1 Samuel 17
MacLaren Expositions Of Holy Scripture
Now the Philistines gathered together their armies to battle, and were gathered together at Shochoh, which belongeth to Judah, and pitched between Shochoh and Azekah, in Ephesdammim.
And David said to Saul, Let no man's heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine.
1 Samuel


1 Samuel 17:32 - 1 Samuel 17:51

The scene of David’s victory has been identified in the present Wady Es-Sunt, which still possesses one of the terebinth-trees which gave it its name of ‘Elah.’ At that point it is about a quarter of a mile wide, and runs nearly east and west. In the centre is ‘a deep trench or gulley, the sides and bed of which are strewn with rounded and water-worn pebbles.’ This is the ‘valley,’ or rather ‘ravine’ of 1 Samuel 17:3 of this chapter, which is described by a different word from that for ‘vale’ in 1 Samuel 17:2 -the one meaning a much broader opening than the other-and from it came the ‘five smooth stones.’ Notice the minute topographical accuracy, which indicates history, not legend. The pebble-bed may supply a missile to hit the modern ‘giant’ of sceptical criticism, who boasts much after Goliath’s fashion.

The two armies lay looking at each other across the valley, with occasional skirmishes; and for forty days {probably a round number} Goliath paraded on his own, the south, side of the gulley, shouting out his taunts and challenge with a voice like a bull. Many a similar scene in classical and mediaeval warfare confirms the truth of the picture, so unlike modern battles. The story is, for all time, the example of the victory of unarmed faith over the world’s utmost might. It is in little the history of the Church and the type of all battles for God. It is a pattern for the young especially. The youthful athlete leaps into the arena, and overcomes, not because of his own strength, but because he trusts in God.

I. Note the glowing youthful enthusiasm which dares the conflict. When the Spirit of the Lord left Saul, his courage seems to have gone too, and he is cowed, like the rest, by Goliath. His interview with David shows him as timid and unlike his former self, when he dashed at Nahash and any odds. Now he is hardly to be roused, even by David’s contagious boldness, and is full of objections and precautions. The temper of the two, as they front each other in Saul’s tent, shows that the one has lost, and the other received, the Spirit which strengthens. David has become the encourager, and his cheery words bring some hopefulness to the gloomy, faint-hearted king. The Septuagint has a variant reading in 1 Samuel 17:32, which brings this out and suits the context, ‘Let not my lord’s heart fail.’ But, whether this be adopted or no, David appears as quite unaffected by the terror which had unmanned the army, and as bringing a buoyant disregard of the enemy, like a reviving breeze. It was not merely youthful daring, nor foolish under-estimation of the danger, which prompted his stimulating words. The ring of true faith is in them, and they show us how we may surround ourselves with an atmosphere which will keep prevailing faint-heartedness off us, and make us, like Gideon’s fleece, impervious to the chill mists of faithless fear which saturate all around. He who trusts in God should be as a pillar of fire, burning bright in the darkness of terror, and making a rallying point for weaker hearts. When panic has seized others, the Christian soul has the more reason for courage. David conquered the temptation to share in the general cowardice, before he conquered Goliath, and perhaps the former fight was the worse of the two.

While David is the embodiment of the courage of faith, Saul embodies worldly wisdom and calculating prudence. A touch of tenderness blends with his attempt to dissuade the lad from the unequal conflict. He speaks of probabilities, and, like all such calculation, his results are quite right, only that he has not taken all the forces into account, and the omission vitiates the conclusion. It is quite true that David is but a youth, and Goliath a giant and a veteran; but is that all that is to be said? If it be, then the lad cannot fight the Philistine bully; but if Saul has made the small omission of leaving out God, that makes a difference. The same mistake is constantly made still, and so the victories of faith are a constant surprise to the world and to a worldly Church. David’s eager story of his fights with wild beasts is meant both to answer Saul’s objection on his own ground, by showing him that, youth as the speaker was, he had proved his power, and still more to supply the lacking element in the calculation. So he tells, first, how ‘I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him,’ and then at the end brings in the true ground of his confidence: ‘The Lord that delivered me . . . He will deliver.’ As Thomas Fuller says, ‘He made an experimental syllogism, and from most practical premises {major a lion, minor a bear}, inferred the direct conclusion that God would give him victory over Goliath. Faith has the right thus to argue from the past to the future, because it draws from God whose resources and patience are equally inexhaustible. An echo of the words comes from Paul’s ‘Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that He will yet deliver.’ There is infinite pathos in Saul’s parting blessing. ‘The Lord be with thee!’ is spoken as if from the consciousness that the Lord had left him, and that his day for going into battle with the assurance of His help was gone for ever. If that softened mood had lasted, how different his future might have been! If we modestly and boldly show the power of faith in our lives, we may kindle yearnings in some gloomy hearts, that would lead them to peace, if followed out.

