David and Goliath: 6 Lessons (1 Samuel 17 Commentary)
“The book of Samuel is one of the great literary works in human history,” writes Paul Evans in 1-2 Samuel (Story of God Bible Commentary). “Its masterfully told stories have captured the imagination of readers for millennia” (19). Chief among them is the story of David and Goliath, the quintessential underdog story.
But what does the story mean? What lessons can we draw from it to shape our lives and inform our relationship with the Lord?
Here’s a clue from Evans: “David’s faith-filled theological perspective allowed him a different vantage point on the grave situation in the valley of Elah” (194). Evans’ commentary offers a clear and compelling exposition of David’s theological perspective. Read the story from 1 Samuel 17, then consider the lessons below, and see what one of the most surprising reversals in the Bible can show us about our place in God’s story today.
1. David vs. Goliath: It Only Looked Hopeless
To many onlookers, the encounter between David and Goliath looked like a foregone conclusion. For one thing, there was the size difference.
How big was Goliath? Evans writes:
In 1 Samuel 17, Goliath is never referred to as a “giant,” but his proportions as outlined in the traditional Hebrew text certainly suggest he was a gigantic man. The traditional Hebrew text (the Masoretic Text) states that Goliath is about 9 feet 9 inches tall. However, Greek witnesses to the text along with the oldest Hebrew text of this passage in existence (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) peg him at about 6 feet 9 inches. Which text is correct is a matter of debate . . . It seems unlikely, however, that the Greek and Dead Sea scroll reading of Goliath as only 6 feet 9 inches tall in this passage is correct since a taller Goliath seems to best fit with the literary context. (186–187)
Why was Goliath likely taller than 6 feet 9 inches? First, his 125 pounds of armor implies a larger man. And although he is not called a “giant” in 1 Samuel 17, his coming from Gath indicates such: Gath, a town where the last of the Anakites settled, held people renowned for their stature. So a height of 9 feet 9 inches tall seems right.
This contrasts sharply with David’s stature. Give that “some scholars have suggested that the average height of a man in ancient Israel was around 5 feet to 5.5 feet tall,” this would make David at least four feet shorter than his rival!
To many people the cause would have seemed hopeless. Not David. He trusted the Lord to come to his aid, which is one of the theological themes Evans reveals in the message of 1-2 Samuel. As Evans explains, “David bravely confronts Goliath based on his belief that God saves ‘not by sword or spear’ (1 Sam 17:47)” (30).
But let’s also consider the training of the two combatants: infantryman Goliath vs. slinger David. Evans notes a few things about ancient combat to get to the bottom of David’s plan to defeat Goliath. First, ancient warfare was basically divided into three divisions of arms: cavalry, consisting of soldiers on horses or chariots; infantry, men with swords and armor; and artillery, who were slingers and archers. Evans offers interesting insight into the nature of ancient slingers:
Ancient historians wrote about the deadly accuracy of slingers. An ancient Greek historian named Thucydides, in his work The Peloponnesian War, described how Athens’ infantry was decimated in the mountains by slingers (they failed to take Sicily as a result). Within biblical history itself, the effectiveness of slingers is referenced. In Judges 20:16 seven hundred Benjamite slingers are mentioned, “each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss.” (191)
Here’s the important takeaway about David’s training: “The artillery or projectile slingers and archers were most effective against infantry . . . Once this is realized, David’s ingenious plan comes to light. While David sold Saul on his abilities in hand-to-hand combat, it was David’s skill with the sling that he was planning to use in the battle” (192).
What’s more: “When David comes near Goliath, the warrior despised David because he did not look like a warrior” (192). Yet given David’s agility and skill with slinging, Goliath was in far greater danger than he understood. Evans points out this reminds us of “the lesson God had driven home in the previous chapter about judging someone by their looks” (192).
2. Defying God’s Plan Is Folly
The story of David and Goliath represents yet another instance of the enemies of Israel threatening God’s people. This time a Philistine champion named Goliath offers an “out” from typical battle through one-on-one combat. Although the Israelites are too afraid to answer his challenge, a young shepherd boy who had been sent to the battle lines to bring food to his older brothers sees the challenge and responds.
