Sunday, July 16, 2023
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Nobody Pulls for Goliath
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, July 16, 2023
Reading: 1 Samuel 17:1a, 3-10, 32-36 & 40-47 & 49-51a


Nobody pulls for Goliath. Pulling for Goliath is like pulling for the Yankees. Unless you grew up in shouting distance of one of those five boroughs it's just poor form. In US college sports—not a preoccupation of Canadians I realize—my beloved Duke basketball is the Yankees. Everyone pulls against us, cheers when we fail, shrugs when we win. Everybody loves an underdog. Is an overdog even a thing?!

In the movie Hoosiers, a tiny rural high school in Indiana wins an impossible state championship. Before that final game, a chaplain steps forward and reads this: “David took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead and he fell face down on the ground.” The problem is, no tiny high school won that tournament again after 1951. Goliath won every time for 70 years. They even had to change the tourney’s format: David doesn’t even get to play Goliath anymore. In real life, it’s wise to bet on Goliath—how many World Series have the Yankees won? Don’t Google it, I did the depressing search for you: 27.

Think of Michelangelo’s great sculpture of David, massive, menacing, awe-inspiring. In other words, David transformed into Goliath. Uh, that’s not the story, glorious as that sculpture is. You see the point I’m making: the actual story of David and Goliath gets hazy in our retelling. Everyone identifies with the winner—scrappy outmatched young David—even if we’re in fact Goliath. Just like everyone in North America thinks we’re middle-class. My home country the US still thinks of itself as the underdog David, even though we’ve been the world’s Goliath for some 70 years. Switching from geopolitics to the safer territory of hockey (safer I think!): I think I know why US-Canada hockey games are so exciting. Both teams think they’re David, and the other is Goliath.

In the Bible, the David and Goliath story is more nuanced. It deserves a second look as we conclude this series on the strangeness of scripture.

The Israelites arrayed against their Philistine enemy, on opposite mountainsides across a dry valley. A champion comes forth from the Philistine side. Goliath is massive: Nine feet tall. His breastplate alone weighs 130 pounds—probably more than David! He’s bristling with armor and weaponry; he even has another guy just to hold some of it. Not only that, his weapons are made of iron. You know how historians divide epochs by metals technology? Israel is still in the bronze age. The Philistines are in the more advanced iron age. These two are not even playing the same game. This is USA vs Canada if one side has no skates and sticks.

The choice of a champion is something many cultures have done in warfare. Instead of a whole battle, each side can choose a proxy to go fight each other. Ancient Greeks tell stories of titanic feuds—the Yankees against the Yankees. Achilles and Hector represent the Greeks and the Trojans, and their battle makes the earth quake. No Greek story would ever have had a pre-teen trot out unarmored to face a proper champion. Boxing has weight classes for a reason. Heavyweights don’t face welterweights. Wrestling is the same. David isn’t even a boxer or wrestler. He’s a shepherd kid. Choosing a proxy champion can stave off actual warfare. Goliath says, hey, let’s solve this, if I win, we win, if your guy wins, y’all win. No need for everybody to fight. But the Israelites take one look at him and say, ‘uh, no, we’re good, over here on our mountainside, letting you insult our God.’

Only David seems to know what Goliath doesn’t. What Saul doesn’t. What nobody else in the story seems to know either. David knows that Israel has the living God on its side. Every other so-called god is false. This story is not about a plucky underdog overachieving against the odds. It’s about the true God who acts in history and takes sides. It’s like the parting of the Red Sea. Moses announces to Israel: ‘Stand still. The Lord will fight for you.’ Not great military advice, but it works, God splits the sea and drowns the Egyptians. Or the Gideon story. He has 10,000 soldiers. It’s too many. People will think Israel won by its own might, not the Lord’s. Gideon culls his army down to 300 who win the day. Most look at Goliath and wisely want no part of him. David sees an uncircumcised gentile taunting the people of God. And he knows the Lord is on his side so he’s having none of it. One scholar says this story is about truth versus appearances. Goliath looks unbeatable. David looks pathetic. But that’s before you take their gods into the equation. David promises in verse 47: “All this assembly will know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.”

One of my favourite spaces in our church is our west chapel. I love the stained glass of all the angels and saints on the outside wall, the medieval symbols over the altar. I only learned recently it used to be called the Warriors’ Chapel. Returning soldiers from the wars in Europe were honoured with that space—the angels fought with you. I wonder when we changed the name to the more pacific and geographic west chapel. Anyway, I bet our fellow Canadians were glad to have angels on their side. But what they really wanted was better technology than the Germans, overwhelming numbers, superior leadership and strategy. I don’t blame them. Do you? Israel’s strategy is different. Inferior tech is fine. Too few soldiers is better. In fact, sometimes, don’t fight at all, leave it all to God. Not advice our warriors took with them to Vimy Ridge or Juno Beach.

