Get your copy of “Messiah: Biblical Retellings” here, or download a free chapter here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
This week’s meditation is on 1 Samuel 16-17, the story of David anointed as king, and then his defeat of Goliath.
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Shortly before the David and Goliath story, Saul had so disobeyed God that Samuel declared God would take the kingdom away from him and give it to someone else, a “man after God’s own heart.” (This is sad to me, considering Saul’s son Jonathan, already next in line for the throne, was definitely a man after God’s own heart! But I digress.) Because word might get back to Saul that a new king had been selected when God sent Samuel to the house of Jesse, he had to have a cover story: he was inviting Jesse and his sons to a sacrifice. But inviting only them would have looked too strange, so he had to extend the invitation to the elders of Bethlehem too. More witnesses might not have been ideal: the more people who knew, the more likely it was that word might get back to Saul, who would surely kill both Samuel and the new anointed (1 Samuel 16:2). Fortunately, this never happened.
David, meanwhile, was out tending the flocks when the “sacrifice” occurred. He was the youngest of eight brothers, and it’s generally believed that David was somewhere between the ages of fourteen and seventeen when he was anointed. I went with fourteen in my retelling. Apparently his eldest two brothers were a lot more kingly-looking than David turned out to be, and Samuel initially thought one of them must be the Lord’s choice. This is where the famous verse appears that says, “the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Interestingly, though Samuel had a direct connection to God, God didn’t tell him that there was still another brother out in the fields. God let him go through every one of the boys assembled before him, and when the answer was no for each, Samuel had to ask Jesse, is this all? Do you have any other sons? God didn’t volunteer any extra information; he waited for Samuel to ask. (I don’t know why God works this way, but I’ve certainly found it to be true!)
Even though Jesse wasn’t impressed with his youngest son, someone must have been, though. When Saul became tormented with an evil spirit, one of his servants knew of David, and recommended him with these words: “a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a mighty man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a handsome person; and the Lord is with him” (1 Sam 16:18). Yet he’d never even been in a battle before! All I can figure is word must have gotten out that he’d killed the lion and the bear while tending his father’s sheep (1 Sam 17:34-36), which seems pretty bold. (I’d have just let the lion and the bear have the sheep, and run for it. No sheep is worth that!) Also, he happens to be good with a lyre—which makes me think of Proverbs 22:26: “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” God used this talent of David’s to get him into the palace.
It was a risk for David to go into Saul’s service, though: again, there were witnesses that he had been anointed as Saul’s replacement, and when Saul finally figured this out, he did try to kill David. Fortunately, at this point Saul had no idea. In fact he paid very little attention to David, which is evident by the fact that after David killed Goliath, Saul had to ask him whose son he was, even though he’d been in the king’s service as both his musician and his armor-bearer for some time.
Meanwhile, the Israelites were at a standoff with the Philistines, which David learned at the palace. Rather than engaging in an all-out battle, Goliath came out daily for forty days as their champion, and uttered blasphemies against God, demanding that the Israelites send a man to fight with him. He was estimated to be 9 ft 9 inches tall, and he wore 125 lbs of armor, with a spear head weighing about 15 lbs! He didn’t even carry his own shield; he had a shield bearer who ran before him and carried it. Because the Israelite army was only looking at Goliath in the natural, they were terrified of him. So day after day, he continued to come out and bellow his threats.
I have to wonder, though: where was Jonathan? Surely he would have challenged Goliath in a heartbeat. He’d already proven his faith in God to overcome the seemingly impossible (1 Samuel 14). For whatever reason, I suspect God prevented Jonathan from challenging Goliath—either he wasn’t there, or Saul refused to let him do it, or something. David’s triumph over Goliath was what put him on the map in the eyes of Israel. God needed him to be the one to win that glory.
When David began to stir himself up to go out and fight, though, the elder brothers whom Samuel had passed over for king started to mock him. Surely they did this because David’s courage condemned their cowardice, but their criticism does not seem to bother David. He doesn’t second-guess himself, doesn’t wonder if maybe everyone else has it right and he has it wrong. David had courage where they did not, because he understood what they did not: just as Jonathan had called the Philistines “uncircumcised,” David used the same language to describe Goliath, indicating that he too understood his covenant. He had God on his side, while this “uncircumcised Philistine” had nothing. Goliath was even mocking God! I love David’s response: he’s not frightened, he’s indignant that anyone should speak against the Lord. His faith is almost childlike—he walks so much by faith and not by sight that he can’t even understand the reaction of his brothers and his fellow Israelites. I can’t think of another biblical character with more inspiring faith, aside from Jonathan (whom David meets shortly after this. I’m sure Jonathan recognized a kindred spirit in him when he heard the story, and this is what forged the deep bond between them.)
