Great as God Judges Great – 1 Samuel 17:17-26
By: Alistair Brown
There are top CEOs in the corporate world who are celebrated for their innovation, management, and leadership. Politicians are sometimes admired more after their terms of service than during them; nevertheless many are respected for their strength of purpose, capacity to bring about change, and ability to work with people of all opinions. Sports, entertainment, media, science, technology… almost any kind of enterprise has its heroes.
But what makes someone great? That’s a question we can look at using today’s passage, and we’ll see if David, who was about to conquer Goliath, had the characteristics of greatness we so admire.
1 Samuel 17:17-26
17 Now Jesse said to his son David, “Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. 18 Take along these ten cheeses to the commander of their unit. See how your brothers are and bring back some assurance from them. 19 They are with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines.”
20 Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry.21 Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. 22 David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and asked his brothers how they were. 23 As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. 24 Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear.
25 Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. 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 family from taxes in Israel.”
26 David asked the men standing near him, “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?”
Our question is: what makes someone great? I have noted down seven typical answers. There are more, of course, but these will do. How does David compare? That’s a question we’ll come back to.
So, what skills, attitudes or characteristics help make someone great? Here are some factors.
1. Physical Strength
I played rugby from when I was twelve right through my school years and after right up until I was about thirty. The best team I ever played in? That would have been the one I belonged to right at the start, roughly from when I was aged twelve to fourteen. We won massive victories over teams of the same age from other schools. We massacred the opposition. Why? Because each of us was a superb rugby star? No – just one was, and his name was Findlay Urquhart. Findlay Urquhart would always have been a big lad, but he was especially big in our team because when he was twelve he’d got ill, missed classes, and had to do a whole school year over again. Now he was well, but he was a 13-year-old in a class of 12-year-olds. That really helped the rugby team. While the rest of us were tiny, puny, and spotty, Findlay was tall and broad. His adolescence had come early, and he’d shot up in height. He might have been eighteen inches taller than any of the rest of us, with a broad chest and hugely strong muscles. Other teams did not stand a chance against Findlay Urquhart. So we won – every game! Many times I saw him take the ball over the try line with three or four young boys from the other team holding on, trying to bring him down, but Findlay just kept going to score the try. He was huge! His size made him the greatest player on our team.
Physical strength is a big advantage towards greatness.
2. Better Technology
War Horse is a deeply moving film set in World War I. One of the most heart-rending scenes shows British cavalry riding at speed with swords drawn against German troops. The British cut down the front line of soldiers and other Germans run back to the woods to hide. But just as the cavalry are about to rout the enemy, we get to see the greater number of German soldiers hiding in those woods with machine guns ready. They open up with rapid fire, and in seconds riders and horses are cut down. In less than a minute the battle field is littered with dead and dying men and horses.
What can make one force greater than another? There’s no question – the difference can be a matter of better technology.
3. Social Standing and Wealth
I used to live near Oxford in the south of England. The university there traces its teaching right back to 1096 which makes it the oldest university in the English speaking world.
Many times I’ve walked round the city looking at the fabulous architecture of the university’s many colleges and also studying their lists of notable alumni. Lawrence of Arabia, the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, and the media mogul Rupert Murdoch all studied at Oxford. Nobel prizes have been won by forty-seven students or teachers of Oxford, and twenty-six British Prime Ministers are graduates. Many leaders of other nations are also alumni, including one President of the United States. There are countless celebrated writers, mathematicians, scientists, economists, philosophers, musicians, sports stars who are all associated with Oxford, including the theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee who is credited with inventing the world wide web. It is also said that Oxford has produced at least twelve saints, twenty Archbishops of Canterbury and many other religious leaders including John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Oxford has a very long list of people of high achievement!
However, here’s the point of saying all that. Despite attempts in recent years to admit students from all backgrounds, most of Oxford’s students come from affluent and often privileged backgrounds. Social status affects entrance to the university. And, at the other end of study, having a degree from Oxford is a definite career advantage or, in other words, social status is also affected on exit. Oxford University offers good evidence that social standing and wealth gets you places in life.
4. Dominating Personality
I’ve studied the lives of a number of high achievers, people who founded missionary societies, explored continents, became political leaders, built huge corporations. My conclusion? I would not have wanted to work for or alongside most of them. These are strong characters, and several seem far from pleasant characters. Some were probably bullies, focused on their goal and you had better not get in their way.
But the point is, people with dominating personalities do often achieve a kind of greatness.
5. Age and Experience
I’ve travelled to many countries, somewhere between forty and fifty. I noticed that in many countries, particularly in Asia, as my hair got whiter the respect I was shown got greater. Young men and women have to prove themselves, but it is assumed that someone with more years must have experience and wisdom. So they are listened to, respected, and shown great kindness. White hair gets you places and gets you privileges. I like that. Age can help achievement.
6. Superior Ideas
These days we’re told: don’t work harder, work smarter. The rewards don’t come by putting in the hours, but by having the best ideas and the cleverest strategies.
