King David is one of my favourite Biblical heroes.  Voted at his high school Most Likely To Appear On Young Talent Time, he had it all: good looks, great tan, musical talent, deeply spiritual, glamorous, daring, caring … okay, slightly neurotic, possibly bipolar.  But totally droolworthy, for all his faults.

I was recently re-reading of the famous showdown between the terrifying giant and the boy next door.  I love this story, and I wouldn’t want it to end any other way; but this time I began to wonder: what other way might it have ended?

This is the bit in 1 Samuel 17 that caught my attention:

Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines.  The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.  A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was [3 metres] … His shield bearer went ahead of him.  Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me.  If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.”  Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.”  On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.  … For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand.

At this point I need to admit that I haven’t really done any study on this passage.  For all I know, single combat challenge was a perfectly sane way to settle international conflicts in 1000 BC.

But that’s my point.  Why did the Israelites feel compelled to take this challenge seriously?  Later in the chapter, we’re told:

When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran.  Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines to the entrance of Gath  and to the gates of Ekron [a good 15 miles as the crow flies].

So we can infer from the ending that the Israelite army was fit, numerous, and rested.  So my point is this: why on earth didn’t they just rush the guy?

An army that proposes single combat challenge might have one of two different motives.  One, they don’t think they can win in open battle, and lives might be saved.  Or two, they are very confident of their champion.  And I would add three, they have a reasonable expectation that the challenge will be accepted as the decider.

Let’s stop for a minute and think about how the story might have run, if the challenge had not been taken up by Israel.  Who says it had to be?  There’s nothing in the Torah about championship fighting, is there?  Until fairly recently, Israel had been a theocracy: God was their King, and the priests His officers, voicing the Law.  They had a series of judges dealing with the day-to-day conflicts, ranging from civil disputes to military uprisings, which culminated in Samuel the Seer.

Now they’ve gotten trendy like the nations around them: they have a human king, Saul, “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.”  So, perhaps, to stay trendy, a nation needs to adopt some of the othercustoms of the people around them.  One of those might have been this idea that the army with the tallest, fiercest dude wins.  Having the Worldmaker on your side just wasn’t in vogue anymore.  And clearly, the tallest, fiercest dude Israel had on offer was just not quite as tall and fierce as the tallest, fiercest Philistine.  So the tallest, fiercest Israelite sulked in his tent for a month, while team morale plummeted.

I can’t say I blame him, by the way.  To walk up to Goliath with his 7 kg spear-point on a haft three times as tall as you, toting your wee sword which might weigh 1.5 kg, tops, and never come within swinging distance … that would daunt the bravest warrior, let alone the guy who hides in the baggage when the spotlight comes on, however far he’s come.  (No wonder Jonathan took up archery.)  Consider also that Saul knew by this time that God’s favour had moved on from him because of his penchant for doing things his own way.  So it is perhaps understandable that while Saul might call out the army to meet a threat, he was not at all confident of victory, even if he had superior numbers and firepower, so to speak.  Saul had no reason to suppose that, even if he could summon the courage to face Goliath, God would back him up.  Except for one factor.  God might have rejected Saul as king, but nowhere is it hinted that God had rejected Israel.  If Saul had at any stage gotten to know God as someone other than “the Lord your God”, this would have been a big clue for him.  When David did finally go out, what had really got his goat wasn’t the demoralisation of their forces, but the fact that Goliath was in complete oblivion to WHOSE army he was dissing.  David took a shot at Goliath because Israel belonged to God.

In another scenario, the drama might have gone like this:

  • Philistines array themselves against Israel.
  • Goliath swaggers out and bellows his challenge.
  • Israel completely igornes him and overruns the whole lot of them because God is with them and they’ve been promised that territory.
  • End of story.

Of course, there is fantastic stuff in the true story, stuff we don’t want to do without.  David the shepherd, clothed in youth and weakness but full of the will of God, defeats the indomitable giant and his people then liberate the nation.  There’s a type in there of Jesus, the Son of God, the “son of David”, clothed in humanity but full of the will of God, defeating the monster Sin because we belong to God.  And there’s also a broad hint for the people of God to then work hard to chase out the evil that surrounds us.

David didn’t go out disguised as Saul – either to protect the whereabouts of the real Saul, or to puff himself up.  Despite being anointed for it, he wasn’t going out onto the field as King, not yet.  He was going out as Servant.  He was armed with the Name and handful of stones (which some say represent the fivefold ministry gifts).  And there is a certain glee in the picture of the gobsmacked Philistines realising that if even an Israelite teenager was bold enough in the name of his God to strike down their tallest and fiercest … what might the adults be capable of?  Had Israel been waiting the whole month for their weakest member to turn up, to make a point?  Had God?

But think on this.  Just as there was no real, legitimate reason for a fully-equipped army on their own turf to listen to the squawked demands of a big pagan bully, so too it is with us.

If God’s told you the path to walk in, don’t let the size of the obstacle in front of you define your next step.  For He is with you.


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