Facing Annihilation – 1 Samuel 17:1-16
By: Alistair Brown
(Part 1 of a study of 1 Samuel 17.)
I’m beginning a marathon. Not a twenty-six mile race; that will never happen. Rather, the marathon story of David and Goliath. It takes the whole of 1 Samuel 17 to tell that story – and that is fifty-eight verses.
The story is thrilling – well, it is for David; not so good for Goliath – but the story’s length is daunting. Let me encourage you to stay with this study by two comments:
- I’ll cover this in several studies, not one. Each Bible reading will still be lengthy, but easily survivable.
- When a biblical writer gives a lot of space to a story, it’s because it really matters. My first career was journalism, and I worked as a reporter and sub editor in Scotland for some years. The news editor’s constant instruction was: “Brown, keep it short! Be concise! We don’t have much space.” Ancient writers never wasted space either. Their writing material was fragile and precious, so if they told a story at length it was because that story really mattered. The David and Goliath encounter is told in full because it is important.
So, 1 Samuel 17: 1-16:
Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah. They pitched camp at Ephes Dammim, between Sokoh and Azekah. 2 Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. 3 The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.
4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits and a span. 5 He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; 6 on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. 7 His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.
8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9 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.” 10 Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” 11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.
12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul’s time he was very old. 13 Jesse’s three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war: The firstborn was Eliab; the second, Abinadab; and the third, Shammah. 14 David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, 15 but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.
16 For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand.
To begin, let’s be clear about what’s happening and some basic facts about Goliath:
- The Philistines were out to make war and the Israelites were the target. Victory in war meant you took your enemy’s land and his wealth, and the people you didn’t kill became your servants, slaves, or subjects. Conquest was a nice little income earner. So out the Philistines go, and their army settles on a hill about fifteen miles west of Bethlehem.
- King Saul of Israel can’t ignore a massive army invading his land, so he leads his army out against the Philistines, and they settle on a nearby hill. Between the two armies is a valley called Elah.
- Then Goliath steps out from among the Philistines with his challenge. Some ancient peoples reckoned that, rather than lose thousands in all-out conflict, their wars should be decided by one battle to the death between the best fighters on each side. That’s a great plan if you have a Goliath. Goliath is man mountain. He’s “six cubits and a span,” which is 9 feet, 9 inches. And man mountain is tailored like a tank: his armor weighed 125 pounds and that was just the coat; his legs and head were bronze-covered too. Also, he has amazing artillery, both for defense and attack: a bronze javelin which was more like a massive curved sword, a hugely heavy spear, and a shield so big another soldier walks ahead of him carrying it.
Nothing about Goliath was typical of a soldier of his day, not Philistine nor Israelite. In ancient times most men were quite small and in battle wore simple tunics and used relatively light weapons. But Goliath was massive, and everything about the way he was dressed and armed had one purpose only: to intimidate the opposition. One look at him and your blood froze. If you could summon any movement, it would be only to run away.
Goliath was to ancient tribal conflict what the Death Star was to inter-planetary conflict in the Star Wars movies. The Death Star was anything but nimble, but packed with fire power. It even had a planet-destroying superlaser! Unless you had your own planet-destroying superlaser (and no-one else did), you had no choice but to surrender.
Giant, undefeatable Goliath was meant to make the Israelites surrender.
And, to make their weakness even more obvious, Goliath taunted the Israelites. “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other” (v. 10). His words mean “I heap shame on the armies of Israel…,” and that is exactly what he was doing because no-one at all knew how to win and no-one had the courage even to try.
Three short lessons from this opening section of the story.
1. The Israelites were facing complete destruction.
The threat was truly serious. To keep their freedom Saul and the Israelites had to fight and win. Not to fight, or to fight and lose, was to fall under the cruel domination of the Philistines.
So, why not fight? The simple answer was no-one believed they could defeat the Philistines. They were very sure no-one could overcome Goliath, but in a sense he didn’t matter. If they chose they could ignore his taunts and his invitation to personal combat, and could send the troops across the valley to engage the whole Philistine army. The only reason not to go for all-out battle was they were sure they would lose. The Philistines almost certainly outnumbered them, and were probably a better trained and better equipped fighting force.
Israel was facing defeat, and that meant annihilation or domination.
