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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 17

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-58



1 Samuel 17:1-58.

THESE irrepressible Philistines were never long recovering from their disasters. The victory of Jonathan had been impaired by the exhaustion of the soldiers, caused by Saul’s fast preventing them from pursuing the enemy as far, and destroying their force as thoroughly, as they might have done. A new attack was organized against Israel, headed by a champion, Goliath of Gath, whose height must have approached the extraordinary stature of ten feet. Against this army Saul arrayed his force, and the two armies fronted each other on opposite sides of the valley of Elah. This valley has generally been identified with that which now bears the name of Wady-es-Sumt - a valley running down from the plateau of Judah to the Philistine plain, not more than perhaps eight or ten miles from Bethlehem. The Philistine champion appears to have been a man of physical strength corresponding to the massiveness of his body. The weight of his coat of mail is estimated at more than one hundred and fifty pounds, and the head of his spear eighteen pounds. Remembering the extraordinary feats of Samson, the Philistines might well fancy that it was new their turn to boast of a Hercules. Day after day Goliath presented himself before the army of Israel, calling proudly for a foeman worthy of his steel, and demanding that in default of any one able to fight with him and kill him, the Israelites should abandon all dream of independence, and become vassals of the Philistines. And morning and evening, for nearly six weeks, had this proud challenge been given, but never once accepted. Even Jonathan, who had faith enough and courage enough and skill enough for so much, seems to have felt himself helpless in this great dilemma. The explanation that has sometimes been given of his abstention, that it was not etiquette for a king’s son to engage in fight with a commoner, can hardly hold water; Jonathan showed no such squeamishness at Michmash; and besides, in cases of desperation etiquette has to be thrown to the winds. Of the host of Israel, we read simply that they were dismayed. Nor does Saul seem to have renewed the attempt to get counsel of God after his experience on the day of Jonathan’s victory. The Israelites could only look on in grim humiliation, sullenly guarding the pass by the valley into their territories, but returning a silent refusal to the demand of the Philistines either to furnish a champion or to become their servants.

The coming of David upon the scene corresponded in its accidental character to the coming of Saul into contact with Samuel, to be designated for the throne. Everything seemed to be casual, yet those things which seemed most casual were really links in a providential chain leading to the gravest issues. It seemed to be by chance that David had three brothers serving in Saul’s army; it seemed also to be by chance that their father sent his youthful shepherd son to inquire after their welfare; it was not by design that as he saluted his brethren Goliath came up and David heard his words of defiance; still less was it on purpose to wait for David that Saul had sent no one out as yet to encounter the Philistine; and nothing could have appeared more ridiculous than that the challenge should wait to be answered by the stripling shepherd, who, with his sling and shepherd’s bag thrown over his shoulder, had so little of the appearance of a man of war. It seemed very accidental, too, that the only part of the giant’s person that was not thoroughly defended by his armour, his eyes and a morsel of his forehead above them, was the only part of him on which a small stone from a sling could have inflicted a fatal injury. But obviously all these were parts of the providential plan by which David was at once to confer on his country a signal boon, and to raise his name to the pinnacle of fame. And, as usual, all the parts of this pre-arranged plan fell out without constraint or interference; a new proof that Divine pre-ordination does not impair the liberty of man.

One cannot but wonder whether, in offering his prayers that morning, David had any presentiment of the trial that awaited him, anything to impel him to unwonted fervour in asking God that day to establish the works of his hands upon him. There is no reason to think that he had. His prayers that morning were in all likelihood his usual prayers. And if he was sincere in the expression of his own sense of weakness, and in his supplication that God would strengthen him for all the day’s duties, it was enough. Oh! how little we know what may be before us, on some morning that dawns on us just as other days, but which is to form a great crisis in our life. How little the boy that is to tell his first lie that day thinks of the serpent that is lying in wait for him I How little the girl that is to fall in with her betrayer thinks of the snare preparing for her body and her soul! How little the party that are to be upset in the pleasure boat and consigned to a watery grave think how the day is to end! Should we not pray more really, more earnestly if we did realize these possibilities? True, indeed, the future is hid from us, and we do not usually experience the impulse to earnestness which it would impart. But is it not a good habit, as you kneel each morning, to think, "For aught I know, this may be the most important day of my life. The opportunity may be given me of doing a great service in the cause of truth and righteousness; or the temptation may assail me to deny my Lord and ruin my soul. O God, be not far from me this day; prepare me for all that Thou preparest for me!"

