David And Goliath: God Versus God

Culture, Featured, Ministry, Theology

I had the privilege of preaching today at Čapljina Evangelical Church; this is a paraphrase of my sermon there.

So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.

1 Samuel 17:50

Introduction: Pain and Suffering in God’s Kingdom

The pandemic has reminded us that, though we worship the One True God, there is no guarantee that things will turn out well for us in this life. While my family and I were in America, we were devastated to hear that an old friend of mine had passed away from COVID-19. Last year, a woman newly baptized in our church in Mostar passed away from COVID, a few weeks after recovering from a heart attack. And just this morning, we have learned that one of our friends from this church is now suffering from this disease.

Today we look at the story of David and Goliath, where we are often told a message that seems too good to be true, especially in the face of tragedies like the one I have just told you of here. We are often told that if we just have courage like David, then we can face life’s greatest demons. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” we are told. But I’m afraid that message does little to comfort the hearts of the women who buried their husband, brother, and son last month. Go to them with a message that, “Everything will be alright if you just have courage like David!” I am afraid you will be rightly rejected. And I am afraid God would reject that message, too.

The Problem: “The Bigger They Come, The Harder They Fall”

The story of David and Goliath is so well-known, it has become embedded in our language, “a metaphor for improbable victory.”[1] It is one of Christianity’s very important stories, and without question the most important story in the life of David.

The story of David and Goliath

The story is set on the battlefield, in a valley called Elah, one of the most strategic locations in the entire Levant.[2] With the conquest of the valley, the Philistines would effectively cut the new kingdom of Israel in half. Southern Israel would be surrounded by competing tribes, and the northern region would be at the mercy of Assyria, the current superpower. Saul’s army came to the mountain ridge on the northern side of Elah and set up camp, looking across the valley at their sworn enemies, unable to go any further (17:3). A direct attack for either side meant coming down from their own ridge, crossing the fields below, and then making a suicidal climb up the enemy’s ridge on the other side.[3] And so they sat, deadlocked, for days.

It was at this point that the Philistines, in an effort to break the stalemate, brought out their champion to challenge Israel. Goliath was a giant, “6 cubits and a span” tall (17:4) – a height of 8 feet or more.[4] King Saul sits, frozen, unsure of what to do, apparently unable or unwilling to send a champion of his own. David comes on the scene, inquires about the situation, and pushes his way to the front of everything. He was very likely 20 or 21 at the time,[5] probably a little over 5 feet tall,[6] a young man just entering into adulthood – the polar opposite of Goliath. He goes forward to face Goliath, but clearly, not in the way that Goliath had expected. Goliath’s self-confidence turns to horror and shame, as David fires a stone from some distance, and hits him firmly in his forehead. The giant falls to the ground, dead, and his army leaves everything and flees the valley (17:51-53). David takes the head of Goliath to Jerusalem (17:54) to announce his victory.

The mistake of modern interpretation of David and Goliath

The principle we often hear is that with God you can face even the greatest of life’s demons.[7] Just go forward like David, and God will give you courage, he will work everything out, and you will be victorious. One would think that merely invoking the Lord’s name, as David does (17:26), will result in victory over the most lopsided odds, the gravest disease, or the deepest addiction.

The problem with this is that it does not line up with reality: where is the deliverance for the families of my friends? They – and their deceased loved ones – have faced lopsided odds and lost; death has apparently shown to be victorious. And, lest one object that God’s kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn 18:36), one must consider that the story of David is clearly a story about a kingdom of this world. If we cannot take away the principle that God gives us victory in this life, then what principle are we meant to take? Did my friends not go “hard enough” in the name of the Lord? Did they not fully grasp that God is their deliverer? Why did their demon not fall? Why did God not deliver them from their Goliath?

The Truth: The Wisdom of the Kingdom vs. The Wisdom of the World

If these questions seem insurmountable, it may be because we have misunderstood this story’s purpose. David did indeed go forward with great courage in the name YHWH (17:26), but I would suggest that the story of David and Goliath is not primarily about courage versus doubt. It is clear that Goliath also had no lack of courage himself (17:10). And though God did give his people victory here, it also seems wrong to conclude that God’s people will always be victorious in their struggles. Especially when we think of the prophets of the Old Testament, or the Apostles of the New, it is clear that God’s people do not always experience victory.[8] This story is not about our courage or our victory, because it is not primarily a story about us – it is a small part of a much greater story about God. Our problems in interpretation arise because we fail to see the stories of Scripture in the context of the greater story of our Creator.

The Wisdom of God vs. The Wisdom of the World

As they overlooked the valley of Elah, the minds of the Philistines were most certainly on their creator. It is quite uncontroversial to suggest that Goliath’s great confidence on the battlefield extended from confidence in the Philistines’ chief god, Dagon. Dagon already appeared in the narrative of 1 Samuel, when the Philistines commandeered the arc of the covenant from the Israelites (5:3),[9] and the entire Philistine nation was brought to a point of crisis when they found the great idol on the ground, his head and his hands broken off (5:4). In the light of this earlier conflict between the two nations, it is obvious that vengeance in the name of Dagon was a chief motive for Philistine aggression against Israel. “David v Goliath” therefore was not just a conflict between two human champions, but a grand clash between two divine titans,[10] and therefore can be looked at as not just a story of David’s great victory, but more importantly as a polemic against the pagan gods of that day.

