We continue this morning in our series of messages about king David from the Old Testament. Today, we’re looking at one of the most beloved stories in Scripture—the story of David and Goliath. This, along with the story we looked at last week, is the way the author introduces us to David. Last week’s story revealed that David was the kind of king that GOD, not the people, wanted. And this week, the author reveals WHY God chose a man like David to be his king. This story divides into three parts. First, the challenge Goliath presents to God. Second—two very different responses to that challenge and third, the fruit that’s produced when David rightly responds to the challenge.
Before we dive into the story, we need to think about how this chapter relates to the previous one we looked at last week. This is important because certain points of this chapter can seem to contradict chapter 16. For instance, in chapter 16, Saul calls David to serve him as his court musician to drive away evil spirits from him and Saul subsequently makes him his armor bearer. Yet, in these events recorded here in chapter 17 (that occur after the events of chapter 16), Saul doesn’t act as if he knows David at all.
But this can’t be a contradiction because an inspired, gifted storyteller would never so obviously contradict himself. What is probably happening is that David’s service to Saul was much more infrequent than we might assume and, even though David played a valuable role in Saul’s life, the king had many people who served him. We also know from this chapter that, whatever his service to Saul, David was also still watching his father’s sheep. That means that David’s service to king Saul was not so urgent or so frequent that he couldn’t spend much of his time 15 miles away from the king. David was probably spending much of his time with his father’s sheep and only occasionally serving Saul.
Also, we know that David was a teenager at the time of this story because he wasn’t old enough to be in the army of Israel which means he was not yet 20 years old. It’s possible Saul had not laid eyes on David in several months and teenagers can change a lot in only a few months. David might have grown a beard.
Now, let’s look at the first section of this story: the challenge Goliath presents to God. Why do we say this was a challenge to God and not David? The reason, as we’ve seen before, is because of the way God and the people of the Ancient Near East understood their wars with opposing nations. Each nation had their own patron god or gods who ruled over them. The Jews knew that their patron God, Yahweh, was also the God over all the earth and over all the other gods.
When two nations went to war, it was understood that the god of one nation was fighting against the god of the other nations through human agents. The conquering nation was the nation whose god was the most powerful. So, whether he believed this or not, Goliath would have at least mentally understood that he represented his Philistine god, Dagon, who was fighting through him against the God of the Israelites. It’s clear from the story that David was absolutely convinced that the God of the Jews would be fighting through him. So, this was NOT fundamentally—at the spiritual level, a war between two men, it was a war between two gods fighting through their human representatives.
We see this theology of war repeatedly woven into this story. The two places where this is most explicit is first, in verse 26 where David says, “…For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” For David, Goliath was defying—spitting in the face of God’s army—men who represented the living God. By extension, that meant that Goliath was defying God himself and David specifically accuses Goliath of this in verse 45. “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts [that is, as his representative], the God of the armies of Israel, who you have defied.” There it is. In David’s mind, Goliath was defying Yahweh and that understanding drove everything for David, his bold profession and actions, everything.
Saul and the other Jewish soldiers would have acknowledged that this was the way warfare “worked” with their God fighting through them against the warring god. But they didn’t believe that in their hearts. Or, worse, they DID believe it, but believed the Philistine god fighting through Goliath was stronger than Yahweh. So, when Goliath comes out to fight, Saul and these other warriors don’t see a human agent representing the inferior Philistine god Dagon, they see a GIANT of a man with impregnable defenses. All of that to say—this is not fundamentally a challenge for Israel or David—it was a challenge to Yahweh.
The challenge is described in the first 10 verses of the chapter. The Philistines had invaded Israel, just across the border near Socoh. They were trying to take this parcel of land that bordered them in Philistia and they chose to do this by appointing Goliath to fight the Jews as the representative of their Philistine army. Even though the Philistines didn’t honor this promise when Goliath was killed, their plan was to challenge the Jews by sending a representative from their army to engage in battle with their representative warrior—with the winners enslaving the losers.
The Israelite army lined up at the foot of some small mountains and opposite them, perhaps 100 yards away, was another set of small mountains near the Philistines with a valley separating the two armies. Goliath issues his challenge in the valley separating the armies.
