A Closer Look at Goliath’s Death
In a previous post I looked at a possible way in which David may have slain Goliath (How David Killed Goliath: Are You Sure?). In this post I would like to explore more carefully some of the theology behind Goliath’s death, especially as it is related in 1 Samuel 17:41-51. Although the entire chapter of 1 Samuel 17 builds toward the contest between David and Goliath, these verses focus on the confrontation between the two of them.
As Goliath approaches David we are told, “And when the Philistine gazed and saw David, he despised him because he was a youth, ruddy, and beautiful in appearance” (1 Sam. 17:42, my translation). Several of the words used in this verse are found previously in key contexts in 1 Samuel, and I have italicized and underlined them in order to highlight their importance. Notice that three of the words concern “seeing” (gaze, saw, appearance). Each of these words occur in 1 Samuel 16:7, a key verse in the story of David’s anointing. The Lord tells Samuel not to gaze at Eliab’s appearance because he has rejected him. The Lord continues by stating that he does not see as a man sees but he sees the heart. The repetition of these words in the current story demonstrates that Goliath is making the same mistake that Samuel made in the previous chapter, but with deadlier consequences. Goliath is judging by appearance. Goliath is not the only one to make this mistake, however. Israel and Saul have also judged by appearance, and thus they have feared Goliath, and Saul has thought David incapable of killing him. Saul’s doubt, along these lines, is recalled in Goliath’s observation that David was a youth. This is the same word Saul had used when trying to discourage David from fighting Goliath: “For you are a youth, and he a man of war from his youth” (1 Sam. 17:33). David is the only one in this story who truly “sees” correctly, and this is because he “walks by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
How Despising, Cursing, and Reproaching Lead to Goliath’s Death
As Goliath makes the mistake of judging David by his appearance, we are informed that he despised him (v. 42), and “cursed David by his gods” (1 Sam. 17:43). In the bigger picture of 1&2 Samuel, for someone to despise and curse (also translated “lightly esteem”) either God, or his representative, is to invite judgment. A key passage in the story of judgment on Eli’s house also includes these key words. God says to Eli, “Far be it from Me; for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed” (1 Sam. 2:30). This statement, found at the beginning of 1 Samuel, provides a key for understanding why certain people in 1&2 Samuel are honored (raised up), while others are brought low (destroyed or dishonored–For a more indepth look at this theme see my book Family Portraits). However, not only does Goliath despise and curse David, we are told 6 times that he reproaches (defies) God and his army (1 Sam. 17:10, 25, 26 [2x], 36, 45). “Reproach” is a word depicitng the heaping of shame on another. Once again, 1 Samuel 2:30 reminds us what happens to those who do not honor God. Anyone attuned to this theme is aware that Goliath is toast!
Goliath’s Death Brings Honor to God
It is clear that David’s speech in 1 Samuel 17:45-47 is at the heart of the theology of this chapter. Victory isn’t about who is the biggest, strongest, or best armed, it is about whose god is the true God. The story that began with an intimidating look at Goliath, his weapons, and his armor (1 Sam. 17:4-7), comes full-circle with David’s declaration that “Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword or spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and He will give you into our hands” (v. 45). As Davis states, “The focus of the chapter is not on David’s courage but on Yahweh’s adequacy in David’s weakness. David himself has told us this (vv. 37, 45, 47). An interpretation that refuses to see this steals the glory from God which in this Scripture he has designed to receive for himself” (Davis, D. R., 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, 2000, p. 189).
As noted in my previous post, each item of Goliath’s armor is mentioned throughout the story and shown to be inadequate (see link above). David’s victory with “a sling and a stone” substantiates his words in 1 Samuel 17:45-47. The significance of this truth is further emphasized by Goliath falling “on his face to the earth” (1 Sam. 17:49), which is an ironic way of speaking of his submission. People fall on their face when they approach a king (e.g., 2 Sam. 9:6), or when they are worshipping a deity. After reproaching, despising, and cursing, Goliath now shows the proper respect for the true king of Israel (David), and the true God! This verse also echoes a similar incident found in 1 Samuel 5:3-4. After judgment was brought on Eli’s house, and Israel (1 Sam. 4), the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it to Ashdod. Once there they put it in the temple of Dagon their god, in order to show their god’s superiority over the God of Israel. The next day, however, Dagon was bowing face down before the ark! The following day, after having been put back in his place (a little Hebrew humor about a god who can’t help himself!), the priests not only find Dagon face down before the ark, but with his hands and head cut off. Goliath, who lays prone before David, and the God of Israel, suffers the same fate as his god when David removes his head (1 Sam. 17:51).
Thus the story of Goliath’s death at the hands of a shepherd boy serves several functions within the narrative. In the immediate context it begins to confirm that God has chosen David (1 Sam. 16:1-14). Unlike Saul, David trusts God. Like God, David “sees” differently (1 Sam. 16:7). Within the larger narrative context it operates as another example of the importance of honoring the true God. Why is David raised up and Saul rejected? Because Saul reacts in fear (1 Sam. 17:11) and trusts in the physical realm (1 Sam. 17:38-39), whereas David defends God’s honor and trusts him for the victory over his foes (1 Sam. 17:26, 37, 45-47).