The story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17) is one that has become a metaphor for the victory of the underdog. It is often referenced to bolster the courage of people who face overwhelming circumstances. The young boy, David, meets the giant, Goliath, on the battlefield, armed only with a sling, and conquers his foe. This story may certainly motivate people to take courage and do battle with fear and daunting circumstances. However, David’s victory points to a greater truth. While people may be paralyzed by fear, there is a champion who faces the greatest enemies of humanity and is victorious. The conquest of David over Goliath points to Jesus.
The most significant aspect of 1 Samuel 17 is the development of the characters in the story. Saul is mentioned first in the second verse, along with Israel’s military men. Just two chapters earlier, Samuel tells Saul that God has rejected him as Israel’s king because of his disobedience (1 Samuel 15:22-23). In chapter 17, Saul shows no willingness to step up and be Israel’s champion. When directly challenged by Goliath, verse 11 says, “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.” The boldness Saul had previously demonstrated as king, such as in 1 Samuel 11, is replaced by defeatism.
Though unwilling to fight, Saul does desire to see Goliath defeated. He offered incentive for the emergence of a champion in the form of the hand of his daughter (v. 25). When David steps forward, Saul offers every means of defense and weaponry for the fight. Though he wants Israel to be victorious, the truth of the matter is that Saul is unwilling to lead and engage the enemy.
This enemy is, without doubt, an imposing and intimidating figure. The text of the English Standard Version describes Goliath as measuring “six cubits and a span in height” (v. 4). In modern terms, this would mean that he was nine and a half feet tall. However, this translation does reference ancient texts that state Goliath’s height at four cubits and a span, which would mean he was six feet nine inches. Whichever measurement one uses, the point of the description is that Goliath towered over the Israelites. Along with his imposing stature, Goliath’s armor weighs “five thousand shekels” (v. 5), which is approximately 125 pounds. This emphasizes the great strength possessed by Israel’s Philistine antagonist.
Goliath is portrayed as an arrogant man, taunting Israel’s military for forty days (v. 16.) Each day, Goliath challenged Israel saying, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together” (v. 10). When David takes his stand against the Philistine, Goliath considers it an insult that a boy would dare accept his challenge. He “cursed David by his gods” (v. 43).
The description of David is contrasted with Goliath in every way. David is not a military champion, but a lowly shepherd boy (v. 15) who was sent to check on his older brothers (vs. 17-18). David’s appearance was far from imposing. When he approached Saul about accepting Goliath’s challenge, Saul looked at him and said, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him for you are but a youth” (v. 33).
In contrast to Goliath’s arrogance, David repeatedly trusts in his God. In convincing Saul to allow him to fight Goliath, David speaks of how God enabled him to kill lions and bears in defense of the sheep under his care (v. 36). When facing Goliath, David trusts not in his own strength, but in the strength of the Lord (v. 46). David so trusts God that he refuses the king’s armor and sword deference to the sling with which he is accustomed.
Israel’s army does have an important part to play in the story, as well. Before David defeats Goliath, the men of Israel are portrayed as “greatly afraid” (v. 11), and cowering before their enemy (v. 24). However, upon Goliath’s death, “the men of Israel and Judah rose with a shout and pursued the Philistines” (v. 52). They enthusiastically join in the battle when the greatest of their enemies is defeated.
There is some cause for confusion in the narrative of David and Saul. In 1 Samuel 16, it is apparent that Saul is familiar with David, including his parentage (vs. 18-19). However, at the end of chapter 17, Saul asks, “Abner, whose son is this youth?” (vs. 55-58). This seems to indicate that Saul is not familiar David. It is difficult to believe that Saul would not know who David is. In chapter 16, David served Saul by playing music that soothed his troubled spirit (v.23). Verse 21 says that “Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer.”
Kaiser offers four possible explanations for this problem. First, it is possible that the accounts of chapters 16 and 17 are intended to convey timeless truths rather than historical data. This view is problematic in that there are many details, especially in 17, that anchor the accounts in history. For example, the author begins chapter 17 with a very detailed description of the geographic location of David’s encounter with Goliath.