This kind of combat was not unheard of at this time and it was probably motivated by the fact that the Philistines had a warrior who was uniquely dominant. Why would the Philistines want to go to battle with their entire army and risk defeat or, at least, heavy losses, when they had, in Goliath, someone who was (from a human perspective) absolutely unbeatable as a solitary combatant? In describing Goliath, the author gives the most detailed physical description of any man in the Old Testament. His point is to reveal how absolutely, utterly invincible Goliath would have appeared.
He was “six cubits and a span” which works out to over nine and a half feet tall. That extreme height shouldn’t cause us to wonder if this is a myth or legend or at least, a gross exaggeration. Egyptian historical records document the presence of Canaanite warriors who were between seven and nine feet tall. Not only was Goliath a uniquely intimidating specimen, he was armed to the hilt. His chain mail armor weighed “five thousand shekels of bronze” which would have been over 125 pounds. He also had what would have been quite unusual for a Philistine solider, a bronze helmet. Normally the Philistine warriors wore more decorative headgear, but the only vulnerable area of Goliath’s body would have his head. So, this helmet covered it in such a way that his only area of vulnerability would have been limited to a few inches of his forehead.
Offensively, Goliath’s spear was tipped with an iron head that weighed 15 pounds. It was attached to a large shaft that some men could barely lift, much less, accurately throw long distances. He also had his armor bearer—who would have also been a skilled warrior, march in front of him with a very large, square shield. The point of all this detail is to portray Goliath as a person who (on a human level) was invincible and whose defenses were impregnable. There was just NO beating this soldier in hand-to-hand combat which is why the Philistines were willing to risk enslavement on his dominance.
The Jews did NOT like these odds and verse 16 tells us that “For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.” That means that for more than a month, these men were away from their families, their land, their livelihoods. Their food supplies would have been meager. The fact that someone from Israel hadn’t yet taken up the challenge (when it was costing them so much to stay there) tells us that they too believed that Goliath was invincible.
The second section of this story records the two very differing responses to Goliath –from Saul and his army on the one hand, and young David on the other. Let’s look closer at the two responses. First, Saul and the army of Israel. As we said last week, a big purpose of First Samuel is to draw this contrast between Saul and David and that contrast could hardly be more stark than it is here in chapter 17.
Three verses capture the response of Saul and the army of Israel and that response is one of naked UNBELIEF. In verse 11, after Goliath stands in defiance of God and his army, we see their response. “11 When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.” That phrase “they were dismayed and greatly afraid” is not chosen accidently.
Five times before this in the Old Testament, in times of trial and military challenge, God issues the command, “Do not fear or be dismayed.” One of these is in Deuteronomy 1:21. Moses commands the Jews in the wilderness as they’re preparing to fight against seven armies larger than their own, “21 See, the LORD your God has set the land before you. Go up, take possession, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has told you. Do not fear or be dismayed.’ In Deuteronomy 31:8, Moses again tells God’s people, “8 It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” Just one of three more of these verses is Joshua 8:1, “1 And the LORD said to Joshua, “Do not fear and do not be dismayed…” This word translated “dismayed” literally means to be broken. God told the Jews not to be broken up inside or terrified just because they were numerically outmatched.
It’s no coincidence that this author describes Saul and the armies of God as being “dismayed and greatly afraid.” The point he’s making is—Saul and his army are responding in exactly the way God INTENDS for them NOT to respond. Later in the chapter, when Goliath comes out again and issues his challenge, notice an even more dramatic response in verse 24 by Saul and company, “24 All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him and were much afraid.” Hundreds of men fled from just this one man. Their fear and dismay was so intense they were completely overwhelmed by it.
We see a third response in verse 33 when king Saul counsels David against fighting the giant. “33 And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” All three of these responses have one crucial thing in common with one another. That is—they reveal the same source of unbelief. Verse 11 tells us that what prompted their fear was “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine.” In verse 24, the source of their unbelief is, “All the men of Israel, when they saw the man,” Finally, in verse 33 Saul reveals the source of his fear as he talks to David and says, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.”
All three verses reveal that the source of their fear was the perceived superiority of their enemy. Their eyes and ears were focused like a laser beam ONLY on Goliath’s overwhelming size and weaponry. They were doing exactly what the LORD had rebuked Samuel for in chapter 16. They were judging Goliath only by his outward appearance. Notice how differently David perceives this challenge and how that makes his response radically different.