Now, David is no slouch. King Saul tries to dissuade him, ‘uh, so, you’re a child and Goliath over there has been a warrior since he was a child.’ Our dog Charlie used to bark at other dogs. I tried to explain to him, ‘you’ve never been in a fight, you wouldn’t know what to do.’ But I don’t speak dog very well. David tells King Saul, ‘look, I’ve fought lions and bears with my bare hands. I can take on this Goliath animal too.’ Shepherds have to be courageous, there are hungry wild animals out there. In the part of the story we cut for time, Saul tries to put David in his royal armor. David obliges, clanks around in the stuff, and then says, ‘you know I’m good, no armor please.’ In whatever fight we face, we can’t wear someone else’s armor, fight in someone else’s way. We gotta do it our own way. No borrowed armor allowed. Fight with what won you battles before.

That’s what David does. He gathers five smooth stones. Only five. Not a lot of ammunition if your only weapon is a sling. I might’ve advised, I don’t know, 500 stones. But off he goes. Malcolm Gladwell, the great Canadian writer wrote a whole book on underdogs and their built-in advantages called, you guessed it, David and Goliath. He writes that a stone from a sling could fly as fast as a bullet from a gun. A reviewer responded, ‘uh, no it can’t.’ Still bet on Goliath here.

I’ve been to the Valley of Elah in Israel where this battle took place. Tour buses stop and unload everybody. And folks will crouch down and gather up a stone. Who knows? This might be the stone that felled the giant. The smoother the better. The nation-state of Israel today is another Goliath that thinks its David, like my US. Israel is nuclear-armed, western backed, wealthy, and technologically advanced. There’s a reason Palestinian protestors throw stones at Israeli forces: If they drew deadlier weapons, they’d be annihilated. And the little Palestinian kid against an Israeli tank, looks a bit more like David and a bit less like Goliath in our story. I say nice things about Israel in my sermons, but I mean Israel theologically: all the daughters and sons of Abraham and Sarah, including us Christians, grafted in by faith. The country called Israel, like my US, thinks of itself as David when it’s actually Goliath. And there’s plenty of room for Palestinians to have a place too.

The point of this story is that David shouldn’t win and usually doesn’t. By any normal computation King Saul is right, ‘hey, try this armor on, it’ll at least keep you from immediately dying.’ If bronze can’t defeat iron, rocks sure can’t. I got this from another preacher: Einstein said he didn’t know how World War III would happen. But he knew how World War IV would be fought. With rocks.

The one thing David has going for him—the only thing—is his, Israel’s, is the one true and living God. All others are pretenders.

The Philistine curses David by his gods. David, in their pre-match trash talk, says: “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” And David rushes into the battle and fires that stone before Goliath even gets moving and it finds its mark. Five stones were too many, four went unused. And then this delicious detail: David cuts off Goliath’s head with Goliath’s own sword. Scripture reiterates in verse 50: “There was no sword in David’s hand.” ‘Hey, uh, dying opponent, mind if I borrow this? You don’t need it anymore.’ In fine art depictions of the story, David can barely lift the giant’s head, he’s a scrawny kid, remember? Goliath’s nine-foot sword becomes a trophy in Israel, David keeps it and all the rest of Goliath’s armor. It’s a sign: look at all this great weaponry! It was useless. Only the God of Israel can save.

What do we make of this story? If it isn’t just a preference for the underdog, brains over brawn. It’s no military strategy, at least none an actual soldier wants. Ukraine wouldn’t be pleased if we stopped sending advanced weaponry and started sending smooth stones and slings. The story attacks our faith in technology. If the Philistines are proud of their iron against Israel’s bronze, David responds by backtracking to the stone age. Tech can’t save you.

What else is going on here?

This story is a contrast between two kings. Saul is Israel’s first ever king, and all he seems to do is fail. Saul can’t bring himself to listen to the living God. The whole premise of this story is the failure of King Saul. He should go fight this Goliath. Or his fiercest warriors should vie to represent him. All Israel should rise up, volunteering to go down into that valley and face death. And no one does. In fact, by the time of this story, David had already been anointed king in secret. David is king in waiting, a quiet insurrectionist. Saul doesn’t know it. This shepherd boy isn’t just a threat to Goliath. He’s a threat to Saul. But David listens to God no matter what. He’s loyal to Israel’s God and King. Poor Saul just can’t get it right, and so will end up dead, mutilated with his sons by Israel’s enemies. You know how the US treasures George Washington’s legacy? Canada in its quiet way does the same with John A. McDonald. Israel’s first king is an embarrassment.

David on the other hand starts off great. Slays Goliath, takes the throne in due course, writes the psalms we still sing, conquers and rules from Jerusalem. Some of the greatest sculpture ever made is of David in this story—by Donatello, Caravaggio, in addition to Michelangelo, and probably some other Ninja Turtles too. But David doesn’t stay so great. He winds up as unfaithful as Saul. Taking Bathsheba, murdering her loyal husband, fading from young glory to aged unfaithfulness. David’s story arc bends in the wrong direction.