The distance from Bethlehem being but a few hours walk, David starting in the morning would arrive early in the day at the quarters of the army. When he heard the challenge of the Philistine he was astonished to find that no one had taken it up. There was a mystery about this, about the cowardice of his countrymen, perhaps about the attitude of Jonathan, that he could not solve. Accordingly, with all that earnestness and curiosity with which one peers into all the circumstances surrounding a mystery, he asked, what encouragement there was to volunteer, what reward was any one to receive who should kill this Philistine? Not that he personally was caring about the reward, but he wished to solve the mystery. It is evident that the consideration that moved David himself was that the Philistine had defied the armies of the living God. It was the same arrogant claim to be above the God of Israel, which had puffed up their minds when they took possession of the ark and placed it in the temple of their god. "You thought so that day," David might mutter, ’’but what did you think next morning, when the mutilated image of your god lay prostrate on the floor? Please God, your sensations to-morrow, yea, this very fore-noon, shall be such as they were then." The spirit of faith started into full and high activity, and the same kind of inspiration that had impelled Jonathan to climb into the garrison at Michmash now impelled David to vindicate the blasphemed name of Jehovah. Was it the flash of this inspiration in his eye, was it the tone of it in his voice, was it the consciousness that something desperate was to follow in the way of personal faith and daring, that roused the temper of Eliab, and drew from him a withering rebuke of the presumption of the stripling that dared to meddle with such matters? Eliab certainly did not spare him. Elder brothers are seldom remiss in rebuking the presumption of younger. "Why camest thou down hither? And with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know thy pride and the naughtiness of thy heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle." Irritating though such language was, it was borne with admirable meekness. "What have I now done? Is there not a cause?" "He that ruleth his spirit is greater than he that taketh a city." Eliab showed himself defeated by his own temper, a most mortifying defeat; David held his temper firmly in command. Which was the greater, which the better man? And the short question he put to Eliab was singularly apt, ’’Is there not a cause?" When all you men of war are standing helpless and perplexed in the face of this great national insult, is there not a cause why I should inquire into the matter, if, by God’s help, I can do any- thing for my God and my people?

Undaunted by his brother’s volley, he turned to someone else, and obtained a similar answer to his questions. Inspiration is a rapid process, and the course for him to pursue was now fully determined upon. His indignant tone and confident reliance on the God of Israel, so unlike the tone of everyone else excited the attention of the bystanders; they rehearsed his words to Saul, and Saul sent for him. And when he came to Saul, there was not the slightest trace of fear or faintheartedness about him. ’’Let no man’s heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine." Brave words, but, as Saul thinks, very foolish. ’’You go and fight with the Philistine? you a mere shepherd boy, who never knew the brunt of battle, and he a man of war from his youth?" Yes Saul, that is just the way for you to speak, with your earthly way of viewing things; you, who measure strength only by a carnal standard, who know nothing of the faith that removes mountains, who forget the meaning of the name ISRA-EL, and never spent an hour as Jacob spent his night at Peniel! Listen to the reply of faith. ’’And David said unto Saul Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock; and I went out after him and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth; and when he arose against me I caught him by his beard, and smote him and slew him Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God. David said moreover, The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear. He will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine."

Could there have been a nobler exercise of faith, a finer instance of a human spirit taking hold of the Invisible; fortifying itself against material perils by realizing the help of an unseen God; resting on His sure word as on solid rock; flinging itself fearlessly on a very sea of dangers; confident of protection and victory from Him? The only help to faith was the remembrance of the encounter with the lion and the bear, and the assurance that the same gracious help would be vouchsafed now. But no heart that was not full of faith would have thought of that, either as an evidence that God worked by him then, or as a sure pledge that God would work by him now. How many m adventurer or sportsman, that in some encounter with wild animals has escaped death by the very skin of his teeth, thinks only of his luck, or the happiness of the thought that led him to do so and so in what seemed the very article of death? A deliverance of this kind is no security against a like deliverance afterwards; it can give nothing more than a hope of escape. The faith of David recognized God’s merciful hand in the first deliverance, and that gave an assurance of it in the other. What! would that God that had helped him to rescue a lamb fail him while trying to rescue a nation? Would that God that had sustained him when all that was involved was a trifling loss to his father fail him in a combat that involved the salvation of Israel and the honour of Israel’s God? Would He who had subdued for him the lion and the bear when they were but obeying the instincts of their nature, humiliate him in conflict with one who was defying the armies of the living God? The remembrance of this deliverance confirmed his faith and urged him to the conflict, and the victory which faith thus gained was complete. It swept the decks clear of every vestige of terror; it went right to the danger, without a particle of misgiving.