II. The equipment of faith. Saul meant to honour as well as to secure David by dressing him in his own royal attire, and by encumbering him by the help of sword and helmet. And David was willing to be so fitted out, for it is no part of the courage of faith to disdain any outward helps. But he soon found that he could not move freely in the unaccustomed armour, and flung it off, like a wise man. His motive was partly common sense, which told him not to choose weapons that his antagonist could handle better than he; and partly reliance on God, which told him that he was safer with no armour but his shepherd’s dress and with only his sling in his hand. So there he stands, drawn for us with wonderful vividness, in one hand his staff, in the other his sling, both familiar and often used, and by his side the simple wallet which had held his frugal meal, and now received the smooth pebbles that he picked up as he passed the gulley to the Philistine side of the valley.

How graphically the contrast is drawn between him and Goliath, as the latter conies forth swelling with his own magnificence, and preceded by his shield-bearer! He was ‘brass’ all over; note the kind of amused emphasis with which the word is repeated in the half-satirical and marvellously lifelike portrait of him in 1 Samuel 17:5 - 1 Samuel 17:8; ‘brass’ here, ‘brass’ there, ‘brass’ everywhere; and, not content with one shield dangling at his back, he has a man to carry another in front of him as he struts. David seems to have crossed the ravine, and to have come close up to Goliath before he was observed; and then, with almost a snort of contempt, the giant resents the insult of sending such a foe to fight him with such weapons. Perhaps he was nearer the truth than he thought, when he asked if he was a dog; and any stick will do, as the proverb says, to beat that animal, especially if God guards the hand that holds it.

The five smooth stones have become the symbol of the insignificant means, in the world’s estimate, which God uses in faithful hands to slay the giants of evil. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but they are mighty. Faith unarmed is armed with more than triple steel, and a sling in its hand is more fatal than a sword. Sometimes in kindness and sometimes in malice, the world tempts us to fight evil with its own weapons, and to put on its unfamiliar armour. The Church as a whole, and individual Christians, have often been hampered, and all but smothered, in Saul’s harness. The more simply we keep ourselves to the simple methods which the word of God enjoins, and to the simple weapons which ought to be the easiest for a Christian, the more likely shall we be to conquer. Goliath is not to be encountered with sword and armour which is, after all, but a shabby copy of the tons of brass which he wears, but he does not know what to make of the sling, and does not see the stone till it crashes his skull in.

III. Note faith’s anticipation of victory. The dialogue before the battle has many parallels in classical times and among savage peoples. Goliath’s bluster is full of contempt of David and truculent self-confidence. Its coarseness is characteristic,-he will make his boyish antagonist food for vultures and jackals. It is exactly what a bully would say. David’s answer throbs with buoyant confidence, and stands as a stimulating example of the temper in which God’s soldiers should go out to every fight, no matter against what odds. It fully recognises the formidable armoury of the enemy,-sword for close quarters, spear to thrust with, and javelin to fling from a distance, every weapon that ingenuity could fashion and trained skill could wield. Goliath was a walking arsenal, and little David took count of his weapons as they clanked and flashed. It is no part of faith’s triumph to ignore the number and sharpness of the enemy’s arms. But faith sees them all, and keeps unterrified and unashamed of the poor leathern sling and smooth stones. The unarmed hand which grasps God’s hand should never tremble; and he who can say ‘I come . . . in the name of the Lord of hosts,’ has no need to be afraid of an army of Goliaths, though each bristled with swords and spears like a porcupine.

