When Goliath challenged the people of God, the army of Israel shrank away in fear from a giant, but David stepped forward to vindicate the glory of God. The difference between them was not in what they saw on the battlefield, but in how they saw it. In this message from 1 Samuel 17, Alistair Begg explains that all of our circumstances and all of our weaknesses should be viewed in light of God and His glory.
I invite you to turn to 1 Samuel chapter 17, to the portion that was read for us. And as you turn there, we’ll bow and pray:
Gracious God and Father, we come to you this morning and ask that you will bring your Word to bear upon our thinking and upon our lives in such a way that, in understanding it, we may obey it, and in obeying it, we may live in the path of your appointing. Help us, Lord, we ask you, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, we return this morning to what is essentially a miniseries that began some weeks ago, when in considering the story of Jehoshaphat we hit upon the overarching title of “The Power of Weakness”—“The Power of Weakness.” And we’ve been asking one another as individuals and, I think, as a church family to give some consideration to the idea that our personal and united sense of inadequacy may actually prove to be our ultimate qualification in serving God—in other words, to view things in a very upside-down way from our contemporary culture.
If you watch even a smattering of afternoon television—which I suggest you stay as far away from as you can—you find that there is a succession of individuals on there essentially endeavoring to pump up the American populace by ensuring us that we are, if we will only turn in the right direction, adequate in ourselves for any challenge we might face and able in ourselves to overcome any difficulty with which we may be confronted. This, of course, runs absolutely counter to what the Scriptures have been teaching us, first of all in our consideration of Jehoshaphat, and then as we’ve looked at the story of Gideon. In each instance, we’ve seen that the power of God is clearly seen best against the background of human inadequacy.
And I believe that God has us here for a purpose. I’m not sure I know what that purpose is, but I believe that it is right for us to be here at this time. It is in considering this that those of us who are self-reliant will find ourselves rebuked, and in considering this, those of us who feel ourselves to be marginalized, powerless, and potentially useless will find ourselves to be greatly encouraged. And it is in light of that that we come to one of the most familiar stories of the Old Testament—one of the best-known stories, perhaps, in all of the Bible. But there’s a reason why it’s here, there’s a reason why it’s given to us in such detail, and it is understandably a favorite, not least of all with children, because it is dramatic and because it is exciting.
It is, of course, possible for us to lift any chapter of the Bible completely out of its context and do despite to the text and endanger ourselves by silly applications. And if you want to set this in its historical context, then you need to read, essentially, the preceding chapters of 1 Samuel. And you will read of the story of the ark of the covenant, which symbolized the presence and power of God amongst his people—that ark being captured by the Philistines, and then causing the Philistines great grief, inasmuch as they put it in the context of their god Dagon, who fell down before the ark. They then decide it’s a good idea to get rid of the ark, and after they return it to the Israelites, the war with the Philistines is not over; there are skirmishes, there are battles. And, regrettably, the place that the people may look for leadership provides no leadership at all, because Saul proved to be a disaster. His leadership held great potential, and yet when it came to the crunch, he made a dreadful hash of things. And the same individual who had anointed him as king, the prophet Samuel, has to stand before him and say—and this is in 15:26—“You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!” “You’ve rejected God’s word, and God has rejected you”—words that must have been bitter to his ears, hard for him to accept, and yet unavoidable in their impact.
In chapter 17, the war with the Philistines comes back to the forefront, encapsulated for us in this dramatic encounter between the armies of Israel and the armies of Philistia represented in the great champion of Gath, whose name we know as Goliath. And this giant of a man stands and taunts the armies of Israel, and the answer of God to the challenge is not to go out and find a bigger giant, not to go out and find a stronger individual; the answer of God to the challenge is actually to go out and produce on the stage of human history a shepherd boy, the most unlikely of individuals to be presented with this most phenomenal challenge.
Now, only those who know the events of chapter 16 (which will be those of you who do your homework) will be familiar with the fact that in chapter 16 an event takes place that was known at only a very limited level; it was known to the immediate family of David, but it wasn’t really known beyond that. And in chapter 16, what we discover is that Samuel anoints David as the future king of Israel. And as a result of that anointing, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon David,” and came upon David “in [great] power.” And it is that which provides the backdrop to the familiar material which is contained in chapter 17.
