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Another Look At A Child’s Favourite: The Story of David and Goliath


1 Samuel 17:1-58 

Many adults tell me they don’t like the story of David and Goliath. They say that the story is too violent, too bloody, too indelicate for sensitive children. (I have noticed, however, that those who object continue to read fairy tales to children, which tales are never delicate.) The story of David and Goliath is violent; so very violent, in fact, that one feature of the story never appeared in the flannelgraph lesson when I was a little fellow in Sunday School. While the flannelgraph lesson always depicted David slinging his stone at Goliath as the giant fell on his face, it never depicted what happened next: David ran up to Goliath, pulled out the giant’s sword, and cut off his head. It was only when the Philistines saw David brandishing Goliath’s head that they fled. It wasn’t merely that Goliath was defeated definitively; the Philistines were made to behold their leader defeated.

Yet for every adult put off by the story there are a hundred children who relish it. Children delight in the thrill of an exciting adventure; they are enthraled by the story of a slender teenager trouncing an enemy giant; they “light up” when they learn of the courage and strength and skill of the shepherd boy who deals with marauding bear, then marauding lion, then marauding giant as the story crescendos to a climax.

Myself, I’m fifty-three years old, fifty-three going on thirteen. I love the story, however indelicate the fastidious may find it.


I: — The story begins, “Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle.” The simple beginning tells us that Israel, the people of God, are immersed in conflict yet again. In fact they’re always immersed in conflict. Of course they are: conflict riddles life. The only way to avoid conflict is to retire from life; or at least retire from facing the injustices that riddle life, the falsehoods, the betrayals, the duplicity, the victimizations. If, however, there is any truth in us, any integrity; if there is any courage in our heart, any fire in our belly, then we can’t retire from the injustices and falsehoods and victimizations that riddle life, and therefore we can’t avoid conflict.

When John Wesley was a sleepy clergyman concerned only with churchly niceties he knew no conflict at all. When, however, at age thirty-five, he felt his “heart strangely warmed”, knew that God’s mercy possessed a sinner like him, knew that the gospel was now etched so very deeply into him; from this point on he was immersed in conflict every day: conflict with church-authorities, conflict with civic authorities, conflict with magistrates and mobs and even fellow-ministers. What had he done to provoke this? He had upheld the biblical insistence on holiness, “holiness of heart and life” as he put it. Wesley knew that by God’s grace all who cling to Jesus Christ are transformed within and thereafter spend themselves to transform the society without. This fosters conflict? Yes. There are many who don’t want individuals transformed within, since such transformation rebukes their own spiritual inertia and innermost corruption; there are many who don’t want society transformed without, since they profit from the society the way it is. Despite the conflict that dogged Wesley for the next fifty years, he never backed away from it.

To insist that such conflict is inevitable is not to say that we are pugnacious and forever looking for a fight. Nor is it to say that we have a chip on our shoulder; nor to say that we are paranoid. It is, however, to step ahead soberly, circumspectly, wisely — yet boldly too — aware at all times that conflict is inescapable.

I have long been interested in the plight of the chronically mentally ill. Therefore I was appalled only two months ago to learn of a development concerning a Parkdale boarding house that accommodated schizophrenic people. Everyone was told that the home was being closed temporarily for alterations. The residents, now dislocated, were sent to assorted small towns in southern Ontario, where immediately they were disoriented themselves, noticed by others, made to know they were unwelcome, and told they had better “check out” even though they had no means of getting out and nowhere to go. They were immediately deemed to be a public nuisance and a drain on the resources of the small towns. Hostility greeted them at every turn. Needless to say, the ill people themselves were frightened and anxious. The boarding house owner had lied unscrupulously in order to get rid of the schizophrenic tenants instantly. (Making alterations gives an owner the right to evict tenants instantly.) As the story unfolded, there were no alterations undertaken, the residents were never coming back, the small towns would be months (if ever) developing resources to look after such people — and all of this because the boarding house owner had learned quietly of a real estate “scheme”, a “flip” of some sort, that would enable her to make windfall gains immediately. No illegality had been committed. But neither had the right ever been done.

