Are faith and rational thinking incompatible? Looking to the story of David and Goliath, Alistair Begg shows that reason is not opposed to faith; rather, sound thinking leads to godly living. When confronted by the fearsome Philistine, David recalled God’s past salvation and moved forward in confidence to face the giant. David’s actions set an example for us to place our trust in God’s character and promises, which will bolster our faith and transform our actions.
Now let’s pray before we study the Bible:
Father, help us now both to speak and to listen so that it may be your voice that we hear and your Word that we obey. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
John McEnroe’s famous phrase from, I think, Wimbledon, “You cannot be serious,” has been on my mind throughout the week as I’ve been studying 1 Samuel 17, the reason being that I think it sits well on the lips of the three characters who are involved in a dialogue with David in the balance of this particular chapter. Each character—Eliab, his brother; Saul, the king; and Goliath, his opponent—respond to the appearance of David and the willingness of David to take up this challenge in such a way that suggests to the reader that at least part of their response would be aptly summarized in that phrase, “You cannot be serious.”
We ended last time by noting that David’s arrival had sounded the missing theological note. David had walked onto the field of battle concerned about something that apparently was no concern of the armies. It should have been, but it wasn’t. And David’s concern was for the glory of God’s name. Appearing as he did, confronted by the scene, it was immediately clear to David that there was more at stake than simply the fate of Israel, more at stake than simply the fact that Israel looked bad, more at stake than the humbling of Israel’s pride. It was clear that they were sidelined by fear. Although, as we saw, they had taken their place on the field of battle, their perspective was all wrong, and their behavior showed that they did not believe their beliefs. An interesting thought, isn’t it? Just the phrase, I hope, will be helpful to you, to ask the question, “Do I believe my beliefs?” You may actually also ask the question, “Have I learned how to doubt my doubts?” Because, in the spiritual journey, learning to doubt our doubts and believe our beliefs will mean the difference between progress and loss.
And it is clear, because their behavior makes it clear, that they did not really believe what they affirmed. I can illustrate it for you: They believed that Yahweh is the living God, yet they were acting as if he was dead. They believed that Yahweh is the Lord Almighty, yet they were acting as if he were powerless. They believed that Yahweh was the faithful, covenant-keeping God, yet they were acting as if he were indifferent to their plight. They believed that Yahweh was the Deliverer, but they acted in such a way as to suggest that they did not expect him to deliver them. In short, their behavior made it clear that they did not believe their beliefs.
And having lost sight of God, they had lost heart for the battle. These two things will always go together. When we lose sight of God as he has made himself known in the Bible—and incidentally, this is why we need to read our Bibles, that we might know God and that we might meet God and that he might make himself known to us in the pages of Scripture—when we lose sight of God, we will inevitably lose faith and heart for the battle. And we will, like the armies of Israel, begin to view the challenge from a purely human perspective.
Their predicament is clear; it is a sorry predicament, and it emerges from the fact that they have a skewed perspective. Look at verse 20: they’re prepared to go out there and shout; they take their places on the battlefield, “going out to [their] … positions” and “shouting the war cry.” Well, big deal. They’re shouting in verse 20, but we know in verse 11 that they were cowering in response to “the Philistine’s words.” We know in verse 24 that they were running in response to the Philistine’s challenge. And we discover now, in verse 28, that they begin to argue within the ranks of those who are the servants of the living God.
What has happened is very obvious: they are acting poorly because they are thinking wrongly. It’s all about our minds. It’s all about the way in which we think. That’s why Paul, when he urges the Romans, he says to them, “[Now] be transformed by the renewing of your mind[s].” That’s why the Bible says, “As a man thinks, so is he.” Our thoughts—unless we have a peculiar predicament—our thoughts control our actions. And so, when the people of God have begun to think wrongly, they then begin to act poorly.
Now, we ought not to stand in judgment on them, because we understand how easy it is to get ourselves in that position. And when we’ve begun to think wrongly and act poorly, the first thing that we need is actually the last thing that we want. When you and I begin to act wrongly because we think poorly, the first thing we need is the last thing that we want.
Now, let me show this to you in the interchange between David and Eliab. There are these three dialogues that take place, and we will only have time I think to deal with two. First of all, David and Eliab.
Instead of Eliab giving his younger brother a hug and admitting to David that he had sounded (that is, David had sounded) the very necessary theological note which was so sadly missing from the proceedings to this point—instead of admitting that he was in the wrong and that his younger brother was in the right, he goes on the attack.