“When David hears Goliath’s challenge, he is incensed by the Philistine’s defiance of Israel’s God and offers to fight the Philistine” (187). As David exclaimed in verse 26: “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
After the Israelites describe the reward for the one who defeats Goliath, David is interested and turns to the men near him and inquires about it. In the next lesson, we’ll take a closer look at what this might reveal about his heart, but Evan notes that in his inquiry, we see a glimpse of David’s theological perspective:
While Goliath said he defied “the armies of Israel” (17:10), David interpreted this as nothing less than defying “the armies of the living God” (17:26). This perspective explains David’s courage. While defying a human army is one thing, defying God’s own army is folly. David’s strong faith in God comes to the fore here. (189)
This reflects a broader theological perspective embedded throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that the plans and programs of Yahweh will not be thwarted; it is folly to defy God.
3. Know Your Motivations
In 1 Samuel 17:25–30 there is an interesting repetition that reveals David’s human ambition.
“David first hears of the reward [for defeating Goliath] in verse 25, then inquires of the reward in verse 26, and is told once again in verse 27. Following Eliab’s rebuke of David, he again inquires about the reward in verse 30 and receives the same answer once again” (189).
Evans comments, “While David clearly has a strong faith, his interest in the reward is underscored” (189)—which offers a glimpse into David’s heart. He explains how David’s older brother, Eliab, complains about him coming only “to watch the battle” (v. 28). Although this may appear as a tirade against David, it may be that this brother knows something deeper about David. He explains:
After all, David did just abandon the supplies and run to the battle lines (v. 22), where he continually asked about the reward for slaying the giant. What is more, many of the words found in Eliab’s critique here show up in 2 Samuel 11–12, where the worst of David’s character is displayed with his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. (190)
Here he references Keith Bodner’s 1 Samuel commentary, which is worth quoting:
Even at this triumphal moment in the Davidic career, Eliab is used to sound a note of warning: David should always attend to matters of heart . . . When Eliab accuses David of neglecting ‘those few sheep’, in this context it sounds like a rant. Later in the story, David will neglect his role as a ‘shepherd’ of God’s people. There is ‘one little ewe lamb’ mentioned in 2 Samuel 12 that becomes an occasion of great stumbling and national disaster. (190, [Bodner, 1 Samuel, 183])
Perhaps if David heeded Eliab’s warning he could have avoided his sin of adultery with Bathsheba. Regardless, we do well to heed Eliab’s warning: attend to matters of the heart. Know yourself, and know what motivates you. Not knowing may only make you more susceptible to temptation.
4. The Faith that Saves
Earlier, we noted how David’s theological perspective gave him courage. It also gave him faith:
David’s faith-filled theological perspective allowed him a different vantage point on the grave situation in the valley of Elah. While the other Israelites cowered from the threats of mighty Goliath, David instead saw things from a theological perspective, wherein Goliath, by “defy[ing] the armies of Israel” (17:10), was actually “defy[ing] the armies of the living God” (17:26). While Saul and the Israelites were terrified by Goliath’s size and appearance, David instead saw his vulnerability. (194)
Evans argues that this faith-filled reliance on God for victory reminds us of the kind of faith that saves in the face of our own powerlessness without Christ. He writes, “The victory over Goliath is the victory brought by God himself,” which is a powerful call to remember “that victory is not of ourselves but due to the one in whom we put our faith” (194).
We often do what Israel did: try to succeed by relying on human efforts. Yet this story of David and Goliath reminds us of what Zechariah 4:6 famously stated: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Evans reminds us of Jesus’ echo in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
“The gospel,” Evans notes, “reminds us that we cannot make it on our own but that Jesus has provided all we need. After all, Jesus notes that even a small faith can move mountains (Matt 17:20)” (195). This is the kind of faith that saves, the kind that trusts in the mighty Spirit of the Lord for victory.
