1 Samuel 17
It started as a supply mission. Once again, David was tending sheep while his brothers were doing the “important” work in the field with the army. Jesse sent David to the camp with roasted grain and bread to feed his brothers – apparently standard army fare was no better 3000 years ago – and with cheese to curry favor with the regimental commander.
It became a decisive victory for Israel – a stone age weapon in the hand of a shepherd boy bringing down an armored giant – the high-tech super weapon of the bronze age.
What are we to do with this story?
The ancient Israelite audience would have loved this story of the bold, clever little guy who brought down the uncircumcised giant. The nations of Israel and Judah were always the little guys on the block, wedged between giant empires to the east and west.
It’s interesting how the different people involved viewed this event. Jesse sent David to supply the status quo. David’s brother Eliab saw his brother’s presence as a nuisance from the family pest and a cause for alarm. King Saul saw in David one unqualified for battle due to his lack of professional military experience. David himself sees this as an opportunity for wealth and honor. Still, there is another David who is zealous for God’s honor, whose boldness is born from confidence in the power of God.
One of the principles of war is described this way: offensive – seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. Audacity & boldness are essential traits in military leaders. Napoleon said that success on the battlefield always required boldness. “L’audace, toujour l’audace.” Of course, Napoleon audace’d his way right into the Russian winter and discovered that boldness alone does not always carry the day.
Boldness is an admirable quality, but we would be missing the author’s point if all we carried away from this story is, “That David was one bold warrior.” The author’s intent in telling this story is found primarily in 17:47. It is “not by sword or by spear that the Lord saves, for the battle is the Lord’s.” In the end, it is not David’s boldness or skill that carry the day; it is the interest and power of God.
Looking at it another way, this is a story of grace told in the context of Israel’s military-political covenant. God favored the ancient kingdom of Israel with promises of strength and deliverance. This is a different kind of grace than Christian believers experience, but it is grace nonetheless. God made these promises in spite of Israel’s repeated lack of faithfulness. God was the primary actor and the initiator of the relationship. God’s initiative took precedence over Israel’s response. While God’s actions called for a response of faith, the outcome depended completely on God’s power. In that context, David’s military boldness is a kind of religious faith. David acted boldly in response to his belief that God would do what God had promised.
“Not by sword or spear.” Some think that David’s words mean that nations don’t need armed forces; God will do it all. But we are not ancient Israel; no modern nation lives in a unique, covenant relationship with God. Even ancient Israel – the one kingdom that did enjoy such a special covenant relationship – still required a military force. The young David may not have been a conventional soldier, but he was a warrior. The sling and stone were regular weapons of war for thousands of years before David stepped on the stage of history.
Grace does not mean passivity. Grace doesn’t mean sitting on the sidelines and watching how things turn out. God used David’s experience with sheep in the field, and the skill that David had developed in fighting wild animals. Did the stone strike Goliath in just the right place because of David’s skill or because of the unseen hand of God? Yes. Was David present on the battlefield because of earthly circumstances or because of the will of God? Yes.
Boldness for God is a good thing, but the purpose of this story isn’t to praise the concept of boldness in and of itself. This story is about grace, and how grace creates boldness in those who have faith. What does that boldness look like when we live out our faith as members of Christ’s church rather than citizens of ancient Israel? How do we translate David’s experience into our religious context, the covenant of grace and the Spirit given in Jesus Christ? Are we talking about a different kind of fight or are we even talking about a fight at all?
David’s mission was to defeat the Philistine army. Our mission is to witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ and to build up the church in love and faithfulness. That’s a different mission and requires different tools.
David defeated the evil of his day with a sling and stone. Jesus defeated it decisively on a cosmic scale by giving his life on a cross. While there is still a need for some armed Davids in this world, every Christian is called to follow Christ in standing up to evil. Martin Luther King, Jr. and African-American Christians of the 1950s and 1960s boldly faced down the evil of segregation without the force of arms. The cross of Jesus helps us rethink what victory looks like, and his teaching and example point us beyond slings and stones as the weapons of spiritual warfare.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly, but believe in the grace of God more boldly still.” While I’m not an expert on Luther, I doubt that Luther meant that we should intentionally go on sinning so that grace can abound. Luther loved Paul’s writings too much to make that mistake. Rather, a bold faith knows that it does not honor God to wallow in our guilt. As the author of the epistle to the Hebrews says, “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (10:19, see also 4:16).
We can experience the power of sin in many ways: bitterness in tragedy and trauma, ordinary backsliding, bondage to persistent and habitual sins, self-deprecation and depression. These are just some of the ways that sin impacts our thoughts, feelings and experiences. Christian soldiers who take life in lawful combat know that what they have done is a tragic departure from the perfect will of God even when it is necessary. Life often offers only imperfect options. Through all of this, a bold faith claims that the grace of God is sufficient.
This morning’s reading links grace and boldness. Christians can boldly respond to the grace of God in a number of ways: boldness in witness and mission – boldness in the face of evil – boldness in the face of sin – even boldness in the faith of death.
Those who know the grace of God are emboldened to live by that grace, for it is not by sword or by spear that the Lord saves. The battle is the Lord’s.