Now, when we come to the Bible, always, it is important that we do so not with a spirit of familiarity as much as with a spirit of inquiry. And I think that is particularly the case when the material is well-known to us, and especially when we have been on the receiving end of a number of studies in this particular passage that may have skewed it for us in the way in which we view what’s taking place. For example, many of you will have been treated to studies in 1 Samuel 17 that have largely gone under the heading “Dealing with the Giants in Your Life.” And someone has told you, “Well, you’re here this morning, and there are giants in your life, just as there was a giant opposing Israel—the giant of lust, the giant of disobedience, the giant of failure, the giant of depression, and so on—and in the same way as David defeated Goliath, so you, if you do the right thing, will be able to defeat your giants.” Which, of course, is—you know, it’s not a bad word, it’s certainly a kind of helpful idea, but it doesn’t come from 1 Samuel 17, unfortunately. It’s not the story. It’s not the point. You can get there from there if you want, but only if you set aside the point.
And in the same way, we may have been treated to sermons that deal with the five stones in David’s sling, and some preacher or teacher has told you that David had five stones, and you have five stones as well, and then he tells you what they are. How he comes up with this, we will never know, but he’ll tell you that one stone is worship, or witness, or obedience, or whatever it might be, and if you will get these five stones in your sling, then, of course, you will be able to defeat your giant as well. And it all sounds very wonderful, but again, you can’t do it from the text; it’s just not right. Because, first of all, we don’t have the stones as analogies of anything, and even if we did, how would we know which one brought Goliath down? And it’s a bit of a bummer when you’ve got a five-point outline and the giant falls after you use the first stone. I suppose the only way you can really do it is if you deal with the stones in reverse order, working up to the one that finally takes him out.
So set aside all of that in your mind, if you can, and be patient, and be diligent in your reading of the Bible. It’s important; you’re sensible people, you need to read the Bible and ask God to make it sensibly clear to you, and the task that we have is to help in that endeavor. And so, for this week, and maybe another two, we’ll look at these familiar words. And I’ve begun to break them down just in acts, as it were—in acts of a play with various scenes. And act 1 is “on the field of battle.”
Act 1 is “on the field of battle.” And, if you like, the first scene is in verses 1–3, where we’re told that the armies of Philistia and Israel take up their positions against one another. It’s an easy picture to get. The geography of it is that they were in the Valley of Elah, which is about twelve or fourteen miles west of Bethlehem—familiar area for anyone who knows their Bible. And they had ranged themselves in the normal military strategy of the time, and indeed of many years following that, as we see in battles in history: one group on one side, one group on the other side, and very often taunting one another—in the way that used to happen, at least for us in Glasgow, in the school sheds, when the word used to go around, “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” and we would all go and see who was going to fight. And then, there they would be, the protagonists on either side, and I have vivid recollections of individuals telling the other person what they were going to do to them—dreadful, unrepeatable things that were going to happen when the fight began—and the other person replying, “Well, I’m gonna do this to you, and I’ll do that to you.” And invariably, they frightened each other so badly that they shook hands and went on to their next lesson, because the prospect was so unbelievably daunting. But it was seldom that they just got together in two groups and stood grimacing at one another, which is largely what we have here in this valley.
Scene 2, beginning in verse 4, introduces us to the appearance of Goliath. You talk about cutting a dash! Here he comes, standing over nine foot tall; he may have been as tall as ten feet, they say. In other words, to give him some kind of context, he could have looked down on the head of Shaquille O’Neal, and he would have been able to outrun O’Neal, and he was strong enough to be wearing armor that weighed somewhere in the region of 125 pounds. In other words, his armor weighed what some of us weigh (and what others of us would like to weigh), and therefore he had to have a very strong frame in order to handle this. We’re told that his spear was significant: the shaft of it “was like a weaver’s rod.” In other words, the diameter was significant, and the point on it weighed somewhere in the region of 15 pounds. And in front of him—at the end of verse 7—we’re told that he had a shield bearer who walked out in front of him.
Scene 3, in verse 8 and following, has Goliath not only appearing, but Goliath speaking. And in this third scene, Goliath speaks, and the Israelites react. He has two good questions and a straightforward challenge. Question one is there in verse 8: “Why do you come out and line up for battle?” It’s a good question; it’s an honest, straightforward question, isn’t it? “Why do you folks even bother to show up? After all, apparently no one is about to do anything; no one’s doing anything at all. All you do is line up! Why do you come out here and line up for battle?” Question two: “I think we both understand who we are, don’t we? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul?” And then his straightforward challenge: “Why don’t you choose a man and have him come down to me? And if I fight him and kill him, then you will be our servants, and if the reverse takes place, then, of course, we will be the servants of Israel.” And in verse 10, he “def[ied] the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.”
