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Stories for Children and Grown-ups: A Boy Fights a Giant

February 6, 2011
Sermon: Stories for Children and Grown-ups: A Boy Fights a Giant
Text: I Samuel 17:45, 48-49

Have you heard the story of Charlie Boswell, a veteran of World War II?  Charlie was injured in the war and left totally blind.  Charlie enjoyed the game of golf, and he often played before serving in the military.  When he returned to civilian life, his heart’s desire was to play golf again even though he was blind.  Charlie actually won the United States Blind Golf Championship thirteen times.  Being blind and playing golf – talk about a handicap!  Some of the golfers I know need to join that group of blind golfers.  They might have better luck.

In 1958, Ben Hogan himself presented Charlie Boswell with the Ben Hogan Award.  As the two men talked with each other, Charlie told Ben that he would dearly love for the two men to play a round of golf together.  He suggested, “Let’s put a little bet on the game.  How about a $1000 a hole?”

Ben answered, “I could never take advantage of a blind man.  It would ruin my reputation to place a bet like that with you.”

Charlie insisted, and Ben agreed to a round of golf at $1000 a hole.  Ben confessed, “Now, you need to know that I’m going to play my very best.”

Charlie said, “Mr. Hogan, I would not expect anything less of you.”

Ben suggested, “You set the time and place, and we’ll play.”

“Meet me on the golf course at 10:00 tonight.”

One of the greatest strategies in the world is taking a disadvantage and finding a way to turn it into an advantage.

“A Boy Fights a Giant,” the encounter between David and Goliath, is a wonderful story that we so often identify as a children’s tale.  It focuses on that very concept of taking what seems to be a weakness and turning it into a source of strength.  David did just that when he faced the giant, Goliath, in I Samuel 17.  You might want to read this excellent story to your children or grandchildren.

When this story opens, the Philistine army and the people of Israel had gathered for battle in the Valley of Elah.  I have actually seen the Valley of Elah where this battle occurred.  It is a deep rocky gorge, just the kind of location a good military strategist might want to take a battle.  In that day and time, armies had a way of limiting their casualties.  Sometimes each side would pick just one warrior to fight.  The result of that conflict involving only two individuals would determine which entire army would be victorious and which would be subject to the other.  The Philistines had chosen Goliath, who was a formidable opponent.  The Israelite soldiers felt so overwhelmed by his size and strength that no warrior dared to face him.

When I was at Furman in the 1960’s, a fellow who lived on my hall in the dormitory hung a poster on the door outside his room.  The poster showed a big hulking man, who looked something like a gorilla, holding a spike-covered ball and chain.  Underneath this ferocious picture was a quote from Psalm 23, actually a misquote:  “Yea, though a walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because I am the biggest guy in the valley.”  That is not what the psalm says.  That is not what the poster said; I am giving you the Revised Standard Version.  The man on that poster reminded me of Goliath.

Goliath was the biggest, meanest, and strongest guy in the valley.  Every Israelite soldier was absolutely daunted by him.  Frederick Buechner describes the giant as being nine feet tall and ten feet tall in his stocking feet.  The Bible actually says he was 9’9”, but who is going to quibble about three inches?  Goliath, Buechner says, had a 20” collar, a 9.5” hat, and a 52” belt.  He was an impressive sight, particularly when wearing his armor.  The Bible describes that armor as weighing 175 pounds and the head of his javelin as weighing 15 pounds.  Goliath, built like a Sherman tank, did not just look scary.  He also talked scary.  His language was very rough.

By all rights, the person who should have gone out to face Goliath was King Saul.  We read that he stood head and shoulders above everyone else in the army of Israel.  Though Saul was a big man, he did not want to fight Goliath either.  We know that Saul was afflicted with a depressive disorder.  David, “the sweet singer of Israel,” often tried to calm Saul’s dark episodes by going to the king’s court and playing his harp.  David acted as a music therapist.

We see that David was also present at the Valley of Elah just prior to the battle.  He had come to deliver a care package of food to his older brothers upon the request of his father, Jesse.  When David reached the valley, he sees all of his heroes – King Saul who served as leader of the army, his older brothers who served on the frontline, and other soldiers in the army of Israel who nervously awaited battle.   David was absolutely astounded that they were all cowering before this giant.  His youthful idealism could not absorb their lack of courage.  How could the people he truly admired stoop so low and refuse to fight the giant?

We hear David speak for the first time here in the valley with a simple question, “What kind of benefit will come to the man who decides to fight the giant?”  He wanted to know what Saul was doing about this situation.  He wanted to know how King Saul was enticing his soldiers to fight Goliath.

Eliab, David’s brother, heard David’s question and criticized it.  He said, “David had this thing with Samuel, and Samuel did something with oil.  David is supposed to be hot stuff.  Now he has come here.  His questions will make us all look bad.”  They could have had some sort of sibling conflict right there, but David did not respond to his older brother.