Whereas Saul and his army responded in their sensory-driven unbelief, David’s response is shaped by his God-centered faith in God’s supremacy. Notice three qualities that provide the basis for David’s great faith beginning with verse 26. This verse is especially important because these are the first recorded words of David in Scripture. It’s no accident that the first recorded words of David are a bold profession of the greatness of the living God.
This is part of how the author contrasts David and Saul. We met Saul back in chapter nine and he has consistently been concerned, first and foremost, with Saul. After he is rejected by God for his disobedience in chapter 15, he tells Samuel in verse 30, “30 Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the LORD your God.”
Rather than sit in sackcloth and ashes (as you might think he would) because God has rejected him, what is important to Saul at this moment is that no one know that he has been rejected. So, he pressures Samuel to honor him in front of the people so they will not know God has rejected him as king. When it was all said and done, Saul was all about Saul and receiving honor. The author, by making these words of passion for GOD’S reputation the first words he records from David, dramatically reveals something crucial.
Namely, that what most fundamentally separates David from Saul is that Saul’s life revolves around doing what’s best for Saul and David’s life orbits tightly around doing what’s best for God. So, David’s first utterance in the bible is, “26 …“What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
One scholar contrasts Saul and David’s response by saying that Saul and the soldiers speak words of resignation while David speaks words of indignation. In this verse, we see that David’s faith was rooted in his confidence that God would defend his reputation. Again, David very much sees this as Goliath versus God, not Goliath versus a Jewish warrior. We saw this earlier beginning with verse 45 when David confronts Goliath, “45 Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”
David very much sees himself as someone GOD will fight through and he’s convinced that Goliath is no match for God. He again reveals this perspective as he says to Goliath, “46 This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. 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, 47 and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hand.”
We must hear how totally God-centered is David’s perspective! To David, this battle was not about weapons and armor and warfare. It was about God’s zeal to defend his reputation and to demonstrate to both the world and especially to those on that battlefield that “there is a God in Israel.” And God has no need of swords and shields to save his people.
This is ultimately why God sovereignly kept David from wearing Saul’s armor when he offered it to him. As king, Saul had the best armor of anyone but Goliath and if David had worn it and prevailed, that would have left open the possibility of attributing David’s victory to his great armor. Because this was about GOD’S glory and his honor, the less equipped David was to fight Goliath, the better. So, the first source of David’s faith was in his confidence that God would defend his reputation. But there is another source of David’s faith in Yahweh.
After Saul rebukes David for wanting to fight against an experienced warrior like Goliath, David responds in verse 34, “34 “…Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. 36 Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37 And David said, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you!”
If you read this with any care, you discover that David is NOT trying to convince Saul that he has the credentials to defeat a giant. This is NOT about how David’s experience as shepherd gave him such great military potential. The crucial truth is verse 37, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” David doesn’t trot out his mastery over wild animals to build Saul’s confidence in HIM. David is testifying to God’s faithfulness to him in previous challenges. That’s the second source of David’s faith. David is trying to convince Saul that this is about GOD—the same God who in the past had enabled him, with his bare hands, to kill bears and lions fiercer than Goliath. THAT’S the appeal, not the fact that David’s fighting skills had been well established as a shepherd.
We see this continually in the Old Testament. God appealing to his past acts of deliverance to build faith in his people that he will deliver them from whatever the current challenge may be. This is why God established yearly feasts like Passover. It was important for the Jews to be regularly reminded that God had been faithful, by the blood of the lamb, to spare their first-born children while punishing the Egyptians who paid for their rebellion with the lives of their first-born. This is why Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. It is a way to regularly remind ourselves that God was faithful to defeat for us both the penalty AND the power of our sin. WE regularly need reminders of God’s faithfulness to embolden us to fight and kill our sin. This is one reason why daily Bible reading is so important to our spiritual health—it reminds us of God’s faithfulness!
The third and final section of the story reveals the fruit of David’s faith. In other words, what was produced by David’s faith—what resulted from it? Let’s read verses 48-51. 48 When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49 And 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. 50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. There was no sword in the hand of David. 51 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.”
