Summary: Israel faced an enemy and thought they couldn't possibly defeat them. Goliath was a secret weapon, nearly ten feet tall and full of hatred for Israel. Then came a shepherd boy named David--and the rest is history.

Introduction: David had learned some of the arts of defense by tending his flock of sheep. Lions, bears, and perhaps other predators were always looking for sheep so it was up to the shepherd to protect them. After Samuel had anointed him (to be the future king), David had served Saul in a number of ways (the last several verses of 1 Samuel 16) but always managed to find his way back to his home, back to his flock, and back to his family.

Then, war broke out again between Israel and the Philistines. This time they had a secret weapon that was anything but secret when the Israelites saw him! David’s father asked David to take some “goodies” from home to his brothers and bring back news. When David got there, he saw and experienced something that changed him and his life forever.

The conditions

This chapter, 1 Samuel 17, is rather long, so to conserve space I won’t be quoting all of the text. In no way does this distract from the narrative and the importance of the following events. Please take a moment to read this chapter in its entirety—it’s fascinating!

Verses 1-3 give the locations for this “campaign” between Israel and the Philistines. Each one of them occupied a hilltop on either side of a valley, called here the “valley of Elah”. The text doesn’t provide too many details for us, such as how many troops were in either army, or what role the valley of Elah had in this situation.

Those of us with a military background understand how important it is to hold the “high ground”. That way, the enemy would have to be climbing upwards to reach your territory and it would be relatively easy to roll rocks, logs, or other items (including ordnance!) down on those who are trying to climb up. A classic Korean War-themed movie, “Pork Chop Hill”, has at least one scene where soldiers of one army roll hand grenades down the slope of their side of a mountain against their enemy. This again proves how important it was and is to hold the “high ground” and use it to your advantage.

Now, that means if anybody tried to do or lead a charge against the enemy, they weren’t going to be very successful! We aren’t told what weapons Israel had, if any, but the Philistines had plenty of weapons. They had deliberately kept Israel from even having a blacksmith or weapons maker so that Israel couldn’t make metal weapons. The Israelites even had to visit the Philistines to sharpen their axes and other items (1 Sam 13:19-20)!

As a bit of an illustration, I’ve tried gardening—on a very small scale!—a time or two and it doesn’t take much for the edge of a garden hoe to become dull. In fact, I learned from one of my aunts, who came to visit me (I was in the military and stationed in a different state at the time) reminded me that she learned to keep a mill file close by so that they could stay in location and not have to stop and sharpen. She noticed me sharpening my garden hoe at the end of a row and laughed, then shared that memory from the days when Mom, this aunt, and the other three siblings worked together on the family farm. Sadly, that farming gene must have skipped me!

But again this proves how frustrating it had to be for Israel. Saul and Jonathan did have a sword apiece (13:22); maybe Israel had scavenged weapons from the Philistines in other battles or skirmishes, yet the fact remained: in terms of numbers and weapons, Israel was in a bad situation and everybody knew it. Having said that, it’s a tribute to Israel’s men of that time who were willing to fight with whatever they had to defend their home country.

No matter what would come, they were ready to fight if need be. Israelite soldiers of that day, thank you for giving us an example. May we, too, never surrender to the enemy one inch of our land, or one moment of our time, and may we too have the desire to stand and defend our own.

So then, the conditions weren’t really promising for either side. The nations were at war, but nobody seemed willing to attack. Even so, the Philistines had not one, but two weapons they used at this time. What did they have in mind?

The champions

The Philistines knew they couldn’t attack Israel successfully; likewise, Israel knew they couldn’t defeat the Philistines either. Both sides knew that they would be easy targets, running or marching or charging or whatever their strategy was, heading down into a valley and upwards out of that valley towards the hilltop. The text doesn’t say how long these two armies were in this “stalemate”—i.e., neither wanted to advance but neither wanted to retreat, either—but they were both in place long enough for the Philistines to propose a simple, easy, solution to this problem. Maybe they had thought they could simply conquer Israel with ease; that seems to be the reason for their victories over Israel in the Book of Judges and the earlier chapters of 1 Samuel. Now they thought they had a way to challenge Israel.

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