You see, the thing that he needed was the correction that David brought, but the thing that he needed was the last thing he wanted. Because he, like most of us, wanted to feel good about himself, wanted to be able to affirm that he was actually fulfilling his obligations and was doing well and doing right. But in his heart of hearts, every time Goliath came out on the field and challenged the armies of the living God, he along with his colleagues knew, “This is a fiasco. There’s not a man among us prepared to take up the challenge.” And the answer of the taunts of Goliath are met by the response of the shepherd boy who is the younger brother of Eliab, and what Eliab needs is not what he wants, and what he wants is not what he needs. And so, instead of admitting it, he goes on the attack.
Now, you can see this in every level of our lives. When we know ourselves to be in the wrong, what we really need is somebody to come and point out to us, “You know, you’re thinking wrongly about this, and you need to change.” But we don’t want anyone to do that, because we know that’s the case, and when we’re confronted by our wrong thinking and our poor acting… Let’s say you’ve gone on a diet, you’ve gone out, and someone gave you cheesecake, and you’d made a pact with yourself that cheesecake is out for you because you have a cheesecake problem. And the cheesecake came, and you just took it. And not only did you take it, but you start to eat it almost immediately; you didn’t even wait for everybody to have their dessert served. So you’ve embarrassed yourself on two fronts, at least: one, you didn’t wait till everyone was served; two, you’re stuffing your face with cheesecake and you made a pledge that you wouldn’t. And the worst of it all, two away from you, you hear someone saying, “No, not for me.”
Now, in that moment there is opportunity. ’Cause you’re thinking poorly, you’re acting wrongly, we have the opportunity to put down our fork and say, “You know what? She’s right! I’m wrong! I’ll sit this aside!” But do we? No, it usually goes like this: “Oh, on a diet, are we? What’s up, don’t you like cheesecake? One of these crazy diets that you can’t eat milk and fat products, huh? Huhuh? Huh?” And all the time, all you’re doing is just embarrassing yourself more and more.
That’s exactly what Eliab does on a far different level. Look at him as he dialogues with his brother. There’s more than a spoonful of jealousy. Because, you see, David’s faith confronts the army with their failure; David’s enthusiastic inquiry makes their flatfooted inactivity all the more glaring. And it is not that Eliab’s response is superficial; in fact, the phraseology in the NIV, there in verse 28, says that “When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger.” “He burned with anger.” It infuriated him to hear what his younger brother was saying.
You know, in Christian terms, who a “fanatic” is? A fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than I do. See? It’s easy, then, to say, “Oh, no, she’s just a fanatic,” instead of acknowledging that she may not be a fanatic, she may actually be approaching things properly, and the fact that she’s approaching things properly highlights the fact that I am thinking wrongly and acting poorly, and so instead of responding to the challenge and opportunity that was presented by the enthusiasm of this individual—instead of acknowledging that it highlights my need and the necessary change—I go on the attack and try to sideline the person, questioning their motives and arguing against their actions.
That will always be the case when we’re thinking in a man-centered way. Eliab is jealous for himself; David is jealous for God and for the glory of God’s name. That’s why he said, “There’s absolutely no reason why this uncircumcised loudmouth should be defying the armies of the living God.” And nobody should be arguing with that. That’s perfectly true. There is no reason in the world why Goliath should be able to hold court in this way for a period of some forty days. But again, notice, instead of acknowledging the rightness of David’s assessment—instead of admitting the fact that David has now sounded the necessary theological note—Eliab “burn[s] with anger,” and he devalues David’s position: “Why have you come down here? … With whom did you leave [these] few sheep in the desert?” You can sense the contempt in his voice. He doesn’t give any pride of place to the fact that David has a responsible role within the structure of the family and caring for the flock. No, it’s not just “sheep,” it’s not just “a flock,” it’s “those few sheep.”
And when our hearts are wicked as Eliab’s heart was wicked, then we will act in such a way as to suggest that we even know what’s going on in someone else’s heart. And he presumes to know David’s heart. And so he says, “I can see how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is. Your inquiries are ridiculous. Your inquiries are presumptuous. David, you cannot be serious. You didn’t come down here to be involved in the battle; you came down here to watch the battle.” That’s an interesting observation, isn’t it? “You came down only to watch the battle.” Do you see how we accuse other people of our own problems? There was no battle! They were all watching nothing! If David had been on his toes or not as nice as guy as he is, he would’ve said, “What battle? There is no battle! That’s why I’m asking the question that I’m asking, Eliab. What do you mean, I came down to watch the battle? I came down to watch nothing! Look at you jokers!”
