David Defeats a Giant

July 26, 2015

Let no one’s heart fail because of him;
your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.
1 Sam 17:32

Today’s sermon is based on one of the most famous military battles recorded in the Bible.
Although I have an intuitive reaction against the cruelty and violence of wars,
this is the most militaristic sermon I have ever prepared.

It’s the story of how an unknown sheep-herder from the remote village of Bethlehem, Judah,
defeated a military champion, and left a lasting legacy,
in the Bible as one of its greatest stories,
and in our culture as a metaphor for ordinary people confronting giants.
And by giants, I mean, any of those super-sized opponents that threaten our sense of justice,
or the well-being of our families, communities, or planet itself.
Its about individuals with a cause winning against gigantic odds.

Most of you know the story of David and Goliath from your Sunday School days,
(I Sam 17:1-58).

It was the season of war in the ancient world.
The Philistines were encamped on one side of the Valley of Elah,
and the army of Saul formed ranks along the other side,
facing their enemy across the valley.
They were so evenly matched, they hesitated to go into armed combat.
For 40 days they looked and shouted at each other,
neither side willing to push into battle.
Then Goliath, a Philistine giant, breaks rank and walks down to the battle line.
He was so brilliantly armoured in his bronze helmet and coat of mail,
that he struck fear and trembling in every soldier who saw him.

Goliath called out a challenge to Saul’s army: change the rules of battle.
Instead of fighting army against army with a tremendous loss of men on both sides,
Goliath proposed a duel, a one-on-one hand combat.
It was not the first time such a proposal was made by warring armies.
Choose a man, and let him fight with me, and kill me,
and if he wins, then we will be your servants.

No one on Saul’s side dared to take up the challenge;
they were terrorized by bigness and boldness.
Then the youngest and most handsome of Jesse’s clan of eight sons,
asked the king to allow him to challenge the giant.
His name was David, and his qualification was his extreme bravery.
He told the king.
Your servant has killed both lions and bears;
and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them,
since he has defied the armies of the living God.

Undoubtedly, young David showed the king his secret weapon
–a light-weight sling or catapult–
with which he had struck down the lion and bear.
King Saul was so impressed with his energy and slinging skill,
he agreed to let David, a non-soldier, represent his army and nation.

On the way down to the battle line,
David picked up five round, hard and smooth stones.

When Goliath saw the lad approaching with only a stick in his hand, he felt insulted.
Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks? he called out.
Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air
and the wild animals of the field.

But David said to the Philistine,
You come to me with sword and spear and javelin;
but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts,
the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.

David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine.
What happened next is unprecedented in military history:
David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it,
and struck the Philistine on his forehead;
the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

And David took Goliath’s sword and cut off Goliath’s head.
And raised it to the skies.
And the Philistines fled.

And so ended one of history’s most famous, and shortest, battles.

How did David do it?
Why did the giant fall?
It should not have happened that way, by the logic of conventional military strategy.
So what happened, in real time, that a teenager could beat a giant?

A contemporary writer who has examined this military story is Malcolm Gladwell,
a Canadian who has written a best-selling book,
David and Goliath, Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants (2013).
(If you are interested in learning how ordinary people confront giants,
whether the giants are in industry, politics, sports, military, or elsewhere,
Gladwell’s book may have suggestions for you.)

Based on Gladwell’s book, and the biblical story of David defeating Goliath,
here are a couple of my ideas for improving the chances of winning a lop-sided contest,
where a smaller, weaker opponent faces a stronger, bigger one.

How to defeat a giant? Here are three real-life lessons.
First Lesson: Know your opponent, but don’t overestimate your opponent’s strengths.
Giants look powerful and huge, but they may have serious, hidden flaws.
Don’t give them credit for more than they are.

Scholarly research into the battle between David and Goliath,
has come up with some amazing speculations about the health of Goliath.
Medical researchers believe Goliath may have been suffering from ACROMEGALY,
a disease caused by a tumour in the pituitary, or growth, gland,
located at the base of the brain.
That would account for his excessive size.
A side effect of the disease is vision impairment,
and that may account for his slow motion, and blurry eye-sight.

Here are the biblical hints about Goliath’s condition:
We read that Goliath moved slowly down the hill,
partly because of his very heavy armour,
but also because he could not see very well.
We read he needed a shield bearer,
not to protect him, but to guide him,
as if he was visually impaired, or partially blind.
Goliath thought David had two sticks in his hand,
but David carried only a single staff.
He called out, “Come to me,” as if he couldn’t see David from a distance.
Put these facts together, and Goliath is no longer the giant he seems to be.
In fact, the thing that made him imposing, namely his height,
was also the source of his greatest weakness.

The first lesson from the story of Goliath: Bigness is not all it boasts to be.
Big business, big organizations, huge bank accounts, physical size,
are not all what they may seem to be.
So when you are confronting a giant, don’t overestimate your opponent’s strengths.

How to defeat a giant?
Second real-life lesson: Master your own strengths, and perfect your own skills.
You must have skills that set you apart,
and counterbalance those of your opponent.
You must have something unique that surpasses the traits and tricks of your adversary,
otherwise, how can you expect to win?

Most of us, when we think of a sling-shot,
think of something very small, weak and ineffective.
I know, for as a child and teenager raised on a farm in Alberta,
I made dozens of slingshots from willow trees and rubber bands.
But we only used them for target practice, not hunting.
In the hands of an expert slinger, however,
proper slingshots can be as dangerous as hand-guns.

Moshe Dayan,
the Israeli minister of Defence who masterminded the 1967 Six-Day War,
points out that the typical slingshot in David’s time was not an inferior, but a superior weapon.
David’s greatness did not consist in his willingness to go to battle
against someone who was stronger than he was, Dayan writes.
It was in his ability to exploit a weapon by which a feeble person could seize the advantage, and become stronger.

Ancient armies not only had ranks of cavalry and infantry,
but also archers and slingers.
In the hands of expert slingers,
the stones could be hurled as fast and as devastating as bullets today.
One ballistics expert has calculated that a typical stone could be hurled
at thirty metres a second, or a hundred miles an hour,
fast enough to penetrate a skull and render a victim unconscious.
In short, the battle was over for Goliath before he really knew what was happening.

Second Lesson: You must master your own skills to supersede those of your opponent.

How to defeat a giant?
Third real-life Lesson: Buckle up your courage, and advance in the name of justice and God.
In addition to superb slinging skills,
David was also maturing into an exemplary person of faith.
There are few Old Testament heroes who match the depth of David’s trust in God.
This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand… so that all the earth may know
there is a God in Israel… and the Lord does not save by sword and spear,
for the battle is the Lord’s.

David knew skill alone was not enough to win the day;
you also need luck, or the God of Israel, on your side.
A search through the psalms reveals how movingly and often David expressed his faith,
in prayers, confessions, hymns, songs, dancing, music and poetry,
and on the battlefield.
David gave God credit for his achievements.

Let me summarize these three lessons for winning against gigantic odds:
Lesson One: Know your opponent, but don’t overestimate his strengths or size.
Lesson Two: Master your own skills, and don’t underestimate your own effectiveness.
Lesson Three: Buckle up your courage and advance in the name of truth and justice.

In conclusion

Now skip ahead a thousand years from David’s time to the time of King Herod.
The gospels tell us, that when the time came for God’s son to be born,
God chose Royal David’s lowly village of Bethlehem,
as the birthplace for his son, Jesus.
That is why we are singing a Christmas carol as our next hymn.

(“Once in Royal David’s city,” VU #62)

Rev Dr Eugen Bannerman
July 26, 2015

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