As I continue my thinking on Biblical valleys I now turn to the valley of Elah which gets mentioned a few times in the life of David (specifically 1 Samuel 17 & 21). The valley is particularly noteworthy as the location of the epic battle between David and Goliath. In 1 Samuel we find the stage set for a military standoff between the nation of Israel and their long time enemy, the Philistines. The two armies were encamped on opposite side of the valley:
“The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelite’s another, with the valley between them” (1 Samuel 17:3).
It would have been suicide for either side to attack the other and forfeit their advantage of higher ground and so we have this beautiful stalemate. In order to try and break the deadlock the Philistine champion, Goliath, came forward twice a day in the morning and the evening (v16) to challenge Israel to send a champion to fight him. The result of such a battle would settle the matter and the losing nation would be subjected to the other nation. It was a pretty enticing offer but for 40 days Goliath remained unchallenged.
We are told that Goliath was about 3 meters tall (there is some debate about this but most English translations go with this number). His armour weighed 58 kg and the iron point on his spear weighed a further 6.9 kg. For all intents and purposes Goliath was a formidable opponent and we are told in v11 that “Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.” Most of us could probably relate to this overwhelming sense of fear and yet it is at this point that a young 17 year old lad called David enters the stage. He had been sent with supplies by his father Jesse and on his arrival David asked:
…‘What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’ (v26).
David is passionate about the honour of the LORD His God and it angered him that this Philistine should defy the armies of the living God. For 40 days no one had dared to volunteer and yet only shortly after David’s arrival we find him offering to go himself. At first King Saul clearly thinks it a ridiculous idea since he was merely a young man and Goliath had been a warrior from his youth (v33). David however convinces him that this battle was no different to the times when he had fought the lion and the bear as a shepherd. This was quite the risk for King Saul but I think he sensed something quite different with this young lad. David was clearly trusting in God to rescue him. In David’s eyes, if God was for him, it didn’t matter who the foe was. Saul agreed and told David to “‘Go, and the Lord be with you” (v37b).
The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine’ (v37a).
David had grasped something about God’s way of working: namely that God doesn’t depend on human means but He does use human means. You may remember that David took five stones with him: not 1 (presuming victory) but not 500 stones either (and he didn’t just go and hide behind a rock). There is something about those 5 stones that tells us about David’s relationship with and confidence in God. The truth is that God does use human effort; it is worth us collecting some stones to throw. God will work out His purposes but He will use people like us to do it. How was he so confident and assured? I think it was because of what he understood about God. We need that confidence if we are going to stand up against our own giants: the Goliath’s of this world. David’s confidence seems to have come from his experiences of fighting the lion and the bear, his reflections on creation and allowing God’s Word to affect him deeply. David’s focus is not on Goliath but on God. In fact if you contrast the number of references David makes about God and Goliath we find that his God-thoughts outnumber his Goliath-thoughts nine verses two (for more on this read Max Lucado’s book Facing our Giants). The following paragraph makes this point very clearly:
David said to the Philistine, ‘You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.’ (v45-47)
The end of the story is well known. David triumphs with just one stone from his sling. The Philistines seeing that their hero and champion was beaten, turned and fled and were subsequently pursued and routed by Israel all the way back home. It is an inspiring story of courage against all the odds but what can we learn from it?
We often refer to a lob-sided contest as a David & Goliath story. Examples might include a premier league football team playing a bottom division opponent or a private citizen taking on the Government in a court case. I don’t know about you but I often find myself rooting for the underdog! When I put David & Goliath into a search engine I found a link to a Ted talk by Malcolm Gladwell (link). He majors on this idea in his book “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants”. Gladwell goes to some lengths to show why he thinks Goliath would have been more vulnerable than we might think. His arguments in this respect do not seem to me to stack up with 1 Samuel 17 and I think he really misses the point. The reason David wins this battle is because of His faith in God. He steps out in courage against all the odds and with the help of his God he wins the battle. If he had missed with that first shot from his sling he would probably have been in big trouble. Having made the shot if he had not moved swiftly to kill Goliath he might still have been in trouble. The thing that sets David apart however is not his skill but his trust in God who helped him to triumph. In David we see someone who steps out in courage: a courage that’s confidently and courageously rooted in his relationship with God. There have been a number of things recently which have appeared as giants in our lives: things that have threatened to overwhelm us. While there is still a long way to go it has been exciting to see how God has been working these things through as we have began to look to Him for strength and deliverance.
The spiritual battle:
The final thing I want to say is to remind us all that we are all in a spiritual battle which rages all around us. Even if we feel like there are no giants currently in our path (which I think is unlikely) we are still engaged in a spiritual battle.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12
There is one who works relentlessly in our world to keep us from knowing God and/or to keep us from finding victory in our lives. If we are to be victorious we must find strength and courage from the one who works unceasingly to enable us to thrive and grow. It may be a surprise to hear that though I love climbing mountains I am actually quite fearful of heights. I am not as fearful as I used to be but give me a precarious mountain edge with a steep drop and I am really struggling. At times like those I try to remember what is true – I am still a competent and safe hiker and God is still right along side me. It would be easy to feel overcome by the scale of such a challenge and yet I can testify that God has always brought me through safely. Mountains are a timely reminder for me of my own weakness and deep need to rely not on myself but on the one who sent His Son to die for me. The battle really is the LORD’s! Why not try this week to focus more on Him and less on the giants that seek to overcome us and keep us from trusting the God who made us.
Experiencing God in the Valleys Series