The Challenge: 1 Samuel 17:1-11
1 Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. 2 Saul and the Israelites gathered and encamped in the valley of Elah, and formed ranks against the Philistines. 3 The Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. 4 And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. 5 He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. 6 He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. 7 The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. 8 He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. 9 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.” 10 And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” 11 When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.
In all the eye-popping description of Goliath, there’s one little word that fascinates me most, and it’s in verse 4: “And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath. Champion. In English that comes from the same root as the word camp, and has a military connotation–a trained fighter. But in Hebrew it’s actually a short little phrase: אִֽישׁ־הַבֵּנַ֙יִם֙ (ish-ha-benayim). It literally means “the man in between” or “the man in the middle.” Goliath is the one who stands in between his people and their enemies, and this is actually an attempt to spare lives.
You see something similar the literature of many ancient cultures: If two armies are fairly evenly matched, rather than everyone slaughtering each other, the best fighter from each side is chosen to represent his army, to “stand in the middle” and the outcome of their fight is then adopted as the larger outcome of their people. Today we call them “ambassadors” and usually the proccess is a lot less violent.
In this case, however, we are short one ish-ha-benayim, one man in the middle. The Philistines have theirs, but the Israelites, to a man, are “dismayed and greatly afraid.”
The Underdog: 1 Samuel 17:12-22
12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years. 13 The three eldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle; the names of his three sons who went to the battle were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah. 14 David was the youngest; the three eldest followed Saul, 15 but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. 16 For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.
17 Jesse said to his son David, “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers; 18 also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See how your brothers fare, and bring some token from them.”
19 Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. 20 David rose early in the morning, left the sheep with a keeper, took the provisions, and went as Jesse had commanded him. He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. 21 Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. 22 David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage, ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers.
Funny thing about Americans: We love the underdog. It’s funny because we also happen to be the wealthiest, most powerful country in the history of this planet. We love to watch movies about underdogs that are made by large multi-billion dollar corporate film studios, and we love to root for the underdog professional sports team where the second-string underdog rookie quarterback is paid more than most of us will ever see in our lifetimes. We root for David, but really we spend most of our time and energy trying to be like Goliath (Hint: that doesn’t work out so well in the end).
Another funny thing about Americans: Not only do we like underdogs, but we like “lucky” dogs even more–lottery winners, overnight success stories, and people who are just “born gifted.” We could learn a lot from David here: Before David becomes a giant slayer, he’s the youngest son from one of the smallest tribes, doing the most menial work there is: tending farm animals and delivering food. But David is diligent in the most minute details, he is faithful to the work he has been given, cheerful even, no matter how mundane.
Most of us like to spend time imagining what it will be like when we finally get that promotion, that dream job, when we finally get our lucky break, or when people finally recognize how amazingly talented and wonderful we are. But a truer measure of character and worth is how we act when we are given work that is hard, tedious, unglamorous, and unnoticed.
The Reward: 1 Samuel 17:23-27
23 As he talked with them, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. 24 All the Israelites, when they saw the man, fled from him and were very much afraid. 25 The Israelites said, “Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. The king will greatly enrich the man who kills him, and will give him his daughter and make his family free in Israel.” 26 David said to the men who stood by him, “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?” 27 The people answered him in the same way, “So shall it be done for the man who kills him.”
For all his hard work and humility, David is not without ambition: “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine?” he asks. In other words, what’s in it for me? But his ambition is tempered by his zeal for his people (What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel?) and his zeal for God (For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?)
David’s ambition and his zeal stand in contrast to his fellow Israelites, who have been offered riches, the King’s daughter, and a permanent exemption from taxes (that’s what “make his family free in Israel” means), and still no one is willing to stand up to Goliath. Sometimes a little ambition can be a good thing, especially when matched and balanced with concern for others and love for God.
1 Samuel 17:28-30: The Older Brother
28 His eldest brother Eliab heard him talking to the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David. He said, “Why have you come down? With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.” 29 David said, “What have I done now? It was only a question.” 30 He turned away from him toward another and spoke in the same way; and the people answered him again as before.