Now imagine someone who is outraged at all of this deciding to do something about it, or at least to try to do something about it. Can you imagine the conflict? With city authorities, with Queen’s Park politicians and civil servants, with angry residents in the now-burdened small towns, with hospitals that would see the same sick people again and again but without room to admit them. Can you imagine the size of the conflict generated around only a handful of people who represent only 1% of the population? (Yes, only 1% of the population is schizophrenic.) As soon as we attempt to do the right, conflict is inescapable.

Goliath didn’t represent only himself; he represented the entire Philistine forces when he shouted, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day!” Those who array themselves against the gospel, against the truth the gospel embodies, against the justice the gospel enjoins; all such people “defy the ranks” of the people of God. Of course there’s an extraordinarily noisy spokesperson here or there, but the noisy spokesperson is merely the mouthpiece for hordes just like him.


II: — What did David do in the face of the Philistine raving? How did he respond? David turned to his fellow-Israelites, all of whom were shaking in terror, and said matter-of-factly, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God? Who is this jerk, anyway?” Goliath was massive; everyone knew that. Goliath was as mighty as he was massive. Before him the Israelites quaked just because he was so huge. “He’s too big to hit!”, they despaired before David. “If Goliath is that big”, replied the shepherd boy, “then he’s too big to miss!” Everything about Goliath that immobilized the ranks of Israel merely motivated David.

David tried on Saul’s armour. It was too cumbersome, and David laid it aside. “It’s not `me'”, said David, “I’m not Saul. I have to be myself.” Whereupon David went forth ridiculously underequipped, others thought, even as David knew he was sufficiently equipped just because his equipment befitted him. He had to be himself.

“Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God? Why do you Israelites cower like whipped dogs in front of this overgrown oaf?” David’s boldness wasn’t born of arrogance; it was born of confidence in the presence and power and providence of God. David knew that God’s people have nothing to fear really, nothing to fear realistically before the forces of those who oppose Truth.

Thirty-five years ago this month I went off to university. I was going to study philosophy. My minister shook his head sadly; not only did he fear for my spiritual life, he assumed that I had as good as succumbed already to the atheism of the philosophy department. He asked me why I was going out of my way to have my faith strangled at the unholy hands of philosophers. My older cousin had gone to university ahead of me and had studied medicine. Medicine was deemed a “safe” discipline for Christian students; after all, in the study of medicine there wasn’t the head-on assault on faith that there was deemed to be in philosophy. It was suggested that I should study medicine too. I spent five glorious years in intense study of philosophy. Do I strike you as someone whose faith philosophy has strangled?

My friend Fr. Edward Jackman studied philosophy too (albeit several years ahead of me since he is older than I.) Jackman is the brother of the former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, Hal Jackman. The Jackman family are old Ontario Methodists, and therefore United Church people since 1925 (with one exception, Edward, who is a Roman Catholic priest of the Dominican Order.) Jackman took several philosophy courses from my friend and former teacher, Emil Fackenheim. Jackman tells me that Fackenheim brought him to see that the profoundest philosophical questions point to God. Please note: we do not survive and thrive among threatening giants by fleeing the giants; we survive and thrive among giants by facing them.

Where David and his people spoke of “giants” the apostles and their hearers were to speak of “principalities and powers.” The principalities and powers are the “isms” and ideologies and institutions and images that distort the truth and twist individuals, groups and nations. The principalities and powers are whatever cosmic forces there might be, whether terrestrial or extra-terrestrial. The principalities and powers are anything and everything that misshapes hearts and minds so that individuals and groups become the contradiction of what they were created to be. The apostles attest everywhere that Jesus Christ has conquered the principalities and powers. In his death and resurrection he has defused them, deprived them of their capacity to define us ultimately and misshape us eternally. In his letter to the church in Colosse, Paul says not only that Christ defeated the powers; he says that having defeated them Christ displayed them as defeated. Not only was our Lord victorious over them; in his resurrection he flaunted his victory.(Col. 2:15) Now you understand why David not only defeated Goliath but displayed the head of the giant. While God’s people are most certainly freed and vindicated in Christ’s resurrection from the dead, God’s people must also be seen to be freed and vindicated.