The great name on which David’s faith rested, ‘the Lord of hosts,’ appears to have sprung into use in this epoch, and to have been one precious fruit of its frequent wars. Conflict is blessed if it teaches the knowledge of the unseen Commander who marshals not only men, but all the forces of the universe and the armies of heaven, for the defence of His servants and the victory of His own cause. The fulness of the divine name is learned by degrees, as our needs impress the various aspects of His character; and the revelation contained in this appellation is the gift of that fierce and stormy time, a possession for ever. He who defies the armies of Israel has to reckon with the Lord of these armies, whose name proclaims at once His eternal, self-originated, and self-sustained being, His covenant, His presence with His earthly host, and the infinite ranks of obedient creatures who are His soldiers and their allies. That is ‘the Name’ in the strength of which we may ‘set up our banners’ and be sure of victory. Note how David flings back Goliath’s taunts in his teeth. He is sure that God will conquer through him, and, though he has no sword, that he will somehow hack the big head off; and that it is the host of the Philistines on whom the vultures and jackals are to feed to-day.

His faith sees the victory before the battle is begun, and trusts, not in his own weak power, but only ‘in the name of the Lord.’ Note, too, the result which he expects-no glory for himself, though that came unsought, when the shrill songs from the women of Israel met the victors, but to all the world the proof that Israel had a God, and to Israel {‘this assembly’} the renewed lesson of their true weapons and of their Almighty Helper. Such utter suppression of self is inseparable from trust in God, and without it no soldier of His has a right to expect victory. To fight ‘in the name of the Lord’ requires hiding our own name. If we are really going to war for Him, and in His strength, we ought to expect to conquer. Believe that you will be beaten, and you will be. Trust to Him to make you ‘more than conquerors,’ and the trust will bring about its own fulfilment.

IV. Observe the contrast in 1 Samuel 17:48 between the slow movements of the heavy-armed Philistine and the quick run of the shepherd, whose ‘feet were as hind’s feet’ {Psalm 18:33}. Agility and confident alacrity were both expressed. His feet were shod with ‘the preparedness of faith.’ Observe, too, the impetuous brevity of the account in 1 Samuel 17:49, of the actual fall of Goliath. The short clauses, coupled by a series of ‘ands,’ reproduce the swift succession of events, which ended the fight before it had begun; and one can almost hear the whiz of the stone as it crashes into the thick head, so strangely left unprotected by all the profusion of brass that clattered about him. The vulnerable heel of Achilles and the unarmed forehead of Goliath illustrate the truth, ever forgotten and needing to be repeated, that, after all precautions, some spot is bare, and that ‘there is no armour against fate.’

The picture of the huge ‘man-mountain’ fallen upon his face to the earth, a huddled heap of useless mail, recalls the words of a psalm, ‘When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell’ {Psalm 27:2}. Is it fanciful to hear in that triumphant chant an echo of Goliath’s boast about giving his flesh to the fowls and the beasts, and a vision of the braggart as he tottered and lay prostrate? Observe, too, the contemptuous reiteration of ‘the Philistine,’ which occurs six times in the four verses {1 Samuel 17:49 - 1 Samuel 17:51}. National feeling speaks in that. There is triumph in the sarcastic repetition of the dreaded name in such a connection. This was what one of the brood had got, and his fate was an omen of what would befall the rest. The champion of Israel, the soldier of God, standing over the dead Philistine, all whose brazen armour had been useless and his brazen insolence abased, and sawing off his head with his own sword, was a prophecy for the Israel of that day, and will be a symbol till the end of time of the true equipment, the true temper, and the certain victory, of all who, in the name of the Lord of hosts, go forth in their weakness against the giants of ignorance, vice, and sin. ‘This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.’

Expositions Of Holy Scripture, Alexander MacLaren

Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

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