The primary fruit of David’s faith was the victory over Goliath but let’s look at a couple specifics of this victory. Many of the motion picture depictions of this event are not very accurate. The kind of stone that was typically used with a sling was shaped like a ball and was about the size of a tennis ball. So, if this hit you at 100 mph and sank into your forehead, it would, at the very least, knock you out. Probably the reason David ran to decapitate Goliath was because he thought it was at least possible for him to get up again and he wanted to kill him before he could do that. But this was not just a military victory. When you understand this more fully, Goliath’s death was also an act of God’s justice.
If you go back to the Law of Moses, the penalty for blasphemy was death and, in defying God, Goliath had committed blasphemy. That made him subject to the law of Leviticus 24:16 where Moses says, “16 Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner [foreigner, like Goliath] as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.” When David kills Goliath with a stone, he is executing a blasphemer. And that is important because that’s what kings did—they helped bring God’s justice on God’s enemies. David here is doing what a faithful Jewish king would do while Saul, the mightiest soldier in Israel’s army, witnesses Goliath’s blasphemy twice a day for 40 days and stays huddled his army in fear and dismay.
This story doubtless has many applications for us, but for today, let’s focus on three. The most fundamental truth of this story is, God is worthy of our absolute devotion and trust. All David’s beliefs and actions were rooted in the fact that his life tightly orbited around God—he related everything to God! He was so God-centered. Is that the way we live our lives—with God at the center? Is he the reason for what we do and why, and how we do it?
Do we follow Paul in First Corinthians 10:31, “31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” For believers, we know that God is worthy of this kind of radical God-centeredness because of what he did for us on another battlefield 1000 years after this story. There, God’s Champion, Jesus, defeated, NOT Goliath, but by crushing another head, the head of Satan on the cross so that we might have eternal life and power over sin and Satan. His sacrificial death for us gives us FAR more powerful reasons to trust God than David had. And that leads to our next point which is—victory over sin is won by focusing on the sufficiency of God, not the power of our enemy.
We all struggle with besetting sins—sins we just can’t seem to permanently defeat. There may be many causes for this, but the one I have seen most often in my own life is—we become so focused on our sin and how much it frustrates and grieves and humiliates us, that we spend WAY TOO MUCH of our time focusing on how bad our sin is, how bad we are, or how we will never get victory over this stubborn sin(s).
That’s exactly what Saul and his army of losers were doing by focusing on Goliath’s size and power. And they were soundly defeated! David comes on the scene thoroughly unmoved by the intimidating power of Goliath because he was comparing it to the power of the living God. When we’re stuck in some sin, we must do what does not come easily to us. That is—we must place our main focus on what God has done for us in the gospel and his forgiveness of our sin. We must focus on our new identity in Christ as his righteous sons and not the lies of the enemy about how rotten we are. We must claim the promises of the gospel—God’s cleansing and his power over sin. We must claim our position in Christ. In Ephesians 1:20, Paul tells us what the Father did with Jesus after he had conquered sin and death at the cross. He says that he “…raised him[Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”
What’s so amazing about that verse to me is that believers have been united with Christ through faith in him. That means that we share the same position over these demonic enemies as Christ. Those who spiritually oppose us are actually under our feet and they have NO authority over us. The only reason they’re beating up on you is because, in your unbelief about who you are and what Jesus has done for you, you’re allowing them to do something they have no legal right to do to you. We must do as David did and focus much more on God and his power over sin than over the sin “which clings so closely.” Take five looks at Jesus and his sin-crushing life and death for every one look at your sin.
Finally, notice that genuine faith always shows itself in action. Saul and his army believed in their head that their God could beat Goliath, but they didn’t act on it. The old saying is, “What you believe, you do. All the rest is just religious talk.” David showed his faith by demonstrating more than just religious talk. He testified of God’s supremacy over Goliath and then, because he had genuine faith in God, he trusted in God’s supremacy by taking huge risks for God.
This should cause us to ask, “what risks am I taking for God that reveal genuine faith?” We must ask God to search our hearts and reveal to us where we have genuine faith and where we just have a lot of religious talk. May God give us the grace to look at Jesus more than our sins and to and reveal genuine faith in him through risk-taking for his glory and our joy.
 Boogaart, “The Story of David and Goliath, p. 208-209, as quoted in Youngblood, R.F. (1992), 1,2 Samuel. In F.E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, Joshua…”