As Israel stood paralyzed with fear before Goliath, David’s words put this defiant enemy in his rightful place before God. When David volunteered to go and face the giant, though, Saul doubted the young shepherd. Making his case for confronting Goliath, David expressed trust not in weapons, armor, or himself but in the Lord. Alistair Begg examines this exchange between Israel’s spiritually depleted ruler and its Spirit-filled future king, directing our gaze to the ultimate Savior and King, Jesus Christ.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, let me encourage you to turn to 1 Samuel 17, and we’ll read just the section that begins at verse 31 and take that through to the end of verse 40. First Samuel 17:31. If you’re visiting here this evening, we have been studying—we are studying—1 Samuel together. And having gone part of the way through this chapter and hastening towards its end, we study another section of it this evening. Verse 31:
“When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul, and he sent for him. And David said to Saul, ‘Let no man’s heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.’ And Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.’ But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he [rose] against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.’ And David said, ‘The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.’ And Saul said to David, ‘Go, and the Lord be with you!’
“Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.’ So David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.”
Speak, Lord, in the stillness,
While we wait on thee;
Hush our hearts to listen
For Christ’s sake. Amen.
Well, we left it this morning with David having turned away from the encounter with his elder brother Eliab and found another small group of people to engage in the same conversation with which we have already become familiar. And since he had made these inquiries about why it was that nobody apparently was prepared to step forward and take up the challenge of this giant, Goliath the Philistine, it was inevitable that the word would eventually reach Saul the king himself.
Now, we know that Saul is in poor repair, but ostensibly, he is still the king. There is no reason for us to think that he knows anything about what had happened in that private incident recorded in the earliest part of chapter 16. And certainly the word reaching him of a possible volunteer to deal with this great marauding rascal would be very, very quickly responded to, and he would have regarded it certainly with great appeal—someone that would finally step up or, if you like, step out and do what, actually, he, as Saul, in a position of leadership, should himself have been doing.
And so we read in 31 that “when the words that David spoke were heard…” Now, let’s just remember the words that David spoke. What David was introducing, as we saw this morning, was a number of factors that were largely ignored.
First of all, if you like, we could say that the words of David were putting Goliath in his place. He was declaring what Goliath really was: he was big, and he was a giant, for sure, but he was an “uncircumcised Philistine.” He was not part of the covenant family of God. He was a worshipper of non-gods, and therefore, it was bizarre to David that this fellow was able to do what he was doing. So his words put Goliath in his place.
The words that David spoke also acknowledge the place of God. He introduces the fact that the God of Israel is Yahweh. He is “the living God.”
And also, the words of David put, if you like, the army in their place, insofar as he was reminding them that they were “the arm[y] of the living God”—that they were professing to be the followers of a God who is very much alive, and they were neutralized and paralyzed by the servant of a non-god who had no power to do anything at all.
And so we’re told that when the words that David spoke had been heard and had reached Saul, he then “sent for him.” Actually, the verb is even stronger than that; it is “he took him.” You get the picture of saying, “Hey, come here. I hear that you are a volunteer.” It’s hard to imagine, actually, in the initial encounter, just in terms of first blush—somebody said, “We have a volunteer,” and eventually in comes young David—I can’t imagine that it did anything immediately to enliven in Saul any sense of impending victory as he had a proper look at him.
And if, as we’ve been saying all along, the events in the second half of chapter 16 follow the events that we’re considering now, then this actually is the first meeting between Saul and David. This is their first encounter. The God-forsaken king meets the Spirit-filled David. And the story, as we are saying, has been building to this point. As we read the story, we’re keen for action. You are, and I am. And we have next Sunday, all being well, to look forward to.
But for now I wrote down in my notes during the week, “It’s Go Time.” I didn’t really know what it meant, and so I googled it, and I discovered that it means in slang a number of things with which I really don’t want to be identified. But I did also find in my researches a group in South Carolina which is called Go Time. And apparently—I don’t know if it’s a cycling club or whatever else it is—but their strapline is “Go Time: Events where great things can happen.” I said, “That’s good. That’s good. So, I’ll keep it. It’s go time! Where great things can happen.” And so, I want simply to follow the line of the text in which we have a reference to going.
