The 2007 movie In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, takes its title from the setting of our Old Testament scripture text for today, the Elah Valley (“the valley of terebinth trees”) in southern Israel. The movie is a powerful statement about the cost of war, the profound loss experienced by father and mother, the persistent search for truth (no matter how painful) against all odds. It is subtly marked with “David and Goliath” themes: a young man serving his country and losing his soul in the face of the Goliath of brutality in modern warfare; the lonely father and the courageous young female detective facing institutional inertia and cover-ups. . . There is even one scene in which the father (Tommy Lee Jones) tells the story of David and Goliath to the detective’s (Charlize Theron’s) young son. His version focuses on how “little guys” can be winners in the face of overwhelming “big guys” if they know how to be brave.
In fact our whole culture is littered with “David and Goliath” references, from the front page to the business pages to the sports pages. Any time someone takes on a corporate giant or the government, it’s “David and Goliath.” Any time an underdog team unexpectedly defeats a major champion, it’s “David and Goliath.” It has become a cliché, really. It’s often trite and fairly trivial. And so many times this text is read in the church in just that way. It is seen as a story of how a “little guy” manages to defeat, against all odds, a “big guy.” And it finds standard spiritual application in stale little moralisms about how God is bigger than any of the giants you face in life. With God’s help you can overcome anything. Well that reading almost completely misses the point of the story.
Seen in its context this Old Testament story is not about David and Goliath. It’s about David and Saul. It’s about two completely divergent spiritual viewpoints, one focused on the truth, the other lost in arrogant self-delusion. Goliath is a bit player, who comes on the scene, makes a big splash, and quickly departs, never to be heard from again. He is a foil, a vehicle which the writer uses to help us to see into the hearts of the main characters.
The Elah Valley is a wide, relatively flat patch of ground between two ridges. It is even today in disputed no-man’s land near the border of the West Bank. It was strategic in approximately 1010 B.C. because in the east end of the valley there is a wide pass through the north ridge that leads to an easy route into the highlands of Judah, the heart of Israel’s territory. The Philistines had come to invade. The army of Israel, a citizen militia really, was there to stop them. After forty days of a standoff David was sent by his father to bring supplies to his brothers, who were citizen soldiers. He was greeted by scolding from his eldest brother, Eliab, who accused him of abandoning the sheep and coming to be a spectator at the battle. But David’s attention was already caught by the drama of the day.
Everyone—the soldiers of Israel, Saul, David and his brothers—had the enemy and their oversized champion. For forty days, everyone heard his taunts and insults—it was the talk of the camp. Have you seen the size of this guy? He’s nine feet tall. His armor weighs 125 pounds! His spear point weighs fifteen pounds. Sheesh! Where did he come from?! Have you heard about the reward Saul has offered to anyone who can defeat this giant?! And almost everyone, including Israel’s supposed champion Saul, was terrified of the possibilities except the one “little guy” who brought a different spiritual vision to the battlefield.
Did you pay attention to what David said? He didn’t say the enemy warrior was “defying the army of Israel.” He pegged it when he said the Philistine was “defying the armies of the living God.” He said this three times: to his brothers and their fellow soldiers (v. 26), to King Saul (v. 36), and to the Philistine (v. 45).
Saul’s mind is quite naturally intent on the challenge ahead of him, and the potential for a disastrous defeat and the loss of his kingdom. And it is focused on the embarrassing taunts of the pagan warrior giant. And when his attention falls on young David and his apparent braggadocio it must have given him a moment of comic relief. Are you kidding me!? Who does this kid think he is? But the young man persisted in his preaching to the king (presumptuous, no?), Saul took him up on his challenge. Okay, let’s see what you can do. But, don’t try to go out there without some protection. Here, try my armor on for size. (You will recall that David was said to be small, and Saul was said to be a big man, head and shoulders above all the other men of Israel.) The results were predictable—more comic relief. David gave up on the armor. He didn’t think he needed it anyway! He had after all bare handedly fought and killed lions and bears in defense of his family’s sheep. He was no untried youth, at least in his own mind, even if he was unfamiliar with military arms. No, he would face the giant with his shepherd’s staff and five stones gathered from the brook Elah, running between the armies, and oh yeah, his sling.
