Radical faith for a giant crisis (1 Samuel 17:38–58)

“. . . that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.”

The story of David and Goliath is, of course, very well known. It is a story of overcoming great odds, and to this day it has permeated even popular culture as a metaphor for just that. It has much more to tell us, however, and even studied preachers often miss two of the most important elements of it: 1) the biblical theology which ties this story directly into the age-long drama of God’s redemptive history, and 2) the overtly covenantal-judicial nature of the showdown. From these things we will gain instruction for how to understand our own place in history and the fundamental nature of our own covenant “warfare.”

A Giant Crisis

Meet Goliath. His specs were given back in verses 5–7. We didn’t discuss his person in the last sermon, for his proper introduction is better here. He is monstrous. Depending upon the conversion size of the “cubit” (there are more than one in Scripture), he stood anywhere between nine and twelve feet tall. His armor is just as impressive. A coat of mail weighing 5,000 shekels equates to about 150 lbs. The staff of his spear is described as like a weaver’s beam—roughly the size of a 4×4 fence post. The head of this spear weighted about 18 lbs.—heavier than a modern bowling ball, and yet we are to understand that this warrior could send this thing sailing at high speed like an arrow on a line. There was hardly a part of him exposed: his head and legs as well were covered with bronze armor. He was a one-man tank, and a one-man artillery. It had to have been almost a joke to have on top of all of this a man bearing a shield before him.

But the description of Goliath is not only meant to emphasize his stature, and thus to instill dread. It relates another descriptive feature of great interest: In the text mentioning his “coat of mail,” the word is not the standard Hebrew word for “mail”—such as Saul’s is described in 17:38. Instead, Goliath’s “mail” is described in the Hebrew as a coat of “scales”—and the word here is the same word used to describe the scales of a fish, or more indicatively, of a serpent. With his great length mentioned, and his bronze color, and now his coat of “scales,” Goliath is being portrayed here as that ancient enemy of God’s chosen seed. In meeting Goliath, we’re not just meeting Goliath, but that old serpent, the Devil, himself.

With David, the anointed king of Israel, facing off against the great serpent, we can now understand that this showdown is a covenantal showdown. When we skip ahead just a bit and recall Goliath’s end, we get that picture even better: the serpent’s head is crushed. We are dealing here not only with a historical incident that has an inspiring moral, but with another episode in God’s redemptive history. The biblical imagery is God’s way of teaching us that fundamental message once again—of the seed of the woman versus the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15)—and flashing like a neon sign in the narrative, “Look here. Look here.” Here is the advance of God’s covenantal promises for His people.

Indeed, Goliath’s challenge was one of covenantal headship, or representation in general: “Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me” (1Sam. 17:8). Each side was to invest the fate of their entire body of people in the performance of an individual champion: “If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us” (1Sam. 17:9). This was about covenantal dominion and submission through the works of a federal head.

Goliath, however, was not setting the terms of the debate. The terms were already inherent in God’s rules for warfare, and if God’s people remained faithful, there was no fear of defeat and servitude on their part. Further, David’s own words show that he did not intend to fight for mere subjugation (17:46), but the annihilation of the Philistine army. So David was not submitting to Goliath’s terms or taking his offer; he was defying the giant as David himself walked strictly according to God’s Law.

Preparation for battle

As the two move on to prepare for battle, their covenantal allegiances become clearer. Nor is the biblical theology exhausted yet. After putting off Saul’s armor, David equips himself with only the arms of a shepherd—a sling and staff, and a pouch. We then we get the curious detail of David choosing five smooth stones from the brook as his ammunition. Why such a vignette? Because these are stones “cut out without human hands.” These are stones upon which no human tool has been lifted. This detail is something which God prescribed for the building of an altar to Him (Ex. 20:25)—it symbolized the fact that God’s work is not accomplished, ultimately, by the hands and works of man. It was just such a “stone cut out by no human hand” that Daniel prophesied would crush Nebuchadnezzar’s image of gold, silver, etc., destroy the empires for which that image stood, and then itself grow to become a mountain and fill the entire earth (Dan. 2:34–5, 44–45). This detail appearing here is another one of those signs that this battle is about something greater than the moment. It was about the promised seed of the woman, God’s salvation of His people.

