I Samuel 18: David and Jonathan

I Samuel 18:1-16 – After Goliath

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 22, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. I hope it was a good week for you. I did not get as much sleep as I would have liked this week. I would sometimes wake up in the wee hours of the morning with a kitten nibbling on my ear or pouncing on my feet. Madeleine has been enjoying her swimming lessons this summer. If you happen to have dropped any coins in your pool and need someone to fetch them, give her a call. I played golf a couple of weeks ago with a preacher and two church elders, which was kind of tough since I had to be on my best behavior. Our thoughts turned to bad golf analogies for preaching, such as the church being like a team in a captain’s choice tournament. There are some who drive well, some who chip well, some who putt well, and some who well, complain. This morning I’d like to give a shout out to Mark Wright and Henry Starbuck who are the gentlemen that make sure that this show is broadcast each week. We are grateful for their service.

Last week I had more lesson than I had time, or else I was talking more like a Southerner than a Northerner. Since I didn’t finish, I’ll pick up with the story of David and Goliath. There is certainly much more to be said about this story, but the main point shines through all of the layers of scholarly debate and interpretation. Aside from its more gruesome aspects, this is a story that is great for children and adults. It is a tale of a brave youth who stands up for what is right even in the face of opposition from adults. It is about a wise older man giving David a chance to excel. And it is about the arrogance of power that forgets that God is on the side of the oppressed. The message of this story is that we need to have faith and be of good courage as we confront the Goliaths of this age.

Read 17:41-51            Talking Trash and Taking Heads                        Verses 41-51 are the dramatic heart of the story and the part we all remember from Sunday School. David, wearing nothing but his traveling tunic, steps out in front of the Israelite army. Goliath sees this young fellow, and is not impressed by his good looks. He thinks the Israelites are mocking him, and probably assumed David was some half-wit being sent to certain death. He taunts David, which is what we call “talking smack” today. He sounds like a professional wrestler urging David to attack, and tells him that he will feed his dead body to the birds. David responds with some of his own trash talk, but his trash talk is pious. He gives a speech warning the Philistine that he is a soldier for God who does not need even a sword or shield. He also one ups him, telling Goliath that will not only feed his body to the birds, he will cut off his head.

This speech is included to make it clear to the reader that defeating Goliath will show everyone that the God of Israel is stronger than the mighty Philistines. This was the kind of faith Samuel was looking for in a king. Ultimately, we are told, it is not swords and spears that save a nation; it is faith and courage. The future king warned the mighty Philistines that nations should not pride themselves on the size of their weapons or numbers of their soldiers. We Americans need to keep in mind that God is on the side of the oppressed Israelites here, not the arrogant Philistines. Christians in every age, including our own, tend to make the mistake of believing that their own nation is like Israel.  Rather we should make sure that we are not acting like the Philistines.

This story captures in graphic form an important moment in human history. Here we see the late stone age culture of ancient Israel waging war against the bronze age culture of the Philistines. In the long run, Israel will develop and become more like the Philistines, but for the moment, the old ways prove resilient. David’s faith gave him confidence, and he bravely ran toward Goliath who did not have a clue what David would do. Before he was in range of the giant’s spear, David slung a stone. It worked just the way he planned. The stone hit Goliath on his unprotected forehead, and he fell. The text is a little ambiguous and shows signs of later editing, but presumably Goliath was not killed by the stone alone. David grabbed the giant’s own sword and removed his head.

Read: 17:52-58            The Philistines were stunned the way any army is stunned when its invincible weapons are shown to be vulnerable. Rather than simply killing little David, they panicked and ran. If the smallest Israelite could do this, what could the rest of Saul’s men do? When the Philistines turned their backs, the men of Judah and Israel pursued them all the way back to their fortified cities, slaughtering them as they fled.