He doesn’t say that; he responds in a kind of routine fashion for siblings: “What’ve I done now? I was only asking a question!” I mean, that’s the usual dialogue amongst brothers and sisters, brothers and brothers, isn’t it? The accusation comes, the other person says, “What’s the problem? I was only asking a question!” Or in the King James Version it says, “Is there not a cause?” In the NIV, “Can’t I even speak?” In other words, he says, “Given that you battle-ready warriors are completely neutralized, is it not understandable that I, or somebody else, should inquire about the possibility of taking up the challenge, by God’s enabling and for God’s glory?” And his indignant tone, his confident reliance on God, his excited response catches the attention of the surrounding people who are listening to the interchange, and in verse 31 we’re told that “What David said was overheard,” and then it was passed down the line “to Saul,” and as a result of that, “Saul sent for” the young shepherd boy.
Well, that brings us to the second of these three dialogues: the first between David and Eliab, his brother, in which Eliab stands as the representative of those who are acting poorly because they’re thinking wrongly; secondly, in the dialogue that ensues between David and Saul.
In verse 32, you will notice that David takes the initiative. He says to Saul, “[I don’t want anybody to] lose heart on account of this Philistine; [because] your servant will go [out] and fight him.” Quite remarkable, isn’t it? Quite appealing, quite endearing. At first blush it might even seem as though the charge of presumption that Eliab has brought is not without some kind of basis. But as we’re going to see, that’s not the case at all.
In verse 33 we have Saul’s response. There aren’t many words, but it’s pretty straightforward. As I sat and thought about verse 33, I imagined the conversation sort of going along these lines: In response to David’s great suggestion, Saul looks at him and he says, “Oh, David, David. You’re a fine wee boy, David. You really are: handsome, big rosy cheeks. Frankly, I wish I had a few more like you in my army, ’stead of these boys here. You’re the first one that stood up and said anything. I like your zeal. I like your vision. I like your spirit. And one of the reasons I like it, David, is because it reminds me of myself! It reminds me of when I was younger, reminds me when I was most aware of the battle. And I can remember similar feelings as yours when I was your age, son. But I’m older now, wiser. This’ll happen to you: as you spend more time, as you get along the journey, you’ll look out and you’ll realize, the facts will become plain. And David, the facts are plain: you’re only a boy, and Goliath is a seasoned warrior. You cannot be serious about challenging him, because you are not able to challenge him! Goliath is strong, and you are weak. And it therefore stands to reason that you do not have a chance.”
In other words, Saul’s response was reasoned, sensible, pragmatic—and wrong. Very reasonable, very sensible, very pragmatic, and wrong. Somewhere along the line, Saul had quit listening to his master’s voice. Somewhere along the line, he had stopped singing the songs that marked out his confident trust in the early days of his kingship. If we had spent time with him—anachronistically, I suggest this to you—if we’d spent time with him, we would never have ridden in his chariot and had him say, “Hey, have you heard this one? This is a great one.” And then, as we rode in the chariot, he sang along to the words,
Got any rivers you think are uncrossable?
Got any mountains you can’t tunnel through?
God specializes in things thought impossible;
He can do just what no others can do.
See? But he wasn’t playing that. He wasn’t singing that. He’d lost sight of that. In contrast to David’s reply, Saul had lost confidence in God. He had lost confidence in God.
And so he speaks the voice of reason. He speaks the voice of sensibility. He speaks in a very ordered way, in a very understandable way. He speaks in a man-centered way. And the missing theological note on the field of battle is the missing theological note in the mind of the king—a reminder to us that neither an army, nor a nation, nor a team, nor a congregation will ever outstrip its leadership. It is the leadership in a home, in an office, in a sports team, in a battalion that marks out the way it goes—hence the vital importance of leadership. You’ll remember that on Tuesday, won’t you? I’m sure you will.
Verse 32, “David said to Saul…” Verse 33, “Saul replied…” Now, these are not peers. This is the shepherd boy in dialogue with the king. But David isn’t finished. Look at verse 34: “But David said to Saul…” Whew! This is fascinating to me! You get an opportunity, you go to the king, you say to the king, “Don’t let anybody worry, I’m okay, I’m prepared to go and take this on.” The kings says, “Thank you, it’s a lovely idea and you’re a fine boy, but you know what? You’re not going to do it, because you can’t do it.” That really ought to be the end of the conversation, but not with David. David comes back, and he gives a little bit of history in verses 34, 35, and 36, and the key to understanding what he says in those three verses is found in what he then says by way of explanation in verse 37—and indeed, if we do not understand verse 37, then we will make a hash of verses 34–36. So look at verse 37 before we rehearse the previous three verses.
