In a previous post I argued that the Bible uses human examples in order to help us on our own Christian pilgrimages. From Hebrews 11 and 1 Corinthians 10 two principles in particular could be discerned. First, the Bible uses past examples of men and women who trusted in the Lord despite extreme hardships to show us that even in the face of the many difficulties that we too face in life we have strong reasons to trust in the Lord, as did the saints of old (Heb. 11). Second, the Bible also points to examples of unbelief in order to warn us not to head down that path, or to turn back if we are already giving ourselves over to the deceitful pleasures of unrepentant sin (1 Cor. 11).
These principles were derived from examining ways that the New Testament uses human examples from the Old Testament. What about Old Testament stories that are not mentioned in the New Testament as examples to follow (or avoid)? Is it legitimate for us to look to these stories as well for guidance in running the race of faith? I think the New Testament uses enough Old Testament examples for us to answer "yes" to this question.
To illustrate the first principle (examples of faith in the Lord), in this post I want to examine a classic example from the Old Testament that is often misused to teach a form of sub-Christian moralism in order to see if there is something this example can teach us as believers today, namely the story of David and Goliath. Is David's battle with Goliath an example we are meant to follow?
As I mentioned in my previous post, the danger in how these stories are often read is that we simply slot ourselves into the role of David (or whomever) and come away thinking that the Christian life is simply about us being brave, or bold, or faithful to God in difficult times. To that way of reading the Bible, we must always ask: where is the gospel, the good news that God is the one who saves sinners who are unable to save themselves? In David's case this is especially important, since he is Israel's anointed king, a "type" of Jesus Christ himself.
What, then, can we learn from the example of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17) by applying the principles we learned from seeing how the New Testament uses Old Testament examples?
The story begins like this: the battle lines are drawn, the Philistines on one side and the Israelites on the other. The Philistines send their champion Goliath (a massive and strong man) to the front lines. Once there, he taunts the assembled Israelites, demanding that they send their own champion to engage him in single combat. The terrified Israelites, instead of complying with Goliath's order, quake in indecision and fear (vs. 11, 24-25). David, the youngest of Jesse's sons (v. 14), hears Goliath's taunts (v. 23) while on an errand from his father to bring supplies to his brothers who are stationed on Israel's front line.
How does David respond, both to the presence of the giant Goliath, and to the cowardice of his fellow Israelites? His initial response in verse 26 is telling: "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?" From the outset we see why David has such a different response to Goliath than his fellow Israelites: David knows the power of his God and the absurd position of those who would oppose and mock the Lord. When word comes to Saul about David's desire to fight Goliath he insists that David is "not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him" since he is "but a youth," whereas Goliath "has been a man of war from his youth" (v. 33). David responds by insisting that he has learned some battle skills in fighting against wild animals as a shepherd; but more importantly, he reiterates what he first said to the Israelites on the battle line (v. 36, emphasis added): "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."
Where does David's confidence come from? From God.
This stands out clearly in the next verse (v. 37): "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.'"
David was courageous, certainly. But why? Because he knew that God was infinitely more powerful than the giant Goliath. In this moment, David walked by faith, not by sight (see 2 Cor. 5:17). He was no match for Goliath in terms of earthly strength, but earthly strength is nothing when the Lord fights for you. After enduring Goliath's taunts, David reveals where his strength comes from (vs. 45-47):
Then David said to the Philistine, "You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds 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 that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord's, and he will give you into our hand."
David is unafraid because he comes "in the name of the Lord of hosts" whose own honor is at stake in this battle because of Goliath's boasts of superiority (v. 45). David is courageous because he knows "the Lord will deliver" Goliath into his hand (v. 46). David is fearless because he is confident that "the battle is the Lord's" who "saves not with sword and spear" but by his own almighty power (v. 47).
In short, David trusts in the Lord because the Lord is supremely trustworthy. This is the sole source of the valiant actions David performs next in the story. Because David knows that God fights for His people, David "ran quickly to the battle line to meet the Philistine" (v. 48) and "struck the Philistine on his forehead" with a rock, killing him instantly (v. 49).
But how should we respond to a story from the Bible like this? Be bold and overcome the obstacles in our lives? Be courageous and slay our personal Goliaths? No, and it is easy to see why many have shied away from teaching this story as an example for Christians to follow today.
But David is an example for us.
He is an example of someone who trusted in a mighty God to save His people in a mighty way, and he is an example of someone who acted on that trust. Although this story is not found in Hebrews 11, if we were to find it there we could imagine 1 Samuel 17 being summarized like this: "By faith, David, because he knew that the battle is the Lord's, took up his sling and stone and slayed the giant Goliath."
In short: David is an example for us, because his own battle with Goliath teaches us to trust that no matter what difficulties confront us in life, the battle is the Lord's, and He will save His people. With this assurance, we are equipped to confidently trust the Lord, and like David, to act boldly in light of that trust, to "with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16).
In the next, and final post in this series, I will look at an example of unbelief not explicitly appealed to in the New Testament (as in 1 Cor 11) to see how we as Christians can read it as an example for our own lives (an avoid example to avoid, of c.ourse).
Dr. Ben C. Dunson is professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College.