Everyone has an older brother, someone in your life who sees only the worst. Often it’s the people who know you best that underestimate you the most. I appreciate David’s response here. What? I was just asking. And then he shrugs it off and goes right on doing what he knows he’s supposed to do.
1 Samuel 17:31-40: The King
31 When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him. 32 David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33 Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36 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.” 37 David said, “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.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”
38 Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39 David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.
We call this story “David and Goliath,” but really, Goliath’s opposite is not David. It’s King Saul. Saul was also a giant among his people, and we read in 1 Samuel 9:2 that “From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the Israelites.” You may remember from earlier in our series that Saul was selected as king because they wanted someone (the tallest one among them) who would “go out before us and fight our battles.” In other words, exactly what Goliath is doing. Saul is supposed to be the ish-ha-benayim, the “man in the middle” for his people. I’ve always wondered if perhaps Saul thought that if David wore his armor out to battle, people might think it was him.
One of David’s virtues however, is that he knows himself: He is not Saul, and he is not Goliath. He’s comfortable in his own skin, with his own gifts and resources. How many of us go through life trying to wear someone else’s armor, trying to live up to someone else’s expectations?
Goliath is the “man in the middle” for the Philistines. King Saul is supposed to be the “man in the middle” for the Israelites. David is functioning here as an ish-ha-benayim, too–but in a different way than we might expect. If you turn the axis from horizontal (between two mountains, two armies) to vertical (between heaven and earth), David is the ish-ha-benayim standing between the people and God. David is God’s champion against the unbelieving people on both sides of the Israelite/Philistine divide.
The Battle: 1 Samuel 17:41-54
41 The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42 When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. 43 The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” 45 But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and 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. 46 This very 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 Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47 and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”
48 When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49 David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.
50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand. 51 Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.
When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. 52 The troops of Israel and Judah rose up with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron. 53 The Israelites came back from chasing the Philistines, and they plundered their camp. 54 David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armor in his tent.
David, as God’s champion, prevails. But there’s something almost sinster about the end of this story. What are we to make of its violent end? Even though David has already killed Goliath, he drops his simple shepherd’s weapons and picks up Goliath’s sword in order to (needlessly) cut off his head as a trophy. What are we to make of the fact that David, who refuses the armor of Saul, at the end of the story takes the armor of Goliath and places it in his tent. What are we to make of the fact that the Israelites completely break their end of the “single combat champion” deal, and go on a rampage slaughtering even the wounded Philistines all the way back to their home city. What are we to make of this brutal twist in an otherwise noble and virtuous story?
I think it’s this: Even David, the best of men, the man after God’s own heart, is still at the end of the day, only human. As human beings, we are capable of goodness and even greatness…as well as incredible lapses into violence and selfishness. In the chapters to come, David will do many great things; he will lead his people to greatness. But an interesting thing begins to happen. From this point on, David grows stronger, wealthier, more powerful, more famous. He becomes a giant in his own right. Sometimes he even begins to sound and act like the brutal, arrogant Philistine he defeated. How often, in the course of our lives, do we lose sight of who we are, who we were meant to be, and become all the things we once fought so hard to destroy? We become the very thing we kill, the thing we hate most. How do we get out of this vicious, violent cycle?
We don’t. On our own, we can’t.
Like the Israelites, we are paralyzed by our human frailty and limitations. We need a champion, an ish-ha-benayim, a man-in-the-middle. And that’s where Jesus comes into the picture. David was God’s champion, fighting on God’s behalf against the unbelief of the people. But Jesus–the one who is fully human and yet fully divine–is our champion. He is the ultimate ish-ha-benayim, standing in the middle, between heaven and earth, taking upon himself all of our guilt, and all of God’s justice. David wanted Israel to know that “the Lord does not save by sword and spear” but apparently a sling and a rock were still required. Jesus breaks the cycle of violence by calling us to peace, by calling us to love our enemies, and reminding us to put our swords back in their place, for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.
So how do we vanquish our giants without becoming one?
Not by sword or sling, but by service. Jesus tells us “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”