Recently I reflected on David’s encounter with Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-58), and for the first time noticed something that gave me a cool insight. As I read through the account, there were the usual observations I had seen before. At nine feet tall, Goliath was a pituitary giant. These unfortunate folks usually have weak hearts. The man also wore heavy bronze armor and carried bronze and iron weapons. He clearly had some strengths, but also a few obvious weaknesses. With his size, his movements would have been ponderous and he would have tired easily. The opponent most likely to be successful against him would have to be someone who could move quickly and keep out of range of his weapons.
Goliath’s taunts of the Israelite army were a large part of his assault. A voice that was no doubt booming and his formidable size with overlarge weapons surely made it easy to daunt the Israelite army. His challenge to single combat really ratcheted up the stakes. It is no wonder that the Israelites couldn’t find anyone willing to meet Goliath. The war of nerves was pretty one-sided, but that was only because the Israelite army was thinking in the same terms as the Philistines—matching strength for strength.
David reset the terms by asking, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Samuel 17:26b) —that is, David didn’t see a giant who had all the advantage by brawn and force; rather, he saw one who was at a fatal disadvantage because he was opposing the army of the people who served the true God—even if that same army was failing to remember that. In short, David recognized that this was not a secular battle but a spiritual battle—and he was confident of victory because he was dedicated to the living God.
From an encounter based on sword against sword, armed warrior against armed warrior, David changed things by forsaking armor and even conventional weapons. When he stepped out unarmored and apparently weaponless to confront the giant, Goliath protested, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (1 Samuel 17:43b) Goliath had failed to realize that the terms of battle had shifted. David announced the new terms in the exchange of boasts before the fight when he cried, “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” (1 Samuel 17:45b-46a).
See, David was totally confident that the Lord would deliver Goliath and that he would prevail in the clash. Still, confronting Goliath in the valley while two armies watched from the ridges must have taken a lot of courage. With that courage, in spite of his youth, David could also depend on his experience against lions and bears, as he had informed Saul. So David went out with both faith in God and his own skill and cunning. The sling was precisely the right weapon with which to do battle against Goliath.
The new insight I mentioned above came to me when I read that David had chosen “five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet” (1 Samuel 17:40). The thing is, he took five stones. Though fully confident in the Lord, he didn’t take just one stone; he admitted to himself the possibility that he might miss the first time—and the second, third, and fourth. David knew that his success against Goliath would have to depend not only on the Lord’s favor and grace, but also on his own courage, his successful defense of his flock against lions and bears, and his skill with the sling, and he knew that these were fallible and he had to be prepared for catastrophe. That is, alongside the grace of God he would have to work for the victory.
So it often is with the faithful. Many times, like the Israelite army, we think by a secular measure and therefore refuse to go to battle because we are vastly outnumbered and outgunned and we are unnerved by formidable opposition. On the other hand our dependence on the Lord may be such that we only “pick up one stone”; we expect deliverance by a miracle and fail to see that we have to do our part with everything we’ve got—our own courage, our own experience, our own skills, and our own possibility of missing the mark once or twice or more often than that when the battle is joined. God will not abandon us, but usually neither will he do all the work.
In nearly every specific task in Scripture that God asks of his people, they have to do something. Noah had to build an ark. Ananias had to go to Saul to lay hands on him after his conversion. Etc., etc. God assures us the victory, but we cannot be mere spectators to it. We have to do our part, and that means going forth confidently while also admitting the possibility of setbacks and failures. Taking five smooth stones is by no means evidence of distrust in God—on the contrary, it is recognizing that within God’s grace we are subject to failure and reversal even as we go forward on the winning side to ultimate victory.