These are tough times for God’s church in many parts of the world. There are many enemies and many dangers:
- Growing secularism in society.
- Skepticism about the church, especially among the young.
- Opposition from those of other faiths.
- Growing disapproval of any attempts to evangelize others.
- Serious marginalization of Christianity and its beliefs and values.
In western nations, the traditional forms of Christianity are mostly declining. Numbers of those openly identified as Christian are diminishing. We feel very threatened. Some predict annihilation of the faith as we know it.
Annihilation is what Saul and the Israelites faced from a foreign army. Annihilation is what the first Christians faced from Jewish and Roman persecution. God’s people facing deadly threats is not new.
My parents taught me a lot about safety when I was a child:
- Look carefully both ways before crossing any road.
- Never go off with strangers.
- Keep well away from fires or rivers.
Overall there were countless words of wisdom intended to keep me from harm.
My Dad and my Mom did everything they could to keep me from danger. So they bred in me an instinct to prioritize safety and security.
Most of us have that instinct, and we’re very uncomfortable living with any kind of threat or danger.
But God’s people and God’s church have always been challenged, always been opposed, and always been pressurized. It was done to Jesus, and it will be no different for us. Walking the road God puts before us will mean there are no safe places to settle down. Mostly life will be edgy. Following Jesus will seem risky. Our path will feel unsafe. That’s the reality of discipleship.
2. Saul and his army had no idea what to do.
“Then the Philistine said, ‘This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.’ On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified” (vv. 10-11).
In other words, Saul and his forces were paralyzed with fear. They had no idea how anyone could win in hand to hand combat against Goliath, and no idea how their whole army could defeat the Philistines.
And so it went on, day after day – we’re told it lasted for forty days. The armies watched each other, and the Israelites listened to Goliath’s morning and evening boast and got more and more frightened. They had no idea where to turn.
That uncertainty is the second thing they experienced which we detest:
First there was the feeling of being threatened or in danger.
Second, now, is uncertainty about the right action, the next steps to take.
Uncertainty can happen to us personally:
We question our direction in life and the right way forward is not obvious.
Or we face an immense difficulty, and we can’t see a good outcome from any of the choices we have.
Similar uncertainty can happen also to a whole body of believers: strategies, policies, standards, options, and we have to make a decision but what decision should it be?
Take comfort, for the Bible is full of uncertain people:
- Abraham – didn’t know where to go.
- Moses – did know where to go, but wandered with the people.
- Gideon – was God really wanting someone so weak as him to lead his people?
- Samuel – was God speaking to him?
- Jeremiah – could God use someone as young as he was?
- Early apostles – who had doubts and fears, and questions about Jesus; and a deep sense of inadequacy about taking the gospel to the whole world.
The Bible never hides the doubts and fears of any of these people. And be encouraged, for their doubts and fears were no block to what God would do.
We should never be frightened to admit our fear or uncertainty; it’s only a moment along the way until God shows you his plan.
3. God had the answer, but it was very different from anything anyone expected.
The answer to the challenge faced by the Israelites isn’t shown in these first sixteen verses. Or is it? Actually it is, except at this moment in the story God’s answer is looking after his father’s sheep in Bethlehem. His name is David.
If anyone had thought David could take on Goliath, they could have sent for him. Saul knew David, and of course his brothers knew him. But to Saul he was just a boy who played the lyre, and to his brothers he was just the annoying youngest in the family and just a shepherd. No-one thought of him as a fighter, or a hero, or a savior for his people.
But all the time he was God’s answer and in time – just a very short time – God would bring David right into the heart of this story.
That’s worth remembering. It’s worth remembering:
When we are terrified by all the opposition or threats or dangers to us or God’s work…
When we are confused and unsure, with no idea which way to turn…
When it’s all so overwhelming that we cannot imagine there is any good way forward.
What’s worth remembering? God already knows what to do and has a way forward. In his good time, and it may be a very short time, he’ll show his answer. It may be nothing we’ve already thought of, or it may be something that was right there before us but we never saw it as a solution. But the answer comes. In God’s time, it comes.
Sometimes we feel the cause for which we stand is already lost. Saul and the Israelites did. But it wasn’t lost. Their battle wasn’t over and our battle isn’t over. We are not defeated. We have a God who is never defeated, and he will show a way where there seems to be no way. For that let us thank God from the depths of our hearts.