And you will notice that this comes very, very quickly where, in verse 32, David said to Saul, “Your servant will go.” “Your servant will go.” That’s the first one. All right?
In fact, he prefaces that declaration by saying, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him”—the “him” being, of course, Goliath. And I could imagine that Saul might have said, “I’m glad you clarified that, because just the prospect of you going out there actually almost gave me a heart attack, without any thought of the giant.” So, “Let no man’s heart fail because of [the giant].”
Notice, actually, how quickly in this encounter David is in the driving seat. You know, when people meet one another for the first time, it’s interesting to see who’s on the front foot. Sometimes it balances perfectly, but oftentimes somebody will immediately be the initiative-taker. Someone will be the catalyst; the other will be the reactor. And as you see this, it is clear that it is David, now, who immediately addresses Saul. Saul sends for him, and without any further introductions, David makes this statement: “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.” “Let no man’s heart fail because of him.”
Now, that is quite amazing, isn’t it? They are all completely paralyzed by this character. They are afraid of him. When they see him now, they run away from him. They don’t like to hear what he has to say, because he keeps challenging them, and they have no answer at all. And up comes this little fellow, and his opening gambit is “Don’t let anybody be afraid of him. Your servant will go and fight.”
Now, we don’t want to go all the way through the history of Israel on this, but one passage that will immediately come to some of your minds, along the same lines, is when in that amazing scene where everything is laid out in such a way that all of the balance of power is on the side of the Egyptians. And they are coming in a vast host with horses and chariots, and they have overtaken the camp of the Israelites, and Pharaoh draws near. The people lift up their eyes. The Egyptians are “marching after them.” The people are “fear[ing] greatly.” They start to cry out. “They said to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you[’ve] taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us … bringing us out of Egypt? Is[n’t] this what we said to you in Egypt: “Leave us alone that we [could] serve the Egyptians”? … It would [be] better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’” In other words, “We might as well just chuck it. We might as well give up, because the odds are stacked so heavily against us”—like the army, staring out across the valley. “And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.’” Quite remarkable!
And here we have, later on, a very similar situation—anticipating where we’ll be next time. David, actually, in his dialogue with Goliath, essentially gives him this exact same story. He says, “You know what? I heard everything you had to say, but let me say something to you: I’m coming against you in the name of the living God. I’m gonna cut your head off, and no one will hear from you again.” It is in that spirit that he now greets Saul: “Let nobody’s heart fail. Your servant will go and fight.”
So, big, tall, handsome Saul and the wee, ruddy-faced shepherd boy. And it is the voice of the shepherd boy that now is in the ears of the king.
His reaction is straightforward in verse 33, and it seems to be immediate. David says, “Your servant will go.” He replies, “You are not able to go.”
Okay, so that pretty well wraps it up. No! No, again, if you think of this—if you allow your mind to ponder the way in which it would unfold—you know, sometimes when you go for an interview and they try and let you down gently, you know, they couch it all, they say certain things to get to the point, which is, like, “No.” It would be a lot less painful if they just said “No,” and then you could go and find a job somewhere else.
But anyway… So, here: “You are not able to go.” Background: “David, let me put it to you this way. You know, when I heard that there was a possible champion who had stepped forward, I was excited. I actually assumed it would be someone a little more suitable, somebody more of a match for the big, ugly foe. David, I don’t doubt your bravery. In fact, I’ll tell you something: I wish I had a whole force of fellows just like you with the same mentality, and I wish I had them in my army. But by all appearances, you just don’t have the capacity. You just don’t have the ability to take this on. After all, David, you’re only a youth, and Goliath has been involved in warfare for a lifetime. And so, realistically, as I say, I’m impressed, but your experience is not up to par, not to say anything of the absence of any kind of equipment necessary for warfare.”
Now, this is where you have to have your Bible open. So David said, “Well, thanks for the interview. I knew it was a long shot.” Now, that’s why you have to have your Bible open. Because you look down and say, “I didn’t remember it said that.” It’s because it doesn’t say that! He didn’t say that. And he doesn’t say, either, “You know, Saul, there’s one thing you oughta know: I’m a lot tougher than I look.” He doesn’t say that either. It may at first seem as if that’s exactly what he’s saying, but no. What he is testifying to is not his ability but the Lord’s enabling.