A second explanation blames Saul’s forgetfulness on his fragile mental and emotional state, described in chapter 16. While this is possible, there is no indication in the whole text of chapter 17 that Saul is suffering from this malady in this episode. In the same vein, Saul’s memory lapse has been said to be the result of time. There is no indicator that chapter 17 follows chronologically on the heels of chapter 16. Therefore, enough time may have passed that David has matured beyond Saul’s ability to recognize him. Saul’s conversation with David prior to the battle betrays this view, as Saul refers to him as a youth (1 Samuel 17:33).
A third view states that Saul knew David well enough, but was concerned with the status of his future in-laws. Saul had promised his daughter to the man who defeated Goliath (17:25). He wanted to know what kind of family his daughter would marry into. While this is possible, it does not seem probable. The tone of Saul and Abner expresses a genuine lack of familiarity with David and his family.
Kaiser asserts that the events of 1 Samuel 16-18 are not given in chronological order, but are arranged to highlight certain truths. In chapter 16, David is anointed as the next king of Israel. The events that follow in the literary sense are intended to emphasize the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of David in accord with his anointing. This is the most likely solution to this issue.
The story of David and Goliath offers many inspiring and courage-producing lessons. There is the reminder that faith and fear cannot co-exist. Saul and the Israelite army were gripped by fear at the sound of Goliath’s voice (1 Samuel 17:11). Their fear blinded them to the reality that, though Goliath was a giant of a man, God is infinitely more powerful. As long as one’s eyes are fixed on obstacles, he/she cannot see God’s provision for overcoming those obstacles.
When obstacles arise, it is helpful to look back and see how God has worked in past trials. When Saul said that David was too young and too small to fight Goliath, David responded with accounts of God’s faithfulness in his experience. David told Saul of encounters with bears and lions while he was watching sheep. He said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the ear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:37). Each trial one faces is preparation for the next trial. Take note of God’s deliverance in each trial of life for the bolstering of faith in the face of fear.
When God builds a testimony through trials in one’s life, confidence grows in the unique way in which God works in an individual’s life. Saul tried to make David into a soldier by fitting him with armor and a sword. However, David fought like a shepherd, armed with the weapons with which he was familiar (1 Samuel 17:38-40). There is no need to try to be someone else. God has gifted, equipped, and empowered each individual uniquely.
In these lessons, the reader identifies with David in facing great challenges. However, there is another way to view the story. The truth is that in facing the greatest enemies of humanity, sin and death, the more apt identification is with the cowering army of Israel. Israel was incapable of taking on Goliath. She needed a champion to fight for her. In the same way, all of humanity is incapable of overcoming. Sin and death are ever-present, antagonizing all people. Humanity needs a champion. Jesus is the true David. He enters into humanity’s battle from a far off land. Jesus, like David, did not look the part of champion. He was from Nazareth. He was a carpenter’s son. He was uneducated. How could he be the Messiah? While humanity questioned these things, Jesus stood toe-to-toe with sin and death and won the victory humanity so desperately needs.
The truth that Jesus is humanity’s champion is the greatest truth of 1 Samuel 17. Apart from seeing Jesus as the conquering hero, the other lessons are hollow. It is faith in the victory he secured that conquers fear. Deliverance from our greatest enemies by the cross of Christ is the greatest evidence that God will deliver us from trials. Jesus is our armor and his word is our sword. There is no need to be someone we are not.
David’s emergence as Israel’s hero/anointed king also parallels Jesus and his coming kingdom. Saul, though still king, had been rejected by God. In the same way, Israel, even while her religious practices were still in effect, was rejected by God. David was anointed to replace Saul as king. Jesus was also anointed to usher in a new spiritual ethos. Saul represents human kingship. The Israelites asked for king rather than being ruled directly by God. David was God’s choice for Israel’s king and his royal line was established forever. Israel’s focus on the external keeping of the law personified human kingship. Jesus fulfilled and eternally established the Davidic covenant.
When David defeated Goliath, the Israelite army responded “with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron” (1 Samuel 17:52). This is a picture of the church, rescued by our champion Jesus. When we see his victory over our enemies, we rejoice and engage in the battle we once feared.
 Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), Kindle e-book.