Now, you will notice if you cause your eye to fall on verse 16 that this was not some momentary burst of enthusiasm on the part of this individual, but it was a challenge that was sustained for almost six weeks: “For forty days the Philistine came forward,” and he did so “every morning and [every] evening.” So people awakened in the morning, and they heard him standing there, shouting, “I defy the armies of Israel! If you’ve got someone brave enough to fight, let him come out.” Eventually, the day wended towards its close, and out he came, as the evening shadows began to fall, and he said, “I defy the armies of Israel! If you have somebody who is willing to fight, let him stand forward.” And instead of it producing a long line of volunteers, we’re told that the king and his army responded with dismay and with terror. Verse 11: “On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.”
Is there then to be no answer to Goliath’s challenge? Well, yes, of course, there is. And God is answering, as he does so often, in an unlikely and in an unexpected way. At the end of act 1, we leave the army of Israel standing there as a pathetic company, unable to provide a champion and at the same time unwilling to become the servants of the Philistines.
Now, we move to act 2 in verse 17 and following, which I marked out in my notes; I put “Act 2—Meanwhile, back at the farm…” “Meanwhile back at the farm…” And in verse 12 and following, we have—to verse 15—some family background, giving us the details of David’s family. Of course, from chapter 16 we have something of this. We’re told that the three oldest boys “had followed Saul to the war,” and yet David—because of his youthfulness, presumably—was not one to go. He was a shepherd boy; he was an errand boy.
Now, pause for a moment and think about how unlikely it is that this would be the answer to the challenge of Goliath. If your Bible is like mine, then without turning a page but just looking on the left-hand page—16:7—you will be reminded of a very important principle that God had made clear to Samuel and through Samuel in the anointing of David. Samuel was about to make the mistake of thinking that—since Eliab was standing forward and was the firstborn and was the most likely—Samuel was about to make the mistake that the Lord’s anointed was standing before him. And so it would seem most obvious that Eliab would fulfill the role of the future king. But then the Lord intervened and said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.” What a sentence! “The Lord does not look at … things [that] man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Now, that principle, of course, applies not only to the choosing of their favorite in the anointing of a new king, but it also applies to the issue of their protagonist, Goliath, in all of his bravado. The armies of Israel failed to look at the circumstances the way God looks at them. They looked at the circumstances from a human level. They looked at the circumstances, as it were, from ground level. And leaving God out of the equation, they become pessimistic: “Well, who of us can go and fight this man? He’s so big. He’ll kill anybody that goes out there.” They’re going to discover that when David walks on to the field, seeing the same circumstances, he comes to a separate conclusion. They said, “He’s so big, he’ll kill us.” David said, “He’s so big, I can’t miss him.” And the distinguishing feature, as we’re about to discover, is theological. It’s about perspective. It’s about learning to view things from the perspective of godly insight, rather than doing as the armies of Israel do, viewing the issues from a purely horizontal frame.
Now, in scene 1 of act 2, David is given his marching orders, as it were, from his father. I imagine this took place in the evening; Jesse and David got together, and he said to him, “I want you, in the morning, to go to your brothers. Take the grain, take the bread and the cheese, and hurry up to their camp. I want you to”—verse 18b—“see how they’re doing, and”—18c—“bring back some assurance of their welfare.” And then, to give his son some kind of inkling of the context into which he’s going, he says in verse 19, “[They’re] with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines.” Well, of course, he’s correct on two out of three counts: they are with Saul, they are in the Valley of Elah, but they are not fighting with the Philistines. They’re standing with the Philistines, but there’s no fighting taking place.
Scene 2, verse 20: “Early in the morning…” The scenery changes now, onstage. We have light shining through; it was dark the previous evening in scene 1 when the instructions were given and the preparations were made. Now it’s “the morning”; we understand that. David has left his flock with an assistant, he’s loaded up just as his dad had asked him, and he has reached the camp just, it would seem, at the optimum moment. This is the equivalent of arriving down in Columbus for the Ohio State game just when the teams are about to take the field, just when you can hear the music of the bands playing, and all of a sudden all you want to do is you want to run up the stairs and get to your place as fast as you can; you don’t want to miss a moment of it—that is, if you’re an Ohio State fan, or a fan of the opposing team.