And so, if you look at verses 34, 35, and 36, he gives, essentially, his résumé as a shepherd in the face of the animals and the creatures that would come against his flock. And so he says, “Quite honestly, in the role that I’ve fulfilled as a shepherd, I’ve dealt with lions, I’ve dealt with bears. If they took one of my sheep, I would go after them, I would get ahold of them, and I would rescue the sheep. Your servant has had success in these things. And I’m going to tell you this: that having struck down both lions and bears, this uncircumcised Philistine will go down, just like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.”
Now, I imagine a pause at this point—silence. If we were crafting this as a stage play, then in the notes that you get when you have to play your part… So, Saul’s part would say, “After David’s speech, Saul, in silence, paces around the room.” So, he’s told him, “You got no business going out there.” He’s heard, now, that he’s had some triumph with lions and bears, and he figures the uncircumcised Philistine can get taken care of in the same way. Well, he has to think about that.
And then, you will notice in verse 37, David interrupts the silence. And he takes it forward again: “And David said…” Well, he just said. That’s why I say I think there’s a gap. Why do you have to say, “And David said”? Because he was still speaking. “And David said, ‘The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion … the paw of the bear will deliver me.’” Now we’re at it, you see. David breaks the silence and explains the ground of his confidence: the Lord, Yahweh, the living God, the God of the army. The Lord who has delivered is the Lord who will deliver.
Later on, when David begins to write his poems and provides songs for the worshippers going up to the temple, making their ascent for the feasts, one of his poems goes like this: “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—let Israel now say… ” So it’s like—you imagine them singing, “If it had not been the Lord [that] was on our side—let Israel now say…” And the people sing,
If it had not been the Lord [that] was on our side
when people rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us.
Read forward in the story. That’s actually the kind of taunt that Goliath brought to David himself. He basically says, “I could eat you for my breakfast.”
Then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
… over us [the waters] would have gone
… raging ….
Blessed be the Lord
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!
And then the great verse 8: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” That’s why he’s able to come forward in this way and say what he’s saying.
In similar vein, in that amazing hymn by John Newton—erstwhile slave trader, gloriously converted, and an amazing pastor and hymn writer—the hymn that begins “Begone unbelief, my Savior is near” has this wonderful verse:
His love in time past
Forbids me to think
[That] he’ll leave me at last
In trouble to sink;
Each sweet Ebenezer
I have in review
Confirms his good pleasure
To help me quite through.
Remember, when we studied earlier in 1 Samuel, we saw in 1 Samuel 7 that the Ebenezer stone was the stone of help, that it was put there to say, “Every time we come past this stone, we will be able to say, ‘Up to this point the Lord was our helper.’”
Now, you see the logic of faith. You see the foundational logic of faith. Loved ones, this is essential if you are a follower of God. On what basis are you able to take on all that comes against you, like a giant in the day, like a monster in your sleeplessness in the middle of the night? On what basis? How do you know that you will be there? How do you know that you will succeed? How do you know that you will run another hundred yards? “Well, because I…” No. Because the Lord. “The Lord … delivered,” and the Lord “will deliver.”
You see, this is the note that has been missing. And it rings a bell with Saul. And so, we advance from “Your servant will go,” “No, you can’t go”—“And Saul said to David, ‘Go, and the Lord be with you!’”
Imagine the voice of the giant in the background, shouting out again, “Come on! Send out a man! What’s wrong with you people?” And you can just hear that in the background, and Saul says, “Go, and the Lord be with you!”—and then, under his breath, “And he better be!”
But actually, remember what we discovered in 16:18, when a young fellow gives a description of David. One of the young men—remember, when we’re looking for somebody who can play the harp—and one of the young men said, “Behold, I[’ve] seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing.” So he can play the harp. But that’s not all. He’s “a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence,” and notice: “and the Lord is with him.”
