Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, and slung it.” (I Samuel 17)
So if you were the preacher today, what would you say after the events of this week [i.e. the separation of children from their parents at the border]?
Perhaps the best we can do is to turn back to the texts we have before us, and see what God might say to us today through them—which is of course what Christian people have done for centuries as they tried to hear God’s word afresh in each new age.
So we have before us the story of David and Goliath—not an auspicious place to begin, you might suppose, and I confess I’ve never preached on this text before. But let’s see what there is there, and if there might be a word for today.
The setting is this: King Saul and the Israelites are facing the threatening army of the Philistines. They are caught in a bit of stalemate, facing one another across the Valley of Elah. For forty days, the Philistines have sent out a certain Goliath between the lines to taunt the Israelites, and they have cowered in fear as a result.
Now, Goliath was the quintessential bully, who loves to tease and taunt his adversary. He is described as being a physical giant, and he had clothed himself with lots of armor and a big spear. Goliath’s Philistine base kept egging him on, and obliged them by becoming increasingly belligerent toward the Israelites and their “fake” God.
So to make a long story short, Goliath lays down a dare to the Israelites: send someone to fight with me out here in the open, and if he wins, we shall be your servants, but if I win, you become our servants.
The Israelites are terrified by this proposed deal, for they are certain that no one could prevail against such a foe. But then along comes David, who though he is only a young boy, offers to go out and engage the bully Goliath. Saul, of course, quickly objects: who is David, to confront such a foe?
But David reminds Saul that even though he is young, he has guarded his father’s flocks single handedly, and whenever the sheep were threatened by a lion or a bear, he has courageously and successfully protected them.
(Now, the early church—which read the scriptures at multiple levels—heard here clear echoes of Jesus’ parable of going in search of the one lost sheep out of a hundred, so in their minds, the story became an allegory for Jesus himself, the good shepherd who will leave no one unsheltered or unincluded.)
In any case, Saul relents, and lets David go into battle. But before he does, he tries to clothe David in a suit of armor like that worn by Goliath. But David says he cannot wear such things, for he is not used to them (again, understood in the early church as a form of idolatry, relying on something other than the protection of God). So David casts all that aside, and takes with him only a slingshot and five stones that he has placed in his pocket.
The contemporary essayist Malcolm Gladwell has tried to characterize this slingshot as the technological advantage upon which the entire story hinges (David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, 2013). As he reads the story, it is this innovation that turns the tide, and he draws various conclusions about our own circumstances. But frankly, I’m a bit skeptical that the Biblical writers had in mind technological superiority when they crafted this story. More likely, it seems to me, is that the slingshot with five stones represents something spiritual, or moral, rather than technological.
In fact, again according the interpreters of the early church, the five stones represent theological virtues such as faith, justice, service, generosity, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. David, in other words, goes into battle equipped with the things of God, rather than the things of the world. That is the advantage, the edge, that he has over Goliath, who relies only upon physical strength and rhetorical bravado.
And what happens? Well, you know the story. Despite of all Goliath’s taunts and armor, David hurls just one stone out of his arsenal of Godly virtues, which strikes Goliath squarely in the forehead, and the giant immediately falls face down on the ground, vanquished.
Told this way, the point of the story is pretty clear: even in the face of Goliath’s bullying and superior size, David is still more powerful because he follows the ways of God. David takes a sack with five stones—five virtues—with him into battle, not because needs all five, but because any one of them would be sufficient. As we all know, this story is often cast as that of an underdog triumphing over a stronger adversary (sportscasters for instance love to make that reference), but perhaps what it is really about is that David is made stronger than Goliath, by equipping himself with the ways of God, or with what Paul in today’s epistle calls “the weapons of righteousness.”
And perhaps herein lies the lesson in this story for us today: we as Christian people must reaffirm that those virtues of faith such as justice, compassion, service to the other, and unrestrained generosity are what make us strong. Perhaps Gladwell was right after all: the story is about the slingshot, except not the slingshot as a technologically superior weapon of war, but the slingshot as a representative of a higher moral ground.
I’m put in mind here of Martin Luther’s immortal hymn “A Mighty Fortress.” I had never thought of it in this light before, but perhaps it could be said to be a song of David, as if it were one of the psalms:
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us;
we will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us;
the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure, one little word (one little
stone) shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth:
let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill: but God’s truth abideth still,
his kingdom is for ever. Amen.