Find me a faithful king in Israel. You can’t do it. Because kings end up trusting their own power, and not God’s. There’s a reason we remember this story so fondly. This is David at his best. David is the cool high school kid who peaks at 17. Israel’s scripture mistrusts power. All power. In most of our political discourse, we mistrust power only if our opponents have it. But if we have it, boy, we’ll do things right, right? In North America the left trusts science and journalism and universities—progress! The right trusts the market and corporations and the military—tradition! I just wonder, why do any of us trust any of them? They’re all run by sinners. Especially if it’s us running them! Power corrupts. Lord Acton didn’t invent that. Scripture did. Beware, all power—especially the power in our hands. This is what JRR Tolkien understood—the ring is so tempting and beautiful. Don’t put it on. Beware all power except that of the living God. Christians should be anarchists in this sense. Whoever’s in charge, we don’t trust em. We pray for them, if they turn up one Sunday, we honour them (that doesn’t happen very often). But they’ll fail. That’s just what we sinners do. This is true of powerful people in the church too, not just in the world, anywhere any human being has authority. Power is always borrowed from the resurrected Christ, and then it betrays him. With a kiss.

David cuts off Goliath’s head with his own sword. Our forebears in faith loved this detail. David borrows a sword, he has none. Goliath goes into battle trusting that sword will only shed his enemies’ blood, no fear that it will shed his own. Ancient Christians point this out: evil is self-destructive. It is its own undoing.

The movie Oppenheimer is about to open, about the man who built the first nuclear bombs. You’ll notice his surname is German. His family was Jewish and fled from Germany. That was true of lots of the scientists who built that bomb. They fled Germany’s antisemitism and worked like mad to build a weapon to beat the Nazis. Germany’s anti-Judaism hurt it in World War II in other ways: soldiers and resources destroying Jewish people could have been used, I dunno, fighting the war. We find this with tyrannical regimes again and again: their repression is their own undoing. It’s true in scripture too: in the book of Esther, Haman tries to destroy the Jews, builds a gallows to do it. He ends up hanged on his own gallows. The warning: build a weapon for execution and you’ll see the business end of it yourself. That was true in modernity as well: Robespierre led the French Revolution against kings and aristocrats, killed some 20,000 of them on the guillotine in 18th century France. Who else ended up facing that blade? Robespierre himself. Evil is self-devouring. It undoes itself. Just like Goliath is felled by his own sword. Don’t take evil too seriously. Don’t. It has no future. Our popular culture loves evil. Every actor wants to play the villain. Sometimes folks call the History Channel the Hitler Channel. It can’t live without that pitiful toad of a human. Don’t believe it y’all. Evil is not interesting. Evil is boring. It’s good that’s interesting, layered, with depths, oceans of nuance. Evil always falls by its own weapons, sooner or later.

Here’s the real thing this story is about. Not the triumph of the underdog, but the power of the living God. The pathetic self-importance of evil as it disintegrates. And this. Mostly this. Okay, altogether this. David has killed lions and bears before. Now he fells Goliath with a single stone. Our ancient Christian forebears here saw a sign of the way Christ conquers. Shepherds look weak; they’re actually quite strong. One of the church fathers says Jesus is the one who conquers the whole world not with a sword, but with a cross.[1] David defeats beasts like the lion, the bear, the Goliath, just as Christ does battle with Satan and the demons. His cross is a victory that looks like defeat. It turns out to be the only victory humanity will ever need. David runs down into that valley unarmored, unprepared, unable, un, un, un. Just like the Son of God drops into our world, in our vulnerable skin, unarmored, unprepared, un, un, un, and dies our death. When we call Jesus “Christ,” that’s not his last name. Christ means anointed one. King. Israel’s greatest king, with all his flaws, is David. Jesus is a king with no flaws, no sins, nothing to lament, unlike any other human. Jesus triumphs where all kings, all humanity fails. We keep his cross as our trophy, like Israel keeps Goliath’s sword.

The great Goliath that faces all of us is death. None of us defeats it. Despite all our wizardry with medicine and hospitals, none of us gets out of this life alive: death, our Goliath, wins every time. That’s why no one pulls for him. Death wins against Jesus. But then Jesus undoes death from within. Strips its gears, destroys its mechanics of war, undoes it all with his deathless life. So now we have nothing to fear. Whatever our Goliath is: Disease. Debt. Addiction. Fear. Our own sins. Goliaths all. Slain by Christ with his unbelievable resurrection.

So, what is it? What’s the Goliath you’re facing? Go on, think a moment. Visualize it. Now see David’s stone sink into its forehead. It is beheaded by its own sword. Christ’s cross trips up its arrogance. Now, go forth and live. Amen.


[1] From Francesca Murphy’s Brazos commentary on 1st Samuel, quoting Caesarius of Arles.