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Stories of the Bible: The Courage of Youth

February 19, 2006

I Samuel 17

Many of you know that Clare and I spent a wonderful week in Nashville, Tennessee. I spoke to a large group of men at the First Presbyterian Church, and I had a productive meeting with an editor with Baker Books. The most delightful news coming out of Nashville is that our daughter-in-law June is engaged to be married. June was married to our deceased son, Erik, and has been a widow now for over five years. We had a chance to meet the young man who is to be her husband. Our trip was a wonderful experience and a time of celebration and joy for us.

We woke up yesterday morning to about three inches of snow. The highway department of the state of Tennessee said the roads through the Smokey Mountains were covered with snow and getting worse, so we headed straight south through Birmingham, Alabama. We saw snow until about twenty miles from Birmingham. Then we drove to Atlanta, had supper with Betsy and Mark, and arrived home last night quite late. We are grateful to be back in town and grateful to be with you after such a long day in the car.

We want our children to learn many facts and concepts. When our children study the multiplication tables, they learn that the lists are always the same. We want them to learn that three times four is twelve. Last week, we began a series of sermons on important stories of the Bible. When you hear a story, you learn some concepts; but you can return to the story later and learn new ideas. Stories have flexibility, a vitality that allows them to keep teaching.

When we come back to some of the old stories of the Bible, we find that they are not just for children, though some have been identified as children’s stories. They really are stories for adults. Those of us who are parents and grandparents want our children and grandchildren to know stories because they are somewhat like the toys we give them. If we have a child who wants to fantasize about being a firefighter and rescuing people from burning buildings, we do not want the child to go to the fire station, crawl on the fire truck, and pester those who are trying to protect us all. We would rather they have a toy fire truck and carry out their fantasized rescue operations under our dining room table. If we want them to learn about bears, we do not want them to have an encounter with a real bear. We want them to have a teddy bear and begin learning about bears from playing with a stuffed animal.

We can use stories in an elementary way. When our oldest son was at that three-year-old stage, the stage where children want the same story read repeatedly, I got so tired of reading The Little Engine that Could, by Watty Piper. My son especially liked that story. I tried on occasion to take a shortcut by letting that train travel over the mountain quicker, but my son would not allow any variation. I had to read the story just the way it was written. That story teaches the value of persistence and endurance, just the concept we want our children to learn. We want them to know the story of Cinderella because it teaches about conflicts in family living, especially conflicts in a blended family. We want children to know Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. “I do not green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam I am. Not on a boat. Not with a goat. I do not like green eggs and ham.” That story teaches the importance of trying something you think you do not like. You may discover that you do like it.

How many times have you heard the story before us today, the story of David’s battle with Goliath? I heard one child psychologist say that this story is the most important one children can hear because they live in a world of giants. They can learn that a young small lad who takes on a giant can win. I submit to you that this story is not just for children; it is a story for adults as well.

I invite you to open your Bible to the book of I Samuel, Chapters 16-17. Saul, king over all of Israel, fell out of favor with God. He had disobeyed God, and the Bible says that God rejected him as king. God then instructed the prophet Samuel to anoint a new king though He did not immediately reveal the specific identity. God merely said, “Go to the town of Bethlehem and find the new king among the sons of Jesse.” Samuel did as God had told him. He prepared to offer a sacrifice and invited Jesse and other leaders of the town to come to this time of worship.

Samuel requested that Jesse bring his sons, but Jesse brought only seven of his eight sons. The moment Samuel saw the oldest, named Eliab, he thought, “This oldest son of Jesse must be the one I am to anoint.” God intervened. I Samuel 16:7 states, “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Jesse proceeded to bring before Samuel each of the remaining sons until all seven present at this sacrifice had been introduced. Not one of those seven was to be the next king.

Samuel then turned to Jesse and asked, “Are these all of your sons?” Jesse declared, “There is one more, the youngest of eight. He is tending the sheep.” Samuel directed, “Call for him.” The call went out, and this shepherd boy came in from the fields and stood before Samuel. Samuel immediately saw his fine appearance, his handsome features, and his ruddy complexion. He knew that God approved of this son, and Samuel anointed David, whose very name means “beloved.” David was considered “the man after God’s own heart” (I Samuel 13:14).