In verse 37 he says, “The Lord delivered me, and the Lord will deliver me.” The Lord “delivered me,” past tense; the Lord “will deliver me,” future tense. David does not respond to Saul’s assertions by saying, “Well, I understand that, but I’m a lot tougher than I look,” by saying, “No, no, no, no, no, you haven’t really got the measure of me, you don’t really know who I am.” He doesn’t say that. No, instead, in recounting his successes in striking down his opponents in working with the flock—namely, a lion and a bear—David says, “I have known what it is to strike down these ferocious beasts, and I believe I will be able to deal similarly with Goliath because… I am a really tough wee guy.” No! “I believe that I will be able to deal similarly with Goliath because he has defied the armies of the living God.” And what is God’s concern? God’s concern is for his name, and for his glory, and for his people, and for his unfolding eternal purpose, and for his kingdom. And ultimately what is happening here in 1 Samuel 17 has to do with a far larger perspective than simply the defiance of a Philistine against the armies of Israel; it has to do with the Lord’s Anointed in the Lord’s place so that God’s people in God’s place may be under God’s rule enjoying God’s pleasure. “I think,” he says, “that we’ll be able to proceed with this. I believe that God, who has shown himself strong in the past, will show himself strong in the present.”
Now, this is of great importance, and I want to show it to you as we begin to get the landing lights on and put the wheels down. What does David do here? David does not launch off with some great statement of bravado. What we have here is not antithetical to reason or to sensibility. I say that to you because some of you will have already begun to make the non sequitur approach in your mind which says, “Oh, I get this now! You have on the one hand reason, sensibility, and pragmatism, and this is now about to be set against a great leap of faith on abandon into nothingness.” No, it’s not. Because, in actual fact, what David does here is he combines a good memory with sound thinking—a good memory with sound thinking. “Because God did that there and then,” he says, “he is able to do this here and now. And since the God of the there and then remains the God of the here and now, then I believe that since Goliath has defied the armies of the living God, we can look to God together to deliver us from Goliath in the same way that he has delivered me in the past in going about my duties.”
If you think, then, of faith as the fuselage of an aeroplane, think of memory and logic as the wings. One wing is memory, and the other wing is logic, and it is this which gets the craft airborne. When we give to our nieces and our nephews a book for Christmas, and we write on it, “Proverbs 3:5–6: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight, in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path,’” we need to make it very, very clear to our nieces and our nephews that what the Bible says is, “Do not rely on your own insight”; it does not say, “Do not use insight.” It doesn’t say, “Take your brain out and do nothing”; it says, “You don’t rely on your perspective; you bring your insights and your analysis under the overarching rule of who God is.” How do we know who God is? Because of how he has revealed himself. How has he revealed himself? In his glory and in his name. Where has he revealed himself? In the unfolding of history. How, then, would we make application of God to the present on the basis of what we know of God in the past?
Your faith and mine this morning—our willingness to take up the challenge, our willingness to face the battle, our flat-out preparedness to admit to our abject weakness and need—will be directly tied to our memory and our ability to think soundly on the basis of memory. Christianity is not a mindless faith. Christianity is not a call to come and take your brain out and put it under the seat and then launch into some oblivion. No! David highlights this for us.
Now, I wonder this morning if that is true of us: memory and sensible thinking. Do you have a journal? I bet there’s not ten percent of this congregation keeps a journal. And it’s a big mistake, ’cause I do—no. It never occurred to me to keep a journal until my eighteenth birthday, when I was given a five-year diary. And for five years—four years and eight months, right up until the 16th of August, 1975, when a significant event took place in my life, and the journal lost some of its appeal at that point, ’cause I no longer went to bed by myself—but for four years and all those months till the 16th of August, I was absolutely faithful in keeping my journal, and since then, for the last twenty-nine years, I’ve kept a journal.
You say, “Well, whoopee-doo for you. Big deal.” No, it’s no big deal, but let me tell you what it means on a cold afternoon and on a rainy day. No one’s interested in this journal. My family isn’t even interested in the journal. They can’t even read my writing. But on a cold day, on a sad day, on a bad day, on a fear day, on a lack-of-faith day, on a wilderness-wandering day, I go in my drawer, and I dig ’em out, and I find notes from you folks, and I find cards from members of my family that are now in glory, and I find notations of verses and little insights that say, “Back there and then, God was this to me.” And then that memory, plus a measure of logic, says, “If God is that there and then, then surely God is true here and now.” And on that basis we will engage in battle. That’s our confidence.