The world of technology is a classic for success and riches going to those who are that bit smarter or more creative than others. The internet giant Yahoo! paid $1.1 billion for an online blogging forum called Tumblr – not a bad return on effort for a 26-year-old who founded Tumblr out of his mother’s Manhattan apartment. But that’s nothing compared to the social networking site Facebook, originated by Harvard university students in 2004, which now has over one billion active users and earns annually over $5.1 billion. Not bad for a pastime fitted in between classes at Harvard.
A great business idea or strategy gets you places in life.
7. Tact and Wisdom
A study of leadership at some of the world’s biggest business corporations produced a strange conclusion: that most people had never heard of their top officials, their CEOs. Many have an image of the strong leaders as people who are out there selling the company, promoting the product, getting known through talk shows or attention-grabbing headlines.
But most of the leaders of these very big companies were not like that. They were quiet, shrewd, wise people who knew how to hire great talent, build a strong team, recognize a great product when it came along, and who carefully got on with building the company one step at a time. Most of them were liked, and virtually all of them respected. They were people who thought wisely and well and their businesses prospered.
Tact, good choices, wise policies and something great can come from it.
So, what makes someone great? All of those seven things can do that:
- Physical strength
- Better technology
- Social standing and wealth
- Dominating personality
- Age and experience
- Superior ideas
- Tact and wisdom
And much of the world chases after attributes like these.
But maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe these are not the most important things for greatness.
Here are two reasons to think differently:
First, David proved to be a great leader right from the start, and almost none of that list was true about him.
He wasn’t big or strong. The two attributes he’s known for at this stage are playing the lyre and keeping sheep. Yes, he could fight off lions or bears who attacked the flock (as we learn later in the chapter), but it wasn’t David who was sent off to the army; it was his older brothers. David was needed as a shepherd.
He knew nothing of technology as we understand it today. Actually, David didn’t even have the technology of yesterday. Goliath was superbly equipped with armor and weapons. David couldn’t wear armor, and went into battle with no sword and no shield, just a sling and pebbles he’d picked from a river bed (v. 40)
David ranked fairly low in social standing and his family had no wealth. In the next chapter, when he has the chance to marry the king’s daughter, David refused. He had ‘political’ reasons for doing that, but he was also serious when he told Saul: “Who am I, and what is my family or my clan in Israel, that I should become the king’s son-in-law?” (1 Sam. 18:18. He gave a similar reply later in 18:23 when he was offered another daughter of the king to be his wife.)
As a young man, there is no evidence David had a dominant personality, nor did he have advantages of age and experience. Ideas, strategies…? The kind David had would have been laughed at as battle strategies against Goliath and the Philistines. Tact and wisdom? Maybe a little in short supply there too, for in the next study we’ll see how easily David upset his oldest brother Eliab who thought of David as “conceited” (17:28).
So, at this stage of his life, on the brink of representing his whole nation in a battle to overthrow a giant of a man from among the Philistines, frankly David did not have almost any of the qualities we reckon leaders need. He just didn’t rate as a leader.
But this was God’s hour and he was God’s man. There is a lot of human wisdom in lists of leadership qualities. But it’s human wisdom. God often has very different ideas.
When God’s call comes for any enterprise – it could be teaching a Sunday School class; it could be welcoming visitors to church; it could be making a mission trip to the ends of the earth – we see our inadequacies. Our skill set doesn’t match the list of qualities leaders and achievers need. God whispers, “But it’s you I want.” God makes no mistakes, and he calls the person he has equipped perfectly for the work he wants done.
There’s a second point to learn: that what people think makes someone great is not what makes someone great with God.
The whole Israelite army stands around feeling threatened by Goliath. David doesn’t even think about personal danger. David sees another story here, and it’s the main story. And he’s the only one who gets it.
When Goliath comes out and taunts Israel, the real story is not about one man humiliating other men. The real story isn’t about one nation pitting their strength against another nation. The real story is about one godless man hurling abuse at the living God, and about an unbelieving, pagan army threatening God’s chosen people. Now, that’s what David heard and that’s what David saw.
So he asks: “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?” (v. 26).
Everyone else just saw the Philistines on one hill challenging Israelites on the other hill by sending out their champion, Goliath. David saw much more. This is a challenge against God. Israel is not just any people and this is not just any army. These are God’s people, and to oppose and threaten them is to oppose and threaten God. No-one should ever dare to do that. And God’s people should not stand back and let it happen.
David saw that. Remarkably he had God’s perspective. Samuel’s prophecy about David was that he would be “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). David would see what God saw, and David would think as God thought.
David was far from perfect. When he got things wrong he got them spectacularly wrong. But his heart was for the things of God. Out there in the Valley of Elah he saw a Philistine defying his Lord and Master, and that should not be. A man was needed to go against that Philistine in the name of the Lord, and he would be that man. The stage was set from that moment.
It’s a crucial moment. Everything that follows comes from that insight David had. And that’s what made him great in God’s eyes.
All the other things – physical prowess, technology, social standing, age or experience, and the rest – there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them. But what impresses the world doesn’t impress God. Everyone on that battlefield was impressed by Goliath. God was impressed that a young shepherd boy was willing to speak up and stand up for the living God.
What makes someone great? Ultimately it’s to know God, know his purposes and then to go do his will.
May the Lord grant that each of us should be judged great as he judges greatness.