The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 5B (1 Samuel 17)
32 David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33 Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37 David said, “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.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”\
38 Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39 David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.
41 The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42 When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. 43 The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” 45 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. 46 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, 47 and that all 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.”
48 When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49 David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.
Most of us who grew up going to Sunday School heard the story of David and Goliath. It’s an action-packed story, that features a teenage boy armed only with a sling and five smooth stones taking on the Philistine champion, who is described as a giant. Here was a man who was so strong that an entire army couldn’t defeat him. While 1 Samuel suggests that Goliath is six cubits and a span in height, which is about ten feet tall (the Septuagint has four cubits and a span, which is around 6’6”), which is big, we are often given this picture of an even bigger man. While the author of 1 Samuel might be exaggerating Goliath’s height for effect, we have generally bought into that portrait. In fact, many pictures envision Goliath as being even bigger than the ten feet mentioned in 1 Samuel. It’s all very exciting, which is why we all seem to remember it. It is a story that is so memorable that it continues to be retold and reused year after year. There are, as one might expect, numerous animated videos and action figures. If you’re preaching on this passage, or teaching it in Sunday School, you might as well let the video tell the story.
The lectionary invites us to focus on verses 32-49, though one might start with verse 1 to get the complete sense of the story. Saul and the Israelite army is engaged in battle with the Philistines. They can’t seem to achieve victory because the Philistines have this secret weapon, a huge warrior who is undefeatable (think the Incredible Hulk only bigger). This warrior, named Goliath, issues a challenge. Choose a champion to fight me. The side that loses will be the servant of the winner (Goliath is sure he will win, and the Israelites aren’t in disagreement). Saul asks for a champion, but no one steps forward. David happened to be in camp when Goliath issued his challenge, having been sent by his father to bring supplies to his older brothers who were serving in Saul’s army. David couldn’t go with them because he was too young and inexperienced (even though Samuel had already anointed him as king). David heard the taunts, saw that no one was stepping up to take on the Philistine champion, and so he offered to take on Goliath himself. Most assuredly this is the foolishness of youth, right? When we’re young we think we can take on the world and achieve victory. Only with time do we become more circumspect. In any case, Saul gets wind of David’s willingness to take on Goliath. I’m sure Saul wasn’t too thrilled about this volunteer, but no one else was willing to fight Goliath. Maybe the fact that this boy, who was too young to serve in his army, volunteered, might shame others into stepping forward. As for David, he is cock sure of himself. He has no fear of Goliath, for he has fought off lions and bears as he watched over the sheep. Goliath isn’t any different. Since no one else volunteers, Saul agrees to send the young sheepherder out to fight the greatest warrior of the day.
There is a critical point being made here. David volunteers to face Goliath, but not on Goliath’s terms. We see this in David’s decision not to wear Saul’s armor. While Goliath comes into battle armed with sword and lance, David chooses a sling and stones. This doesn’t seem to be a fair match, but this is the way David wants to approach the battle. Where does David’s confidence come from? It comes from God.
When the two champions face each other. Goliath feels a bit insulted. Standing before him is this boy. He may be ruddy and handsome, but he’s not a warrior. Goliath taunts David, letting him know that the champion will feed him to the birds before too long. As for David, he responds with a confession of faith: “You have 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” (1 Sam. 17:45). David has his own secret weapon, and that is the Lord of Hosts. Sure enough, as the story goes, David’s aim is true, and Goliath falls dead. Now the reader knows something that neither Saul nor Goliath knows—David has been anointed Saul’s successor. So how can he fail? David might be the little guy, but he is destined to win, even as the biggie falls, whether that be Goliath or Saul.
So, what should we make of this story? It is often used to illustrate the idea that just because something is big, doesn’t mean it can’t be tackled. There is a secular side to this principle. Just put your mind to it, and you can succeed. You might find support for this in David’s claim to have fought off lions and bears, and so Goliath is no different. You just have to have the right attitude and tools. There is the religious version of the principle, which suggests that no problem is too big to be handled, if you have God on your side. My sense is that this is truer to the text, but it presents its own set of problems. There is a further issue and that has to do with how we use stories tinged with violence. I am uncomfortable with the suggestion that Yahweh is a warrior God, as there is a tendency to divide Yahweh from the God of Jesus (Marcionism).
Perhaps we should be content with the concept that no problem is too big when we walk with God. As Alphonetta Wines puts it: “The world loves the David and Goliath story and any victory when the longshot wins. What an awesome reminder that with God, we can be victorious, even in the most difficult situations.” Perhaps she is correct. We love the story because it offers encouragement to us when we face challenges that seem overwhelming. As for David, he had already experienced that presence as a shepherd, facing down lions and bears. Goliath might be bigger and better armed, but the situation isn’t all that different. We’re led to sing: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in God’s excellent word!”