But what he was to discover was that the sense of expectation that he had was not then met by the ensuing battle but was met by the sounds of silence—at least initially. Leaving the cheeses and the stuff with the quartermaster, he hurries to his brothers, and as he begins just to say hello in verse 23, their initial conversation is interrupted by something that would not have taken the brothers by surprise nor any of the army by surprise—it was really quite ho-hum by this time—but it really stopped David in his tracks. And out onto the battlefield routinely steps Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, and he shouts his usual defiance, and David hears it.
Now, the shock of seeing Goliath was surely small compared to the shock that reverberated through David’s system when he saw the reaction of the armies to Goliath. Verse 24: “When the Israelites saw the man, they all ran from him in great fear.” So here he is: “Go up to your brothers.” He gets there. He’s got his stuff. “I’ll leave the stuff just now; I’ll get back to that later.” It’s clear that the whole thing is about to start. Into the melee he goes, onto the side of the armies of Israel. Out onto the other side of the valley comes this man, who shouts his defiance. You can imagine David looking around at his brothers and everyone else—to the king, to Jonathan, anyone he can see—waiting to see who it is who’s going to step forward and take this challenge. And instead of everybody stepping forward, they’re all taking a step back—at least one step back. And there is, instead of excitement and endeavor and vision and bravery, there is a paralyzing sense of dismay and fear which envelopes the army of Israel like a wet blanket.
Now, they had their routine down, didn’t they? They were in position. They were in their expected positions. They were where you’re supposed to go if you’re part of the army. But there is no indication that God featured in their thinking at all—no indication that God featured in their thinking at all. In fact, if you read this passage, you will notice that God is absent, in terms of the response of the armies of Israel, right up and through this section.
Let me just pause and say something that may not be immediately apparent to us: to the extent that, as Ephesians 6 tells us, we are engaged in a great and irreconcilable war against the Enemy, a spiritual battle—not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places—and inasmuch as, being redeemed, we are not only included in the family of God, made part of his bride that is being prepared for the Bridegroom, but we are also set in the ranks of the army, do you see how possible it is to, Sunday by Sunday, be “in position”? Sunday by Sunday, continue the well-established routine? And to do so without hardly any thought of how the living God makes a difference to everything about us, everything we face, everything that we are called to do? And if that seems hard or cruel or unlike you, then let me speak only of myself, for as much as I want to identify with this story and find myself as David, in David, with David, the fact is that I far too easily see myself in the ranks of the Israelite army: standing there, paralyzed, dumb, struck by fear, missing out on the fact that the living God lives within me and should make a difference to all of my days and all of my deeds. If somebody were to look into my mind and see me respond to the events of last week, if someone were to overhear the murmurs of my own heart in all of its perversity, they may be able to conclude that “this guy doesn’t know the living God at all! Because if he did, then surely he would be different from what he is.” And the armies took their position, and the armies marched out in their routine, and the armies stood in defiance against the foe—and when the foe rattled his saber, the armies recoiled with fear and with dismay.
You see, in Jehoshaphat’s case it was “[Lord], we do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.” In the army of Israel’s case, in the Valley of Elah, it was “Lord, we do not know what to do, and our eyes are not upon you. We’re not even thinking about you.”
God had planned this, inasmuch as he had left these armies. He could have routed all the armies, couldn’t he? He could have taken all the Philistines and the Amalekites, the whole bang shoot of them, and made sure that they had nothing more to do with his people. But if you read back in Judges chapter 3, you will discover that God deliberately left these armies, and he deliberately left them to test his people, to see if they would obey the living God, to see if they would trust the living God, to see if they would serve the living God. He wasn’t going to give them a primrose path; he wasn’t planning to give us a primrose path. Why is it that we find ourselves beleaguered and embattled and struggling and facing these things? Because God in his great mystery of providence has determined that it should be so. And he looks, as it were, amongst the ranks of his army, and he says, “Is there no one to stand and take the challenge? Is there no one here who will go to the fight?”
Scene 3—our closing scene for this morning, in which David speaks for the first time. Actually, this is the very first time that David speaks in the Bible. And he asks two questions. He receives an answer to the first question, which is less important than the second question, and you will see them there in verse 26: “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel?” In other words, “Is there a reward? Is Goliath’s face in the post office? What happens if you kill him?” In other words, “If I take the risk,” David says to himself, “what’s the deal?” Now, he may be asking it just because he’s a normal man and he figured that it’s worth asking, but he may also be asking it to try and explain to himself why it is that nobody’s done anything: “I mean, is there no motivation here? I mean, what happens if you go out and fight this man? Why’s nobody up to the challenge?”