There are two ways in which faith may assert its supremacy. One, afterwards very familiar to David, is, when it has first to struggle hard with distrust and fear; when it has to come to close quarters with the suggestions of the carnal mind, grapple with these in mortal conflict, strangle them, and rise up victorious over them. For most men, most believing men, it is only thus that faith rises to her throne. The other way is, to spring to her throne in a moment; to assert her authority, free and independent, utterly regardless of all that would hamper her, as free from doubt and misgiving as a little child in his father’s arms, conscious that whatever is needed that father will provide. It was this simple, child-like, but most triumphant exercise of faith that David showed in undertaking this conflict. Happy they who are privileged with such an attainment! Only let us beware of despairing if we cannot attain to this prompt, instinctive faith. Let us fall back with patience on that other process where we have to fight in the first instance with our fears and misgivings, driving them from us as David had often to do afterwards: ’’Why art thou cast down, O my soul, and why art thou disquieted in me? Hope in God, for I will yet praise Him who is the health of my countenance and my God."

And now David prepared himself for the contest Saul, ever carnal, and trusting only in carnal devices, is fain to clothe him in his armour, and David makes trial of his coat of mail; but he is embarrassed by a heavy covering to which he is not accustomed, and which only impedes the freedom of his arm. It is plain enough that it is not in Saul’s panoply that he can meet the Philistine. He must fall back on simpler means. Choosing five smooth stones out of the brook, with his shepherd’s staff in one hand and his sling in the other, he drew near to the Philistine. When Goliath saw him no words were bitter enough for his scorn. He had sought a warrior to fight with; he gets a boy to annihilate. It is a paltry business. "Come to me, and I will give thy flesh to the fowls of the air and to the beasts of the fields." ’’Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might." Was ever such proof given of the sin and folly of boasting as in the case of Goliath? And yet, as we should say, how natural it was for Goliath! But pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. In the spiritual conflict it is the surest presage of defeat. It was the Goliath spirit that puffed up St. Peter when he said to his Master, ’’Lord, I will go with Thee to prison and to death." It is the same spirit against which St. Paul gives his remarkable warning, "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." Can it be said that it is a spirit that Churches are always free from? Are they never tempted to boast of the talents of their leading men, the success of their movements, and their growing power and influence in the community? And does not God in His providence constantly show the sin and folly of such boasting? ’’Because thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing, and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."

In beautiful contrast with the scornful self-confidence of Goliath was the simplicity of spirit and the meek, humble reliance on God, apparent in David’s answer: "Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield; but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. This day will the Lord deliver thee into my hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcasses of the Philistines this day to the fowls of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hand."

What a reality God was to David! He advanced "as seeing Him who is invisible." Guided by the wisdom of God, he chose his method of attack, with all the simplicity and certainty of genius. Conscious that God was with him, he fearlessly met the enemy. A man of less faith might have been too nervous to take the proper aim. Undisturbed by any fear of missing, David hurls the stone from his sling, hits the giant on the unprotected part of his forehead, and in a moment has him reeling on the ground. Advancing to his prostrate foe, he seizes his sword, cuts off his head, and affords to both friends and foes unmistakable evidence that his opponent is dead. Rushing from their tents, the, Philistines fly towards their own country, hotly pursued by the Israelites. It was in these pursuits of flying foes that the greatest slaughter occurred in those Eastern countries, and the whole road was strewn with the dead bodies of the foe to the very gates of Ekron and Gaza. In this pursuit, however, David did not mingle. With the head of the Philistine in his hands, he came to Saul. It is said that afterwards he took the head of Goliath to Jerusalem, which was then occupied, at least in part, by the Benjamites (Judges 1:21), though the Stronghold of Zion was in the hands of the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:7). We do not know why Jerusalem was chosen for depositing this ghastly trophy. All that it is necessary to say in relation to this is, that seeing it was only the stronghold of Zion that is said to have been held by the Jebusites, there is no ground for the objection which some critics have taken to the narrative that it cannot be correct, since Jerusalem was not yet in the hands of the Israelites.

