During Eastertide, the church season which follows Easter—once we have discovered the empty tomb and sung our “Alleluias!,” once we have said yes to embodying the light of hope and committed ourselves to living out the rest of the Easter story—we consider what it means to be people of the resurrection. Trusting that God is already at work redeeming creation through the power of the risen Christ, we ask ourselves: “What do our lives look like in a post-Easter world? To what work are we being called? What does it mean to practice a resurrection like Christ’s? Where is God moving in and through our lives? How do we continue the work that God has started?” And we begin to form some potential answers to such questions by looking to what may seem a surprising or unusual text—the story of David and Goliath.
“People who have no religious background or biblical knowledge recognize and know the broad outlines” of this narrative (1108 NIBC), perhaps because it’s the most detailed of all the stories of David. Whatever the cause, it has become “something of a cultural icon” (1113 NIBC). Now, admittedly, I probably missed Sunday School more often than I attended it as a child, but even I know this story. Or at least, I thought I knew this story. It turns out that there is much more going on in this narrative than the children’s Bible version lets on. In fact, as we approach the famed conflict between David and Goliath in 1 Samuel, we find ourselves in the midst of an ancient crisis—Israel is a nation whose leadership and identity are changing.
During the first seven chapters of the book, Samuel is the transitional leader, and he serves the people as a prophet, a priest, and a judge. In the span of the eight brief chapters that follow, Saul emerges as Israel’s first king, repeatedly falters, and is rejected by God as the nation’s leader. As the 15th chapter of 1 Samuel ends, the text even goes so far as to say that “the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel” (15:35). In the chapter that follows, unbeknownst to Saul, Samuel anoints David, the youngest son of Jesse, and he is now set to become the next king. As this takes place, Scripture says that “The spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward,” while “the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul,” who continues to reign as king (16:13-14). David knows that even though the powers of the world still rule, God is already at work enacting other plans.
When we approach the conflict at hand between David and Goliath, in 1 Samuel 17, we find the Philistine and Israelite armies encamped on opposite mountain-top ridges, with a valley in between them. As we imagine the war cries splitting the air, an enormous, formidable champion has stepped out of the Philistine camp to challenge the Israelites. The text’s portrait of this Philistine “is of an invulnerable warrior…We are intended to envision him as [invincible]…Not only is he armored, but also he is armed” (1110 NIBC). “[Goliath] is perfectly terrifying in his sheer, malevolent power and perfectly hateful in his bold defiance of Israel” (295 ABC). He is no respecter of persons.
In many ways, it seems that the wider church finds itself in a similar modern crisis—our leadership and our identity are changing: fewer people are connected to communities of faith, church budgets are shrinking, Christian Education needs revitalization, and many ministers are becoming bi-vocational, working in more than setting to make ends meet. Like Israel, our very survival is at stake. And we are surely face-to-face with enormous, formidable social and moral giants which have stepped out of their camps to challenge us—hunger and war, poverty and racism; education gaps, income disparity, systemic injustice, and environmental irresponsibility. Like Goliath, these and other issues seem to defy and even taunt people of faith who would consider working toward the defeat of such enemies. They are perfectly terrifying in their sheer, malevolent power and perfectly hateful in their bold defiance of the Gospel. They are no respecter of persons.
In such a moment, how are we to respond? What is there to do? Where do we even begin? As we consider these questions about our modern crisis, we hope that we, too, might be able to see God already at work enacting other plans, even though the powers of the world still rule. And so we look to David’s response to his own ancient crisis for wisdom.
Unlike previous stories, in this narrative, “David is now introduced to us not only as God’s man and Saul’s man, but also as his own man” (1109 NIBC). As one author notes, “[He] emerges as the central actor whose bold action and unwavering faith capture our imagination. [David] is unquestionably the man for Israel’s future, and the popularity of the story suggests that he becomes here a man for future generations as well” (NIBC 1108). Unwavering faith. And bold action. Those are the gifts with which David faces his ancient crisis, and those are the gifts with which we might face our own.
In speaking with Saul, David volunteers to fight with the Philistine. Though he has already been anointed, David is perceived as “just a boy,” and “Saul objects, not so much on the grounds of David’s youth and small stature as of his lack of training and experience” (ABC 293). Why would anyone, particularly a shepherd boy, jump into this battle? For David, the lack of Israelite response is shameful: Israel remains discredited and dishonored as long as no one dares to take up the challenge of the Philistine who “has defied the armies of the living God” (v.36). Goliath’s challenge is not merely to Israel or to Saul; it is also against Israel’s God, and that will not stand.
