1 Samuel 17:1-54
August 20, 2000

Now as we begin reading chapter 17 let me briefly alert you to the discussion of the text of 1 Samuel 17 that always precedes an interpretation of it in the commentaries. The most noteworthy difference between the Hebrew text (MT) of Samuel and the Greek translation (LXX) occurs right here in the account of David and Goliath. The LXX is much shorter and omits the entire section in which David is sent to the front by his father to inquire about his brothers and, also, afterward, the scenes in which Saul inquires about Davidís identity and, together with Jonathan, meets and salutes David. In other words, the LXX text neatly resolves the problem created by the account in 16:14-23 according to which David has already entered Saulís service as a lyre-player and armor-bearer. In the LXX David is already at the front as Saulís armor bearer when Goliath makes his challenge and Saul doesnít ask who he is because obviously he already knows full well. For that reason there is a natural tendency to think the LXX has preserved the true text of this part of Samuel. It completely eliminates the historical problem. However, there are a number of weighty reasons to believe that the LXX has the short form it does precisely because it represents an effort to eliminate the historical problem and a number of other reasons to believe that the Hebrew text is the authentic and original text. Weíll treat it accordingly, the NIV, of course, being a translation of the MT. The arguments are too technical to repeat here; youíll have to take my word for it!

Now we have before us, as we begin to read, what Robert Alter, the great scholar of the OT narrative, has said is the "chapter [that] is as close as the Hebrew Bible comes to an Ďepicí presentation of its material. Ö God does not speak at all and is not a direct presence in the action. Rather, the human hero of the story invokes Him in hurling back the enemyís challenge." [Art of Biblical Narrative, 150-151]

Text Comment

v. 3 What is at stake is Israelite sovereignty and independence and Saul, who had been appointed king, you remember, precisely to deal with the Philistine menace, is found wanting once again. Israel is left without a champion. Socoh and Azekah were towns in what is called the Shephelah, the lowland hill country separating the coastal plain from the hill country of Palestine, so the territory that would be contested between the two nations. Arranging armies on opposite hills we have seen before as a characteristic of warfare in the hilly terrain of Canaan.

v. 4 The LXX and 4Qsam have 4 cubits and a span, which would amount to about 6 feet, six inches, formidable enough. The 9 feet, six inches, is of course, not impossible.

v. 5 One commentator wryly points out that the description starts with Goliathís head, which was to prove to be his weak point. "He could have done with a visor"! [Gordon, Com, 154. The 5,000 shekels of bronze weighed about 125 pounds.

v. 6 A greave was armor for the legs that stretched from the ankle to the knee.

v. 7 There is a question as to what the Hebrew means. Is it describing the size of the spear shaft or, as some scholars now think, the loops or leashes of cord which were attached to it and by which it was hurled much further than it could be by being thrown in an ordinary way. Six hundred shekels amounts to about fifteen pounds. The shield is not mentioned in the catalog of his armor because it was so large and heavy that it was carried by another man who went before him into battle.

Now, it important to note that full descriptions of this kind, a man and his armor, almost never appear in the OT. They are characteristic of Homer but not of the Bible. In this case we get four verses devoted to a description of this giant of a man, cataloging his armor, weapons, and their and his size and weight. The purpose of this unusual attention to this detail is obvious. "Goliath moves into action as a man of iron and bronze, an almost grotesquely quantitative embodiment of a hero, and this hulking monument to a Ö mechanical conception of what constitutes power is marked to be felled by a clever shepherd boy with his slingshot." [Alter, Art, 81]

v. 8 Representative combat is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible (2 Samuel 2) as well as in other ANE and ancient Greek sources (including Homerís Iliad). Lit. Goliath says, "Am I not the Philistine," that is, the champion of the Philistines. Then he insults the Israelites by referring to them as the slaves of their king.

v. 9 The part about the Philistineís becoming Israelís subjects he didnít mean, of course, and it didnít happen until David later subdued them completely.

v. 10 "Defy" or "insult" is a keyword (leitwort) in the chapter, occurring again in v. 25, twice in v. 26, and then in v. 36 and v. 45. Goliath with his taunts has laid an insult on Israel that only a victorious champion could remove. [Alter, Com., 102]

v. 11 Saul, once more Ė though as a man a head taller than all the rest might be thought to be the one man capable of taking on Goliath Ė, appears as a leader without faith, shrinking back in fear from the opportunity to fulfill his calling as the leader of Godís host!

v. 12 "Enter the hero!" [Gordon]

v. 15 Here is the MTís explanation for why David was not with Saul after entering the court in 16:19ff. Perhaps the thought is that when Saul was fully occupied in the field, he didnít have the same need for a minstrel.

