It is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible, the battle between David and Goliath. This tale of the young boy who, using only a sling shot, defeats a mighty giant of a warrior, has become the iconic tale of the triumphant underdog.
At the church I served in Chattanooga, part of my responsibilities were to lead a weekly chapel service for preschoolers. The children loved this story, their eyes growing wide with delight at the thought of someone not much older or bigger than them winning such a huge battle.
My guess is that many of us have not heard this story since we were children ourselves. Hearing it again as adults, we may be surprised to realize that this iconic story is much more than a children’s fairy tale about a young boy defeating a bullying giant.
This is a story about the power of the living God of Israel.
The power we first see in this story is the power of Goliath, a giant of a man. (I’m not sure how they know this, but an article I read this week speculated that Goliath was six feet, nine inches tall – noticeably tall even today, but truly a giant 2,500 years ago).
If Goliath’s size wasn’t intimidating enough, his weaponry added to his warrior persona – helmet of bronze, coat of mail, weapons of a size that only a giant could carry.
His ego is of appropriate size, too — brash, bullying, intimidating.
“Why have you come out for battle?” Goliath taunts Israel’s soldiers. “Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we might fight together.”
Goliath engages in the shock and awe of his day.
Or as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “Goliath is the whole military-industrial-technological enterprise personified, who not only traffics in arms, but trades on intimidation.”
And that intimidation works.
Israel’s army and its king, Saul, cower in fear at Goliath’s taunting. That fear is heavy in the air when the young boy David arrives at the army encampment to bring lunch to his older soldier brothers.
As David goes to greet his brothers, he hears Goliath’s taunts. But unlike Israel’s professional soldiers and leaders, he is unfazed by them.
The young shepherd boy goes and reassures the king. “Let no one’s heart fail because of him,” he tells Saul. “I’ll go and fight with this Philistine.”
It is a remarkable boast from a young boy, the eighth son of a poor family, who spends his days doing the menial work of tending sheep.
David’s naiveté and innocence stir Saul, for whom the battle is lost before it has even begun.
“You can’t do that; you’re just a boy,” he says scornfully.
But David, unafraid of meeting a giant in battle, is also not afraid to stand up to a king. So David speaks again, telling Saul of times when he has stood up to danger while guarding the sheep.
“Your servant has killed both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God,” David says.
“The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”
With this speech, David introduces a new actor into this story, “the living God.”
“Not your standard political flag or your religious cliché,” Brueggemann says, “but a living actor in the drama whose power and presence and purpose reposition everyone. The odd claim of ‘the living God’ reshapes the conflict in ways that neither Saul nor Goliath could discern.”
It takes the shepherd boy to introduce the God of Israel into the story. Israel’s king, Saul, doesn’t do it, as if he thinks Israel’s God is irrelevant to the reality of life. Saul and Israel have forgotten their own story and have adopted as true the false story of Goliath.
“It is David who utters the name,” Brueggemann says.
“And in that moment of naming, David makes available to Saul and to all the generations of listeners since then (including us), the long recital of inexplicable transformations and inversions by which marginal ones are made free, empires are made weak, dead people are made alive, and the world begins again.”
Brueggemann believes the reason this story has been kept alive is precisely so we can hear this speech, again and again.
We, like Saul and the Israelites, must be reminded that the living God, our God, is relevant to all aspects of our lives, is always ready to do battle against oppression and injustice.
We, like Goliath and the Philistines, must be reminded that the weapons of shock and awe are not the weapons of God, that relying on brute force and intimidation is not the way of the Lord.
When Saul hears David’s speech, the king is moved to action and almost to belief. “Go,” he tells David, “and may the Lord be with you!”
But then the king’s deeply ingrained fear kicks in, and he insists on clothing David in his armor and arming the boy with the king’s weapons. The king cannot imagine any other weapon defeating the giant.
But David immediately recognizes that the king’s armor and weapons will do him no good.
“If you want to be killed by the Philistines,” Brueggemann says, “imitate the Philistine, dress like him, think like him, and talk like him, and you will die.”
David goes off to battle armed with a bag of rocks and the name of the God of Israel.
Goliath is disdainful when he sees who has come to do battle with him. “Come on boy, let me feed you to the birds and wild animals,” he taunts.
The bully’s threats do not deter David from his mission. As Goliath shows his weapons, David introduces his own.
“You come to me with sword and spear and javelin,” David responds, “but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”
“In the face of that shamelessness which breeds where there is great power, David utters the name,” Brueggemann says. “And all of a sudden, worldly dominance is recast as arrogant defiance. The change happens because of the name.”
“This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand,” David tells the giant. “And I will strike you down…so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear.”
Goliath has no answer to David’s speech. Instead, the giant moves toward the shepherd boy.
The ending is almost anticlimactic in its brevity. As Goliath moves forward, David reaches into his bag, takes out a stone and slings it, hitting the giant in the forehead. Goliath crumples to the ground; the threat that intimidated all in Israel save a young boy is gone.
In this story we are reminded that the God of freedom and justice and peace breaks out in ways that regularly surprise the rulers of every age, whether they are arrogant Philistines, hopeless Israelites, or ruthless tyrants.
It is also a reminder to all of us that life need not be lived on the terms of fearful Saul or brazen Goliath, life need not be lived in a state of fear or as an arrogant purveyor of intimidation and power.
“Those are not the options before us, because neither is an act of trust,” Brueggemann notes. “There is another ‘more excellent way’ that keeps our living free from the corruptions of fear and power.”
That way asserts what Goliath and Saul never guessed, that God “will not be subject to the landscape of the Philistines, nor to the weariness of Israel.”
We need to hear this story and others like it often to keep us from selling out to fear and power.
“We sell out because we wear Saul’s armor,” he says. “We imitate the Philistines, we doubt David’s speech, we forget the name, we are incapable of radical freedom to speak the world different.
“But the living God on the lips of David invites us otherwise, not to fear or selling out, but to living” – to a life based on trust in the living God who can slay any giants who stand in our way.