Sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 17:1-11, 17-50
If you’ve been here over the past two Sunday evenings, you’ll know that my preaching focus over these summer months is on the stories of kingship and nation-making in ancient Israel. There’s a deep ambivalence about kingship in these Old Testament books; all the way through the warnings of the prophet Samuel echo in the background. The people had determined that they wanted—needed—“to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations,” to which Samuel had basically responded, “careful what you ask for, because might just get it.” This is not how Israel has worked, by “being like other nations.” Israel has worked precisely by being unlike the others.
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But the people were convinced that a king was what they needed, and so Saul had been anointed to that position. It wasn’t long before Saul had discredited himself, and so in his place Samuel had secretly anointed a most unlikely replacement, the shepherd boy David. Now tonight, in a story that stands as a Sunday School classic, we’ve been given a picture of why David was chosen, and at least a glimpse at how an Israelite king might—might—be unlike other kings.
Let me set the stage. The Israelites are encamped on one side of the valley of Elah, the Philistine army on the other. The Philistines have a standing army with professional soldiers, against which the Israelites bring a militia of soldiers raised up from the tribes. That balance is anything but even, and to tip it even further the Philistines have what amounts to a Sherman tank; they have Goliath of Gath. He was “six cubits and a span”—that’s about 6’9”—and wore a helmet of bronze, a coat of mail, “greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron;” roughly fifteen pounds.
Goliath steps out into the territory between the armies, and calls for something called “single combat.” “Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. 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.” The whole battle will be fought, not by the armies, but by two appointed champions… winner take all. “Today,” Goliath taunts, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” Single combat with this tank of a man? “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.” No kidding.
Now the scene cuts to David. Three of David’s older brothers are members of the Israelite militia, and so their father Jesse sends David to the camp with food for the brothers. When he arrives at the camp, David is fascinated with it all, and particularly with this challenge that Goliath has issued. He doesn’t just drop off the provisions and head back to his sheep, he asks questions of his brothers and tries to take it all in. His eldest brother Eliab is dismissive, even hostile. “Why have you come down? With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness?” Do you hear the tone? You have no business being here, little boy. Maybe Eliab’s pride is stinging from his recent memory of David having been the one anointed to be the new king, which meant, of course, that Eliab—the eldest of Jesse’s sons—had not been anointed. “[Y]ou have come down just to see the battle,” little boy. Go home.
But David doesn’t go home. He goes to King Saul, and he volunteers to go out to fight Goliath. At first Saul quite sensibly declines the offer, saying “you are just a boy.” Yet David persists, claiming that his shepherd’s experience of defending the flock against bears and lions would equip him to take on Goliath, adding “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.” Note that little piece of theology—the Lord will save me—because it is central to how the story will now unfold. It is also the thing that evidently changes Saul’s mind—“Go, and may the Lord be with you!” he says to David—though even at that you have to wonder at the desperation of a king willing to send this boy into combat against Goliath. In fact, Saul has not entirely heard the force of David’s words, for right way he “clothed David with his own armor”; helmet, chain mail, and all. The picture is almost comic, as the boy straps on Saul’s sword and “tried in vain to walk.” I can’t even move in all of this, he says, and then dropping it to the ground he goes to the brook to pick out five smooth stones to use with his shepherd’s sling.
In his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, the writer Malcolm Gladwell claims that from a tactical point of view, with his sling David is actually well positioned to defeat Goliath. Gladwell cites the research of Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defense Forces, who ran a “series of calculations showing that typical-size stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of thirty-five meters would have hit Goliath’s head with a velocity of thirty-four meters per second… in terms of stopping power, [a weapon] equivalent to a fair-sized modern handgun.”
What Gladwell doesn’t take into account is David’s theology. As Walter Brueggemann observes, “David introduces a new factor into the action: the ‘living God.’ Israel, who faces the Philistine threat in fear and immobility, acts as if God were irrelevant to the battle. If God is irrelevant in the face of the Philistines, all is lost for the Israelites. But David will not have it so.” David you see, “does not doubt the old stories of Yahweh’s deliverance, because he has firsthand data concerning bears and lions. Yahweh does indeed deliver…” But Saul does not—cannot—see that, because Saul has begun to think and act just like the kings of other nations. He has come to assume that the only way to meet the Philistines is like a Philistine; he trusts his armor, rather than God. He has forgotten the power of the “old stories”, in which a whole people springs forth from the long-childless Sarah and Abraham, and in which, for all of his military might, the Egyptian pharaoh cannot hold the Hebrews in slavery. Saul trusts only his sword and his armor. And that is not enough.
David knows that he was unable to move wearing Saul’s armor; that in it he was encumbered. You know how the story goes from there. With just one of the five stones, David’s sling does its work, the giant is felled, and Israel carries the day.
All through these books of Samuel and Kings, whenever Israel insists on donning Saul’s armor—whenever it forgets its old stories of God’s deliverance—it is encumbered; it moves clumsily, stumbles, makes terrible mistakes, and acts all too much like those other nations… except they’re not as good at it as the others are.
Whenever the people of God put on Saul’s armor, we are encumbered; unable to walk, liable to stumble, positioned to make terrible mistakes. In the 1870s, the government of Canada instituted its program of Indian Residential Schools, with the goal of erasing Indigenous identity and absorbing that culture into the mainstream. The government turned to the churches—Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist—and invited them—us—to run those schools. And we did. Imagining that what was good for the nation was good for the church, we put on Saul’s armor, and for the next 100 years got down to the business of assimilating First Nations children into Canadian society. Not that everyone who worked in the schools was abusive or evil or malevolent; in fact, former students often speak with fondness of particular teachers and staff members. But the “big picture” impact of that system has been devastating, and for that the churches do bear real responsibility. It has taken us over 130 years to realize that wearing the armor of nation and colonialism kept us from walking with those peoples in the way Jesus would have us walk.
Yet there are other stories of those who resisted donning the armor, and those too must be told. In the southern states in the 1950s and 60s a movement was born that knew with such clarity that to fight in the way the dominant culture was fighting was like sending an encumbered, armored boy out to do battle with a Goliath. The insistence of Martin Luther King Jr. and all who stood with him that the violence of the Klan and of racist police departments and of lynch mobs could only be met with non-violence is such a story. There were some who wanted the movement to don Saul’s armor, and as the sixties progressed there were some who did. But King remained steadfast, even though it cost him his life. He remained steadfast, because whatever his own personal failings and weaknesses, he knew the old stories and he had his theology right: the Lord will save.
In time, even David will forget the old stories, and fashion for himself an armor all too much like that of Saul. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now, the biblical storyteller wants only for us to delight in David, as the one who might just be different; the one who carries in his soul what Brueggemann calls “the trustful truth of the tribe.” Shed the armor, trust in the Lord, and in what the Lord has called us to do and to be.