In large part, though, I think the reason why David had that kind of faith in the face of Goliath is because he had already tested and proven his covenant while facing the lion and the bear (1 Sam 17:34-36). On the back side of a mountain, when no one was watching, David overcame these “smaller” challenges so that when the giant came, he was able to stand with courage and say, “This uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them.” He knew that “the Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways” (Deut 28:7). May we also collect and rehearse our previous victories when we find ourselves facing giants!
I guess you could call me a dreamer. Not because I live in my head rather than in reality, but because I like to think I see beyond reality. The facts, by themselves, are rather uninspiring: I’m the youngest of eight sons of my father Jesse, of the tribe of Judah. I’m fourteen. I tend sheep for my father, which most consider to be a dull occupation punctuated with occasional danger from wild beasts. But I’ve never been in a real battle before—my older brothers, who are also taller, stronger, and better looking than I am, are the soldiers in the family. I have no great prospects for my life. I have one real talent, though it’s considered useless to most: I play the lyre with passion and skill. I do this because there is something about music that gives voice to the feelings that I know not how to express in words. I feel things so deeply that I must find a way to express them, even if my father scolds me and tells me I should spend my time cultivating a useful trade instead.
So much for the facts. But in my mind, my mundane tasks are all grand adventures. Even when nothing much is happening, when I’m merely out watching the sheep as they graze, a sunset can pierce me to the heart. A sky full of stars makes me raise my hands to the sky and praise the God of Israel, who kept His promises to the one He called His friend, Abraham. What must that have been like, to be called the friend of God! My own heart aches for such a distinction. If I identify with any of the patriarchs, though, it would be Joseph—he was a dreamer too. He, too, was the youngest of his brothers. He, too, had inauspicious beginnings—far more so than mine. I don’t wish to spend a decade or more in prison before rising to the palace! Yet something in my heart tells me that I am destined for great things. Maybe everyone’s heart tells them that when they are fourteen. That’s what my father says when I try to share my dreams with him, and then he dismisses me.
But I know.
When the lion and the bear attacked my sheep, I fought and killed them with nothing but stones in my sling and the pounding of blood in my veins. There was no one to see my victories; even my father and brothers did not believe me when I told them. Yet somehow, I did not feel disappointed. Someday, my skill would matter. I imagined myself saving a beautiful young maiden from a Philistine someday. Perhaps she would be Michal, the daughter of King Saul! I’d never actually seen Michal, but the rumors were that she was very beautiful. I imagined myself saving her from a ravenous lion. I’d sweep her into my arms, and she’d at once fall desperately in love with me…
I startled out of my reverie to see one of my father’s servants hurrying toward me. I frowned, wondering what in the world could be so pressing to make the young man run.
“Your father summons you,” he said. “I shall watch the sheep in your absence. He is at the sacrifice with your brothers, where he was summoned by the prophet Samuel!”
This explained nothing. “If he wanted me there, why didn’t he invite me to come in the first place?”
“I know not, sir, but make haste! Samuel has said that they are not even to sit down until you arrive!”
Curiouser and curiouser, I thought. But I shrugged, handing my staff to the young man and setting off down the hill to where I expected to find them. So it had been Samuel who had asked for me, not Father. That made a bit more sense, but what could the great prophet to the king want with me?
When I arrived, I did indeed find my father and all my brothers standing around a table laden with food from the sacrifice. At a glance I could see anger and resentment in my brothers’ postures, and my father’s expression was unreadable. But my gaze went straight to Samuel. He wore priest’s robes, having been trained at the Temple. His hair was gray and his face lined, but his eyes bored into mine with approving intensity. I saw a slight smile curl his lips as he moved toward me with a horn of oil in his hand. He tipped the oil against his thumb, and drew a stripe of it across my forehead.
“David, son of Jesse, I anoint you as the new king over Israel,” he declared. Before I could react, he placed the horn of oil on the table and took me by the shoulders, as if memorizing my face.
