What must we think of the crowd who witnessed the epic battle between David and Goliath? When it comes to the Jewish army, my quick, unfiltered reaction is to whole-heartedly doubt their bravery and even their manhood; but I believe that’s too harsh in retrospect. While I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, I just can not hide my disappointment. To see them, the children of Israel, watch Goliath march to the field of battle every day and defy God without a single ounce of evident disgust is devastating. I must call the situation what it truly is – a defeat of epic proportions and I must call them what they genuinely were – cowards in the face of a worldly foe. What I won’t do is say I’m a better man than them. What I won’t say is, “I would have fought.” What I won’t say is “how dare they doubt God?” I wasn’t there, and neither were you, so a complete understanding of what it felt like to be there is beyond us, but I will say this, I’m heartbroken as I see them run away and hide every day and I’m discouraged when I read the following verse:
When Saul and all Israel heard the words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.
1 Samuel 17:11
As we think about those men and their failure to serve Israel, we must first point out that their king and their leaders failed them systematically. We have already discussed Saul’s failure, but that, in-and-of-itself, isn’t enough to justify all of them running in fear. I’m sure most of you are keenly aware of the danger a mob mentality brings when it’s thrust upon good men. A mob will paralyze a person’s thinking and render them far too aggressive or much too careless. It will also make a reasonable person fearful panicky, and dangerous. In the case of our story, the mob mentality of the Israelites handicapped their hope in God and paralyzed their faith in His ability to deliver them from evil. While the Bible speaks of strength in numbers (i.e. Ecclesiastes 4:12), how often do we see groups of God’s children wilt when confronted (i.e. Numbers 14:1-2; Matthew 26:31) or traumatized by fear?
It is proverbial to say a person who walks with the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. How true was that statement those forty days? The crowd of faithful Israelites that gathered to fight the uncircumcised Philistines was paralyzed, and either unable or unwilling to move. On those fateful days, the Philistine’s words were frightening and his outward appearance, with his towering stature and his perfect equipment, was overwhelming. On top of that precarious predicament, the Philistine army behind him was well-trained, organized, and ready to fight.¹ One author compared these forty days to the Israelite’s wilderness wanderings. On that battlefield, Israel was lost, rudderless, and unable to escape until David came to bring them out of the wilderness into a land flowing with milk and honey.²
It is clear to me that the problem that day wasn’t that the Israelites were afraid, the problem is who caused their fear. There is much to say about the type of fear God wants. We should never dismiss it as something that hinders service to God? We far too often only see the paralysis it brings and not also the devotion, heightened awareness, or motivation? Good, healthy fear is something God wants from His children. Consider the initial description of Job from the book bearing his name:
There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil.
God would go on to tell Satan that, “there is no one on earth like him” in Job 1:8. Surely, we must believe that this fear isn’t something God shunned or disliked or this ancient story would be contradictory. Can you recall the great verse that describes Noah in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews (faith’s Hall of Fame) as one motivated by fear?
By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.
Think about the simplicity of this verse and how it incorporates a healthy fear of God into the everyday wisdom of God’s children.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Consider how this verse presents fear as something that should bring about a joyful response to God.
Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
No discussion of good fear should be left without this section from Psalm 25:
Who is the man that fears the Lord? Him shall He teach in the way He chooses. He himself shall dwell in prosperity, and his descendants shall inherit the earth. The secret of the Lord is with those who fear Him, and He will show them His covenant.
The type of fear God respects is the fear within each of us that humbles our meager selves before His sight. It’s a fear He appreciates and expects. Mankind is His creation. We must never forget our place in the cosmic pecking order of importance. Fearfully bowing down to Jehovah, Yahweh, and the Great I Am isn’t something we should begrudge Him for or belittle others for doing, it’s something we should be found guilty of at all times! I still remember as a young minister learning a very valuable lesson while having dinner with one of the shepherds of the congregation where I worked. He told me something he learned as a young man and never forgot, “there is a God and I am not Him!”
To me, that lesson is the core dynamic to this story. The Israelites knew of Jehovah, they just didn’t know Him. They couldn’t get out of their own way and serve Him fearfully. They were too afraid of the giant in front of them to fear the God behind them! They were just like their fathers arguing with Caleb and Joshua on the other side of the Jordan River. They were afraid and it was their undoing.
In the introduction to these lessons, I pointed out a New Testament verse that this story embodies.
If God is for us, who can be against us?
It’s a shame those men didn’t have access to Paul’s inspiring verse. Perhaps the courage of that thought would have forged in one of them the lower-intestinal fortitude needed to fight Goliath and win. Unfortunately, cowardice is contagious. The crowd those days in Judea prove that point beyond compare. Today, can we challenge ourselves to learn from them? Can we prepare ourselves better than they so we’re ready when Goliath saunters into the valley in front of us? Can we judge not their intentions, but their actions as simply not good enough? Can we remember that cowardice is the opposite of faithfulness? Can we do better than them?
Absolutely! If we remember the Lord is the only thing that we should truly fear. In the end, He is the only thing truly worth fearing in this world or the world to come! The irony of this story is that God’s children forgot to fear God until they saw David defeat Goliath. When that young man cut the head off the giant’s shoulders, the Philistines understood better than anyone the truthfulness of the following verse:
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
The defeat that followed was epic, deserved, and (I’m sure) frightening to many surrounding nations. See how the fates of the gathered armies changed with one swift, decisive blow.
And when the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. Now the men of Israel and Judah arose and shouted, and pursued the Philistines as far as the entrance of the valley and to the gates of Ekron. And the wounded of the Philistines fell along the road to Shaaraim, even as far as Gath and Ekron. Then the children of Israel returned from chasing the Philistines, and they plundered their tents.
1 Samuel 17:52-53
Surely, those who only heard the story thought “if Israel can defeat Goliath and the Philistines, who can stand in their way?” In the end, that’s the whole point of this story. Fighting against Israel is fighting against God’s Children and even God Himself. The army of Israel finally realized that as they watched the giant sulk to his knees and lose his life. It’s a shame it took a teenage boy to remind them!
¹ David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 444.
² Peter J. Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel, (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), 106.
Scripture taken from New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Originally published on April 27, 2017. Written by Neal Mathis.