A Fearless Faith – taking God at his word

St Barnabas, January 15th 2012

Readings – 1 Samuel 17:20-50, Matthew 8:5-13

What’s the first thing you think of when someone mentions David and Goliath?

A children’s song
Battling against the odds
The FA Cup third round
Someone even mentioned …
a large crane in Belfast Dockyard known locally as Goliath!

The difficulty with this passage and others like it, is that we remember it as a children’s story … something we read when we were very young. It is a grand story, isn’t it?! Along with Samson and the lion, Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the fiery furnace and others, the heroes of faith become comic book characters living alongside fairy tales and other adventure stories … and like our childhood fantasies, we tend to lay these bible stories aside as we grow up, thinking that they are no longer relevant to our grown-up selves, and no longer have anything to teach us. Well, we know that’s not really the case, don’t we – they’re in the Bible, after all, God’s word to us for all time. But it’s hard to make that transition from comic book hero to serious Christian character on whom we should model ourselves, someone to imitate and follow.

So, if we want to take these stories seriously now that we’re all grown up, how do we go about it?

Of course, as children’s stories, we read about these characters as if their adventures were the most important thing about them. We remember all about Jonah’s three days inside the whale, even if we can’t quite remember why he was there. So we need to do a bit of detective work, to go beyond the action and excitement somehow, to reach something more enduring, more significant, something we can identify with in our mundane adult lives and not just our childhood imagination. I hope at the end we put something of the adventure and excitement back again … let’s see how we get on.

Now, you’re all used to me going on about context … and this passage is no exception. When we start to look at the OT, it can be hard to identify how what we learn could possibly apply in our modern age. After all, the culture is so completely different. It’s hard enough reading the NT sometimes, to work out how to transfer what we learn about our relationship with God into our daily lives. But who, recently, has had to wrestle with a lion or to separate the waters of the Tamar to walk across on dry ground? I’m sure the Navy would have something to say about that!

So what we need to do instead, is to look for underlying principles rather than practises … to discover a way of applying the same truth in a different culture. Actually, we have to do that all the time, and we do it without thinking too much about it. But in the OT we have to work at it just that bit harder …

We heard last week about Samuel anointing David as God’s chosen King for his people the Israelites. And when we last saw David, he was playing the harp for King Saul, who had not yet relinquished the throne, indeed who had no idea as yet that God had other plans.

Yet Chapter 17 is written as if Chapter 16 never happened. David is once again at home with his family, there is no recognition of David’s anointing by Samuel by his brothers, even though they were there, and Saul doesn’t recognise him. What’s going on?

It’s probable that we have two different written documents about the life of David in one. Whether the same author wrote both and then tried to amalgamate them (remember they didn’t have cut and paste in those days!), or whether they were stories from two different sources, we’ll never know. But it’s clear that each began their story at a different point in David’s life.

It’s not really important – but it’s rather like reading a detective novel in which the author gives us, the readers, some important information not yet available to his sleuth. We’ll not refer to it again, but I didn’t want the apparent contradictions to confuse you.

At the beginning of Chapter 17, the Israelites and Philistines are at war – probably over land and servitude, the usual reasons. In those days, every state tried to extend it’s influence by overthrowing local kings of the surrounding cities or nations. Fighting was only possible at a certain time of the year, in spring after the grain harvest in April, and after the end of the rainy season. Only then could they be sure that roads would be in good condition, that there will be plenty of fodder and grazing for war horses and pack animals, and that an army on the march would be able to raid the fields for food. But for six weeks now they had been at stalemate (forty days, vs 16) and time was being wasted.

We know the details … Goliath stands head and shoulders above everyone else and offers to meet another individual in one to one combat to the death on behalf of their respective armies. Who would fight him? Why not Saul himself – we know he was tall, too. Or the leader of his army, Abner? Or his son, Jonathan? Neither of them are even mentioned in this story!

And why, when he arrives, does David volunteer? He is brave and handsome, yes, but he’s not even part of the army, and is certainly not an obvious champion.

Can anyone remember last week’s memory verse?

Do not consider his appearance or his height … Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7

It’s an easy mistake to make … Eliab made the same mistake when he challenged David for bothering him in verse 28! All Eliab saw was his annoying younger brother getting some attention and he didn’t like it. He didn’t see beyond to David’s faith and faithfulness to God.