For his part, David kept Goliath’s head and armor. The text says he put the armor in his tent, but that makes no sense because David did not have a tent. David probably put the armor in a tent at one of the Israelite shrines, perhaps Nob (I Sam. 21). There is a bigger problem with the claim that David brought Goliath’s head to Jerusalem, since Jerusalem at that time belonged to the Jebusites. It was much later that it became the city of David. It was probably after David became king that he had the head of the giant brought into the city where it was put on display. This is a reminder that things could be gruesome in days of yore.

Entering the Household of Saul            The story ends with David meeting Saul and his general Abner who is an important figure that we will meet again.  Neither Abner nor Saul has any idea who David is. There have been several ingenious attempts to explain why Saul and Abner do not know David even though David was Saul’s personal musician. One of them is that Saul is so crazy at this point that he does not remember his own armor bearer, but Saul is not depicted as insane or forgetful in this story. Instead he took a great interest in David and tried to protect him. The simplest explanation of why Saul did not know David in this story is that the author of the story did not know that David had entered Saul’s service as a musician.

What is important in this version of how David met Saul for the first time is that the king asks him who his father is. David replies that he is the son of Jesse of Bethlehem. No mention is made of the other sons of Jesse who are serving Saul. Like Joseph’s older brothers, they have to deal with the fact that the brother they had scorned is standing in honor before the king. We hear almost nothing of Jesse and David’s brothers after this. From this moment on, Saul will become a surrogate father for David, and Jonathan will be the shepherd boy’s brother. It is to Jonathan that we now turn.

Read I Samuel 18:1-5           

Jonathan                        There are two schools of thought about the opening verses of chapter 18. Some interpreters believe that the meeting of David and Jonathan should be read as the conclusion of the David and Goliath story, but it is possible that these verses were originally connected to the story of David playing the lyre for Saul. In the long run, it does not matter much. The point of the story is clear. Jonathan was so impressed with this new member of his father’s court that he gave David his own armor, weapons, and robe. As we know, David did not own his own armor or weapons, and Jonathan’s gift could be interpreted simply as an act of kindness toward a poor country boy who finds himself suddenly hanging out with wealthy and powerful people.

But there is more to Jonathan’s actions than simply the need to provide David with armor. In the ancient world, clothing and armor were expensive gifts. You didn’t just pick them up at the local mall. Jonathan is being presented to us as a very generous young man who sees David as a friend rather than a rival. Even more significant is the fact that these gifts were so personal. Giving any gift is a way to bind you to someone else, but the act of giving someone your own clothing means that you identify with that person in some way. Jonathan views David as his brother and he wants him to have the weapons he has used. It would be like Tiger Woods giving a new golfer his best set of clubs and one of his green jackets.

We are told that David and Jonathan sealed a covenant of friendship, which probably involved some type of religious ceremony that is now lost to us. It would have been analogous to the famous Indian ritual of making someone a “blood brother.” Keep in mind that ancient Israel was probably more like a Native American tribe than like a modern nation. The author of I Samuel either did not know what the ritual was or assumed that everyone knew, so he does not describe it for us. Whatever the ritual was, it meant that Jonathan sealed a life-long covenant with David that was blessed by God.

Modern America has lost much of this sense of deep and lasting friendship between men or between women for that matter. Researchers have found that most Americans cannot name a close personal friend other than their spouse or a sibling. I am glad I am richly blessed with friends who have stood by me in difficult times and who laugh with me in good times. Jonathan and David were more than fishing buddies or golf pals or business partners. They were brothers who would fight beside each other, confide in each other, and care for each other.

David served Saul successfully, and before long he rose from the rank of armor bearer to being one of Saul’s generals. Normally when a young man rises suddenly to the top, others are jealous and try to bring him down. They circulate all kinds of rumors about him and his family, but that was not the case with David. We are told that the people in Saul’s court approved of David and that he was popular with the people. David was recognized as a man blessed by God who used his gifts for the good of the nation. He worked hard and was successful in his campaigns. At this point in the story, all is going well for David, Saul, and Jonathan, but trouble lay ahead. It was not just men who loved David, as we see in verses 6-9.