v. 18 Note the NIV taking "thousand" to mean a military unit of some size.

v. 19 This is reminiscent of Jacob sending Joseph to see about his brothers. In both cases an unforeseen destiny awaited the young man. [Gordon, 156]

v. 21 Apparently they did this every day. It is not unlike certain 20th century wars in which armies were ranged against one another for days without any substantial action ensuing. Neither felt ready to make the first move.

v. 26 Unlike Saulís characteristic hesitation and delay, David, at the first moment of opportunity is already thinking about doing something. We hear David speak for the first time and find him already poised, self-controlled, a master of words. David asks for confirmation of what he has heard. He wants to be sure before he moves.

v. 28 Apparently, as was the case with Joseph, David was not a favorite with his brothers. Eliab shows his contempt for David and expresses it by belittling Davidís work with a few sheep. He feels small to begin with because of the inability of Israel to respond to Goliath and he hates looking small, especially in the eyes of his youngest brother. Almost certainly such animosity within a family stemmed from jealousy. How much more the envy of an eldest brother for a far more gifted and favored youngest brother. Plus a young man with Davidís talents probably managed to offend his lesser brothers more than once. As T. C. Hammond once said about young ministers: "If a young man has anything to offer, heíll be a bit troublesome." [Nelson, 170]

v. 32 David tactfully avoids saying what everyone can plainly see, that Saulís own heart had failed him.

v. 33 The word the NIV renders "boy", better "a youth," is the same word rendered "youth" at the end of the sentence. That is, Goliath had been a soldier since he was Davidís age. It is not age per se but military experience that is the issue.

v. 39 As one commentator observes, "David cannot be turned into an armadillo at the drop of a helmet"! [Gordon, Com., 157]

v. 40 We should not regard what happens next as a miracle in the technical sense of the word. A sling in the hands of an expert is a deadly weapon. Cf. Judges 20:16 where we read that there were 700 Benjamite soldiers who could "sling a stone at a hair, and not miss."

v. 42 Robert Alter has this comment in his great book, The Art of Biblical Narrative [81]: "ÖDavidís ruddiness (or red hair, it is not certain which the word means) and his good looks are not mentioned until the moment Goliath lays eyes on him in the middle of the battlefield. At such a moment, of course, those facts of appearance can be made to leap out at the Philistine, as an added insult before the unexpected injury. A mere boy, and an egregiously redheaded, pretty boy at that (this is precisely the order of the original syntax, arranged to mimic Goliathís perceptions), has been sent to do battle with the mightiest Philistine warrior."

v. 43 "sticks." Goliath is unaware of Davidís real weapon. David had taken along his shepherdís staff, perhaps as a decoy to prevent Goliath from realizing the peril posed to him by Davidís sling. This is, of course, a rule of battle: hit the enemy in that way he is ill-prepared to resist.

v. 46 Goliath proposed to give Davidís carcass to the birds. David promises to give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds. He doesnít say anything so mild as Goliath proposed in v. 9 Ė the Philistines will be subject to Israel. He will feed them to the birds!

v. 47 The fact that David has come without armor or conventional weapons will be the demonstration that the victory was the Lordís. This speech on Davidís part is a magnificent demonstration of both his faith and his zeal for the Lordís name. If only Saul had been so animated!

v. 48 Now the action is compressed into a rapid description of a sudden and dramatic victory Ė an Ali over a Sonny Liston. The narrator has hardly put us in our seats before the match is over. We can hear the Philistine spectators later arguing over what some were calling the "phantom slingshot." In vv. 48-51 David is the subject of 14 verbs in quick succession. In that way the narrator speeds up the action. Davidís running to meet Goliath would have confirmed the giantís expectation that David planned to engage him in hand-to-hand combat. But, instead, he breaks his charge, takes a stone, and lets fly with his sling.

v. 50 The narrator interrupts the flow of the narrative to underline the significance of what had happened. The events proved Davidís point, that the way of his victory would be the demonstration that the Lord had saved his people! The fact that that point remains unsaid in v. 50 directs our minds to what Davidís triumph meant and what it proved, which was anticipated just a few verses earlier.

v. 51 Goliath perhaps was stunned by the stone in the forehead but not yet dead. David finished him off with the giantís own sword.

v. 54 An anachronism, actually a prolepsis, something said in anticipation of what would in fact only later occur. David did this later after he took Jerusalem and made it his capital.