YHWH is not just the “One true God” (Deut 6:4) – he is “God of gods and Lord of lords” (Deut 10:17; Rev 19:16). He is the “jealous God” (Deut 4:23), and even in this story of one strategic victory over Israel’s rival, God is showing that he is victorious over the gods of that time. All through the Old Testament, the Biblical authors use Canaanite motifs and expressions, filling them with radically new meaning to show that worship of YHWH was superior to the worship of the Canaanite gods.[11] God’s desire in giving us stories like “David versus Goliath” is not merely to show us how his people were victorious, but to show his people that he is eternally victorious over all other gods.

The Solution: How Jesus is the Wisdom of the Kingdom

Centuries later, the Apostle Paul wrote, “for the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” (1 Cor 3:19). Paul was striking the same note as Samuel, showing God’s people that the wisdom of YHWH is superior to the wisdom of their age. But in Paul’s age – which is also our age – the wisdom of God has been made known in a person, Jesus Christ, and therefore he can say that all things are yours in Christ (1 Cor 3:21-23).

Will God Dwell With His People?

Throughout the Bible, the preeminent question is: when will God come and dwell with his people? It is obvious in the desert narrative (Lev 26:12), in the building of the tabernacle and the temple (1 Kings 8:27, 2 Chronicles 6:18), and in the conquest of the Promised Land, which is where David and Goliath come in. Even in Acts, Jesus’ disciples had this age-old question on their minds: is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6) They wanted what they believed God had promised all along – a place on earth where God would dwell with his people.

God With Us: Immanuel

This is why, when Jesus came, we are told that his name would be Immanuel, which, when translated means “God with us” (Mat 1:23). And now he dwells with us permanently through the Spirit he has given us. If you have given your life to Christ, he has come and put his Spirit inside you, a spirit that worships the God of gods and Lord of lords, and a Spirit that promises to change you in your inner being so that you resemble Jesus, the Son of God. Isn’t that remarkably beautiful? The fruit of our union with him is a new heart, new desires, and new actions that imitate the One who made us and loves us as his children.

God’s Champion

Much like today, the world of David wasn’t as it should have been. God had promised Israel a new home, in a Promised Land, but they could not take it. They needed a champion who would go out and fight the enemy, risk his life, and win the victory for his people. David was their champion-redeemer. And notice what David does in the aftermath of his victory: he takes the head of Goliath to Jerusalem, which at that time was not yet under Israel. He was giving notice to the people in that city, and all over Palestine, that the land would soon be theirs and YHWH would reign supreme.[12] 

I hope now it is obvious that, though we can appreciate David’s victory for what it was, this story is also meant to remind us of the champion who would come centuries later, the Son of David, who would give his people the eternal victory over the giant of sin and death.[13] He goes out, just as David did, as a substitute, meek and lowly (Mat 11:28-30), and gives his life to bring us the victory that we could never win.[14] Our victorious King dwells with us through his Spirit, and one day will bring all things on this earth under his rule. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and he is making all things new! (Rev 21:5)

Application: How We Can Live in the Light of David’s Son

In Jesus, we have the promise that his victory is so complete, that one day even death will be swallowed up in its wake.

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55).

The promise of “David v Goliath” is that even the permanent things of this world will be shown to be temporary, as Jesus brings his kingdom to earth and dwells forever with his people. Therefore, we his people can “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).

For those without Christ, death is final, but for God’s people we know that Christ is greater than death, and one day all those who love the Lord and worship him will be together in his kingdom, forever. Just as David foreshadowed the coming of Christ, the union that we experience with Christ now is a foretaste of what will eventually be in eternity. We will be together with God and with God’s people forever, never to be taken away. Let us rest in that eternal truth.

And as we rest, as we worship him, he is remaking us into his image. Adversaries will continue until the coming of Jesus’ promised kingdom on earth. Temptations for bitterness, dishonesty, and immorality will come. But we must remember, it is not through our great courage or might that they are defeated, but through the all-surpassing work that has already been done in Christ. We are secure in him, and therefore we do not need to escape the hardships of this world.

The riches of eternity are safe and secure because of our champion-redeemer, who has come and lives in us through his Spirit. And one day he will come down and dwell with us, and all of this pain and sorrow will be resolved in his presence, and we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2).

And through worshiping him, we prepare ourselves to be like him and to be with him for eternity. Let us worship the great Son of David, the Son of God, our King, Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath (Boston: Little, 2013). Kindle location 97.

[2] John Beck, “David And Goliath, A Story Of Place: The Narrative-Geographical Shaping Of 1 Samuel 17”, WTJ 68:2 (Fall 2006), 321-330. pp. 326-327. See also Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 201.

[3] Gladwell, Kindle location 36-51.

[4] Clyde Billington, “Goliath And The Exodus Giants: How Tall Were They?”, JETS 50:3 (Sep 2007), 489-508. pp. 507-508.

[5] Leslie McFall, “The Chronology Of Saul And David”, JETS 53:3 (September 2010), 475-526. p. 525.

[6] Billington, pp. 507-508.

[7] Abraham Kuruvilla, “David “V.” Goliath (1 Samuel 17): What is the Author “Doing” with What He is “Saying”?”, JETS 58:3 (Sep 2015), 487-506. p. 506.

[8] Kuruvilla, p. 506.

[9] Kuruvilla, p. 494.

[10] Kuruvilla, p. 494.

[11] Currid, John D.. Against the Gods. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019). p. 29

[12] James K Hoffmeier,  “David’s Triumph Over Goliath: 1 Samuel 17:54and Ancient Near Eastern Analogues”, from Egypt, Canaan and Israel:History, Imperialism, Ideology and Literature, (Leiden: Brill, 2011) p. 108

[13]  Hoffmeier, pp. 106-108. See also Ralph W. Klein, 1 Samuel (WBC 10; Waco: Word, 1983), 183.

[14] Tim Keller, “Moralism Vs. Christ-centered Exposition”

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