Further, it reminds us of what David himself already held firmly in mind: that this battle is of the Lord and it shall not be won by the devices of men. Contrast this with the preparation made by Goliath. As we have already seen, he was clad in every imaginable piece of man’s devices and wielded the biggest, most powerful of man’s weapons available. This covenantal standoff, then, is portrayed in the starkest possible terms of each of the rival covenants. Goliath is man and man’s devices to the extreme; David comes in the simplest, humblest of forms, relying only upon the providence and Word of the Lord. The first is trust in self taken to the max; the latter is pure faith in God.

The confrontation

The initial confrontation between the two bears out the very same characteristics as we have seen so far. Goliath exhibits sheer pride and arrogance, blasphemy and contempt: 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 cursed David by his gods (17:42–43). Goliath judges according to size and armament, and taunts David on that basis: “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (17:43). David, on the other hand, speaks from the presupposition of God’s Word. And surely to Goliath’s surprise, David taunted him right back, and openly. But he did not do so out of pride or by human measurement; he did so, again, on the basis of God’s promises:

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. . . . For the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hand (17:45–47).

These sentiments are founded squarely upon God’s promises, specifically as found in God’s Law: “for the LORD your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory” (Deut. 20:4).

In speaking in these terms, David was not only defying the Philistine, but inherently rebuking the Israelites as well for their trust in human strength and power. In this same discourse, David makes it clear that the battle in which he is about to engage is part of a two-fold mission:

And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear (1 Sam. 17:46–47).

Yes, this mission involved the Philistines, but only in utilitarian terms. The mission was really for two other distinct groups of people: 1) all the earth (which, of course, included the Philistines), and 2) this assembly, meaning, Israel. David intended for a victory over Goliath to lead directly to a victory over all of the Philistine army. And by this he intended to show the glory of God Almighty to all of the earth. God’s Law was given to Israel that they might be a city on a hill, so to speak, with the rest of the nations marveling at the justice and goodness of Hebrew society (Deut. 4:5–8). Indeed, it seems that David likely had this passage directly in mind as he considered his mission to exalt God before all the nations:

For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deut. 4:7–8).

Secondly, David intended this victory to send a unique message back to his frightened brethren as well, for they had certainly fallen away from this original vision of the Law. David designed for them to learn not to trust in sword and spear—that is, the devices of men—and therefore not to fear on those grounds either, as the Law said. God’s own people need to be reminded and returned back to that holy Standard just as much as the heathen by whom they are too often influenced.

In short, in this faceoff, David was making sure that the whole world knew that there is only one true God and that the standard by which we must live is that God’s Law. He was calling the whole world to faithfulness, and Israel back to faithfulness, to those terms.

The battle

After all of the last sermon about David’s battle just to get to this battle, and now all of the setup and background that the author has loaded into this monumental battle of which we are all so familiar, the actual battle between David and Goliath itself takes up only a single verse. We may have been expecting some epic showdown—a fight scene the likes of which Hollywood could never match. But despite the great build-up, the fight ends with but a single shot. For all of his pomp and armor, Goliath had brought a knife to a gun fight:

David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground (17:49).

With his opponent felled, David moved in to finish off the serpent’s head:

Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled (17:51).

Not only had God given David the victory through faith, but he then spoiled the enemy of the very powers in which he trusted, and turned his own weapons against him. So does trust in our own strength and own works turn out to be our own judgment. Yet through faith in God, even the weapons of the enemy can turn out to be ours weapons.

It is clear from the Philistines’ reaction that they had no intentions of fulfilling the terms Goliath had set for them. They would not submit to servitude if he was defeated, as he had said. Instead, they fled (17:51). No deal, indeed no compromise, spoken by the enemy should ever be trusted.

Fleeing did them no good. David had purposed to destroy the Philistine army anyway, and that is exactly what ensued. The Israelite army pursued and struck them down. Then, in typical covenantal fashion, when one group is disinherited (through warfare, etc.), another group inherits. The followers of blasphemous Goliath were disinherited, and the followers of faithful David (lacking in faith though they themselves were) inherited the wealth of the wicked ones: they plundered the camp of the enemy (17:53).

