David and Goliath – a community talk

  • This is the main thrust of the community talk by Jon the freelance theologian on Sunday 9 May, 2004. It was based on the reading of 1 Samuel chapter 17.

    Some of my favourite films are the Star Wars series. As a story stretching over a number of films it’s quite famous and it has its fanatical adherents. The reason for that is because it taps into the big issues of life – the conflict between technology and the force mirrors the conflict in our world between science and the soul. There are themes of redemption, self-sacrifice and risking everything for the sake of someone or something else. In a world devoid of heroes, it’s nice to enter into a galaxy far, far away where the good guys somehow always get through and win.

    A few years ago George Lucas decided it would be a good idea to release some prequel films. The main storyline of the prequels would centre on a young boy called Anakin Skywalker. Now, I don’t want to give anything away, if you haven’t seen the films, but I think it’s fairly common knowledge that Anakin grows up to become the evil Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader.

    The first film, The Phantom Menace, introduces us to Anakin. The film itself isn’t that great, but it did have one of my favourite ever Star Wars film posters. It’s a picture of Anakin, walking along, looking at his feet the way all 8 year-old boys do, with a backpack slung over his shoulder. The sun is shining down on him and on the wall behind him it’s casting a shadow. The outline of the shadow is not that of a young boy, it is the instantly recognisable outline of the looming shape of the helmeted and caped Darth Vader.

    It’s a very simple image and very arresting. Of course, from our vantage point, we know what it means. This kid is going to grow up and become a super villain. This shadow that is being cast is a shadow of the future, of what is going to happen, what we from our observation point absolutely 100% know is going to happen.

    This story of David and Goliath casts similar shadows. It’s a tale that’s perhaps rendered slightly meaningless because we know it so well. It’s a story that casts shadows into the future because in it we see some of the key things that are going to be hallmarks of David’s life.

    David’s Zeal for the Lord
    The first thing that struck me about this story is David’s motivation. This is something we do need to be aware of when we are reading the Biblical stories because it is something we need to be aware of when we are assessing our own life following Jesus.

    David could have been motivated by lots of things. He could have wanted to become the famous giant-killer. We are sometimes motivated like that. ‘If only I could read Power Evangelism and then start doing it and see lots of people become Christians and lots of people healed and drive out spiritual enemies, everybody would look at me and go, ‘Wow, he’s such a man of God!’

    Does nobody else think like that? Well, I have to admit sometimes I do. And we have to be honest about that. It can be easy to love preaching more than you love the God you are effectively speaking for. There is a cult of Christian celebrity. We build people up as preachers or evangelists or worship leaders and that becomes the label we give them. And, along the way, there is the danger that a label like that is something we are hankering after as well. There is no easier way for our enemy to neutralise our effectiveness than to make us desperate to win affirmation from other human beings and, when we do that, we degrade ourselves to please the crowd.

    Or, David could have been out there trying to prove himself. In the chapter immediately before this one, the prophet Samuel visits David’s family and he anoints David as King of Israel, prophesying the end to King Saul’s rule. David could have reacted to that word in his life and become arrogant. He could have decided ‘Hey, one day I’m going to be King, so I ought to show these people what I can do.’ There is nothing wrong with wanting to prove yourself as a man or woman of God, but again it can come back to the issue of how we are perceived by other people.

    Then there is the possibility that David could have been merely motivated by the reward. The prospect of marrying into the royal family and a tax-free existence wouldn’t be that bad a reward today. (Of course, it would depend on who you were marrying in the royal family!) The thing is that this reward was offered to everyone, yet nobody took the King up on it. The risk was regarded as far too great. But, the air of David’s questions implies the reward wasn’t the big thing. He wanted to know what it was, but he was more concerned with what the giant is saying than with what the King is offering.