In this passage, David invokes the name of the Lord five times, professing that the fullness of his faith and his victory rest in a living God. While Goliath is well-armored and armed to the hilt, David’s own weapon is the name of God. This is not a struggle of the strong against the weak—rather, it is a struggle of the strong against “the weak [who are] fortified by the strength of [God]” (ABC 294). David steps into this crisis knowing that “deliverance does not come through trust in human might” (1112 NIBC)—for “the Lord does not save by sword and spear” (v.47). He steps into this crisis with “God-trusting persistence in the face of the giants” (1114 NIBC).
As one preacher notes, “David is the model of another way, of those…who trust that God can make deliverance possible against the odds, that there is hope even when faced with apparently hopeless situations” (NIBC 1112). And I think that’s at the core of what it means for us to practice resurrection—like David, we are called to step into the crisis with an unwavering Easter faith that God is already at work. With “God-trusting persistence,” we are called to face the social and moral issues that are the giants holding hostage our community, our country, and our world. But how do we do such work? What does it look like for people of faith and Christian communities to stand toe-to-toe with today’s Goliaths? Again, we look back to the text.
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.
Perhaps with the best of intentions, Saul physically places his own perspective, assumptions, and strategies on David by clothing him in his armor. The truth is that Saul and the Israelites “can think of nothing more to do [in this crisis] than to imitate poorly the very forces of oppressive power they oppose” (NIBC 1114). Their logic is that if Goliath is heavily-armored and armed, then David should be, too. But nothing about such an approach for facing the Philistine giant works for him: he cannot move in the armor; he cannot do the work to which he has been called because he is clothed in and restricted by that which is not his own. The armor doesn’t fit. It isn’t his. From David’s experiences as a deeply faithful shepherd, he understands that “power and courage can have other sources than military experience, and these sources…are both practical and spiritual” (NIBC 1111). Having already invoked the name of God, he removes the armor, takes his staff in hand, and chooses five smooth stones from the riverbed. With unwavering faith, David steps into the crisis and takes bold action, using only what he knows and the natural resources available to him. As theologian Walter Bruggemann writes,
David refuses to be like Saul…or like the nations, or like the Philistine. David proposes a radical alternative, only five smooth stones. David must have appeared to Saul (and to all the others) to be unarmed and defenseless. David’s alternative must have seemed to be no viable alternative at all…[but] David is the one who bears witness to the rule of [God]. In doing so, he calls Israel away from its imitation of the nations” (Brueggemann 131-132).
Indeed, systems of power, oppression, and violence cannot be overcome by imitation and the creation of new systems of power, oppression, and violence. As people of faith, we are not called to step into today’s crisis moments wearing armor, clothed in that which is not our own, and imitating the nations. Instead, as we seek to practice resurrection with unwavering faith and bold action, we encounter David’s story and recognize that we bring gifts of imagination and resourcefulness. We bring gifts that are “alternatives to the intimidation of the powerful” (1114 NIBC). And so during Eastertide, we take off the armor that isn’t ours, and we reach into the riverbed of our Christian tradition and choose five smooth stones to carry with us. Perhaps as Easter people, we need to shed the armor of self-preservation and pick up the stone of service; to remove battle garments of discord and retrieve the smooth rocks of melody and harmony; to set aside shields of assumption, and pocket a few pebbles of learning; to leave behind helmets of hatred, and carry with us stones of love.
On the Sunday after Easter, this story reminds us that even though the powers of the world still rule, God is already at work enacting other plans and redeeming creation. So in the coming weeks, we’ll serve, sing, learn, love, and tell as we live in the light of hope. We’ll embody “God-trusting persistence in the face of giants,” carrying with us only five smooth stones—the authentic gifts, unique skills, and natural resources which God has given each of us.
And what better place to prepare for such a journey than around the table? In this meal, we experience the gifts of God for the people of God. Fed with the bread and nourished from the cup, our spirits and our Christian bonds are renewed. So friends, come to the table of grace so that we might know God’s presence and be strengthened for the work of unwavering faith and bold action! Amen.