So what you have here in chapter 17, in the statement made by Saul—the narrative again is arranged in such a way that we know in advance that Saul is, if you like, saying more than he knew when he says, “And the Lord be with you!” We know that that is exactly the case.
“But,” says Saul, “before you go, I need to make sure that you are properly dressed. You can’t go out there looking like that.” That’s the kind of thing that your mother says, but that’s essentially what he’s saying: “You can’t possibly go out there. The first order of business is you need to suit up.” And so, here we have what is a memorable little scene. I think it’s a comic scene in many ways. It’s a tragic scene, but it is rather funny. You can imagine him saying as he fishes out his armor, “You know, I’m getting this for you, David, because otherwise, there’s just no chance at all. After all, it only stands to reason. Anybody knows,” says Saul, “that hand-to-hand combat demands that you are equipped in this way. Otherwise, you have no chance at all.”
Now, the fact that Saul was, if you like, his measurements for a suit would be a 48 long, or he could even have been a 52. He was a big guy, and long. And David is like a 36 regular. And so, how in the world are you gonna wear this chap’s armor? And it is exciting to see. And I think this is fantastic: “He put a helmet of bronze on his head.” Has someone ever given you a loan of their crash helmet? And, you know, it’s like a person with a normal-size head, and you’ve got a head like a pea? And you put it on, and there’s no way that you look cool, and there’s no way that it would save you for anything. The chances are you’ll kill yourself with the strap, because it’s just straggling around your throat! Well, that’s the kind of picture here.
So he says, “Now, let’s start with the helmet.” And then, as he tries to position on his head, he goes, “Okay, we’ll come back to that. Let’s not start with the helmet after all. No, let’s get the chain mail on. Put the chain mail on. We’ll get that. Now, David, just try and be comfortable with it. Just be comfortable. Move your arms a little bit. Just get in the feel of it.” And as he tries and struggles with that, eventually he reaches for the sword and the belt of the sword, and he says, “Look, this might answer it for us. If we put this sword on you, with a belt that goes around your chest—if I just tighten it up, you know, just good—then I think it’ll hold everything in place. And then, you know, we can stick something in the helmet, and you’ll be fine. I think I can already see victory in my mind’s eye as you get ready to go.”
And what do we discover? “He tried in vain to go.” “He tried in vain to go,” but “he had[n’t] tested them.”
Now, there is a lot in this, isn’t there? There’s a drama inside the drama here. Because, remember, what you’re dealing with is the king who has collapsed, still thinking that the armor that he wore when he became a king so that the nation could be like all the other nations—that if he could dig out his old armor, as it were, and put it on this boy, that the armor would be sufficient to see him through, despite the odds that were so clearly against him. So, you have the king who is on his way out trying to make the king who’s on his way in just like him.
If the armor was not sufficient for Saul to put on and go out against Goliath, why in the world did he think for a New York minute that the armor—the ill-fitting armor on the shepherd boy that stands before him… And remember, he has no idea about what has happened in the early part of chapter 16. He has no notion of this shepherd boy as the anointed king of Israel. He is simply the shepherd boy, the son of Jesse the Ephrathite. And so, now he says, “This is probably the answer. I appreciate you coming forward.”
But David says, “No, this is not the time for me to try on a new outfit. I appreciate the offer, but,” you will notice: “I cannot go with these.” “I cannot go with these.” So, do you see the progression? It’s go time: “Your servant will go.” “No, you’re not able to go.” “Okay, go, and the Lord be with you.” “He tried in vain to go.” And then he said, “I can’t go.”
Can you imagine him giving him the stuff, giving it… “Well, what do you want me to do with all this stuff?” Saul says, “Don’t worry. I have a guy. He looks after me. He’s my valet. He hangs everything up. That’s fine.”
And then verse 40, the closing observation: look at him go! Look at him go. He goes with what he knows. Imagine Saul standing there, watching him go. He must have done so. I can’t imagine otherwise.