I can’t exactly explain what I felt next—but no, it wasn’t a feeling. The emotion I felt was still shock. At the same time, there was a knowing in my gut that this was real, and it was from the Lord. As I glanced at my brothers, and particularly the murderous expression on my oldest brother Eliab’s face, I again thought of Joseph after he’d declared the dreams he had had before his brothers.
Samuel left without partaking of the sacrificial meal. My brothers and father stared at me, and I at them for a moment so long it grew awkward. I cleared my throat and shuffled my feet, and was just about to offer to go back out to tend the sheep when my father forced a smile and offered me a seat at the table.
“Won’t you join us, David?”
So I did. It was the most uncomfortable meal I’d ever eaten. My brothers ignored me with determined ferocity, but my father snuck glances at me when he thought I wasn’t looking. It was as if he were seeing me for the first time.
I barely slept that night, replaying the event in my mind over and over again. My brain spun with the implications of it. I tried to envision myself as king, but the idea seemed so absurd that I couldn’t. I knew it would happen, because Samuel had said so—I just couldn’t picture it. I’d never even seen the palace. To top it off, when I rose the next day, I went right back to tending the sheep.
“I’m the king,” I said to myself, alone on the grassy hills with the sheep, my staff in hand. “I am the King of Israel. Greetings,” I bowed to an invisible courtier, “I am King David, of the House of Jesse… hey! Get back here!” I cried out as one of the sheep scampered too close to a steep drop-off. I secured my staff around his neck and gently led him back to the herd. Then I laughed, and muttered again to myself with more irony this time, “Why yes, I realize keeping sheep is an unusual pastime for royalty. But I find that it keeps me humble. Keeps me in touch with the common man, wouldn’t you agree?”
Weeks passed, and life was much the same as it had ever been. The only evidence that the encounter with Samuel had happened at all lay in the changed way my father regarded me, with that new and contemplative expression of his.
Then one day, when I was out tending the sheep as usual, my father himself came out to the pasture, along with one of the servants, Mushi. This in itself was strange: ordinarily Father would just send a servant to fetch me, if he wished to speak to me. He seemed out of breath, and his eyes were wild. I frowned.
“Father? Is everything well?”
“Come with me, David,” my father said. “I have spoken to Mushi about taking over your position with the sheep in your absence.”
I handed Mushi my staff, and followed my father back to our house, perplexed. He explained, still catching his breath, “The king has sent for you.”
I froze, fear suddenly seizing my heart. He knows, was my first thought. He knows I’ve been anointed in his place, and he sent for me to kill me.
“I know what you’re thinking, David, but it is not so,” my father hurried to tell me. “The king has been tormented, and his servants believe that it is from a harmful spirit. They heard rumors of your skill with the lyre, and King Saul therefore requested that you be sent with your instrument, to soothe him in his distress. Hurry: we will send you with bread and a skin of wine and a young goat to the palace. You cannot go into the king’s service empty-handed!”
So we saddled a donkey with these provisions, and I went with the king’s messengers to the palace. The change in my situation did not hit me until I saw the palace for the first time. But then my eyes widened, and the words came into my spirit: One day that will be my home.
A servant ushered me into the king’s chamber that night. I found him tossing upon his bed in torment, groaning, tugging at his hair and beard, and occasionally shrieking. I had never seen a person tormented by an evil spirit before, and therefore had no idea what to expect. But I saw at once why the servants had declared that to be the trouble. I had rehearsed an entire speech of introduction, but dispensed with it when I saw the king’s agitation. At once, I began playing with all the skill I could muster. Within moments, the king’s writhing settled, and he grew quiet and docile. My heart swelled with gratitude that I should be here, should be instrumental in such a great moment! Strange to say, considering Samuel’s prophecy and my fears, but in that moment I loved the king as I loved my own father. I wanted nothing more than to bring him peace.
“You play well, boy,” croaked King Saul at last, his forehead beaded with sweat.
“Thank you, my lord,” I replied.
The king turned his head to look me up and down, as if assessing my size. “I would like you to remain at my side, in case I find myself in need of your services,” he managed. “I shall therefore also appoint you as my armor-bearer.”
I bowed my head, feeling overwhelmed. “I am—honored, my lord,” I managed. “I will be pleased to serve you in any way I am able.”
The king sent word to my father that I had found favor in his sight, and asked that I remain in his service. Of course this was more a formality than a request. From then on, I spent most of my time at the palace, but still went back and forth to feed my father’s sheep. I played for the king whenever the evil spirit tormented him, and my music acted as a balm to his soul.