But David was not content just defeating the Philistines. Remember, he wanted the whole world to know of this God and His victory. So, finally, we are told that David takes the head of the giant to Jerusalem (17:54). This may not seem odd since we associate David with this city in general, but at this early point in Israel’s history, the city was still possessed by an entrenched remnant of Canaanites called Jebusites. It was not yet “the city of David.” It would not be until 2 Samuel 5 that David would lead a successful expedition against the Jebusites. So at this early point, David was only making a statement. But what a powerful statement it was! The biggest, baddest warrior in all the land had just fallen before David, and the Israelites routed the Philistine people. David brought the symbol of this monumental crushing of the serpent’s head right into the city on which he likely had his eyes already—the city on a hill, Jerusalem. Knowing that the Israelites had laid claim to it since Joshua’s day, the Jebusites had to have known what David’s gesture meant. They would think themselves more fortunate than Goliath in the meantime, but that would not last too much longer.

Application

First of all, the Gospel of Jesus Christ shines through this narrative nearly as clearly as anywhere else in the Old Testament. Here we have the anointed king of Israel, yet non-descript and even perhaps weak by human standards, defeating that old serpent the Devil, crushing his head, and making an open show of the enemy. Through this triumph, the king delivers all his covenant people and destroys the whole host of the enemy. The only obvious aspect left out is the death and resurrection of that king—but this will come in a symbolic form with David later. For now, we ought to keep these Gospel types in mind first and foremost as we read it and preach it. Here David was the deliverance from the dominion of the enemy. For us it is Christ, who delivers us completely from the dominion of sin and death.

The basic “go and do thou likewise” message preached from this passage has always been about the triumph of God through the impossible underdog. Faithful preachers have always emphasized the message that “the battle is the Lord’s.” This is too often, however, applied only to individual spiritual matters, and rarely extended to the full breadth of God’s kingdom in earth. Further, it has rarely been stressed that David’s focus was derived explicitly from God’s Law. Let us not miss these things as we learn God’s lessons in this passage today.

1. Do not fear

It may seem like simplistic advice, perhaps even a mere platitude, to arrive at “fear not” as an application of a sermon. But it is such simple lessons which God repeats to us over and over again, for though they are so simple, they are profound and highly important, and yet we refuse over and over again really to embrace them. In a very similar way, God repeats the image of the crushing of the serpent’s head throughout Scripture—which means throughout 4,000-plus years of written redemptive history—as a way of constantly reminding us of the simplest but most profound truth. And it is more than just a simple reminder, it serves as a reorientation: for as we forget what is most important, we often get distracted from it and act contrary to it. Thus God’s constant reminders serve as constant checks on our propensity to wander—and in some cases bolt—from what is most important in His Word. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the simplest and yet most profound principle of spiritual orientation: to love God and not live in fear of what man may do. This, I repeat, has profound social consequences.

As we have discussed many times now, God calls us not to fear any enemy, but rather to love Him. The principle was inherent in God’s dealings with man from day one, and even under the Mosaic Law despite all the fearful thundering of Sinai. But it becomes clearest when John explains it to us: “        There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). Likewise, Paul teaches,

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 13:8–10).

From just these two quotations we can understand the relationships between Law and love, and Law and fear. Both have a relationship, but each reveals a particular spiritual orientation. When we serve God merely out of fear of punishment, we are self-oriented—concerned with only what will become of us—and thus we do not really serve Him. This is a stance of autonomy, for we are most concerned with our own well-being. But any autonomous standard is a humanistic standard, and this has consequences. The moment we fear for ourselves, that same moment we make ourselves susceptible to the fear of other men. We may get by for some time with our own presumptions remaining unchallenged, but sooner or later something or someone bigger than ourselves will confront us, and at that moment our fear will make us the servant of another’s autonomous standard. In short, those who live in fear will become servants of fear.