5. God Uses Flawed People and Complex Characters
If you’ve ever wondered whether God can use you for his glory, you need not look any further than the story of David and Goliath. Yes, David was young, and he wasn’t a warrior but a shepherd. However, the picture is more complex than that. Evans outlines several interesting aspects of the David we find in this story:
- “David partially obeys his father, bringing provision to the battle-front, but he doesn’t deliver the goods as requested and instead leaves them with ‘the keeper of supplies’ (v. 22).”
- “David shows self-interest in his preoccupation with the reward on offer for slaying the giant, repeatedly asking about it (vv. 25, 26, 30).”
- “When convincing Saul he can defeat the giant, David misrepresents his intentions, instead describing hand-to-hand combat (vv. 34–36).
- “David breaks the rules of combat in sneaking a sling onto the battlefield against Goliath by distracting him with his staff,” a tactic some have characterized as “a blow below the belt, a sucker punch, a man with a howitzer mowing down a peasant with a pitchfork.” [Halpern, David’s Secret Demons, 13.]
- “David’s storing of the head of the giant in Jerusalem shows his ambition to make Jerusalem his capital when king.” (195)
Perhaps none of the above could be described as outright sin, yet they show that David isn’t the simple, pristine, pietistic character we might have thought. Evans offers some encouraging words in light of this picture:
[I]t can be an encouragement to us that God works through flawed people, because we all are flawed. All of us are complex characters. Our best moments in service of God are doubtless tainted with selfish motives. None of us has “arrived” (Phil 3:12), and none of us are completely sinless. Yet thanks to Jesus’ death and resurrection, our sin is not counted against us, and God works through us to continue to establish his kingdom. (195)
6. David Points Us to Christ
Despite his flaws, David’s words and deeds set him apart. In contrast to Saul, who refused to fight, David proves himself to be a worthy successor to the throne of Israel. He does not hesitate to run into battle and defend Israel, showing he is better than Saul and worthy to rule Israel. David relies on God and helps to save Israel in an unexpected way.
This is significant, for as Evans explains, “In this David also functions as a type of the future anointed one, Jesus, who will also save Israel in an unexpected way. Both David and Jesus are Israel’s messiahs, both their victories are against the odds, yet spectacular” (196). In the introduction explaining the theological message of 1-2 Samuel, Evans outlines a number of parallels between David and the coming Messiah, the Christ:
As David defeated the Philistines, so the coming Messiah would defeat the enemy (Pss 2:9; 110:1). Like David, he will rule in Jerusalem (Ps 2:4–6; 110:2). The Davidic king’s rule will never end (Pss 21:4; 45:6; 72:5). The anointed one defends the poor, delivers the powerless, and destroys the oppressor (Pss 72:2–4, 12–14). He is the inheritor of David’s covenant (Pss 89:28–37; 132:11–12) and all the Davidic promises . . . As David was Jesse’s son, the messiah will be a branch from Jesse’s stump (Isa 11:1) who, like David (1 Sam 16:13), will permanently have the spirit of the Lord on him (Isa 11:2). As David ruled “doing what was just and right for all his people” (2 Sam 8:15), so the messiah “with righteousness . . . will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isa 11:4). As David was a shepherd, so the messiah will shepherd Israel. (33-34)
So David functions as a “type” of Christ who anticipates this coming anointed one who would save Israel, bringing victory. And yet, “While David is a type of Christ in his role as Israel’s anointed one, or messiah, the Old Testament still looks for God’s perfect anointed one to come” (195).
These insights on the David and Goliath story were selected from Paul Evan’s insightful commentary on 1-2 Samuel.
Part of the Story of God Bible Commentary series, Evan’s book is designed to foster discernment so we can live God’s Story faithfully and creatively today. It examines the biblical text as embedded in its canonical and historical setting, but its story-centric approach is ideal for pastors, students, teachers, and laypeople.
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(Image credit: Bernini’s David, (1623), http://arth1700.wordpress.com/2012/10/.)