    David’s motivation is selfless; it’s a zeal for what he knows is right – a zeal for the living God of Israel. What ticks him off is the fact that “this pagan Philistine” is dissing his God, Yahweh, the LORD. David has a sense of righteous anger. For him, Yahweh is real. Yahweh is the God who reveals himself in mighty acts – the God who brought the Israelites safely out of Egypt and who led them to the Promised Land. The Philistines are pagans, worshipping inanimate statues or blocks of wood. How dare this Philistine – this pagan – show contempt for Israel’s God, for Yahweh. David’s zeal for the LORD is why he starts asking questions.

    It’s almost comical the response he gets. You can nearly picture it. David says: “Who does this guy think he is insulting our God?” and the other Israelites say: “Shhhh, he’ll hear you!” “Look at the size of him,” they say. There’s an undercurrent of fear running throughout the Israelite battle line. His brothers tell him to shut up – understandably! They don’t want to have to go home and tell their Dad that they failed to look after their youngest brother who has now been killed gruesomely by a hideous giant. That sort of thing doesn’t go down too well with the folks.

    But David won’t shut up and soon the King gets to hear about it and sends for him.

    David’s Audacity
    The next thing that struck me about this story is David’s sheer audacity. He seems to have been the only person around to consider taking Goliath on and when Saul asks him about it he just says ‘Yeah, I’ll do it, I’ll kill him.

    Everybody’s a bit taken aback. They think it’s ridiculous, there’s no way he can win. But once David shows that he won’t be dissuaded, they get behind him – kind of. Saul offers him his bronze armour, which would be the best armour available. They offer him the help they can, but David knows it’s not the help he needs. He isn’t to put his faith in the things that look like they could help him. If he trots out in Saul’s armour, trying to outdo the armoured man-mountain that is Goliath, then he is doing what Goliath is doing – trusting in his own strength and the strength of his armour. David decides that isn’t the way for him.

    David’s Courage
    David doesn’t see Goliath’s size. He’s aware of it, but the first thing he sees is that Goliath is setting himself up as the enemy of Yahweh. That’s his motivation, that’s the well-spring of his audacity and that is what gives him courage. When he goes out to face Goliath, he takes the things that Yahweh has given him in his previous battles and trusts that, as in his previous battles, it will be Yahweh who keeps him safe and wins the fight for him.

    He says as much when the giant taunts him. Goliath says that he will give David’s flesh to the wild animals, David responds by saying “Yahweh will give the flesh of you and your men to the wild beasts“. David’s courage here is immense, because his faith isn’t in his own strength, it isn’t in his experience as a warrior and it isn’t in anything else other than the strength of Yahweh that is taking him into that confrontation.

    I think the lesson is obvious, but let’s hear it anyway. Our boldness as followers of Jesus stems from the fact that we are followers of Jesus – not how long we have been following him or the learning we have acquired along the way. The professional soldiers in the army were looking at the strengths of Goliath, not at his weaknesses. It’s an old saying – Everybody’s looking at Goliath and thinking ‘How can I hit him?’, but David looks at him and thinks ‘How can I miss?

    Keeping the Head
    A ‘David-and-Goliath struggle’ has entered the English language for any meeting of unequal opponents. Usually, of course, the Goliaths win, but I had the privilege of seeing a modern day victory of a David over a Goliath in January 2003.

    It was FA Cup third round day and Shrewsbury Town were playing Everton. In front of a packed full-house at Gay Meadow, the unlikeliest thing happened: Shrewsbury scored. They led at half time, then Everton scored and we all thought ‘Ah, that’s it. Well, it’s been fun.’ But then a few minutes from full time, up popped Nigel Jemson with a bullet header that carried him into Shrewsbury Town legend and knocked their Premiership opponents out of the cup.

    I think that is what is must have been like for the Israelites watching that day. First Goliath goes down, then David scurries over to finish him off and then he holds up the head. Euphoria! Disbelief! That unique head-rush you get from jumping up and down repeatedly. In an intense moment a huge fat guy with no shirt takes you in his arms and kisses you passionately. It’s a great victory, so you kiss him back! You know that right there and then, in that moment, in that place, you are a witness to history. A momentous thing has happened and you have seen it with your own eyes.