It cannot be doubted that David continued to hold the same conviction as before the battle, that it was not he that conquered, but God. We cannot doubt that after the battle he showed the same meek and humble spirit as before. Whatever surprise his victory might be to the tens of thousands who witnessed it, it was no surprise to him. He knew beforehand that he could trust God, and the result showed that he was right. But that very spirit of implicit trust in God by which he was so thoroughly influenced kept him from taking any of the glory to himself. God had chosen him to be His instrument, but he had no credit from the victory for himself. His feeling that day was the very same as his feeling at the close of his military life, when the Lord had delivered him out of the hand of all his enemies: - "The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer; the God of my rock, in Him will I trust; He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my high tower and my refuge, my saviour; Thou savest me from violence."

While David was preparing to fight with the Philistine, Saul asked Abner whose son he was. Strange to say, neither Abner nor anyone else could tell. Nor could the question be answered till David came back from his victory, and told the king that he was the son of Jesse the Bethlehemite. We have already remarked that it was strange that Saul should not have recognized him, inasmuch as he had formerly given attendance on the king to drive away his evil spirit by means of his harp. In explanation it has been urged by some that David’s visit or visits to Saul at that time may have been very brief, and as years may have elapsed since his last visit, his appearance may have so changed as to prevent recognition. On the part of others, another explanation has been offered. Saul may have recognized David at first, but he did not know his family. Now that there was a probability of his becoming the king’s son-in-law, it was natural that Saul should be anxious to know his connections. The question put to Abner was, Whose son is this youth? The commission given to him was to enquire "whose son the stripling is." And the information given by David was, "I am the son of thy servant Jesse the Bethlehemite." It may be added that there is some difficulty about the text of this chapter. It seems as if somehow two independent accounts of David had been mixed together. And in one important version of the Septuagint several passages that occur in the received text are omitted, certainly with the result of removing some difficulties as the passage stands.

It is not possible to read this chapter without some thought of the typical character of David, and indeed the typical aspect of the conflict in which he was now engaged. We find an emblematic picture of the conquest of Messiah and His Church. The self-confident boasting of the giant, strong in the resources of carnal might, and incapable of appreciating the unseen and invincible power of a righteous man in a righteous cause, is precisely the spirit in which opposition to Christ has been usually given, "Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us." The contempt shown for the lowly appearance of David, the undisguised scorn at the notion that through such a stripling any deliverance could come to his people, has its counterpart in the feeling towards Christ and His Gospel to which the Apostle alludes: "We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness." The calm self-possession of David, the choice of simple but suitable means, and the thorough reliance on Jehovah which enabled him to conquer, were all exemplified, in far higher measure, in the moral victories of Jesus, and they are still the weapons which enable His people to overcome. The sword of Goliath turned against himself, the weapon by which he was to annihilate his foe, employed by that very foe to sever his head from his body, was an emblem of Satan’s weapons turned by Christ against Satan, "through death he destroyed him that had the power of death, and delivered them who all their lifetime were subject to bondage." The representative character of David, fighting, not for himself alone but the whole nation, was analogous to the representative character of Christ. And the shout that burst from the ranks of Israel and Judah when they saw the champion of the Philistines fall, and the enemy betake themselves in consternation to flight, foreshadowed the joy of redeemed men when the reality of Christ’s salvation flashes on their hearts, and they see the enemies that have been harassing them repulsed and scattered - a joy to be immeasurably magnified when all enemies are finally conquered, and the loud voice is heard in heaven, "Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God and the power of His Christ; for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, that accused them before our God day and night."

Lastly, while we are instructed by the study of this conflict, let us be animated by it too. Let us learn never to quail at carnal might arrayed against the cause of God. Let us never fear to attack sin, however apparently invincible it may be. Be it sin within or sin without, sin in our hearts or sin in the world, let us go boldly at it, strong in the might of God. That God who delivered David from the paw of the wild beast, and from the power of the giant, will make us more than conquerors - will enable us to spoil "principalities and powers and triumph openly over them."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 17". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/1-samuel-17.html.
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