Saul, the Bible says, was possessed by an evil spirit. When the Spirit of the Lord was withdrawn from him, an evil spirit took its place. It is the biblical way of talking about mental illness. Saul was a man afflicted with severe mental illness. I suppose in our day and time, we would call his condition a bi-polar disorder. Maybe we would simply call it manic depression. Saul had high highs and terrible lows. When he sank into a pit of despair, he needed someone to minister to him. The people in his court knew what seems to have been known throughout civilization for a long time, a truth expressed in a poem written by William Congreve: “Music has the charm to soothe the savage breast.” Realizing the need for calming music, someone in the court suggested bringing Jesse’s son, the shepherd boy. David could play the harp. Because he often wrote poems and set them to music, he was known as “the sweet singer of Israel.”

Saul, not knowing that Samuel had anointed David, brought him into the court to sing when his own despair was so deep. Those songs encouraged Saul and made him feel better. Do you see how God works? Samuel anointed David, but Saul, rejected as king, actually invited him to the court. David spent time in the court, but he continued to tend sheep.

One day, David’s father called him and said, “David, your brothers are in Saul’s army, fighting near the Valley of Elah on the front line. They are about to confront the Philistines. I want you to take food to them.” In those days, the military depended on families to provide food. David took a measure of grain, ten loaves of bread, ten cheeses, and traveled to the Valley of Elah, finding something astounding to him when he arrived: the Philistine army lined up on one hill, the Israelite army lined up on the other hill, and Saul, standing far above all of his men, fretting and worrying as he searched for one man who could represent Israel in battle. The Philistines had chosen a champion that seemed unbeatable, a man of gigantic proportions named Goliath. Every day, Goliath went into the Valley of Elah and uttered his Philistine curses against the Israelites, challenging them to send one man to fight him. This method of warfare was a way of limiting casualties. Instead of the two armies lining up, drawing swords, and fighting each other, they would each choose one person to fight. That person represented the entire army. After the battle, the two armies suffered only one casualty between them.

David, an errand boy sent to carry food to his older brothers, had much youthful idealism about war. He could hardly believe that his older brothers, King Saul, whom he had admired so much, and the army of Israel, whom he considered heroes, were so cowardly. When David began inquiring about volunteering to fight the Philistine’s intimidating force, his older brother, Eliab, scorned and rebuked him. When Saul heard of David’s interest in volunteering, he brought David before him and said, “You are only a boy, a teenager.”

One of my uncles, a bombardier, flew bombing raids over Berlin during World War II. On one occasion, the bombs he tried to release did not fall because of a problem with the release mechanism. He got out of his seat and walked on the catwalk through the open bomb bay to the back of the plane while it was flying several thousand feet in the air. There, he manually released the bombs.

When he returned to his seat, the pilot asked, “What did you do?”

My uncle answered, “I walked back there and released those bombs manually.”

The pilot answered, “You are crazy. You could have fallen to your death!”

When my uncle told me the story, he looked at me and said, “You will do anything when you are nineteen.” There is a lot of truth to that statement. It is one reason young people make good soldiers.

Saul was ready to accept any volunteer at that point. He, of course, was very concerned about David’s welfare. Israel had just entered the Iron Age, and King Saul was the only person who had any armor in the entire army of Israel. All of his armor, made of iron, was very heavy. The Philistines were already in the Bronze Age. Though Goliath’s armor was fashioned out of bronze, we know that it weighed between 150-200 pounds. Just the tip of his spear, made of iron, weighed about fifteen pounds. King Saul offered David his armor, but we must consider the difference in size between these two men. Saul, a big man, had massive armor. When David put on Saul’s helmet, he could hardly lift his head. When he strapped on Saul’s sword, the tip dragged the ground. As much as David respected Saul, he had to politely decline and put aside the armor. Saul must have thought, “How foolish of this boy to fight this giant so ill-equipped.”

Parents often feel the same way. We try our best to put our values on our children, and they respond, “Mom, Dad, that stuff just doesn’t fit me.” We watch them go into the valley to fight giants and wish they would wear our armor. They do not always have it. You know how that feels. You watch your children pull the car out of your driveway on a Friday night as they go out to face giants without the armor you wish they had.

Saul must have felt the same way, but as David prepared himself for battle against Goliath, he assured the king, “I have fought bears and lions when they attacked the sheep. I am not afraid of the giant.” David had honed his skill with a sling. He walked into the Valley of Elah to face the giant as the two armies positioned on the hills watched. Saul stood to the south, and Goliath arrived from the north.