It’s a sad picture, isn’t it? Because there in the doorway, as it were, stands the king from whom the Spirit of the Lord is departed. He’s not even a shadow of the person that he was, with all of his potential, even when he was hiding in the baggage, when people pinned such great hopes on him—that he would be the leader of the people, that they would become a nation like all the other nations, that they would be able to be successful. And there he stands, absent God’s Spirit, losing sight of God’s glory, devoid of God’s favor, his courage pretty well gone—and with it, his joy and his peace and the security of his mind, as we’re gonna see. And as he looks, off towards the brook in the valley goes a ruddy-shaped youth, pausing to pick up five stones. He goes looking to God, relying on God’s Spirit, about to come face-to-face with the enemy who threatens to destroy the work of God at this point in history—one a depleted king, and the other a Spirit-filled king. And still, if you’re reading this story, we have to wait and see what will happen.
“Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. Your servant’ll go.” Fast-forward, now. Let’s get to Bethlehem again, because we’re right there. What’s the first word of the angels to the shepherds? “And the shepherds were abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And the glory of the Lord shone round, and the angel said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news, great joy. There is a champion. There is a Savior. Into the darkness of this night comes the Light of the World. Here it is.’” And this picture of this battle is, as I say again to you, not a picture to cause us to say, “Oh, I’d like to be a hero like David,” but to say, “We have in Jesus the ultimate David. We have in Jesus the ultimate King.”
And when the disciples are disconcerted, what is it that Jesus says to them in John 14? “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you? I’m going to prepare a place for you, and I’ll come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” Now, what did they have to go on except the word? Except his word? “My troubled soul, why so [cast] down? You were not made to bear this heavy load.” There is a champion!
Thursday night, as I went to see Warren Dobler in the nursing home, his daughter having seen him earlier and gone on her way, he lay there on his deathbed, unresponsive, nothing that I was able to say or do to engage him in conversation. And as on many occasions in my life I sat down in a circumstance just like that, and I said to myself, “You know, death is the great enemy. Death is ‘the last enemy to be destroyed.’ There is absolutely nothing nice about this scene right now, in this moment. And what do I have to say? Only one thing: that Jesus has walked straight into death, the punishment for sin; has borne its curse; has triumphed over it; and by grace, united to him, we are able to say, as we sing in the hymn, ‘One with himself I cannot die.’” In other words, it is an ontological impossibility for us, then, to be lost, because of our union with Christ.
And you see, it is that, and that alone, that will allow us to face that valley, fearful as it is. Because it is not possible—and some of you deal with this in medicine—it’s not possible to be there and not say, “This is me in five minutes. Do I have an answer for this? Do I have a champion for this? Can I walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil, for thou art with me? Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
It’s all here. And the story of this big giant who comes to say, “I have you in my grasp, I have you defeated,” is to be laid low by the servant of the living God, in the same way that Jesus Christ has triumphed. And in him we may triumph too.
You may be here tonight as a guest because someone’s baptized, and you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into, and you’re glad that it seems that it’s almost over; that it may be that this is why you’re here—to be told unequivocally, what the Bible says: that “the wages of sin is death, but the … gift of God is eternal life [through Jesus Christ] our Lord.” Not something to be earned or achieved, but a gift to be received. And even tonight, you and I may humbly accept that gift.
Father, we bless you, that your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. We thank you for the opportunity to read these ancient words, and for the way in which they kindle within us longings and anticipations—in certain cases, fears—and they cast us again and again upon your dearly beloved Son. Bless us as we part in a moment or two. And as we enter this Advent season, how desperately we want to know increasingly this good news of great joy, so that we can both believe it savingly and share it convincingly, to the glory of your name. Amen.
 Emily Crawford, “Speak, Lord, in the Stillness” (1920). Lyrics lightly altered.
 1 Samuel 17:26 (ESV).
 Exodus 14:10–12 (ESV).
 Exodus 14:13–14 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 17:46 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 124:1–3 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 17:44.
 Psalm 124:4–7 (ESV).
 John Newton “I Will Trust and Not Be Afraid” (1779).
 1 Samuel 7:12 (paraphrased).
 Luke 2:8–11 (paraphrased).
 John 14:1–3 (paraphrased).
 Robert Critchley, “My Troubled Soul” (2001).
 1 Corinthians 15:26 (ESV).
 Charitie L. Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).
 See Psalm 23:4.
 Romans 6:23 (ESV).
 See Psalm 119:105.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.