David learned that King Saul had offered an incentive program.  First, the person who killed Goliath would marry Saul’s daughter.  We find out later on that particular incentive was no great shakes.  Second, the person who killed Goliath would get a cash bonus and tax break.  This second incentive sounds like some of the plans offered in our day and time.

Considering any taker who would fight this giant, Saul sent for David when he heard that David had been asking questions.  Saul looked at David and thought, This is the harp kid that strums the harp and sings songs.  Here he stands, not weighing as much as Goliath’s armor, even soaking wet.  David cannot do this. David, looking at Saul, thought, King Saul should be fighting Goliath.  He cannot let us down like this.

Before allowing David to fight Goliath, Saul tried to persuade him to put on his armor.  You must understand that the Philistines had already entered the Iron Age.  They had metal implements with which to fight.  Look at the full suit of armor Goliath wore.  The people of Israel, however, were still in the Stone Age, fighting with bows and arrows and with spears tipped with sharp rocks.  The one exception in Israel was King Saul.  He did have armor, and he offered it to David.

Saul’s armor, designed for a rather large man, did not fit David at all.  He rattled around it in for a few minutes and said, “I cannot wear this stuff.  This is not what I need to fight the battle against Goliath.  I have fought and killed wild beasts – lions, and tigers, and bears – without all this cumbersome armor.  I am not afraid of this Philistine, and I need to use what I have against him.”

With his simple shepherd’s tunic, staff, and sling, David picked up five smooth stones from the little creek that flowed through the battleground.  David thought, This is all I need.  I’m going to use the weapons I know, the weapons I have used to kill lions and bears.  Goliath can have all of his armor, but this is what I am taking.

People have raised questions about David’s decision to take five stones with him to face Goliath.  Some have suggested that he did not have enough faith.  Maybe David should have just taken one stone.  I do not see David’s taking five stones as a lack of faith at all.  David was pretty wise.  I imagine he thought, I need a little extra ammunition.  Others have said that David took five stones because Goliath had four giant brothers.  II Samuel 21 does tell us of four more giants, one with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot.  David might have to face the brothers, but Scripture offers no indication of that assumption.  Those four giants all die later at the hands of David’s men.

Goliath was rude, crude, and unattractive.  He was a bad dude.  He did not use deodorant, and he was the champion cursor.  Goliath had nothing but disdain for David when the handsome young man approached him.  He hurled insults and curses and taunted David, “Come, come close to me.”  David thought in his mind, No way.  I’m not getting close enough for you to strike a blow. David knew that he could not defeat Goliath by fighting close hand-to-hand combat.  The battle would be certainly be lost.

This story makes me think about a heavy-weight boxing match that occurred in Las Vegas years ago.  The heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston, was to fight a young upstart from Louisville, Kentucky, who was named Cassius Clay in those days.  Most people thought that Liston was going to beat the pulp out of Clay, but the champion was never able to hit his opponent.  Cassius Clay danced and danced and danced in circles, staying out of reach of Liston’s ferocious swings.  In the end, Cassius Clay won the match.  You may remember the line from the little poem that Clay wrote later on when he was known as Mohammed Ali:  “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”  He fought most of his fights by simply staying away from his opponent’s strength.

David also stayed away from his opponent’s strength.    Listen to what David told Goliath, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defiled…Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know there is a God in Israel.  It is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves.  For the battle belongs to the Lord, and he will give you into our hands.”

I guess that when David referred to the birds of the air, Goliath must have looked up to the sky.  David slung that first rock, striking Goliath squarely in the forehead underneath the visor of his helmet.  Goliath tumbled to the ground.  Some have said that this is the first rock and roll event in history.  David slung the rock, and Goliath’s head rolled.  It is like just about every other rock and roll event.  Somebody was stoned out of his mind.  In this case, it was Goliath.

When the Philistines saw that their formidable warrior had been killed, they quickly retreated to escape the pursuing army of Israel.  The chronicles of the people of Israel note this great day of victory.

If we look at this story from an adult perspective, you have to wonder how David’s brothers felt after seeing their young brother’s heroic deed.  Do you think they were a little embarrassed that David had slain the giant when they had been so afraid?  The brothers had looked out to the battlefield in the valley and saw a great giant.  David’s perception was different from his brothers’.  He looked out to the battlefield and saw an opportunity.  Though the obstacle was big and powerful, David knew that his God was bigger and more powerful than any Philistine giant.

How do you think Saul felt?  This youth, who had played the harp and sung music when Saul was in one of his black spells, had singlehandedly defeated the hero of the Philistine army.  This event marked a great political turning point.  David rose to the top.  Saul was still revered as a man who could kill thousands, but now David was known as the one who had slain his tens of thousands.  From that point on, Saul and David were adversaries.  Saul tried to kill David on several occasions.  David had opportunities to kill Saul, but he would not hurt the king.  David knew it was wrong to lay hands on the Lord’s anointed.

I have often read this story and wished that one other adult had been in the Valley of Elah to witness this battle.  I wish that Jesse, David’s father, had been standing on the brink of that hill and looking down on his youngest son.  I wish that he could have seen David, the shepherd boy with only a staff, a sling, and five smooth stones, kill the terrifying Philistine warrior.  I wonder how Jesse would have felt.