We have before us this evening one of the great stories of the Bible and one that has left its imprint on the imagination of the whole world. Many people who arenít Christians and who do not read the Bible nevertheless know what is meant when some contest is described as "David against Goliath." But that fact itself, the way in which people see this story and interpret it Ė as the triumph of the weaker over the stronger Ė raises the question as to how Christians ought to see and understand this story. And it is a debate that continues in our own evangelical and Reformed circles.

Most sermons that Christians preachers have preached on this text through the ages would have as their great subject the power of faith. David trusted the Lord and God gave him victory over a greater, more powerful enemy. But there are many today who argue that that is not the lesson of David and Goliath at all. They would argue that David is not the weaker of the two contestants in this drama. He is the stronger. The result was a foregone conclusion. And the reason for that is that David, here in 1 Samuel 17, is representing Jesus Christ. He is a Christ figure. He is an enacted prophecy of the Lord Christ and his victory a picture of the Lordís victory on our behalf over our enemies: the world, the flesh, and the Devil Ė enemies that were too much for us but were by no means too much for the Son of God.

These men will tell you that 1 Samuel 17 is not really, not primarily about David and Goliath. That is not why this history is recorded in the Bible. It is about Christ and the spiritual peril in which his people find themselves and from which he delivers them. The advocates of this approach to such a piece of history as 1 Samuel 17 are today known as the "redemptive-historical" school, because they believe that the great subject of all the Bibleís history is the unfolding history of redemption through Jesus Christ.

This is not a new idea, of course. You can find it in a certain form in many preachers of the past, but the redemptive-historical men have worked it out in greater detail and with a greater emphasis. In 1952 a Dutch scholar by the name of De Graaf published a work in two volumes which in Dutch was entitled The History of the Covenant but came into English Translation, in four volumes, in the 1970s under the title Promise and Deliverance. It was really a work for Sunday School teachers though it has been read by all sorts of people who want to understand the Bible better, thousands of ministers among them. It is a retelling of the Bibleís stories according to what De Graaf thought was their true meaning, the meaning attached to them in the Bible itself.

For De Graaf and others who follow in his footsteps, it is a terrible perversion of the Bible history to do with it what is so commonly done in Sunday School literature and in preaching. A story like that of David and Goliath becomes a platitudinous lesson in faith or courage or even optimism in dark circumstances. This, De Graaf said is moralism. The theocentric and Christocentric character of biblical revelation is lost by this means and the Bible becomes more a book about us, about our lives, about how we ought to live, and less and less a book about God and Christ and the great redemption they effected on behalf of their people.

The chapter on David and Goliath in De Graafís great work is entitled "The Deliverer Revealed to the People." You see De Graafís point. The appearance of David is first and foremost a revelation of the deliver who would rescue and then lead Godís people. He is not, of course, denying the historicity of the event. He believed absolutely in the historical reliability of the Bible. David killed Goliath with a shot from his sling just as the Bible says. But that history had a meaning and the meaning was not what man did or should do, but what God did and does to save his people from their sins.

The last thing that should be done with a great piece of history like this, De Graaf argued, was that it should be turned into a little lesson on living by faith or, much worse, how the little guy can beat the big guy if only he believes he can. And yet that has been much of the preaching of this text in Christian history. This history, as all the history in the Bible, is a revelation of God not of man, only the more powerfully because God is mentioned only in Davidís invocation of him. And the history of Israel is, first and foremost, a history of salvation, of Godís redemption of his people in and through Christ, either in the way of preparation for it in the OT, or in the account of it in the Gospels, or in the aftermath of it in the rest of the NT. Biblical history is an account first and foremost of what God has done and what Christ has done, not an account of what men should do, though there is that also, of course.

It is in this sense that the thinkers of the redemptive-historical school say such things as "Jesus Christ must be at the heart of every sermonÖ" [Jay Adams, Preaching with Purpose, 147] or "Every text leads to Christ." The Apostle Paul, you remember, said of his own ministry that it was a concentration on "Jesus Christ and him crucified." He talked of many things in his letters, but all of them, in some way were drawn from, pointed to, and were connected with the Lord Christ as the Savior of his people.