By anticipation David lived in the realism of Christ’s victory and of that victory flourished; by recollection you and I live in the realism of the selfsame victory. But live there we do, as surely as did the shepherd boy of old.


III: — A minute ago we saw that David couldn’t fight with Saul’s armour; nevertheless, David had to fight. Of course David would have preferred peace over conflict; he knew, however, that peace is won eventually not as giants are denied but as giants are dealt with. Therefore David had to fight.

Yet even as David fights he declares, “The Lord saves not with sword and spear, for the battle is the Lord’s.”(1 Sam. 17:47) Since the battle is the Lord’s, the Lord alone supplies victory. Knowing this, declaring this, David nonetheless goes forward himself to face Goliath. Human weapons do not win the Lord’s battles; still, human weapons are the only weapons humans can wield. Then wield them we must even as we know that the battle is the Lord’s.

Fourteen hundred years after David had defeated Goliath, Augustine wrote, “Without God, we cannot; without us, he will not.” Both men were expressing in their own way the truth that Jesus Christ had impressed upon his disciples on the eve of his victorious death: “Apart from me you can do nothing.”(John 15:5) When Jesus insisted to his followers, “Apart from me you can do nothing” he never meant that you and I should therefore do nothing! On the contrary, in one and the same pronouncement he tells us both that apart from him we can do nothing and that our “doing” should always be bearing fruit and glorifying God. He tells us both that apart from him we can do nothing and that we must never be idle or useless. The battle is the Lord’s, even as David himself must contend.

God’s people have always known this. William Wilberforce gave fourteen years of his life in tireless efforts to end the slave trade. He suffered dreadful abuse for his efforts, but he never quit. He spent fourteen relentless years before he saw slave-trading abolished. But what about those slaves whose lot wasn’t improved by the abolition of slave-trading just because they were slaves already? Already they were the degraded possession of slave-owners. They weren’t going to traded, but neither were they going to be freed. Whereupon Wilberforce spent the next twenty-five years of his life in order to see slave-owning abolished. Thirty-nine years of his life? His entire adult life! But he never quit. Just because Wilberforce knew the battle to be the Lord’s he knew too that he himself couldn’t shirk the battle.

Wilberforce saw the outcome of the battle. Others do not see it, yet are certain that those who follow them will see it. Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were faithful ministers of the gospel and leaders of the English Reformation during the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (also known as “Bloody Mary”.) To no one’s surprise Queen Mary had them executed. At the site of the execution, as the wood that was to burn them at the stake was ignited, Latimer, the older man, said to young Ridley, “Master Ridley, …we shall light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” The gospel-light that Latimer and Ridley radiated has never been put out in England. The two men contended valiantly in that battle which is always the Lord’s.


IV: — The last point in the sermon today takes us from 1 Samuel 17 (this entire chapter has to do with David and Goliath) to the first verse of 1 Samuel 18. We are told that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved David as his own soul.” In the wake of David’s courageous contention with the Philistine giant David was graced with a soul-friend, Jonathan. David was given a friend so intimate, so caring, so helpful, so exquisitely vibrant that the intimacy and intensity of the friendship were beyond words. Because the God who added such a soul-mate to David’s forthrightness is the same God who watches over his people now, any of us will be accorded no less.

I should like to say a great deal about this, but the sermon-hour is spent. An exploration of soul-mate sensitiveness will have await another sermon on another day. For now it is enough to remember that Jesus Christ has defeated the principalities and powers; not only defeated them, but displayed them as defeated.

One thousand years before the advent of Jesus, David foresaw it all, did what he knew he must in the fiercest conflicts, and was content to know that the battle, and therefore the victory, is everywhere and always the Lord’s.

                                                                                                    Victor Shepherd
September 1997