And the answer that they give is simply to rehearse what we discover in verse 25. And what we find in verse 25 is that the writer gives us a synopsis of the kind of conversation that has been taking place on the battlefield. And when David asks the question “Is there a reward?” then they simply reiterate this. And the kind of conversation that’s been taking place is straightforward: The soldier standing next to his friend, he says, “Oh, here we go again! Here he comes, right on time: Goliath. Same as yesterday, same as all our yesterdays, defying the army of the living God.”
“Yes,” says his friend, “so why don’t you go and fight him?”
“Fight him? Are you crazy?”
“I’ll tell you what, if you fight him, you get a princess, you get a fat check, and you get tax-free for your whole family forever!”
“Well,” his friend says, “if it sounds so good to you, why don’t you go fight him?”
His friend says, “I’m not fighting him. You fight him!” And down the line it goes as they all recoil in fear and dismay.
But as understandable as that first question is, it is the second question which makes all the difference. And what is the second question? “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” You see, David asks the question that the people fail to ask. Back in verse 8, in Goliath’s second question—question one, “Why do you even come out here and line up for battle?”; question two, “Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul?”—it was at that point that somebody should have stood up and said, “Well, yeah, we’re the servants of Saul, but we’re actually not the servants of Saul; we are the servants of the living God.” Nobody recognized it, nobody faced it, nobody said it.
And God sends David the shepherd boy onto the field of battle to say, “Wait a minute. Who does this loudmouth think he is?” The people saw him as unbeatable; David saw him as uncircumcised. You see the difference in perspective? “We serve a covenant-keeping God. This man is not part of the covenant. We are identified as those under God’s covenant care. Who does this fellow think he can… that he can step up here, and say these things, and defy the armies of the living God?” It’s all perspective.
They all saw the same thing! They saw it week after week after week; David gets one look at it and immediately puts his finger on it. It’s a theological issue. It always is. It always is! It’s not about how well the army was doing, it’s not about how good Saul was as a leader, it’s not about how many people there are, it’s not about these things. It’s about God and his glory. And everything that God is doing is about getting glory to his name. And since those of us who are self-reliant and adequate circumvent God’s glory, he then shows us how inadequate we are, so that we will not rely on ourselves, so that we will then be understanding that all the glory is due to God. And whatever it takes to get us there, he’ll get us there—individually, leadership, church-wise. The power of weakness! The power of weakness.
Evangelical Christianity at this point in the twenty-first century is suffering from adequacy, is suffering from its self-assertiveness, is suffering from the fact that it fails to face the fact that it is in our inadequacy that the power and might and glory of God is seen in its transcendent splendor. And it takes a shepherd boy to get there and show them what it’s about.
Ah, well, our time is gone. I don’t have much of a voice; I didn’t have much to start with. But let’s do two things: let’s be humble enough to admit that we are able to identify with the failure of the army, that we face our doubts and our dangers and our difficulties, and we often react in a way that doesn’t suggest we serve a living God; and let us learn from David to ask the right question—not “What does this mean to me? What does this mean to my family? What does this mean to my nation?” but “What does this mean to God and his name and his glory?”
The important thing was not that the armies of Israel would be well regarded, but that God’s name would no longer be dragged in the dust of the Valley of Elah. If you’ll read the rest of the chapter, then it will help us together to prepare for next time.
Let us pray:
Not to us be the honor that’s due your name,
Not to us be the glory that’s yours to claim,
Not to us be the praises, the high acclaim,
Not to us, but to you, O Lord.
Lord, you have exalted above all things your name and your Word. Come then to us in our dismay and in our fear, in our routine, and in our neglect of you. And help us always to ask the first question and the right question, recognizing that it is your honor that is ultimately at stake.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest and remain with all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.
 See 1 Samuel 5:1–12.
 See 1 Samuel 6:1–2.
 1 Samuel 16:13 (NIV 1984).
 1 Samuel 17:7 (NIV 1984).
 1 Samuel 17:8 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 17:9 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 17:13 (NIV 1984).
 1 Samuel 17:18 (paraphrased).
 See Ephesians 6:12.
 2 Chronicles 20:12 (NIV 1984).
 1 Samuel 17:26 (NIV 1984).
 Source unknown.
 2 Corinthians 13:14 (paraphrased).