The Foolishness of David (1 Samuel 17)

Goliath wasn’t a particularly evil man. He was a Philistine, of course, but that didn’t mean he didn’t like fine art and classical music: that was just his nationality, and he was doing what he did best—throwing his weight about—for the benefit of the people he loved best. So when he came out from the Philistine camp, and challenged one of the Israelites to hand-to-hand combat, he was actually being quite generous. Of course he thought he could win, but it was possible that the Israelites had a giant in hiding who was seven cubits and a span tall. But this way there would be far less bloodshed: only one man would be killed on either side, and that was far better than having a traditional kind of battle. Goliath actually made a lot of sense.

But there was good sense on the Israelite side too. King Saul could see the sense in only having one man fight: if the Israelite soldier could win, it would be far less messy than a whole battle and peace would be relatively cheap. So he did a very sensible thing: he offered a reward: riches and the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage. (You couldn’t get away with that these days, of course. My daughter is twenty, and I can just imagine the response if I said I had promised her in marriage to some outstanding soldier she’d never met.)

Then there was this kid, David. He too was quite a sensible kind of guy: he couldn’t believe his ears when he heard what the king was offering. He went round asking people, just to be sure it was true. But of course he was an adolescent, so he wasn’t always sensible and mature in what he thought and what he did. And he did a foolish thing, which sensible people know you should never do, which was to mix politics and religion. No-one had told him that mature people keep them separate, so he asked: “Who is this Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (26) “The living God? Where does he come into this? Don’t complicate things, boy. (He is so idealistic and foolish. But he’ll grow up . . . if he lives long enough.)”

But Saul hears about this kid.  Maybe David had told the story of the bears and the lions to other people, and Saul thinks—being a sensible kind of king—“Maybe he has a chance. What is this Goliath anyway except an overgrown dumb bear? I wouldn’t want to lose my best general in single combat, but a kid. That’s not a bad trade-off. Makes sense.” So he calls for David, looks him over, hears his story from his own lips, and thinks, “Hey, let’s do this. What have I got to lose? A young, idealistic kid—that’s all—he’s expendable. That makes sense.”

Even more sensible, he tries to put his armour on David. Give the kid a fighting chance, after all. That’s what a normal person would do: protect yourself as well as you can. And what an honour, for this teenager to wear the king’s armour. Wow.

But once again, David is foolish. He thinks he knows better than his elders. He thinks he knows more about adult affairs like war than those who’ve been soldiers all their lives. And he rejects the offer of safety and protection and security.

Do you think David was worried? Did he know everything would turn out OK? There’s such a difference, isn’t there, between experiencing a thing and telling the story later. When it’s actually happening, you have no idea how it’s going to turn out. Afterwards, we say, “I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was scared spitless.” I think David was nervous. Remember, he’d never read the Old Testament. He hadn’t grown up with the story of David and Goliath. He’d never heard anyone say, “It’s a kind of David and Goliath situation.” He didn’t know the end of the story. And, what’s worse, God didn’t say a word. There’s no, “Oh David my servant. Fear not. Go thou into battle today and I will protect thee, and thou shalt kill the Philistine and live happily ever after.” Not a peep. The heavens are silent.

One thing in the story that makes me think he was nervous is that (40) he picked five stones for his sling. Why five, for goodness’ sake? It only took one, didn’t it? Yes, but David didn’t know it would only take one. He hadn’t read the story. My guess is he thought five is the number he could fire off between the start of the duel and the time Goliath got to him and cut his head off. Why else would be need five?

Then David gets even more foolish. If you have to fight a giant, wouldn’t it be sensible to be quiet and subtle and unobtrusive and try and creep up on him unawares? That way you might have a fighting chance. Insulting the giant to his face is just asking for trouble. Threatening him with the wrath of God and trying to shove your religion down his throat is not a wise move. But that’s what this kid does:

I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head . . . so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand. (45-47)

No wonder Goliath gets mad.

But then in the space of about ten seconds, the world turns upside down. The foolish kid kills the giant. The sensible people find they have nothing more to say. The foolishness of a kid defeats the common sense of two whole societies, Israelite and Philistine.  And the God David called “the living God” seems indeed to be alive and well—and living in the Middle East. And it’s funny, but the Philistines seem to have forgotten the rational deal they had made: if you win, we’ll be your servants. They run away! Funny behaviour for a servant, eh?

Well, all this happened a long time ago. We may be Christians, but these days we know we have to use common sense in the way we live. We need to be sensible, and safe, and secure and not take too many risks. We wouldn’t want to mix our politics and our religion. We certainly wouldn’t want to say too much about our religion in case people think we’re a bit fanatical.

But, you know, I am a bit troubled by a few things. One is that David was actually right. He said that when he killed Goliath “all the world [would] know that there is a God in Israel.” And the world does know about David—and about David’s God–because of what happened that day. In fact, one way we know about God here today is through that foolish young man.

And I’m troubled too by another man, a thousand years later who said:

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this age? . . . For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:20

Maybe God always plays by different rules. Maybe what we think is sensible generally seems silly to God. Maybe what we think is silly is what God thinks is sensible. If we are Christians, maybe we should be willing to be a bit more foolish, like David, and willing to be a bit less sensible, like Saul.

And, after all, the man we follow was a man whose greatest power was shown when he was executed on a Roman gallows. Pilate killed him for reasons that make a lot of sense—for the sake of national security, and so that he wouldn’t lose his job, and to keep the peace, and so that religion could be kept in its place. Those were very sensible reasons for having Jesus killed, were they not? And yet, and yet . . .

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

St Mary Magdalene, Picton ON

June 25, 2000