Though the Bible does not actually say David stooped and knelt by a brook, I know he did. I have picked up pebbles out a creek before, just as you probably have. The armies standing on the two hills also saw this teenage boy kneeling before he faced the giant. David knelt and began choosing his stones, five of them. He held them in his hands to see how smooth they were, held them to see if they had the right balance. You can debate about why he chose five stones. Later in the scriptures, we read that Goliath had four brothers. Perhaps the other four stones were for Goliath’s brothers. Perhaps David thought these brothers might seek revenge for Goliath’s death. As it turns out, David needed only one stone in this fight.

Seeing someone kneel on a battleground is impressive. I am not sure how often it happens. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, a soldier from South Carolina under the command of General Kershaw climbed over a stone wall behind which the Confederates took cover. Without permission, this man, Sergeant Richard Kirkland, carried as many canteens as possible, giving one fallen soldier after another a drink of water. He gave water to soldiers wearing gray as well as to those wearing blue. The report was that one Yankee yelled, “Shoot him!” The Union commander replied, “No, do not shoot him. A man that brave deserves to live.” For more than an hour, Richard Kirkland went from one soldier to another, kneeling to give them a drink of water. He is referred to as “The Angel of Mary’s Heights,” named for the hill on which this incident occurred. For more than an hour, all firing stopped. When you see a soldier kneel on the field of battle, a kind of peace settles over the place. People take heart when they know their leaders are praying. One of the most enduring images of General George Washington is the one of him in the snow at Valley Forge, kneeling in prayer. A demoralized army took courage because they saw their commander kneeling. President Abraham Lincoln, who presided over this country in what had to be the most difficult time in our nation’s history, was a man of prayer.

The arrogant Philistines, hurling curses, saw David kneel. The discouraged, demoralized, and frightened army of Israel saw David kneel. A despondent and anxious King Saul saw David kneel. The formidable and mocking Goliath saw David kneel. When David rose from his knees, you find that his kneeling was not just to gather stones. He faced Goliath’s words, “Am I a dog that you would come out to me with sticks?” with the response, “I come to you in the name of the Lord God of Israel.” Adding emphasis, he exclaimed, “The battle is the Lord’s.” Then David started running, not away from Goliath, but straight toward the giant, like the American hero Sergeant Alvin York running toward a machinegun nest during World War I. That leather strap of a sling twirled two or three times in the air, and David released the rock.

It had never entered the minds of the Philistines that Goliath might be defeated. It had never entered the mind of the Israelites that one of their own could fell the giant. It had never entered Saul’s mind that a young teenager that played the harp and sang in his court could also slay the giant that day. It never entered the mind of David’s brothers that he could be a hero. It never entered Goliath’s mind that a mere pebble flung from a slingshot could kill him. It never entered David’s mind that God had any plan other than victory.

We can talk about this episode in many ways. We can say Goliath was stoned out his mind, that this is the first incident of rock and roll, or that David rocked and Goliath rolled. The most important concept to know is that the giant fell at David’s feet. The battle was won. David did not take credit for this victory. He said the credit belonged to God. When he was kneeling in prayer, he knew that he could not kill Goliath in his own strength. He knew that he could not guide that rock in his own wisdom and power. He knew that the battle was the Lord’s.

It does something remarkable to people when they see their leaders kneeling. It does something remarkable to children when they see their mother kneeling beside the bed of a sick child. It does something remarkable to a teenager when they know their dad is strapped financially and they see him kneeling in prayer. It does something remarkable when people see those who are significant in their life on their knees, seeking the strength that only God can give. God’s promise is sure. I used, as the Call to Worship today, God’s promise to Joshua before he led the people of Israel into the battle of Jericho and beyond: “Be strong and of good courage. I am the Lord your God, and I will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

I know giants face you. I know circumstances often seem overwhelming, intimidating, and threatening. Would you like to have victory? Kneel. Kneel before you go to battle. The awesome power of the Almighty God will dwarf what you have imagined to be a giant. David’s example is strong. Consider another example. In the Garden of Gethsemane before the giant of Golgotha, the Lord Jesus knelt and prayed. When he rose from his knees, he went to that hill, carrying that cross. It looked as if he had been conquered, but he was not defeated. He won the victory, the eternal victory over the enemy of sin and death.

Do you believe that the Lord Jesus has that kind of power over sin, death, and the giants you face? Have you trusted him? Have you asked him to be your Savior, to come into your heart, to give you the strength and courage you need to walk in the valleys every single day? Giants are at every turn. If we kneel in prayer and rise in the strength of the Lord, we will be victorious.

If you have never accepted Christ, we invite you to make that decision today. Some of you have other decisions to make. You know that God has led you to this place. This is to be your church home. If that is the case, we invite you to make that decision. As we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Search Me, O God,” we invite your response.

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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