Note: I had the chance to preach this week on Monday night at a men’s rescue mission in downtown Birmingham. What follows is a (slightly) amended manuscript of my sermon. In it I tried to apply to my preaching some of what I’ve been reading and learning from Hans Boersma’s excellent book Scripture as Real Presence, a look at the church fathers’ sacramental reading of the Old Testament scriptures. The aim of such reading is to preach both the historical reality of the text and the sacramental reality--that is, the reality of the gospel of Christ “hidden” in the words of the text.
I want to tell a familiar story tonight, the story of David and Goliath. This may be one of the most familiar stories in the whole bible, at least in its bare outline. Everyone knows Goliath was a giant, and a mighty warrior. David was a young man who went against Goliath with only a sling in one hand and a shepherd’s staff in the other, and he killed Goliath with a single stone from his sling. It’s the kind of great story we all love to hear--David is the perfect lucky underdog who takes down the big bad guy on the block. It’s like the Eagles taking on the Patriots with a backup quarterback, or the American “Miracle team” beating the Russians at hockey in the 1980 Olympics. It is the classic story. But as I re-tell the story tonight, I want you to listen carefully for two things: first, the example that David provides for us as men who serve God, and second, the way that this whole story points us to Jesus, to the gospel, and to the victory that Jesus wins for his people over sin and death.
Let’s set the scene then: ancient Israel lived in something of a bad neighborhood. To the West of Israel were the Philistines; to their east, the Ammonites, to the North, the people of Tyre, and to the south, Edom. All these peoples worshipped different gods than Israel did. They did not acknowledge the God of Israel, the God who had redeemed Israel from Egypt, led them in the wilderness, and brought them across the Jordan river into the land. They worshipped other gods--gods with names like Dagon and Baal, Anat and Asherah. They worshipped their gods through child sacrifice and other evil practices and did not obey the laws that the God of Israel had revealed. And many times, they attacked Israel. They mustered their armies and tried to make Israel pay tribute to them.
One of these attacks came from the Philistines. They lived on the coastlands west of Israel, and they came into the valleys of the mountains with their armies, to force Israel to pay tribute to them and acknowledge the power of their gods. Israel came down with their armies, and met the Philistines in a valley called Elah. At that time, Saul was the king of Israel, and he and his army drew up opposite the Philistines in this valley.
Now you need to understand something about ancient warfare. It wasn’t like modern wars. Today our armies are mostly professional. I’m sure some of you are veterans, and when you were in the army, that was your whole job. You were paid to be in the army, you were trained to fight and fulfill all the other support and non-combat roles that we have in the army, and often you even lived with other people in the army. In the ancient world, the armies were not professional. The men who fought were the same men who also had farms back home. They had land to work, grain to grind into flour, sheep and cattle to care for, and grapes to harvest and turn into wine. Because of this the felt cost of war was much higher--if all the men got killed, who would work the land? Who would harvest the grain and provide for their families? And so, it was not an uncommon practice for two armies to come together, select champions to fight, and then decide the outcome of the battle on a fight between only two men.
So picture this Valley called Elah. The Bible tells us that drawn up a mountain on one side of the valley was the whole army of Israel, and on the other side of the valley was the whole army of the Philistines. Each of them has the high ground on one end of the valley; and neither can attack the other without leaving their good position. So they gather within shouting distance each day and throw insults back and forth, trash talking and cursing one another. And then the Philistines bring up their champion, a man named Goliath. He’s a monster of a man. Goliath was a giant in every sense of the word. He was nine feet tall, covered in 120 pounds of heavy bronze armor, carrying a huge spear, a sword, and a shield. He is the baddest dude on the block, trained from his youth in the art of war.
Goliath comes out of the Philistine ranks and challenges Israel to produce a champion to fight him. He curses them and insults them and insults their God, and no one steps forward to fight him. He’s a giant! Who would want to go toe-to-toe with a giant? So for 40 days, the bible says, every single day, this giant Goliath provokes Israel, and no one steps up to fight him.
Finally one day, the young man David arrives to visit the army. He has three older brothers serving in the ranks, and he comes to the battlefield to bring them food from his father. David is a young man, a keeper of his father’s sheep, and after he delivers the food his father sends him with, he goes out to the field to see his brothers standing in the ranks. While he is visiting, Goliath comes out to do his daily insulting and provoking. He curses the ranks of Israel and insults the God of Israel. The men in the ranks tell David about how Saul, the king of Israel, has offered a great reward for anyone who can be the champion of Israel and face Goliath in combat.
I think something interesting to note here is that we never see David interested in the reward that is offered. The reward is great--Saul offers his daughter, and great riches, and many other benefits to anyone who can fight Goliath. But David doesn’t get fired up over the reward. What gets David fired up is that Goliath is insulting the name of the LORD, the God of Israel. All the other men of Israel might not remember, but David remembers that The LORD delivered Israel out of Egypt, and that the LORD delivered him from wild animals when he was keeping his father’s sheep. So David goes before King Saul, and agrees to be the champion for Israel.