David didn’t pay any attention to Goliath’s height or the size of his biceps, he took no notice of his armour or the breadth of his javelin … he saw beyond the outward appearance of strength and saw only a man standing in defiance of the one true God, his God, the God of Israel and of the entire army standing around him. And he took God at his word. Notice the subtle difference in the way Goliath is described by the men of the army and by David …

Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel … (v25)

Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God? (v26)

David knew that Goliath’s defiance was more significant than his size …

When David’s words get back to Saul, he was sent for … and Saul too, judged David by outward appearance and age, ‘You are only a boy!’ (v33). The terms of the confrontation were servitude and slavery to the loser. It wasn’t worth the risk of sending out a mere boy just to save face … but David is confident, and somehow his confidence is contagious …

But still Saul trusts to human strength and makes David wear his, Saul’s, armour. But David knows not only that it won’t help, but that it’s the wrong thing to do. So he sticks with what he knows, takes his staff and his sling and goes out to face the enemy.

And we know the end of the story … or at least what happens to Goliath. The end of the story isn’t quite the fairy tale ending we think it is. What were the terms of the conflict? And what rewards were promised by Saul to the victor? What did Goliath shout out every morning?

Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us. (v8b,9)

Goliath is killed and …

When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran. (v51b)

There’s not a lot of honour or honesty going on here, is there? Well, what do you expect from your enemies?

The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his father’s family from taxes in Israel. (v25b)

Well, David certainly gets his share of the plunder … he takes Goliath’s sword (and incidentally, his head, but we’ll come back to that in a minute!). But there’s no sign of any other wealth coming his way, nor for some time yet, a wife.

It seems that God’s own people aren’t that trustworthy, either. Only David comes out of this story with any honour … it is a shameful episode in the history of Israel.

So, how do we take anything of value from this story. What principles does it lay down for us, for our culture and generation.

Of course, the obvious starting point is David’s faith and his ability to look beyond appearances and to see to the heart of the matter. That we should judge both people and situations by God’s standards or from God’s viewpoint, not our own. And that takes a certain amount of wisdom and discernment … how can we get to the point where we see things as God sees them? The Bible is clear that that type of wisdom only comes from knowing God and his word, and from the Holy Spirit working in our lives. The NT tells us that it operates in direct opposition to the wisdom of the world around us, so that the accepted norms of behaviour in our society may not be God’s way at all. I don’t have time now to talk about how we reach that level of maturity in our faith (as if I’m the one to tell you!) … but we all need to work towards it, making it our aim and priority … and praying for wisdom from God in all our relationships. And praise him that he promises wisdom to those who ask … take him at his word!

Another principle we can take from this story is, like David, to be ourselves. David refused to wear Saul’s armour – armour such as that worn by kings, was made to measure for one thing and it would only have hindered David to wear something that wasn’t comfortable. He knew his own gifts and abilities … knew that he wasn’t trained to use a sword (remember, he’s a shepherd, not a professional soldier), but knew too that with familiar tools and weapons he could defeat hungry lions and bears intent on lamb for dinner. They were part of the normal, God-created order. So how much more likely was it that he could deal with an enemy who defied and challenged the one-true God every time he opened his mouth? So, too, we can be confident that God’s way is the best way. That’s another principle we can take from this story.

An uncomfortable principle is that sometimes we have to go it alone. God had a whole army at his disposal, under the direction of King Saul, but somewhere along the way, Saul lost his sense of direction, and no-one was either able or wanted to oppose him. But David was willing to stand out from the crowd – he was an unlikely hero, but his confidence – in God, not in himself – was persuasive. Are we confident in God? Do we take him at his word?

There’s one little detail I said I’d come back to. When David cuts off the giant’s head, what happens to it?

David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem … (v54)

We are so used to reading about Jerusalem that we probably don’t realise as we read this story, that as yet, Jerusalem is still unconquered. It’s some time before David makes it his capital when he is, finally, king … but already he’s aware of the importance of the city and has the confidence to claim it for God with this rather grisly trophy. Nor, incidentally, does he keep Goliath’s sword for his own use … in Chapter 21 we read that it was kept with the holy things by the priest of God. At some stage, David must have dedicated both his victory and wealth to God. So David was looking forward to a time when he would be king, once again taking God at his word.

So we’ve discovered a number of principles from this story – and I’m sure there are more if only we had the time to look, but I hope you get the idea. I said right at the beginning that once we’d taken a mature and adult look at this story, that we’d be able to put some of the excitement and adventure back again …

After all, aren’t these principles more like challenges? And wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to live by them …

  • Not judging by appearance, but seeing things from God’s viewpoint?
  • Being ourselves, rather than being who someone else wants us to be?
  • Having the courage and wisdom to go it alone when necessary?
  • Looking forward to a time when God is finally in control?
  • And always, having the faith and confidence to take God at his word?

Just how much adventure can you handle?!

LB

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