June 21, 2015
1 Samuel 17
It’s a kid’s story. Most of us learned about David and Goliath when we were in Sunday School. It’s a story about a young lad who defeated a menacing giant against all odds. It’s a story about bravery and heroism, and it taught us as little kids not to be afraid of the giants that come into our lives, no matter how big they are, because God is with us. And boy, was Goliath a giant! I can still remember the piece of paper high on the wall in the room at church where the Sunday School held its morning excercises before going off to our Sunday School classes. Who remembers “Morning excercises?” I don’t know why they called them that. We still have them here in our Sunday School, we just call it singing and praying time. Goliath was taller even than our pastor, who when you’re only 4 feet tall yourself, seemed like a giant in his own right. But there was that piece of paper, over nine and a half feet above the floor. Goliath was big, but little David popped him into whatever promised land the Philistines believed in with just a single shot from his sling. Goliath went down like a ton of bricks, and everyone lived happily ever after. That’s the Sunday School version of the story. With God’s help, the little guy can win.
And I suppose for grown-ups, the Sunday School lesson also applies. Except we’re less apt to believe the Sunday School lesson, because our wordly experience has shown us that more often than not, it is not the little guy who wins, but rather it is the giant who prevails. And so we cower and cringe before the giants that come into our lives and we fuss and fidget and complain, and eventually the inevitable ends up overwhelming us.
We behave very much like the grown-ups did in the story of David and Goliath. The Israelites and the Philistines are at war. Sort of. There is no actual fighting going on. Everything is at a stand-still. Nothing is happening. The Israelites have gathered on the top of one hill, and the Philistines have gathered on another hill with a valley separating the two. And for forty days running, in the morning and in the evening, the giant would come out and issue his challenge. And every day, morning and evening, the challenge would be the same. Now granted, this giant was a fearsome sight, all dolled up in his fighting gear. The writer of First Samuel takes great pains to describe the enormity not only of the man, but also of his fighting gear. We are supposed to be afraid of him. We are supposed to know that he is covered from head to toe with heavy armor; we are supposed to know that his armor is impenetrable. We are supposed to know that it is humanly impossible to defeat him. We are supposed to know that it is a lost cause. That decision has already been made by every Israelite warrier from the lowliest private, all the way up to the commander-in chief, King Saul himself. There is nothing to be done, and so the stand-off continues. But every time the giant comes out and issues his challenge, he strikes fresh terror into the hearts of all of the Israelites, and there is much hand-wringing and dispair. The writer says that “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.” And that happened every day, twice a day, for forty days.
And the challenge is quite reasonable. Challenges to faith always are. You know folks, there doesn’t have to be a lot of bloodshed here. We can settle this thing like gentlemen. Send a man out to fight with me. Pick your best warrier. We’ll fight, fair and square. If he wins, we’ll become your servants. If I win, you will become our servants. Easy peasy, simple as pie. But as reasonable and as sane as the proposal seems, there’s still a problem. The outcome is assured. The people of God are going to lose, and everyone knows it. There is not one man in the whole company of the Israelites who can defeat Goliath. And so nobody does a thing. The stand-off, as uneasy as it is, continues. In effect, the swaggering giant has already defeated the people of God.
And here’s where the bigger issue emerges. This is not really a battle between two warring nations. This is a spiritual issue. It is a matter of faith. And among the people of God, there is a serious lack of faith. In fact there is no faith at all. The people of God are looking at this dilemma that they are facing on a very superficial level. They can see only the practical matter of this thing. They are confronted with a giant who has taken control of all of the terms and conditions, and they know that they are powerless to do anything about it. God doesn’t enter into this thing at all. And that’s why they’re terrified and that’s why they’ve become convinced of their own impotency. And alone, and without God, they are completely impotent; there is no hope.
And there is no hope until David comes on to the scene. David is not in the army. He’s too young. He’s a shepherd. But as young as he is, he has a sense of God’s presence in his life, and that makes all of the difference in the world. David’s dad has sent him to the battlefield to bring some chow to his older brothers who are in the army. And just as he’s arriving with the chow, David is treated to yet another of Goliath’s challenges. And almost immediately, David recognizes the spiritual implications in the giant’s posturing. Who does this guy think he is, what makes him think he can talk like that? “For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” Why has no one made this connection before? Why has no one realized that they are a part of the army of the living God? They’ve not realized it, because too often, practically trumps faith. Practicality is sane and reasonable and predictable, and faith is none of those things. Faith is irrational and crazy and completely unpredictable. But if it is faith in the living God, victory is assured.
The first obstacle in the way of David’s faith comes from his older brother. His older brother tells David that he’s crazy, that he has no right even to be out on the battle field, that he ought to be back tending his sheep where he belongs. And the sad fact of the matter is that sometimes opposition to God’s plan comes not just from without, but sometimes from within. God’s people can be painfully practical sometimes. We’ve seen that throughout this story. In this story, practicality has squelched faith.
The second obstacle to David’s faith is King Saul himself. Saul is a complete disbeliever. Even when David explains that God helped him to take down a lion and a bear, Saul is skeptical. And yet, David states his faith in God very clearly: “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” When Saul finally understands David’s determination, he relents, and says, “Go, and may the Lord be with you.” Did Saul really mean that, or was Saul so lacking in faith that he was willing to send this kid to his death, until a more realistic plan could be hatched? I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I suspect the latter.
In one final concession to practicality, Saul heaps tons of armor on David, perhaps to give ease to his conscience. But the armor turned out to be impractical. David couldn’t even walk. And so taking off the armor, David took his staff in his hand, selected five smooth stones from a dry river bed, put them in his shepherd’s pouch, and walked out to meet the giant.
Goliath is amused, insulted and angered by what he sees. “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” Is this the best you can send out to me? A boy? “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” “But David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”‘
That statement of faith makes me shiver. It is a powerful message not only to Goliath, but also to the whole faithless Israelite army. God does not practice practicality! That statement of faith ought to be our creed whenever giants enter our lives and threaten our peace.
One final note: There is no question that we are powerless without faith. That’s the whole point of this story. The battle is always the Lord’s. And yet, if not for human involvement, the Israelite and Philistine armies might still be standing on their respective hillsides, even today, locked in an eternal stand-off. It pleases God to use faithful human beings to accomplish his purposes on this earth. And it pleased God to use David to bring this stand-still to an end. But why David? Because he was a boy, and so comically mis-matched with Goliath? Was it because there was no one else who would even consider the job? Did God call David to this task because of his strong faith, and his sense of God’s involvement in his life, especially when it came to his engagement with the lion and the bear? Yes, it was all of these things, and one more. I believe that God called David to this task because he was prepared for it. This is not David’s first rodeo with the sling. David was skilled and accomplished with the sling. The sling was not his hobby. It wasn’t a pastime. He was talented with it. He was very competent. And that skill was the result of hours and hours of dedication and discipline and practice. He was very good at what he did, and with his skill, he was able to find and hit that one vulnerable spot in Goliath’s impressive armor, and the giant came tumbling down.
The same is true for us. If we are to do battle with the giant forces of evil that come against us in our lives, we need to be prepared. We need the necessary background. We need to be skilled. We need to be accomplished. That preparation and background and skill can only come from our personal dedication and discipline to knowing the Scriptures and engaging with them and being competent in them. And out of that will come faith, and faith banishes all practicality, and all this assembly will know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; but that the battle is the Lord’s.