Now, in proper hands, all of that is good and right and important. I am persuaded myself that the great and first theme of 1 Samuel 17 is the revelation of the salvation by a savior whom God will provide for his sinful people. When I set this chapter and this extraordinary historical episode in its larger context, when I read the Bible and learn that David is not simply a precursor of the Lord Jesus but the precursor of the Lord Jesus, when I read later in Samuel of the covenant God made with David that there should forever sit on his throne an heir who would be the King of Godís people, when I read in Ezekiel prophecies of Jesusí coming in which the Messiah is referred to not as the son of David or the descendant of David but simply as David, and when I read Davidís psalms and find him saying of himself the very things that the Lord Jesus would eventually say of himself and realize that Davidís whole life was a prophecy, a foretelling of the life and work of the Lord Jesus Ė necessary changes being made, of course Ė I realize that it is only being true to the Bible to see Davidís revelation as the deliver of his people here in 1 Samuel 17 as a prophecy of the coming and the saving work of the Shepherd, the King, and the Savior, Jesus Christ.

And then I realize that it is not stretching the text at all, but simply drawing out its primary meaning, to note that this conquest of Israelís enemy is effected not with the weapons of the world but with weapons that have divine power to demolish strongholds, that it is effected by a man who, judged by the standards of the world was hardly cast in the mold of a champion, but by a man whose zeal for the Lordís house ate him up.

There are computer programs nowadays that enable the user to substitute a face, to put the face of one person on the body of another. Well, it would be entirely in keeping with the meaning of this history, if you could in your mindís eye, replace Davidís face with Jesusí face as Israelís deliverer and champion walks toward the giant, then runs toward him, then fells him and cuts off his head. That would make the meaning of this history very clear.

However, in the hands of some men, the redemptive-historical approach to OT history is too restrictive, too minimalist. That is, it misses too much that may be found in the text. I donít say that this is necessarily a defect of the redemptive-historical emphasis on the OT history as first and foremost a revelation of God and redemption. I only say that this approach can, and often does seem to limit the appreciation of the richness of a text. Redemptive-historical men so fear moralism and are so committed to a Christocentric approach that they are unwilling to see or to pay attention to the other layers of teaching and illustration in this history. That is why, in my opinion, the men of this school of thought and preaching in the 20th century have not been strong on practicalities of living the Christian life, such wisdom as the Puritans were master teachers of. The redemptive-historical men so fear moralism they seem afraid to draw out of the text the perfectly obvious lessons that may be found in it on obedience and disobedience, sin and temptation, faith and doubt, the life of prayer, and so on.

For, the fact is, the biblical history is a "thick" history. That is the term the literary scholars have invented and I like it. It has layers. It can say many things at the same time and teach many lessons. If the first lesson here is about Israelís deliverance through a deliverer that God supplies her, the second lesson is surely that the way of that deliverance is the way of faith. David is an exemplar of the believing man just as he is the exemplar of Jesus Christ himself. Paul, for example, uses David in Romans 4 as an example of the man who was justified by his faith in Christ. David is an exemplar of a zealous man. In the contrast this narrator draws between Saul and David we are taught what real faith is and how it proves itself and how it operates in the world. We are shown its reward in Davidís victory and his subsequent ascent to the throne. We are also taught about unbelief and its consequences, as we see Israel cowering before her enemies because she had no living contact with the power of God. We are shown two worldviews, if you will, Goliathís and Davidís, the nature of each and the end of each.

And, in fact, there are many more lessons here. There is the harmony of faith and skillful action that we are taught here. Cromwellís "trust in God and keep your powder dry." David trusted the Lord but he used the weapon he could use most skillfully and he kept his enemy in the dark about his true intentions in the battle. To trust in the Lord never has meant that one does not use means. We see Christ himself as a man of faith in the Gospels but we also see him as a man of tactics and strategies.

And we could go on. The fact is, I could preach for weeks on 1 Samuel 17 and not once treat a subject that was not the explicit and intentional teaching of this chapter. But all of them take their rightful place beneath and behind the great place of this chapter in the context of Samuel, the OT history, and the Bible as a whole Ė which is as a revelation of the deliverer by whom the Lord would save his people from her enemies, the deliverer who was to be the greatest of all the anticipations of and foreshadowings of the Messiah who would someday appear as the son of David and the King of Kings.

And that is a very important lesson for us and challenge for us and warning for us in its own right. For we are always making this mistake, you and I, in our Christian life. We are always thinking about ourselves instead of about Christ. We are thinking about what we must do instead of what he has and will do. We are always trusting to our own devices instead of looking to him for what he has promised us.

We must believe and we must act in faith. David teaches us that here as plainly as the lesson can be taught. But, we must act always invoking the name of the Lord our God, our deliverer, always trusting ourselves to him, always counting on him.

Verse 50 is the proof of v. 47. It is the one who says "the battle belongs to the Lord and he will give the victory," who ends the day with an enemyís sword in one hand and a bloody head in the other. David shows us courage, faith, zeal, manliness, but still more he shows us the power of God being manifested in our weakness.