - ‘Let no one (including the King) lose heart on account of this Philistine.’ David commands, not suggests, that the people should not be afraid. What an incredible thing to say to the King, because the implication is as obvious as it is offensive- he is a coward. But is that any more offensive than for the Christian to say, ‘Do not fear death because while all the other philosophies and religions in the world have no answers to this- Christianity does. There is no salvation, other than in Jesus name.’?
But then follows the indicative, the description of what is going to happen so that the King and all the others need not fear: ‘Your servant will go out and fight him’.
Then we see Saul’s reaction to David’s Gospel, which is the reaction of many people today to Jesus’ Gospel, one of utter incredulity: v33, ‘Saul replied, "You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth." On the basis of what he could see, Saul’s unbelief regarding David’s Gospel was well founded. But of course, Saul was not taking into account what he couldn’t see, and so David fills him in on what that something is- 37The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine."
This is the first time anyone has even mentioned the name- Yahweh- the LORD. It was not David who would be doing the delivering but God- and so far in this story people have been behaving as if God doesn’t exist. Oh, I am sure that had Saul been taking part in a religious questionnaire, and had been asked: ‘Do you believe in Yahweh?’ he would have said ‘Yes, of course’. But here he was displaying what we Christians can too often display when the chips are down- practical atheism-we behave as if there is no God. And so Saul says to David in v 37, ‘Go and the LORD will be with you’- Saul was saying far more than he realised- that is precisely what would happen.
But still, Saul hasn’t got it because look at what he does next, v38-39 he gets David kitted out with his armour.
Again is there not a temptation for Christians and the church to behave just like Saul? In the face of opposition and decline either we simply sell out the Gospel, not believing it can bring about change and replace it with something else or we decide to fight the world’s ways with the world’s weapons- gimmicks, entertainment, a watered down Gospel which is no gospel at all. And the temptation to do this will be strong especially when the going is tough and when it seems that little fruit is being borne by telling the ‘old, old story’. But David was part of the making of that ‘old, old story’ of doing God’s work, God’s way. So he took off the armour and picked up a few pebbles from a stream and off he went to meet the enemy with staff in hand- v40ff.
The fate of Israel as God’s people hinges on the outcome of this battle-make no mistake, and from a human point of view nothing could appear more futile- verse 41: ‘Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David.’ It could well be that the reason Goliath drew closer and closer to David was because David was so small he had to get close in order to have a good look at him. And we are to recall that description we had of Goliath earlier in the chapter, this nine foot hulk of a man with his impenetrable armour, his curved sword slung across his shoulders, carrying his spear with a special throwing apparatus, striding his way towards David, following his man carrying a full length shield before him. This was the most frightening sight David had ever seen. It was the most frightening sight anyone had seen. But when Goliath sees David his reaction is one of utter contempt: ‘He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him.’ And so he expresses his disdain in the words of: 43, ‘He said to David, "Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?" [no doubt referring to his staff] And the Philistine cursed David by his gods’ In that curse, whether he realised it or not, Goliath was revealing the true nature of what was really going on there in that remote Valley of Elah. This was not simply a battle between Philistine and Israelite, it was an encounter between spiritual evil and the one true living God as it is today of course.
Having received no reply from David, Goliath describes with relish what he is going to do to him: v44, "Come here," he said, "and I'll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!" And with those words it seemed to everyone, but David, that Israel’s fate was sealed.
But this day was going to be different from all the other days because God’s chosen King was in their midst. And so finally we have an unlikely victory. In a way David proclaimed his Gospel to Goliath. In verse 45, David places this confrontation in its proper context. On the one hand there is the Philistine with his weapons of mass destruction bearing down upon little David. But on the other hand there is David who comes in the ‘name of the LORD of Hosts.’ Here David reaches back into Israel’s history to declare the news that the one true living God is a mighty God who delivers. But David also introduces something which is quite new and significant. He says that he comes ‘in the name of’ the LORD Almighty. There has never been an individual who has claimed to come in the LORD’s name, specially chosen as God’s representative. Here in this tiny youth, seemingly so vulnerable and so weak is the embodiment of the one true God of the universe. For what matters to God is not the size of a man’s biceps, but the devotion of a man’s heart.
The second element of his Gospel appears at the end of verse 45, ‘the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have mocked’. It is an indictment. Goliath’s mocking of the living God is the stupidest thing he could ever done because of the third aspect of his Gospel, the news of what will happen as a result- v46, ‘This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth…’ In other words- this is judgement day and you should be afraid Philistine. And this is all part of the bigger purpose of this episode which is the fourth strand of David’s Gospel- ‘the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47All 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." No one is going to be left in any doubt that there is a God in Israel.
And how dreadful that knowledge is going to be is seen in what happens next, v48, ‘As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground. 50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. 51David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine's sword and drew it from the scabbard. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.’
Did you notice how Goliath fell? It was facedown, very much like what happened to the Philistine god Dagon in their temple- chapter 5- as it fell down in front of the captured Ark of the Covenant. People will bow down to the Living God one way or another, either in salvation or in judgement, but bow we will. Then David drew the large scimitar sword of Goliath’s and severed his head. It is important to note that he was not struck down by a sword, just as David had promised earlier, he did not come with sword or spear in hand, it was the Lord who gave the skill to David to use that sling in so deadly a manner. The victory was the LORD’s from beginning to end.
But there is one further detail I want to draw to your attention which may be significant in pointing to David’s greater son, Jesus, as he came to defeat God’s enemies, and our enemies, the enemies of sin, death and the devil. It is the way David used Goliath’s own weapon to slay him. That is precisely what God did with the big three enemies through the Lord Jesus Christ. It was the sinful actions of rebellious men, like this Philistine, who conspired to take this innocent man, who had done nothing but good and nail him to a tree. It was death by crucifixion that laid him in a cold borrowed tomb. It was the devil, whom we are told in John’s Gospel had entered Judas leading to Jesus’ betrayal. The three great enemies working together to get rid of God’s anointed. And that is when God turned all of these things around on themselves in order to defeat them. Sin was punished on the cross as Jesus the great sin bearing substitute died in the place of sinners. It was by dying our death that Jesus broke death’s icy grip, so while death may be the last enemy it will not have the last word. The devil’s great power over souls lay not in his ability to tempt, but to accuse. But he can no longer do that for those who trust in God’s man Jesus, for they have no guilt to pay for the ransom has already been paid. By Jesus death, we have the death of death. So David was right after all when he spoke his Gospel to Saul, saying ‘Do not lose heart’. If you are a Christian here tonight- you don’t have to lose heart because Jesus is God’s champion and yours and mine too.
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