When we talk about important Bible chapters to know and learn, we’re not worried as much about memorizing word for word as we are that you know the details of the chapter, and the lessons learned therein. While there are other important issues in the book of First Samuel – of all the history books in the Old Testament, it’s indubitably the most interesting! – the tale that sticks with more Bible readers than any other is the story of David and Goliath.
For that matter, this story sticks with non-Christians as much or more than any other tale in the Bible, outside of Jesus’ birth or death. We refer to sports upsets as “David versus Goliath”. We talk about business deals as being a challenge that “rivals Goliath”. And yet, there are so many details about the story itself that elude the casual reader. Let’s look into it, shall we?
As our story begins, Saul has been king of Israel for several years. The people demanded a king, so God gave them one “after their own heart”: tall, handsome, prayerful, and brave. Unfortunately, in 1st Samuel 15, the Lord withdrew His blessing from Saul for his transgressions against Him, and in chapter 16, we see the prophet Samuel (for whom the book is named) being led by God to anoint young David, the youngest son of Jesse in Bethlehem, as the future kind. A major theme of the entire book resonates strongly in this previous chapter: the idea that God doesn’t judge a man for his outward appearance, but rather for his heart, soul, and thoughts. So David is secretly named to be the next king, but Saul will continue as king until his death.
Now we’ve arrived at our chapter, First Samuel 17.
1Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. 2And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered, and encamped in the Valley of Elah, and drew up in line of battle against the Philistines. 3And the Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. 4And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. 5He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. 6And he had bronze armor on his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. 7The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron. And his shield-bearer went before him. 8He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. 9If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” 10And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.” 11When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.
So there’s the situation. It was not uncommon for an army to want to have its champion fight your champion in a “winner take all” situation. It saved a lot of lives if only one man was killed in battle – especially if it was your opponent’s!
And if your champion was “six cubits and a span tall”? So much the better! Skeptics look at that height – well over nine feel tall! – and scoff. But they at least match the size of his equipment. It would take a man of such a gargantuan stature to hoist and use a spear “like a weaver’s beam”, probably six inches in diameter. “Six hundred shekels” means the tip of the spear weighed about 15 pounds, and the armor would thus have weighed almost 125 pounds. David himself probably didn’t weigh 125 pounds soaking wet at this age! Regardless of the accuracy of the measurements, the point of the measurement is obvious: He’s a big scary dude. All of Israel was “dismayed and greatly afraid”.
Including King Saul, you’ll notice. He’s supposed to be the biggest, most successful warrior Israel has. He was literally chosen for the kingship because he looked the part! There was a song that the Hebrew women and children sang that went something like, “Saul has killed his thousands…” So why hasn’t he accepted the challenge to fight for his nation? Maybe having been chastened by Samuel the prophet and the Lord recently was playing into his mindset.
12Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years. 13The three oldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle. And the names of his three sons who went to the battle were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah. 14David was the youngest. The three eldest followed Saul, 15but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. 16For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.
17And Jesse said to David his son, “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers. 18Also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See if your brothers are well, and bring some token from them.”
Got that? He’s taking cheese and bread to the battlefield. David is basically a pizza-delivery boy. He’ll return each day to tell his dad that big brothers are all okay – because they’re not doing anything but sitting there, shaking with fear alongside the rest of Israel.
19Now Saul and they and all the men of Israel were in the Valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. 20And David rose early in the morning and left the sheep with a keeper and took the provisions and went, as Jesse had commanded him. And he came to the encampment as the host was going out to the battle line, shouting the war cry. 21And Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. 22And David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage and ran to the ranks and went and greeted his brothers.23As he talked with them, behold, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him.
24All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him and were much afraid. 25And the men of Israel said, “Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. And the king will enrich the man who kills him with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father’s house free in Israel.” 26And David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” 27And the people answered him in the same way, “So shall it be done to the man who kills him.”
28Now Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spoke to the men. And Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.” 29And David said, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word?” 30And he turned away from him toward another, and spoke in the same way, and the people answered him again as before.
TL:DR? David shows up and hears what Goliath has challenged. His brother Eliab rips him as a big brother does, wondering aloud what he’s doing here when he’s supposed to be tending sheep at home? But David’s feeling personally offended by the verbal assault of this “uncircumcised Philistine” who dares to “defy the armies of the living God”.
Realize that nobody else in Israel’s army has taken Goliath’s words personally, as should a child of the living God. David HAS.
31When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul, and he sent for him. 32And David said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” 34But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, 35I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. 36Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37And David said, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you!”
Here I have to question Saul’s state of mind. First, he just met David last chapter, when he played his harp for the king, and yet he doesn’t seem to recognize David. It’s a stressful situation, however, and recognizing a sixteen-year old is probably the last thing on his mind right now.
But after forty days (there’s that number again!), Saul seems desperate to try anything. Banking your entire nation’s fate on a sixteen year old shepherd against a “man of war from his youth”, however, seems at best foolhardy. If you want to give him more credit than he deserves, you could say that because he said “And the Lord be with you!”, he really thinks that God will make David win… but if so, he could have gone himself, couldn’t he?
David’s state of mind is clear: God will win this battle through me. THAT, of course, is the lesson we are to take from this: take our battles to God, and let HIM win them for us. No battle is too big for the Lord.
38Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, 39and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.” So David put them off. 40Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.
(This is one of those lessons I used when I taught band all those years: If we haven’t rehearsed it, we don’t try it in performance.) By the way, David isn’t using a slingshot – this is a literal sling, a piece of fabric that one whirls around with a stone inside of it, and then you release the end of it and the stone is slung towards your target.
41And the Philistine moved forward and came near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance.43And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.
Mistake number one…never curse David’s God.
44The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” 45Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a 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. 46This 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 host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hand.”
Important detail, not to repeat it too many times… “The battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hand.” Not only is it the Lord, rather than David, who will win this battle, but it is Israel, rather than David, into whose hand Goliath shall fall.
(And isn’t David eloquent, even in the heat of his first battle? Dang…)
48When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.
50So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. There was no sword in the hand of David.51Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it.
Knock-out, at 2:42 of the first round, to the white corner.
When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. 52And the men of Israel and Judah rose with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron. 53And the people of Israel came back from chasing the Philistines, and they plundered their camp. 54And David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put his armor in his tent
A few details: once the bully got shown up, “they fled”. Of course, once the ‘fraidy cats saw someone else do the job they should’ve done, they were more than eager to clean up once the danger was past. Including plundering their camp. David kept the valuable part for himself – as, I would argue, was his right – but the head went on display, as was the tradition of the time.
55As soon as Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this youth?” And Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.” 56And the king said, “Inquire whose son the boy is.” 57And as soon as David returned from the striking down of the Philistine, Abner took him, and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. 58And Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?” And David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”
Now, it’s perfectly understandable that Saul might not have known whose son David was, as the circumstances of meeting him earlier were not such that he would have been told that, necessarily. But this strikes me like the end of a superhero saga: “Who WAS that masked man?” Why, it’s DAVID, the Giant-Slayer! (and his sidekick, Jonathan…but that’s another story altogether…)
The obvious lessons – stand up to your fears, not because YOU are something special, but because the GOD you serve IS. Give all credit to God, give all praise to God, and give all your fears and worries to God as well.
But there are other cautionary tales inside the story: don’t doubt because of size (again, small people can have a big God!) – overconfidence is fatal, and pride cometh before the fall – when your success moves you forward, stick with what got you there (his sling and stone) – and when all else fails?
Turn to the pizza delivery boy for help.