Read I Samuel 18:6-9           

The Women                        Verses 6-9 tell about David returning home after killing a Philistine and being greeted by a group of women singing and dancing. In its current context, this story sounds like it is describing David returning after killing the giant Goliath, but this event with the women seems to take place much later than that. In assembling the story of David, the author of I Samuel brought together records from different places and time periods, and the final result is a little confusing. This passage makes much more sense if we forget about Goliath for the moment and connect it to the previous statement that Saul set David was successful wherever Saul sent him.

Clearly David has developed into a great military commander, and when he returned to Saul’s court after a particularly sanguinary engagement with the Philistines, he was welcomed as a conquering hero. Women from all over the country ran to greet him and welcomed him with song. That is an old tradition that has died out in the modern world. We have remnants of it in our tickertape parades or when a sports team returns home after winning a championship, but this was much more than that. Picture rows of women in their finest garb singing in Middle Eastern fashion while playing tambourines and dancing. They were celebrating the fact that their husbands and sons were returning home alive thanks to the skill of David. They were also celebrating the fact that they were not going to be raped or enslaved by the enemy. And they knew that David brought glory to the whole nation. There was much reason to rejoice in David’s victories.

I Samuel records the words that the women sang, and scholars believe that this verse is one of the oldest in Scripture. It became a proverb to describe the career of David, but it was probably meant originally to praise both the king and his general. Saul has slain thousands and David ten thousands! The women were rejoicing that their nation was so great that it had two famous warriors. The king was the scourge of the Philistine, but his young general was even more fierce and intelligent in battle. Saul and David were like King Arthur and Lancelot, the king and the invincible warrior, but Saul lacked the wisdom of the legendary king of the Britons and was jealous of his Lancelot.

Saul’s Jealousy                        Saul should have rejoiced that young David was so successful and popular. David brought the nation victory and was practically one of his sons. David’s charisma could unite the people in ways that Saul had never been able to do, but Saul grew jealous. He was displeased by the adulation the women showed David. Resentment began to eat away at his soul and his mind. From here on in the story, Saul will resemble Richard Nixon in his last years in the White House. He is consumed by his resentment and the fear that he might lose power. This is the tragedy of King Saul. As he grew older, he brought about his own destruction through his resentment and fear.

Verses 10-11 tell about Saul attempting to kill David while he was playing the lyre for him, but many biblical scholars believe these verses were accidentally inserted by someone copying the manuscript. They are missing in some ancient manuscripts and they duplicate material later in the book. We’re going to ignore them since they interrupt the narrative and don’t make much sense in context.

Skipping ahead to verse 12, we read that Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with him instead of Saul. Saul sent David away from the capital. He was in charge of a company of a thousand men. Presumably, Saul hoped David would be killed in battle, but this ended up making David even more powerful and popular. He won victory after victory, and even the king was in awe of him. It is uncomfortable to be the leader and be in awe of one of your subordinates. It is much easier to appoint people who are no more intelligent, competent, or effective than you are. That is one reason why businesses, universities, churches, and even governments that are run by insecure people tend to get rid of their brightest employees. Saul is the poster child for that kind of self-defeating insecurity.

Conclusion                        Chapters 17 and 18 present David as a cunning warrior whom God has blessed. In this portion of Scripture we see David entering into the household of King Saul. He becomes a close friend of Saul’s son, Jonathan, whom we already know, and later in the chapter he will marry Saul’s daughter. We will discuss that story next week. David becomes one of Saul’s best commanders and is beloved by the people. So far, David’s story is like a folktale of a poor youth rising to great glory, and we might expect a fairy tale ending such as “and he and the princess lived happily ever after,” but things don’t turn out that way. There are many reasons why Saul should be grateful that David is one of his men, but Saul distrusts David because he is successful and popular. He is suspicious of David’s ambitions and suspects that he will turn the people against him. In the weeks to come, we will see that Saul is correct about David, but only because Saul’s resentment made David’s rise to power possible. One of the lessons we should take from this text is that our resentments and jealousies may destroy us.            

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