We get the story of David and Goliath wrong.
For one thing, it’s not the story of the underdog beating the powerful against impossible odds. For another thing, it’s not David defeating his enemy. In fact, Goliath wasn’t David’s enemy. David only cared about him because he was the enemy of Israel, God’s people. For another, David didn’t defeat Goliath. God defeated Goliath, and David was his tool.
Goliath was a huge man, strong enough to carry armor that perhaps no one in Israel’s army could lift. David was a young shepherd and not part of the army. Instead of cowering in fear, like King Saul and his army. David dared to face Goliath.
So far, so good.
Modern society secularizes everything. The story of David and Goliath becomes a metaphor for, say, a small business successfully standing up to a big competitor, or someone successfully “fighting city hall.”
Even in the church, modern society focuses too much attention on individuals. So we hear sermons on how we can become David when we fight our Goliaths. If we pretend to be David, we miss the whole point.
The story of David and Goliath in the Bible
If 1 Samuel tells everything in chronological order, Samuel had already anointed David as king in place of Saul, and David had already served Saul as harpist to allay what we recognize now as an emotional illness.
But the Bible fairly often deviates from chronological order. The story of David and Goliath reads like David’s first encounter with Saul. Let’s take it on its own terms and not worry about chronology.
The setting of the story
The Philistines had been Israel’s adversary since at least the time of Samson. It’s one reason why Israel had insisted on having a king. Samuel had presented Saul as king of Israel. Whatever else he might have had going for him, Israelites couldn’t help noticing that Saul was one of the tallest men among them.
On the occasion of Goliath’s defiance, described in 1 Samuel 17, the armies of Israel and the Philistines camped on two hills on opposite sides of the same valley. Apparently, the Philistines didn’t like their chances in a pitched battle. So they sent Goliath to propose single combat. The Bible says he was nine feet tall and his armor weighed about 125 pounds.
The tallest man in recent history wasn’t quite that tall. Saul certainly wasn’t. He was afraid to face Goliath, and so was everyone in the army. So Goliath issued his challenge day after day for forty days.
David was the youngest son of Jesse. His three oldest brothers served in Saul’s army. Jesse told him to take some grain and cheese to the army and report back on how his older brothers were faring.
So David dropped the food with the keeper of supplies and went to look for his brothers. He heard Goliath’s usual defiance and questioned some strangers. Who was this man who dared to defy the armies of the Living God and what would be done for whoever removes this disgrace? Saul had promised an attractive reward for anyone with enough courage to take him on.
David’s oldest brother Eliab was furious to see him there. He thought David just wanted to watch the battle. David ignored him and asked some other people to verify the reward Saul had promised. His question caught Saul’s attention, and Saul sent for him.
David meets Goliath’s challenge
David told Saul not to lose heart. He would face this uncircumcised blasphemer and kill him. He had already killed lions and bears and rescued his sheep from their mouths. We first meet Saul in chapter 9, looking for his father’s donkeys. He was apparently a farmer, not a shepherd.
Although Saul was an experienced warrior who had already defeated the Philistine army in battle, David had more useful experience for single combat. Of course, Saul could only see that this youth had no military experience. But no one else was brave (or foolhardy) enough to face Goliath, so Saul gave David his blessing. He also gave him his own armor.
Now Saul was the tallest man in Israel. David may not have been full grown yet. Why didn’t Saul at least try to find the armor of someone David’s size? But David didn’t need military armor if he intended to fight as a shepherd defending his flock.
He selected five stones from a nearby stream and answered Goliath’s challenge with his staff, shepherd’s pouch, and sling. Goliath, greatly offended, cursed David. Little did he know that David was better armed.
In strictly physical terms, Goliath had a sword, a spear, a javelin, and someone to carry a massive shield. David might as well have had a gun.
Goliath probably took his helmet off to get a better look at this contemptable champion. Once David ran toward him with his sling and stones, Goliath had no chance. The “bullet” would strike his unprotected skull before David ever got close enough for Goliath to use his weapons.
Who was Goliath, and who defeated Goliath and how?
But notice. David did not say, “You come against me with a sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you with a projectile I can fire at a great distance.”
He said, “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied . . . All 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” (verses 45, 47).
David also recognized it isn’t by a smooth stone and sling that the Lord saves.
Goliath was not David’s enemy. David had no interest in Goliath, but he cared very much about anyone who would dare defy God. Goliath set himself up as God’s opponent. It wasn’t David who defeated Goliath. God did.
David had skill with a sling, but he had also picked up five stones in case he misaimed. Surely an angel of God influenced the trajectory and speed of the fatal stone.
We should take Goliath, then, not as representing anything huge and powerful but anything that defies God’s glory.
Most of my life, I have struggled with lack of money, or so I have thought. If I trust in somehow getting enough money, it’s like trying to fight with Saul’s armor. I will lose—and not to Goliath! Lack of money is not Goliath.
I now see Goliath as my lack of contentment with what God has provided and my lack of trust that he will take care of me. That attitude, not lack of money, defies God’s glory. And trusting God as I fight his way, I will win.
God conquers Goliath through people willing to perform menial tasks
Jesse sent David to deliver groceries. Every big task requires small tasks like running errands, setting up chairs, mopping the floor, and the like.
Some people, when asked to do little things like that, seem to think they’re too important.
I remember hearing the story of a Catholic priest sent to investigate a miracle a nun was reported to have worked. He went to visit her convent and, on meeting her, asked her to clean his shoes. She haughtily refused. That was enough for the priest to know God couldn’t use her to work a miracle.
How would the story have worked out if David had told Jesse that he would go as a warrior or not at all? He willingly performed a task that hardly anyone would notice or praise him for.
God conquers Goliath through people who fight his battles with his weapons
David couldn’t have beaten Goliath wearing a soldier’s armor and weapons. No Israelite could have had a long enough sword, spear, or javelin to get past Goliath’s. God started training David for this task when David learned to use a sling and stones to protect his flock from predators.
What’s more, David could not have prevailed even with his sling if he had relied on his own willpower and determination. The battle against Goliath is always God’s battle, not David’s, not ours. The world and the flesh provide nothing we can use successfully. We can never be more than tools in God’s hands, prepared in ways we probably won’t recognize as preparation for anything.
God conquers Goliath through people who act on faith
David’s brother Eliab represents the world. The world despises faith and people of faith. Eliab scolded David for acting in presumption and tried to make him ashamed. If Eliab had accurately assessed David’s motives, David would have failed. As it was, he first had to defeat Eliab’s insinuations before Saul could send him to face Goliath.
Do not fear the Eliabs in your life. That is, do not fear the people who can’t tell faith from presumption and the people who want to discourage you from even trying to do God’s work.
But faith isn’t a feeling. It’s an action. Faith without works is dead. Look at the verbs David performed in verses 48-52: ran, stood, took hold, drew, cut. Goliath stood on a hill for a month and a half daring anyone to meet him in the valley. The whole Israelite army cowered in fear. By faith, David ran to get to the valley first.