Two times a day for 40 straight days, Goliath of Gath, the Philistine champion walked to the front of the line, stood up and shouted, “this day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other,” and every day King Saul and his soldiers “were dismayed and terrified” (see 1 Samuel 17:10-11).
Those defiant, angry shouts should have served as a spiritual and physical wake-up call for Saul. Those days of battle should have been his rooster-crowing, kick you in the seat of your pants, life-defining moments of victory, but they weren’t. Those days and each subsequent failure that followed represent the lowest moments in a life full of disappointment. Even though he was physically imposing, Saul was a coward and those days on the battlefield gave the Israelites all the opportunities they needed to realize what the world would soon know as well – their king was unfit to rule, defend, or even fight for his people.
Before we examine his failures on that day, let’s take a moment to detour back to the first time we meet him. Scripture describes him as a prime specimen of manhood.
There was a Benjamite, a man of standing, whose name was Kish son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Bekorath, the son of Aphiah of Benjamin. Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.
1 Samuel 9:1-2
Something that sticks out as I read this is the description itself. It only focuses on the external, there’s not a single description (good or bad) about Saul’s heart, bravery, or internal quality. Don’t overlook that point because his life will be the embodiment of the old saying, “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
As King, Saul did very little to suggest he understood the importance of his role or the value it could play in the lives of his fellow Israelites. On several occasions, he is characterized by an anxious uncertainty that made him unable to act. In itself that is a character fault and a disqualification for leadership.¹ He became everything Samuel warned the people about in 1 Samuel 8:5 when they asked for an earthly king “to judge us.” If you quickly survey the chapters prior to our story, you will find someone who on numerous occasions proved that he just didn’t get it. In his life, we can see the true distinction between the spiritual leader God wanted and the physical leader the people pleaded for. They asked for a king like everyone else and that’s exactly what God gave them.
In 1 Samuel 13, he offered an unlawful sacrifice showing his lack of patience and prudence. In 1 Samuel 15, he spared the Amalekite king and livestock after God told him to “utterly destroy them.” In that chapter, we also see God regret making him king and then in the next chapter anoint an entirely new king – one whose heart was the determining factor for kingship, not stature or looks or popularity or even favor in his own house. God simply could no longer use Saul because he had disqualified himself to serve as king.²
By the time Saul lines up with his men to battle the Philistines, God has rejected his leadership and moved on. When Goliath saunters out with his challenge, Saul has an uneasy grip on the throne and none of God’s good graces (see 1 Samuel 16:14). Because the Spirit of God left him, he sat idly by, sharing the dismay of his troops at the sight of Goliath.³
One of the truths this story so clearly illustrates is that bad leadership dooms a people. Saul should have fought Goliath the very first time he questioned God and provoked His people. Saul should have displayed the confidence the young shepherd did by running headfirst into battle. Saul should have been the one inspiring his men, leading them by example, and defeating anyone who dared to stand in God’s way. But Saul couldn’t and Saul wouldn’t. He should have strolled into the valley floor, weapons in hand ready to fight, but he didn’t.
The truth is we will never know why he didn’t fight. It’s easy to suggest the obvious, he was afraid; or the inevitable, he lacked faith, but we’ll never truly know, Scripture just does not answer our curiosity. With that being said, I have no doubt in my mind that he was afraid. How could he not be? If Goliath is even 2/3 of the monster we believe him to be, who wouldn’t be afraid? Fear is the most unhealthy of all motivations. Fear causes too many people to panic, and in their desperation, turn to the easiest choice instead of the right choice. Fear seems to be what drove Saul each of those days. In his fear he ran. In his fear he doubted. In his fear, he trembled in the presence of a man who seemed stronger than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In his fear, he lost hope and when he lost hope, he lost the will to “fight the good fight.” While a healthy fear of God is expected (see Deuteronomy 10:12) and commendable (see Job 1:1), a fear of this world is debilitating to one’s faith and devotion to God. There’s a reason why God told Joshua in so many instances, “be strong and courageous and do not be afraid” (see Deuteronomy 31:23; Joshua 1:6,7,9). God was with Joshua and could have been with Saul if his fear hadn’t driven him to give up hope in the only God who has “overcome the world” (see John 16:33).
While fear would seem to be enough for most of us to run away from that battlefield, Saul’s loss of faith must be considered as well. In a moment frozen in time, history, and legend, Saul lost his faith, and in the face of unimaginable evil, lost hope. While faith seems to easily compensate for fear when a person truly trusts in God, a person devoid of faith seems to be completely overwhelmed by fear in moments like that.
I’m sure David was afraid as he ran to battle. It’s what he was afraid of that matters the most. It’s clear that David’s fear of God was greater than his fear of Goliath and that healthy fear is what allowed him to face his giant that day. Psalm 118 seems to highlight the faith Saul should have had that day:
It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the Lord I cut them down. They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the Lord I cut them down. They swarmed around me like bees, but they were consumed as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them down. I was pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and my defense; He has become my salvation.
The sadness I feel at the cowardice of Saul is depressing. This man, selected as king to fight giants and fully equipped for the task, was far from the man Israel expected and God needed.4 I completely understand that it looked almost impossible for anyone to attack Goliath when you consider his size, equipment, and experience, but it wasn’t. Israel had a hard time remembering that “with God, all things are possible” (see Matthew 19:26). God had proved His might over and over through the lives of their forefathers. He had humbled nations, kings, soldiers, and even giants – but they forgot. It’s true that we won’t always beat the Goliaths of this world, but it must be acknowledged that God will always be stronger than any Goliath in our way.
That day in Israel, the world learned a valuable lesson. God is stronger than anything you can throw at Him. It’s sad that it took a teenage shepherd with a stout heart and not the king to prove that point. Saul was a coward and an all too effective leader. Unfortunately, he led his army right into the hands of Goliath. They were afraid, cowardly, and unable to fight because their king (the one they asked for) was equally unable. Even when his cowardice reached its zenith with a bribe for bravery, they stumbled. Today, pray for strong leadership in this Church and our world because people always follow someone. On that day, the army of Israel proved that point terribly. In the absence of true spiritual and physical leadership, they followed the wrong person (the person whose actions said the most) and it was almost their undoing.
Saul was not the leader Israel needed, just the one they deserved. They were cowards and their king represented them well every time Goliath stepped to the front of the line. He tucked his tail between his legs and fled and they followed suit.
This was his moment and he failed. May we learn from him that God does not respect cowards. I’ll leave you with a passage from Revelation. Please notice where cowardice sits on God’s list of those who will be punished one day:
But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
Do not fear. God is in control and every Goliath of this world is insignificant in His sight.
¹ Joyce G. Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, (Downer’s Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 128.
² Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 123-124.
³ Peter J. Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 and 2 Samuel, (Moscow, ID: Canonpress, 2003), 106.
4 Leithart, A Son to Me, 106.
Scripture taken from New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Originally published on January 19, 2017. Written by Neal Mathis.