Defending God’s honour – part 2 (1 Sam 17)

Yesterday we began our look at the well-known story of David and Goliath. We saw that it was primarily a challenge to God’s honour and reputation. Yet David was the only one to really see it that way; the only one who was zealous for God’s honour.

17:26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

Read 1 Sam 17:26-54, the next instalment of the story.

Saul and the Israelite army didn’t seem to be zealous for God’s honour. Or maybe they were, but fear got the better of them. After all, humanly speaking the Israelites realised they weren’t up to the challenge of fighting this seven foot tall warrior:

17:11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified. 
17:24 Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear.

And when David volunteered, Saul wasted no time in telling him he’s not up for the challenge either:

17:33 Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”

What Saul and the Israelites forgot was the fact that ultimately it’s not Israel that’s been challenged, but God. And so David knew that that if it’s God’s honour that was at stake, ultimately it’s God’s power that would defend it. God would work through him, just like God had protected him from wild animals as a shepherd boy:

17:36-37 “Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

Just to make the point clear, the story then goes on to record Goliath’s reaction to David. Like Saul, he was thinking in human terms: there’s no way David’s up to the challenge:

17:43a He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?”

Then rather unwittingly, Goliath gives us a clue that we shouldn’t be thinking in human terms. The narrator goes on to say:

 17:43b And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.

It’s not really a battle between humans at all. It’s a battle between gods: the idols of the Philistines vs the living God of Israel. David knows this. And he knows that it’s no contest at all:

17:45-47 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

In other words, what’s Goliath doing challenging the living God? He must have rocks in his head! (But we’re getting ahead of ourselves in the story…)

Because this (and not the actual killing of Goliath) is the climax of the story. It’s where David declares to God’s enemy the reason for his confidence. God does go on to give David victory, but a deliberately anticlimactic one, as we’ll see.

Because the climax of the story is right here. You see, from Saul’s perspective, the battle had already been lost – because he didn’t factor in God. But from David’s perspective, the battle was already won; it was won the instant he became indignant at the slight to God’s honour, and declared that the battle belongs to God.

The battle itself is just a formality – and it’s brilliantly narrated to be a complete let-down in dramatic terms:

The Russian writer Anton Chekov had a rule that if a character places a gun on the wall in the opening scene, they’d better use it by the end of the play. In other words, don’t introduce elements to the story unless they are relevant. The story of David and Goliath deliberately breaks this rule in a spectacular fashion. All of Goliath’s massive armour is described at the start in great detail, but it’s not needed. His height advantage – seven foot tall – it doesn’t even factor in. The massive iron spear introduced in v7 – Goliath doesn’t even get to use it.

And even with David – he picks up five stones. Why five? If the story followed the rules of good, exciting narrative, the battle would have been won with the very last stone. I mean, in a movie, who defuses a bomb by cutting the blue wire – or is it the red one, I always forget – until there’s less than a second on the clock! But David only needs the first stone, and the great fight scene is over before it began.

It reminds me of the famous scene in Raiders of the lost ark.

Indiana Jones is being chased through a marketplace by all sorts of bad guys, and suddenly he stops. The crowd parts and a turban-clad martial artist appears. He swirls his scimitar in a dramatic fashion, looking suitably menacing. Here comes the big showdown! Except Indie just rolls his eyes, reaches for his gun and shoots him. A deliberate anticlimax.

So it’s not that the author of Samuel is a bad storyteller. On the contrary, he’s trying to portray the actual battle as an anticlimax. A foregone conclusion. Over before the fat lady even gets in the limo to take her to the theatre. God defends his own honour; there’s not even a contest. David was right in being confident in God’s power to defend his own honour.

What about us? Are we scared of the fight, like Saul and his army. It seems too hard: the opposing arguments seem too persuasive, and too pervasive. Too many Christians seem resigned to a world that dishonours God, and that there’s nothing we can do about it.

So we disengage. We don’t bother writing that letter to the editor. We stay silent at work when God is mocked. We think it’s too much hard work to develop our own way of presenting a theology of suffering – when who’s going to listen to us anyway? For many of us, we’ve forgotten exactly who it is that’s been challenged – not us, but God! And God will defend his honour. He did it supremely in Jesus. And he’ll do it again today.

To think about

Have you been forgetting to factor in God, when you think about how to defend his honour in today’s world?

What would it look like for you to defend God’s honour through his power, not your own?

Extra nerd content

Some interesting research into the David and Goliath story is summarised in the introduction to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. The whole book is worth a read!

For a start, David’s use of a sling wasn’t particularly unusual. There were three skill-sets in ancient armies: infantry, cavalry, and slingers. They tended to cancel each other’s strengths and weaknesses out like a game of paper-scissors-rock. Infantry were well armoured (and therefore not highly mobile), making them able to withstand attack from cavalry, and their long spear made the horses inviting targets. Cavalry were lightly armoured but highly mobile, making it difficult for slingers to hit a fast-moving target. And slingers were lightly armoured, but effective against slow-moving infantry. So in this view, the mismatch between David and Goliath is that Goliath was expecting a one-on-one infantry battle (as was Saul in his estimation of David’s chances and giving him his armour), but David chose to be unconventional and fight as a slinger, playing to his strengths and Goliath’s weaknesses.

Further, there’s speculation from some medical experts that Goliath had a tumour affecting his pituitary gland, which explains his enormous height. This condition commonly affects vision, which may be why he needed an “armour bearer” to guide him to the battle, why he called for David to come to him, and why he accused David (with only one sling) of coming at him with “sticks” (plural). Fanciful, but interesting…

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