    Of course Shrewsbury then lost 4-0 to Chelsea in the next round.

    And then got relegated from the football league at the end of the season.

    But the analogy still works.

    And David cuts off Goliath’s head as a souvenir. Now, when I was a kid I had a comic book about the life of David called something like David: Warrior King. I remember the picture of David winning against Goliath, with him holding up the giant’s head and all the blood and gunk dribbling out the bloody neck-stump and there’s a huge cheer from the Israelites who then rush the Philistines and slaughter them.

    David then takes the head home as a souvenir. You can imagine that, can’t you? David gets home, with a big sack on his back, and his Mum and Dad say ‘Aw, you’re back are you, did you have a good time?

    David says ‘It was great. I got you a present from the Valley of Elah

    His Dad goes ‘Tidy, what did you get us.

    A giant’s head!

    Er, Ok, well best put it in the fridge then isn’t it, before it goes off.

    We are allowed to take pride in our achievements. We are allowed to celebrate our successes over the Goliaths we face in our day-to-day Christian life. Too often we talk about our struggles, the temptations, the difficulties, the missed opportunities and the times we have failed God, our loved ones, our friends, the church, or even ourselves. We need to start keeping souvenirs of our victories and stop hanging onto the failures and beating ourselves up with guilt.

    In our spiritual kitchen our fridge ought to be full of giant’s heads, not bitter leftovers that we reheat every time we want to wallow in self-pity. David takes Goliath’s head home to remind himself of what he has done. He would need reminding of that over the next few years. He would shortly be an outcast in the wilderness, constantly on the run from the insanely jealous Saul. Later he would even end up working for the Philistines in their outpost of Ziklag. He would need the memories of his successes to sustain him through the difficult times to come.

    Shadows of the future
    So, what shadows are we casting into the future? What are we doing now that, if seen by an outside observer, would be recognised as a theme in our life? Or what have we done in the past that, looking back, has influenced our life now? The things we do now impact on our future, just like the things we did then impact on us now. The way we do things now, our motivation, our guiding principles, betray the kind of life we are going to lead and where we are going to be years down the line. Why are we going to buy that? Or spend time doing this? We need to be aware, when we make decisions that might seem irrelevant, that the things we do and say can sometimes come back and bite us. That is why getting our motivation right is all-important.

    David’s famous triumph over Goliath casts a number of future shadows. David’s zeal for the LORD and on being on the right side of God comes through time-and-time again in his Psalms and in the stories. God is the setter-right-of-wrongs who will account for his enemies. He refuses to kill Saul because God chose Saul first and he is not going to be the guy who ‘knows better than God’. He repents of the times he fails – when he fails to trust the LORD and orders a census be taken of the army or when he fails to be righteous and takes Bathsheba and does away with her husband. He is aware that his strength is in Yahweh alone and that theme dominates the story of what happened in the Valley of Elah.

    David is audacious throughout his life. When he is working for the Philistines he uses his base in Ziklag to strike against Israel’s enemies, but then lies to his boss and says he’s been attacking Israel. He walks into the sanctuary of Yahweh and takes the sacramental ‘holy bread’ to share with his hungry men. He sneaks up to Saul in a cave in the Judean wilderness and cuts off part of Saul’s kingly robe, then confronts Saul with it. ‘I could have killed you,’ he says. There is boldness in his actions, unpredictability. Nobody really knows what he is going to do next, because he is waiting to hear what God would have him do next.

    Throughout his later life, when he is an outcast, a traitor and then king over Israel, he displays tremendous courage. He has the strength to keep on going, when it all looks so hopeless. He shows the courage to forgive those who opposed him – to let the LORD deal with them. He is brave in the fight and brave enough to own up to his mistakes. And he does make some serious mistakes.

    His greatest feat of courage, though, is to time-and-again rely on another person’s strength. The supremely strong personal God who’s name and honour he risks all for when he walks out to meet Goliath.

    This talk was given in the context of my faith community. If you would like to ask a question about it, or any other theological query, then please email freelance theology using the ‘mail me’ button.

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