In the king’s service, I learned that Israel was in a standoff with the Philistines. Every day, the king’s army, including my three eldest brothers, went out to fight. But something was unusual about this particular battle, because for forty days, no fighting actually occurred. I was terribly curious what was going on, but I was only a boy, so no one would tell me.
One day when I was back at my father’s house, prepared to return again to the king, my father told me, “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp of your brothers. Also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See if your brothers are well, and bring some token from them.”
The request greatly pleased me, as it gave me an excuse to go to the front lines and see for myself how we could be at battle, yet not at battle. Early the next morning, I rose to obey my father’s instructions, leaving the sheep in Mushi’s care.
When I arrived, I saw a most unusual stage for the battle: the Philistine army was on top of one mountain, and the Israelites on the top of another, with a vacant valley in between. I left my father’s provisions with the keeper of the baggage, and then ran to the Israelite ranks to greet my brothers. No sooner had I done so, though, our attention was arrested by an absolutely enormous man who ventured down from the Philistine camp into the valley below.
“Have you seen this man who has come up?” the soldiers of Israel whispered among themselves. They were not speaking to me, but I heard them. “Surely he has come up to defy Israel. And the king will enrich the man who kills him with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father’s house free in Israel.”
My eyes grew wide as the giant approached, and I took in every detail of him. He had a helmet of bronze, was armed with a coat of mail, and had bronze armor strapped to his legs. A javelin of bronze bigger than any weapon I had ever seen was slung between his shoulders. A much smaller man ran before him, bearing his shield.
Then the giant opened his mouth and bellowed, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us. I defy the ranks of Israel this day! Give me a man, that we may fight together!”
I drew back at the declaration of this uncircumcised Philistine in disgust. He defied the ranks of Israel, did he? The ranks of the servants of the Most High God? How dared he!
But as I looked around at the men of Saul’s army, expecting to find all of them equally incensed, I saw something else entirely in their faces. These men were terrified. But why? Didn’t they know their covenant? Hadn’t they heard the story of how Joshua and Caleb only entered the Promised Land of all the children of Israel, because they believed the Lord’s promises? Caleb went in and defeated many giants like this one in his eighties! Surely one of these men in their prime of life would claim the great rewards they themselves had said Saul offered to the man who defeated this one man!
I leaned over and tapped one of the soldiers before me on the shoulder. He looked back, and then his eyes had to track downward to my face. He scowled at me like I was an annoyance, but I didn’t care.
“Excuse me,” I whispered, “I thought I heard, but please tell me again. What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
So they repeated the promise from Saul: riches, his daughter (Michal! I thought), and freedom for his father’s house. “So shall it be done to the man who kills him.”
My oldest brother Eliab was still nearby, and overheard my pesky questions. He sneered, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.”
Eliab had not been able to speak a civil word to me since the evening I was anointed, but this was too much. I had come to bring him refreshments from our father! “What have I done now?” I protested, and gestured at the soldier who had answered my question. “Was it not but a word?”
I moved away from my brothers to escape further censure, but I could not go just yet. I wanted to make sure the others had heard the same rewards promised from the king. So I tapped yet more soldiers on the shoulders, and repeated my question. What would be done for the man who kills the Philistine, whom I heard called Goliath of Gath? They all told me the same thing. I mostly fixated on Michal, who had featured in so many of my boyhood daydreams. I felt myself grow a little bit taller every time the promise of the king was repeated. I started to see myself honored, wealthy, and wed to the beautiful Michal. I pictured myself as the son-in-law to King Saul himself! I would not have dared to presume that I should be the one to receive all these things, except that nobody else seemed willing to face the giant. This seemed utterly ludicrous to me. Surely they had the same desires and dreams I had. Surely they too were men!
The soldiers who previously seemed to consider me a nuisance now regarded me with the same look of curiosity my father had given me after Samuel’s visit to our home. I remained with the soldiers long after my errand was complete, intently watching Goliath and considering how I might be chosen as the one to go down and face him. Presently Abner, the commander of the king’s army, solved the problem for me.
“The king has asked for you.” Abner said, and beckoned me.
