Recovering the Message of Scripture
In this special section of our "Rightly Dividing the Word" issue, nine pastor-theologians help shed light on some popular texts of Scripture that tend to lose their true redemptive-historical significance in a culture of interpretive narcissism.
In the 1986 comedy The Three Amigos, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short play three silent-film actors who portray gunfighters in a series of western adventure movies. Through a series of misunderstandings they end up being recruited by the small Mexican village of Santa Poco to help fight a ruthless villain named El Guapo. Near the end of the film, Steve Martin's character Lucky Day makes an impassioned speech to the villagers: "In a way, each of us has an El Guapo to face. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo. For us, El Guapo is a big, dangerous man who wants to kill us. But as sure as my name is Lucky Day, the people of Santa Poco can conquer their own personal El Guapo, who also happens to be the actual El Guapo!"
I cannot hear this speech without immediately being reminded of sermons on David and Goliath. I suspect the screenwriters may have heard a few of the same sermons themselves. Many of us have. After reading the story of David's battle with Goliath, the preacher asks, "What is the moral of the story?" He then asks whether we have ever encountered a "Goliath" in our lives. What is a "Goliath"? A "Goliath" is an obstacle in your life that seems impossible to overcome. It is a huge problem that is causing you to consider giving up. To paraphrase Lucky Day, "For some, shyness might be their Goliath. For others, a lack of education might be their Goliath. But with faith, you can conquer your Goliath." However well intentioned such preachers may be, handling the Scriptures in this manner conditions people to treat the stories of the Bible in a way not much different from the way they might treat Aesop's Fables.
In order to understand the story of David's encounter with Goliath, we must dig a little deeper. If we recall, as early as the first chapter of Genesis, Scripture indicates that God's ultimate plan is to establish his kingdom on earth. With man's fall into sin, the serpent usurps the dominion God gave to man. God then promises that there will be perpetual conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Satan will not thwart God's purposes. He will be overthrown, and God will establish his kingdom on earth. If we move beyond Genesis 1 and take a look at the entire Pentateuch, we see several key passages pointing forward to a king who will come "in the latter days" to bring peace (cf. Gen. 49; Num. 24; Deut. 32-33. See John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative and The Meaning of the Pentateuch). God has not abandoned his original plan.
The historical books also reveal that God is providentially moving redemptive history toward his goal, namely, the establishment of his kingdom. Joshua describes the conquest of the Promised Land. Judges, then, describes a period of spiraling degeneracy ending in near anarchy. This is the context in which we read the books of Samuel. Samuel narrates the establishment of the monarchy in Israel and the establishment of the Davidic covenant. But how does the story of David and Goliath contribute to this larger redemptive-historical narrative? Space constraints prohibit an exhaustive examination, but we can at least point to some of the major themes that develop here.
In 1 Samuel 2, we read the prayer of Hannah after the birth of Samuel. She looks forward to the rise of God's anointed king and to his victory over God's enemies. She declares that the adversaries of the Lord will be broken and that his king will be exalted (cf. v. 10). In 1 Samuel 5, God himself faces the demonic Philistine god Dagon. In this conflict, Dagon ends up face down on the ground with his head separated from his body (1 Sam. 5:4). Not long afterward, the people of Israel clamor for a king like the other nations–a king who will go out before them and fight their battles (1 Sam. 8:20). God gives them Saul to be their king (1 Sam. 9:1-2; 10:1). Because of Saul's disobedience, God ultimately rejects him, and Samuel promises that a new king will be raised up in his stead (1 Sam. 13:13-14; 15:10, 26, 28). David, a shepherd from the tribe of Judah, is chosen by God and anointed as king (1 Sam. 16:13).
We see, then, that 1 Samuel 17 is set in the context of the transition between the reign of the physically imposing Saul and the reign of David, a youth who was not as impressive to look upon. The Lord has already warned Samuel against looking on outward appearances (16:7). The story of Goliath will drive that point home. The transition of leadership is hinted at when David tells Saul that he will fight Goliath, and Saul says, "Yahweh be with you" (17:37). The ongoing spiritual warfare between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman is revealed in the speech of the two fighters. Goliath's speech drips with spiritual defiance, while David's speech reveals faith and trust in the Lord. The principle that we become what we worship is graphically demonstrated when Goliath, like his god Dagon, winds up face down in the dirt with his head removed from his body (17:49, 51).
In the larger context, this story foreshadows the victory of David's greater Son, Jesus the Messiah, who through the cross lands the fatal blow to our greatest enemies, death and the devil (cf. Heb. 2:14). Through his work on the cross, the transition to God's kingdom begins. This kingdom, planned from eternity, foretold throughout the Old Testament, has now been inaugurated. Jesus has been enthroned at the right hand of the Father. On the last day, this kingdom will be consummated. At that time, our Redeemer and King will have put all enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25-27).