The life of fear will manifest in compromises of commitment to God’s Word in all areas of life such as parenting, honesty in business, honesty with money, political decisions (including voting), personal grudges, and much more. It can manifest in personal dejection and paralysis (such as we see here with the Israelites), or it could lead someone to a particular type of social climbing in which greatness of achievement is measured by mammon and other outward means. This is just as bad if not worse. Paul recognized the presence of such people in the church in his day:

Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding (2 Cor. 10:12)

In short, all human standards of achievement and service to God are “without understanding,” especially those that come with great resumes and recommendations from others, as if the assertions of men alone could establish one’s reputation before God. These are the result of fearing men rather than God.

On the other hand, Paul’s comments in Romans 13 reveal the proper spiritual orientation to God’s Law as one of love. We are to serve Him according to His standards because we love Him and therefore we love His Law. When we act in love to Him and to our neighbor, we can be said to fulfill the Law. And just as the standard of fear eventually places us beneath the standards of other men, so does the refusal to compromise God’s law often put us in confrontation with even the most powerful of other men—powerful in their terms of course. We see all aspects of this concept illustrated in David’s feat here. He acts purely out of the love of God and faith in His Word. As such, he grounds his actions explicitly upon the revealed Law of God. A faithful man can have no other standard, and a faithful man refuses to compromise that standard in the slightest—preferring to be squashed by a giant, should God will it, rather than fail to take God at His Word in the slightest. So did the early church martyrs go to fires and lions rather than bend in the slightest merely to call Caesar “Lord.” So, too, should we today follow David’s example of radical faith. We should refuse to compromise in any of the many areas men would have us work, spend, vote, or speak. Instead, we should prefer to do these things strictly according to God’s Word, and we should speak out accordingly, telling the Goliaths of our age that they have defied God and if they do not repent, their flesh shall be left for the birds and their camp plundered. We should preach this message constantly and suffer for it in the meantime if need be.

So when we say “do not fear,” we are far beyond Hallmarkian platitudes. We are following into battle David, who is merely following the explicit Law of God for warfare. And there we see the focal point of Christian courage: God’s Law. If we do not love this, we do not love Him. If we compromise on this, we compromise on Him. We must instead have radical love. In the face of great enemies and great odds, the only way we can accomplish this is through radical faith—His gift—and this requires that we abandon all trust in human means and standards. If we find ourselves living in fear, or reacting in fear, we can rest assured at that point we have abandoned faith in God in this area of life. The Israelites illustrate this truth for us throughout the book of 1 Samuel, as well as in this chapter. Let us instead follow the illustration of David, who led a whole fearful nation to victory with one brave act of radical faith.

2. The Battle is the Lord’s

We have seen this theme many times now—the battle is the Lord’s (chapters 7, 13, and 14 just to name a few). Here we get David using the phrase explicitly. David versus Goliath is probably the most iconic instance illustrating the idea, although David has many more tests ahead in this regard, some which will be much more difficult than his single-shot victory over the giant. We need not spend as much time here elaborating on it again, but the centrality of the message is certainly worth repeating. Again, this is one of those simple but profound lessons God will have drilled into us.

The most important point to take away here is that the battle shall not be won by the devices and tools of man, but by God’s Word. There are two separate facets here, and they both correspond closely to the last point made in regard to fear and love. First, we must deny the devices of man, and second, we must cling to the Word of God. Both are clearly illustrated here with David. He puts off Saul’s armor, and he is not daunted at all by the magnificence of Goliath’s. Then, he chooses the stones cut out without hands, and goes to battle with God’s explicit words on his lips.

This is also how we must engage in all our endeavors: we must not trust in the creations of men, but rather wield the Word. We may certainly employ tools, but only insofar as they can be used to obey and glorify God. In the end, even the weapons of the enemy shall be used to bring about God’s utter victory. And in seeking God’s glory, we must always do so with God’s Word in our hearts and on our lips. We must confront our enemies, perform our jobs, and fight our battle only in terms of that Law, for the tasks and battles are His. From beginning to end, we must remember that battle belongs to that one Stone cut out without human hands. It is His kingdom, His Law that shall grow to fill the whole earth.