Yes! I thought fiercely, as I followed Abner to where the king was stationed on the mountaintop amongst his men and advisors. When I stood before the king, I was smiling with anticipation. The king looked me up and down, as he had done the first time he met me. There was no recognition in his eyes, but perhaps that was because I was out of context. He probably thought of me as his servant with the lyre, not as a man of war.
“I was told that a boy was asking about the reward for facing Goliath,” the king frowned at me, clearly unimpressed.
I stood up straighter and puffed out my chest. “Let no man’s heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.”
King Saul’s skeptical frown deepened. “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” Not to mention he’s about six times your size, was his unspoken addition.
I shook my head. “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”
I could see the effect this speech was having upon the king. As I spoke, his frown vanished, and his eyebrows rose. I’d been told before that my faith was infectious, because it was not in myself, after all: my faith was in the covenant my God had given to Israel. I was an Israelite, was I not? Just as Caleb and Joshua had been, I too would be victorious. So would they, if only they knew it.
Saul gave me an incredulous smile, and finally declared, “Go, and the Lord be with you!” Then he beckoned his servant who was serving as his armor bearer that day, taking from him the armor I had earlier squired about for the king. I hesitated, not wanting to contradict the king, but I knew what I would feel even before he placed his helmet of bronze and coat of mail upon me, strapping on his own sword last of all. I began my journey down to the valley in all this finery, but the weight was such that I could scarcely move.
At last I realized, whether I offended the king or not, it was my life on the line. I returned, shaking my head as I informed him, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them. I will go as I am.” I carefully placed the sword back in the king’s hand as I said this, and removed the helmet, handing it to the armor bearer.
As I removed the coat of mail, the armor bearer frowned and said, “Then what shall you use as a weapon?”
I stooped to the ground, inspecting the stones there until I found five smooth ones. I placed them in my shepherd’s pouch, and by way of answer, removed my sling from it to show them. I held it in one hand, pouch on my belt, and flashed the king and his men a confident grin. Then I made my way alone down the mountain toward the Philistine.
I was about halfway down the mountain to the valley before Goliath even seemed to notice me. He began to move in my direction, his shield bearer before him. The giant glimpsed my sling, and sneered in a booming tone, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And he roared curses against me by his gods. “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field!”
The spirit of the Lord—for such I now realized it was—burned with indignation, and I shouted back loudly enough that both armies could hear, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a 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. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head! And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds 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 that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand!”
The Philistine roared in incomprehensible rage, running toward me and drawing his sword. I roared back, running toward him and reaching into my shepherd’s pouch. I withdrew a smooth stone, fitted it into my sling, and let it fly: straight into the Philistine’s forehead. It was at such close range that it sank into his flesh, crushing his skull. He fell before me with a mighty crash, face first.
I did not stop running. I had said I would cut off his head, and I would do exactly as I had said: for who knew whether the Philistines and the Israelites could yet see from this distance that their champion was dead? I wanted to leave no doubt in their minds. So I ran until I reached the Philistine, withdrew his own sword from his scabbard, removed the helmet of bronze, and cut off the giant’s head. I held the sword with one hand and the giant’s head by the hair with the other, and raised both with a mighty shout so that both armies could see.
At once, the men of Israel and of Judah joined my war cry, and ran down into the valley. On the other mountain, the Philistines scattered and fled. But Israel had been galvanized, and I knew we would overtake our enemies at last.
The battle raged on, though my part was now done. Presently, Abner brought me again before King Saul, and I went, still clutching Goliath’s head by his hair. I saw new respect now in the king’s eyes.
“Whose son are you, young man?” he asked me. I thought the question an odd one, as I had been in the king’s service for some time now, but again reasoned that he could not be expected to remember each of his servants.
“I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite,” I replied, and saw the light of recognition enter the king’s eyes.
“The boy with the lyre!” he cried. “Well, well! My servant spoke of you truly when he declared you ‘a man skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him.’”
I blushed at such gracious words, an odd response while I still held the head of my enemy. I had never heard myself spoken of in this way. Who, indeed, would have made such a report to the king about a lowly fourteen year old shepherd boy who had never seen battle before this day? In whose eyes had I obtained such favor?
I remembered then the words that the angel had spoken to Gideon, before he had yet tasted war, and while he still hid himself from his enemies: “Hail, O mighty man of valor!” And I heard in my spirit, The Lord speaks not what is, but what shall be.
I would hold on to those words spoken by my king for many a bleak year after that day. More than once would they encourage me, as a prophecy of the man I would one day become.