David rejects Saul’s offer of armor and weapons like those the Philistine Goliath has. He knows his own weapons--his sling and his staff--and he knows that if he is to defeat Goliath, he will need more than weapons: he will need the victory provided by the Lord.
Now picture the scene: David goes down from the camp of the Israelites, which if you remember is up on the side of a mountain. He comes down into the valley and the bible tells us he selected five smooth stones from the brook in the valley, to throw from his sling. He walks out into the middle of the two armies, and approaches Goliath, who is still there taunting Israel and Israel’s God. And remember, David and Goliath are not alone here. On one side is the whole army of the Philistines, and on the other is the whole army of the Israelites. David and Goliath are in the middle, and Goliath laughs when he sees David. Understandable, right? If you’re the biggest, baddest, meanest warrior anywhere around, and you see a young man coming toward you with a shepherd’s staff, you’re going to laugh. So Goliath laughs, and insults David and curses David in the name of the Philistine gods. Look at 1 Samuel 17:42-44:
“And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.’”
And now is when we get to see some of David’s toughness. He didn’t tremble. He didn’t run. He taunted Goliath right back, and David takes his taunt even farther than Goliath does! Look a little farther down in the passage, where David says,
“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. This 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 the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.”
I bet you could have heard a pin drop at that moment. Imagine the thousands of men on either side watching. With a roar, Goliath charged at David. David charged to meet him, but he didn’t wait for Goliath to get near. He drew a stone from his pouch, slung it at Goliath’s forehead, and killed him. He cut off Goliath’s head with the giant’s own sword, right in front of both armies. And then I imagine he held it up for both armies to see--the champion of the Philistines, the one whom the Israelites had feared, was dead. He had conquered by the saving power of the Lord.
Now what can we learn from this story of the bible? It is so well known to us that it is easy to miss the lessons contained in it. I think there are two basic ways we can understand it, and apply it to how we live as Christians.
The first way is this: David provides an example for us. He is a faithful servant of the Lord. At that time he isn’t famous or rich. But he is zealous to see God’s name glorified. And he is faithful and obedient in the small things as well as the large things of his life. He was a faithful keeper of his father’s sheep. He was faithful to defend the flock from wild beasts. He was faithful to bring the sheep out to pleasant green places with water and food. He was faithful when his father gave him the humble task of bringing food to his brothers who were serving in the army. All these little acts of faithfulness prepared David for the big test, when he saw a giant on the field of battle defying his God, and throwing mud on the Lord’s honor. So this gives us a paradigm to think about for how we might live as Christians. Brothers, if you are a Christian, a test is coming. The Christian life is a hard life, and you are going to be tested and tempted and tried. As a servant of the Lord, you have the great privilege of upholding his honor in the test and the trial. David recognized this. Remember what he said when he faced Goliath? He didn’t say, “I’m going to kill you this day so that all these men here may know that I am a mighty warrior!” He said, “So that all these men here may know that there is a God in Israel, and his power is enough to save me and all Israel from the hand of giants.” David’s life provides an example for us, brothers. Be faithful in the small things, the daily tasks to which you are called, and you will grow in habits of obedience that help you to uphold God’s honor when the test comes, as it will come.
But David is more than just a moral example for us, brothers. This story in the life of David points us to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, our Lord. If David was just a moral example and we had to pull ourselves up by our moral bootstraps, that might be helpful for us, but it wouldn’t be good news. And the bible is full of good news. When Jesus was resurrected from the dead, he walked with two of his disciples down a road leading to a town called Emmaus. As he walked, he unfolded for them how everything in the Old Testament scriptures was pointing to him as the Savior, and how his crucifixion and resurrection fulfilled all of God’s promises.
Remember that in Genesis 3, at the same time that God laid the curse on Adam and Eve as a consequence of their sin, he promised a redeemer. He promised that a chosen descendant coming from Eve would be the one to crush the head of the evil serpent, Satan. As David crushed the head of Goliath, so also Jesus crushes the head of satan and sin and death. As David won his victory without the force of arms, so Jesus conquered not by worldly power but by the fact that he was slain on the cross. As David went to battle on behalf of God’s people, to be a shepherd for the sheep, so Jesus was a shepherd for his sheep, laying down his life for them. As David’s victory over Goliath gave victory to all of Israel, so also the victory of Christ over sin and death gives a final victory for all who trust in Him.
Brothers, this gives us good reason to hope in God. The same God who delivered David from the might of a Philistine giant named Goliath is the God who can deliver us from all our sins, give us sure hope in this life, and complete victory in the next. He does this through his Son, Jesus of Nazareth--the one who the scriptures tell us was the Son of David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead. He is the better champion to whom we look not only for an example and deliverance from an earthly enemy, but for deliverance even from sin, death, and the devil. Let’s address ourselves to him in prayer as we close.