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The Battle Is the Lord's
Dr. Todd B. Jones
June 24, 2012

1 Samuel 17:32-49
Mark 4:35-41

This may be one of the best-known, best-loved stories ever told, and it surely is the one that comes to our minds whenever David is mentioned. People who possess almost no Biblical knowledge are apt to know the broad outlines of this great story. In the life of David, as Samuel tells it, it is the most detailed account included. Robert Alter says this is as close as the Hebrew Bible ever gets to an epic style – with rich and explicit detail, extensive use of dialogue, strong characterization and great interaction between the characters.

It is not unusual for accounts to emerge from the lives of great men from their childhoods that provide a glimpse of what is to come. Remember Jesus, that Son of David, as a boy in the Temple, astounding the elders and teachers, and saying to His parents, "Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" Or George Washington as a boy, telling his father, "I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree."? Or young Abe Lincoln splitting rails with more strength than anyone else on America's frontier?

This is the best of all these events from childhood that foretell the greatness of the man. And what is best about this passage is that it speaks powerfully to all ages. I loved David and Goliath as a little boy, but I might love it even more as an adult.

Just before his encounter with Goliath, David had been "anointed" in secret by Samuel to be king. So then the boy is sent into the frontlines by his father Jesse to carry lunch to his brothers. He is young, but even at a tender age he senses fear and panic in the camp. His brother is sullen, but even worse, King Saul is depressed and paralyzed by his fear. They have all been rendered silent by the biggest Philistine of them all, Goliath, who not only traffics in arms, but trades on intimidation. Samuel describes in great detail the armor and armaments of the giant. Goliath has emptied Israel of hope. The real danger, though, is not the size and strength of the giant. The real crisis is that Israel has lost heart, her king "dismayed and greatly afraid." When we are overcome by fear, not even God can use us.

So into this desperate situation comes young David, who will neither embrace the fearful despair of Saul, nor the loud arrogance of Goliath. David will not allow either of them to define the reality of the situation. Instead, David speaks to both of them, and among so many other truths that this account holds for us, is the truth that speech is as important as action, for with our words we define and name reality. That is why the Bible begins with God's speech or word that creates, and why John wrote at the opening of his Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word." David speaks, and his two speeches are more important than anything else that happens. So let's look more closely at what David says.

First, David speaks to King Saul. Saul is "dismayed and greatly afraid," paralyzed by his own fear. He is depressed by Goliath, who keeps taunting them like any good bully will. And the whole camp is gripped by Saul's fear. When a crisis comes and leadership gives in to fear, it is not long before everyone feels it. I always think by contrast of Winston Churchill speaking at the Harrow School on October 29, 1941 when London was being blitzed and bombed each night by German fighters. "Never give up," Churchill said, "Never, never, never give up." Or I think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fireside chats, in which he calmed a nation with the words, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

So when Saul tells David that he should not think about fighting the Philistine, none of us would blame him if he took the frightened man's advice that he was too young and too small. But that is not how David responds! David tells Saul how faithful a deliverer God has been when lions and bears threatened his sheep. David speaks with simple courage. But mostly what David does is introduce into the conversation a dimension not yet mentioned by Saul or acknowledged by Goliath. David sees God as the most important reality in this crisis, and the presence of the Living God repositions everything in the drama. David says, "The Lord who saved me from the paw of the bear and the paw of the lion will save me from the hand of the Philistine." It is as simple as that for David. God is mightier than any beast, and God will be mightier than any bully. And by seeing this crisis in the light of God, that is, by seeing it theologically, David is the only one not to succumb to a false reading of the situation.

It is always tempting to have a Philistine view of reality: to believe that bigger is better, that those who shout the loudest are really the strongest. (Today we mostly believe that richer is better.) It is funny how easily we can all become Sauls when things get scary. All we can see are giant-sized foes facing us, and pretty soon we feel powerless, paralyzed by our fear.