3. Our two-fold mission

Just as David announced a two-fold mission in his intentions for Goliath, so does our radical faith battle today have two missional directives: one to the church specifically, and one to the whole world. The latter of these two feels more intuitive to us today. After all, Christ called us to go into all the world and disciple the nations (Matt. 28:18–20), and said that His followers are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city on a hill which cannot be hidden (Matt. 5:13–16). In all of these things, Christ was merely announcing truths that had existed from day one for God’s people: the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:26–28, the light unto the nations which was God’s Law (Deut. 4:6–8), and fulfillment of the true Jerusalem, the city on a hill, which David eyed here. Our mission to the world is not too difficult to understand in light of these things.

Nevertheless, we ought to act with just as much boldness and eagerness as David in taking that mission to the world. He openly announced his intentions to Goliath, but perhaps more illustratively, walked right into the well-fortified city of Jerusalem to display the trophy of the Lord’s victory over Goliath. We have the same Lord and the same promises on our side. We should, therefore, be just a bold in declaring to even the most strongly fortified pagan institutions around us that our God shall subdue them in time. The serpent’s head shall be crushed, one institution at a time. We should not be afraid to announce this in every area of life. For ultimately it is we who are the city on a hill, and those humanistic cities which pretend to that honor shall be disinherited, and their ranks filled by the faithful.

But we must go one step further and acknowledge that our mission of radical faithfulness also has an orientation to the church as well. Especially in times of mass faithlessness, complacency, distractions, doctrinal dilutions, pessimism and despair, and compromises with humanism galore, we must accept the difficult mission of reminding many in this assembly . . . that the Lord saves not with sword and spear (17:47)—that is, that the devices and compromises of men shall not advance the kingdom one bit. Oh does the church need this message today! Oh what a broad mission field this band of faithless Saulites makes before us! We see the church and her leaders enthralled with every type of program, façade, gimmick, alliance, and compromise imaginable—all designed to corral men, entertain men, merely increase attendance, or worse, reinforce complacency and ungodly standards. We see Christians distracted with outward liturgical refinements, compromised political agendas, immorally-funded jobs and pensions, social status, money, a strong emphasis on trendiness in appearance, fashion, hairstyles, and emotionalism. Instead, the whole point of the church’s message should be to deny the preeminence of all these things, especially for the purposes of the Kingdom. At the forefront of the church’s mission ought to be the Law of God in all its simplicity yet profundity. And since the church has for the most part lost this emphasis, it needs to be called back to it. Thus, David’s mission to His own people is today our mission to our own people: to recall them to the central role of God’s Law for defining Christian society, and the need for our radical obedience to that Law.

Shall there not be a David among us? Then consider how Goliath will terrify us indefinitely. And who is Goliath? He is every single force and institution which defies God’s Law, and leads God’s people to cower in fear of God’s Law for want of any human means to defeat him. He is the public school system. He is a standing army. He is a foreign policy of empire. He is a Federal Reserve System. He is both major political parties. He is Islam. He is humanism. He is a Supreme Court unhinged. He is all the grand social sins confronting us today which we have no chance of changing on our own, and are ridiculed by even our brethren for even speaking against. Yet there they stand, taunting us, blaspheming our God daily, and calling us to serve them forever. Shall there not be a David among us?

What shall we do? When shall the faithful remember her calling and her Law? Shall we measure our odds against Goliath via our own devices? Shall we fight him by returning to the power of gold-plated chalices and incense? Shall we march forward wearing Saul’s Republicrat armor? Shall the right combination of amplifiers and sound effects fell him? I look throughout Scripture and I can see only one approach, and it does not require hair gel or light racks. It requires simple, plain-clothes obedience to the plain directives of God’s Law. It is only when we abandon our own agendas and cling solely to God’s that we are left with nothing but that smooth Stone in our midst. And it is only by that Stone that the giant shall fall.

When shall the church remember this? When shall we arm ourselves with that weapon, and then eagerly run to destroy all those giants before us? When shall we become full-on, radical opponents of human autonomy in all its expressions? When shall we take its own sword and cut off its head? When shall we hold the head of that serpent aloft for all the world to see?

When we return to God’s Law, and not one moment before, that’s when. Until then, consider yourself not only subject to, but complicit with these Goliaths, and thus, with the serpent.

Consider partnering with us