I know how it feels to send children out to face the giants.  I know how it feels to put children on an airplane.  I know how it feels to send children on a trip around the world, carrying only a backpack that weighed less than Clare’s pocketbook.  I know how it feels to hand children the keys to the car and watch them drive out of the driveway on a Saturday night.  I know how it feels to see children leave home for college, knowing that they are able to make decisions on their own.  You can say that the college is serving as loco parentis. No, this does not mean that the parents are loco.  It means that the college is serving in place of the parents.  Colleges do not do that.  Our children are on their own at college.

Some of you have sent children off to boot camp or put them on airplanes and sent them to the mission field.  We stand on the brink of the hill and watch them go out to face the giants.  We tell them, “Here, take my armor.  Take my experience.  Take my strength.  Take this set of values I have packed for you.”  They answer, “No, Dad.  I have to do this on my own.”

The Scout motto is “Be prepared.”  The first duty of a Scout:  “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God.”  I do not know all that Jesse taught David.  Maybe he taught him how to tend sheep.  Maybe he taught him how to use a sling.  I do know that Jesse taught David to be a child of God.  Jesse taught David that his life belonged to his heavenly Father, not to his earthly father.  Jesse taught David that whatever he did, wherever he went, whatever challenges he faced, he was responsible to God and God alone.  David was prepared when he went up against Goliath.  Though it might have seemed that he did not have enough armor, he did.  David told his adversary, “I come against you in the name of the Lord God.”  That armor was enough.

I was talking one time with Bernard Weiskopf, a pediatric psychiatrist who worked in Louisville, Kentucky.  He was a wonderful Jewish man.  He told me, “When I am working with a child, I very often use the story of David and Goliath. It is one of the greatest stories about the weak overcoming the strong, about people feeling like the odds are stacked against them.  This story teaches children that the odds are not against them.  It teaches them to learn to use all the equipment that God has given them.”

In that sense, “A Boy Fights a Giant” is a children’s story.  Children live in a world of kneecaps.  They live among the giants.  Everybody is bigger than they are.  The plot of this story, as it unfolds here in I Samuel 17, is the plan of almost every fairytale.  The small live among the giants.  The weak overcome the strong.  People who have their wits about them defeat somebody bigger and more powerful.  The lessons discovered through this story are different from memorizing the multiplication tables.  You learn that three times four is always twelve.  The answer never changes.  When we read this story as a child and then hear it again and again and again in later years, it grows and deepens into our spirit.  We begin to see that while this story is good for children, it is also good for people who have gray hair.  This is good for everybody.  It is, after all, the Word of God.

This strategy of making an advantage out of using a disadvantage has been used in war.  Think about the speech King Henry IV gave to the soldiers at Agincourt on Saint Crispin’s Day. Think about Lawrence of Arabia taking on the Ottoman Turks with a band of ragtag Bedouins.  Instead of attacking Medina, the Turks’ stronghold, this band journeyed across the desert and took the port city of Aqaba, cutting off the supply lines of the Turkish army.  Think about Russian peasants retreating from the armies of Napoleon and leaving Napoleon to face the Russian winter without supplies.  Look no further than the events that have taken place in Egypt this week.  The story of David and Goliath is about the weak overcoming the strong by using their strengths, talents, and abilities to serve God.

Goliath was not the only giant David faced.  Other giants would follow.  Saul would become his own adversary.  His sin with Bathsheba was a massive giant within his own life.  David faced that adversary in the only way he could.  He simply surrendered and confessed his sin:  “Against Thee, and Thee only, have I sinned and done that which is evil in Thy sight…Create within me a clean heart, O God, and renew within me a right spirit…Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation…” (Psalm 51:4, 10, 12).

What kinds of giants are you facing?  Everybody I know is facing a giant of some sort.  It may be a marital problem or a financial problem.  For some, it is a problem with their business or a child.  For others, it is a struggle with doubt, suspicious, despair.  Everybody I know is facing a giant of some sort.  We cannot win the battle if we believe we can do it in our own strength.  It just will not happen.  Look at what he David did.  He trusted in God and used the strength that God had given him.  He knew that the battle belonged to the Lord and that the victory was God’s.

The Lord Jesus Christ came into this world to give to us victory over sin and death.  It is God’s way of saying, “Listen, I am going to be with you forever.  I am not going to leave you.  You are not going to have to face this alone.  I am going to be with you through the spirit of my Son.  He is always with you, but you have to acknowledge that.  You have to surrender to it.  You have to accept it.”  Here at Morningside, we sometimes talk about our national anthem, “Victory in Jesus.”  Acknowledging that victory is the way you find Jesus.

Have you accepted Christ as your Savior?  Have you made a decision to acknowledge him as the Lord of your life?  If not, could I encourage you to do so?  It is the only way you will face the giants.  It is the only way you will win the battle.  Whatever way God is leading you, we invite you to respond.


Kirk H. Neely
© January 2011

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