Ironically, Saul was far from powerless. He stood "head and shoulders above" the others in Israel, and had great success in battle as king. But while David remembers God's faithfulness, Saul forgets all his yesterdays.

Saul is so overwhelmed by the size and posture of Goliath that he sees no other reality. David, on the other hand, looks not to himself nor to the size of Goliath. He sees instead the God who once delivered him. He remembers that once God did something in his life to save him. How about you? Do you remember how faithful God has been to save?

Well, Saul is impressed with the boy's courage, but he still does not get it. He tries to dress David in his armor. But David sees in Saul's weapons and armor the clothing of defeat. He sees that if you want to be killed by a Philistine, then dress like a Philistine, think like one and act like one. Then you will surely die like a Philistine! David senses there is a world of difference between the armor of Saul and the armor of God. He knows that if he is to have any chance in facing the giant, he has to be himself. So he says, "I cannot walk with these; I am not used to them." So trusting God, David picks up five smooth stones and prepares to face Goliath.

Now David delivers his second speech. He is not aggressive or arrogant, but neither is he apologetic. All David has is the powerful memory of a faithful God in whom Goliath has no interest. Goliath offers to David his bombast, but David is not bluffed by the bully. The reason Goliath's bombast worked so well was that the whole army of Saul forgot its own story. David does not forget his. "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come in the name of the Lord of Hosts." Then David reminds Goliath that "the battle is the Lord's."

It is the reminder we all need. Saul thought the battle was one he had to win, and that thought left him scared stiff. Every time we think we have to fight our battles alone, we are apt to give up too. Goliath thought the battle was his, so enamored was he by his own power. So full of himself, Goliath lost his judgment. Only David does not fall into the trap of thinking it was his battle to fight. He alone knew it was the Lord's battle. He alone knew that the Lord does not save by sword or spear.

I don't think it was the sling and stone that killed Goliath. I think Goliath was undone by his own arrogance. And I don't believe Saul was as weak as he imagined himself to be. But all wrapped up in himself, feeling he had to fight this battle alone, he was beaten without a fight.

The greatness of David is that he did not claim a thing for himself. He pointed instead to the God in whom alone he could trust. All David brought was the memory of a faithful God who had saved him. In the end of the day, though, I have learned that the memory of a faithful God is all any of us have! And it is always enough. Most of our largest battles are finally with ourselves. And like Saul and Goliath, we imagine we have to fight them all alone. God wants us to fight a different battle, to fight what Paul called "the good fight."

Bruce Larsen tells the story of counseling a battle-scarred, battle-wearied business executive in mid-town Manhattan. Bruce was getting nowhere with this man who was overwhelmed by it all. So he took him for a walk to Rockefeller Center, with that great statue of Atlas, holding the world on his own straining shoulders. Then he walked him across the street and into St. Peter's Cathedral where they had a small statue of the boy Jesus, holding a small globe in His hand. "How do you see the world?" he asked. "And how do you see your life?" Most of us imagine we are more like Atlas, carting all our burdens, all our worries, all our responsibilities on our own lonely, tired shoulders. But the truth, the truth that sets us free, is found in that simple song, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."

Vaclav Havel was born in 1936 in Prague. When he opposed the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, he was stripped of his job as an academic and given menial work to do after being thrown in prison for his words of protest leveled at the Soviets. He was a playwright and a poet, but he proved to be more powerful than the vaunted U.S.S.R.

"I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions." They call it "the velvet revolution," because the Czech people found freedom from the Soviets because people like Havel never gave in to the Soviet story of who they were. "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out," Havel said. "Hope is a state of mind, not of the world." "Hope is the feeling that life and work have meaning. You either have it or you don't, regardless of the state of the world that surrounds you."

This is the promise of the Gospel, which is always a Gospel of hope. You don't need to fight your battles alone because "the battle is the Lord's." Jesus said, "In this world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world."


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