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Occasional Letters: Grappling with Giants

D Newell, Glasgow

According to Wikipedia, the tallest man on recent record is Robert Wadlow, who reached a staggering 8 feet 11 inches by the time of his death in 1940. He was known as "the gentle giant". I doubt if Goliath had the same moniker. Imagine the terror that gripped the early Israeli Defence Force when confronted with a hulking brute of well over 9 feet tall, who "wore a bronze helmet and had bronze armour to protect his chest and legs. The chest armour alone weighed about one hundred and twenty-five pounds. He carried a bronze sword strapped on his back" (1 Sam 17.5-6, CEV). This one man embodied Philistine opposition to Israel, yet the king and his choicest warriors were at a loss as to how to deal with him. One of the sad lessons of 1 Samuel is that because "man looketh on the outward appearance" (16.7), he is often blind to deeper spiritual realities. Israel had gazed adoringly at Saul for "when he stood among the people, he was higher than any of the people from his shoulders and upward" (1 Sam 10.23). That was the kind of king they wanted – big, tall, and physically impressive. But Goliath was even bigger, and neither Saul nor young David's muscular older brother Eliab were up to the task of defeating him. Those who gloried in the physical were now checkmated by the physical, just as people won by persuasive arguments are always liable to be destabilised by more persuasive arguments on the other side. But David was different. He stands out in 1 Samuel 17 because, amidst the crisis, he alone thought to bring God into the problem.

His verbal references to Jehovah fall into three distinct clusters. First of all he questioned the nearby soldiers: "who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?" (1 Sam 17.26). His words demonstrate the young man's spiritual vehemence – that is to say, he had a genuine zeal for God. Brother Eliab, stung I assume partly by envy at his sibling's promotion in the previous chapter, and partly by shame at his own failure to volunteer for single combat, unjustly accused him of negligence and pride. Yet David's spirit had been stirred neither by personal ambition nor by mindless patriotism but by an earnest concern for God's honour. Whoever in those circumstances would have thought of referring to the dithering, demoralised battalions of Israel as "the armies of the living God"? They had no answer to Goliath's insolent challenge, for "When Saul and all Israel heard those words of the Philistine, they were dismayed, and greatly afraid" (1 Sam 17.11). But Israel was still God's people, chosen not for numerical or intellectual strength but simply on the basis of sovereign love: "The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the Lord loved you" (Deut 7.7-8). Their army was therefore His army. Rather like Balaam, who in his prophetic vision could exclaim, "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!" (Num 24.5), David had the ability to see the nation from heaven's perspective, enrobed in all the dignity of immutable divine election. Perhaps that's the way we ought to view the local assembly in which God has placed us. Despite weakness and failure it is a "church of God", made up of His saints.

David's apparently brash words were reported to the king. In response to Saul's incredulity he told his story: "Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock: And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him. Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God…The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine" (1 Sam 17.34-37). Now we hear of David's spiritual confidence – he had a practical trust in God. Note his reasoning. Since the Lord had graciously preserved him through previous dangers He could do the same again. It's what one might call the Ebenezer principle, enunciated by Samuel only a few chapters earlier: "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us" (1 Sam 7.12). And it makes good sense. God has endowed us with the faculty of memory that we might cling on to past experiences of His goodness, stocking a mental storehouse with weighty examples of His mercy. That's exactly what the psalmist Asaph did. As a result, when disaster struck he could draw on his recollections: "Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?…And I said, This is my infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High. I will remember the works of the Lord: surely I will remember thy wonders of old. I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings" (Ps 77.9-12). That's the recipe for stability of soul. Said David (rather like Paul in 2 Corinthians 1.9-10), "God has delivered me; therefore He can do it again". Leaf through your spiritual journal and rejoice in the Lord's past kindness to you.

Finally, David directly addressed Goliath: "Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord's, and he will give you into our hands" (1 Sam 17.45-47). This testifies to spiritual intelligence – David had an accurate knowledge of God. There can of course be no real faith without a prior revelation, for "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom 10.17). It's as we feed on the Word that our confidence grows. David knew that Israel's God was "the Lord of hosts", a title first recorded in 1 Samuel 1.3 and 1.11 (had David heard from Samuel about Hannah?). The hosts in question were not Israel's pitiful armed forces but the numberless multitudes of mighty angels which are at God's command and yet are not required by One who has only to speak and it is done. Resting in God's power, David disdained fleshly weapons, for the Lord of hosts can take care of His own. He also knew that Israel was His unique people, for "there is a God in Israel". The point was not that there was a God in heaven, or a God who had created the ends of the earth, but that there was a God who had specially entered into covenant relationship with Israel. Visitors to the local assembly should be able to acknowledge that "God is in you of a truth" (1 Cor 14.25).

So how does this favourite Sunday school story speak to twenty-first century Christians? Although we do not, like David, have to face a physical Goliath, we do grapple with giants of equal peril who daily threaten our enjoyment of our spiritual blessings in Christ. The believer's biggest problems are usually internal - giants of the flesh, monsters of pride, self-confidence, despair, laziness, sensuality, envy, greed, fear, self-pity, all of which endanger our testimony. You best know your own enemies. It's only in the Lord's power that we can, by grace, overcome temptations which are our constant foes until Christ comes again to grant us sin-free bodies. Like David, let us therefore cultivate a genuine zeal for God's honour, a practical trust in His power, and a Biblical knowledge of His majesty and His programme so that we are equipped to withstand their assaults. Even the feeblest Christian can rejoice that "the battle is the Lord's" (1 Sam 17.47)!

To be continued.


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