You see, David is not left to us as this wonderful example of a guy who’s able to go out because he is, you know, the “right stuff.” It’s not because David is the right stuff; it’s because he trusts in the right God. You don’t go out tomorrow because you’re the right stuff. You’re clearly not the right stuff. And neither am I! Weak, impoverished, fearful, doubting. Bringing memory to bear with sound thinking. Casting ourselves afresh upon the promises of God.
You see, that’s all David does. If God helped him rescue a lamb, wouldn’t he help him rescue a nation? If God gave him deliverance from a bear and a lion, who are only doing what their natural instincts cause them do, would he not give them deliverance from this great Goliath character? If God had been faithful to his promises in the past, would he not be faithful to his promises in the present? And David said to himself, “Yes, he would!” So he gets in his chariot, and he puts in his latest CD. And what Saul had stopped singing, David started singing—not the same song, but he says, “Listen to this one. I love this one.”
So I thank Him for the mountains,
And I thank Him for the valleys,
And I thank Him for the things he’s brought me through;
’Cause if I never had a problem,
I’d never know that God could solve them,
I’d never know what faith in his Word would do.
Through it all, through it all.
I’ve learned to trust in Jesus,
I’ve learned to trust in God.
Through it all, through it all,
I’ve learned to depend upon his Word.
That’s the difference. The foe is still the same foe. The circumstances are still the same circumstances. The challenge is still the same challenge. It’s not because David is the right stuff. You see, it’s not all about me. It’s all about him, isn’t it? And the soldiers were all, “It’s all about us! We’re looking bad.” Yes, you are looking bad! But it’s not all about you; it’s all about him. And until you realize it’s all about him, you’ll be standing there for another forty days and forty nights. And so will the contemporary church.
And then it finishes, of course, with the Halloween event there in verses 38 and 39—that is, the dressing up. Saul says, “Well, you’ve convinced me, so let’s your kitted out for this.” (It’s appropriate, isn’t it? I’m sure I’ll get a note or two. It’s just I’m being facetious, relax.) But it is a tragicomic picture, isn’t it? Dressing him up, putting on a coat of armor? You’ll notice that “Saul dressed David”—verse 38—and then David said, “No, I’m sorry, this isn’t going to work.” He did a couple of runs ’round the family room, and he said, “No, this is not me.”
So “Saul dressed David”—verse 38. David undressed—verse 39. David “took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his [shepherd] bag and, with his sling in his hand, [he walked off to challenge] the Philistine.” And Saul stood back on the parapet, and looked out, and saw his boy go. And he said, “Oh, David, you cannot be serious.”
The Lord’s anointed goes forward to battle, as we’ll see next time, pointing forward to the Lord’s Anointed, the Messiah of Israel, going forward to the fight, proceeding up the hillside to a cross—and the world looking on then and despising the scene, and looking on now and saying the same thing as then: “Are you telling me that in the death of this Galilean carpenter, this proclaimed Messiah of Israel, we have the pivotal human event of human history, we have the answer to the predicament of the sinful, warring lives of men and women?” And we reply, “Yes, in this scene of weakness is the greatest power the world could ever know.” And our friends watch us drive away, and they say, “You cannot be serious.” But yes, we are. Yes, we are.
Father, thank you that “Your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.” Thank you that you do not look around for the “right stuff,” but that you pick up the most unlikely to use them in the various ways that you have purposed, and that in and through it all you will get glory to your name. So as we proceed to the days that are before us in this week, we pray that you will so bring your Word to bear upon our lives that we may doubt our doubts, and believe our beliefs, and live to the praise of your glory.
Almighty, [merciful] Father,
Faithfully loving your own,
Here in our weakness You find us
Falling before Your throne,
[Yes], we’re falling before Your throne.
May your grace and mercy and peace rest upon all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Romans 12:2 (NIV 1984).
 Proverbs 23:7 (KJV, paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 17:26 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 17:28 (NIV 1984).
 1 Samuel 17:28 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 17:28 (NIV 1984).
 1 Samuel 17:29 (paraphrased).
 Oscar Carl Eliason, “Got Any Rivers?” (1945).
 1 Samuel 17:37 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 17:36 (paraphrased; emphasis added).
 1 Samuel 17:36 (paraphrased; emphasis added).
 Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (Exeter, UK: Paternoster, 1981), 47.
 Proverbs 3:5–6 (paraphrased).
 Andraé Crouch, “Through It All” (1971). Paraphrased.
 1 Samuel 17:38 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 17:39 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 17:40 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 119:105 (paraphrased).
 Dawn Rodgers and Eric Wyse, “Wonderful, Merciful Savior” (1989).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.