That sling as a patch of animal hide tied to long leather thongs at each of four corners. It was tied at one end to the user’s wrist and the other end was held in that hand. A stone, perhaps as large as a baseball, was cradled in the pouch. It would be swung around at great speed and when the stone was released it would fly at great velocity and strike with lethal force. Such a weapon had been used skillfully by shepherds and warriors for centuries already. (See Judges 20:16) And David was well practiced and confident in its use. But David would not boast in his secret weapon or in his skill in its use. David’s focus was on the Lord of Hosts, the God who marshaled his armies for his purposes. David saw the spiritual truth of the moment. This battle belonged to the Lord, not to David or Saul. And so David said to the giant, who was confident he was going to feed David’s carcass to the buzzards: “You come to me with a sword and a 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” (vv. 45-46).
Well, we all know what happened. I have often wondered if even a moment of self-doubt might have crossed Goliath’s soul at that moment, if his eyes shifted just a little. We’ll never know. The Lord does deliver Goliath into David’s hand, he cold-cocks him with the first of those five stones and finishes the giant off with his own sword. The Philistines are routed and chased all the way back to their home cities, and their goods are plundered by the Israelite army. The armies of the Lord of Hosts have a field day.
And where, now, is Saul’s attention focused. Do we hear of Saul praising Yahweh for his great victory that day? Sadly, no. Saul is a man who has held his position by dint of arms and by commanding fear and loyalty all around him. Here is now a young man who seems to not be afraid of him, and who just might become a threat to his position as king. Saul’s question was, “Who is this kid?” “Who’s son are you, young man?” Saul immediately decides to keep David close, maybe to control him. He takes David into his military inner circle. He begins sending him on special missions with even more successes, and in doing so Saul makes himself more secure and popular. But soon that security and popularity will turn into a festering jealousy that will eventually bring down Saul’s reign in foolishness and obsessive madness. Saul’s spiritual vision is absolutely in the wrong place, to the extent that he had any spiritual vision at all.
And this is the main point of this story. From day one, Saul’s focus was misplaced. He continually showed himself to be self-important and disregarding of his place as the servant of Yahweh in the role of king. That arrogant disregard was what led Samuel to announce some time before this day that “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandments of the Lord; for now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel for ever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you” (13:13-14). I wonder if those words were echoing in Saul’s spirit on this day?
David sees clearly that the truth of the situation is bound up in the presence and power and faithfulness of God. And guess what, it still is this morning. The “powers that be” who routinely mock faith in God’s love and righteousness do not really insult you or your faith. They insult the Lord. But they also express themselves in the nagging personal battles we fight against doubt, selfishness, bad decisions, broken relationships, personal failures, fears and conflicts. And where is our focus? Is it like David’s or like Saul’s? Are we truly convinced that every form of evil, both within us and around us, is totally overmatched by “the Lord of Hosts”?
Interestingly, this Old Testament reading is paired in the Lectionary with Jesus’ calming the storm at sea in Mark 4:35-41, and it’s not difficult to see a connection between the Israelites being unaware of Yahweh’s power even against someone as big as Goliath and the disciples being unaware of Jesus’ power over even a big storm on the Sea of Galilee. The people of God—we—seem forever unaware of the power of our God and of God’s ability to take care of his people.
Of course just knowing this is no guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen to God’s people in this life. The history of the church is not exctly free of awful things happening to God’s people. Being a believer is not a ticket to a pain-free, accident-free, completely safe life (sorry, Joel Osteen). But being a believer does mean having the faith that says that however God works it out, at the end of the day God’s purposes will not be defeated. God will accomplish what he sets out to do, and though he may use us and our gifts and our efforts to get it done, at the end of the day the glory is all God’s because it is the almighty working of God that is able to do far more than we can imagine or accomplish on our own no matter how hard we work.
The Book of Revelation builds toward a great climactic battle scene enacted in the Valley of Megiddo (Har-Maggido, Armageddon) some distance to the north of the Valley of Elah. The fearsome, seemingly innumerable warriors on the side of the Beast are marshaled on the field with all their evil armor and weapons, they threaten to overwhelm the saints of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord himself is clad not in armor, but in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is “The Word of God.” The armies of God are arrayed not in bronze but in fine linen, white and pure. Their secret weapon is the sword which proceeds from the mouth of the Lord Christ. The battle is really no battle at all, no more than was David’s defeat of Goliath a real battle. The story in Revelation tells us that the Beast and the False prophet are summarily seized and cast into the Lake of Fire and the armies of evil are defeated by the sword that comes out of the Lord’s mouth. Just as the storm was stilled with a single command, all the foulest evil minions of Satan are defeated by a word of truth!
What kind of a difference would it make to you and in the life of our church if we really did have a firm faith in God’s ability and determination to take care of himself and his own people? Well, it certainly shouldn’t make us lazy or complacent. Knowing that all is in the Lord’s hands has never meant that we can just coast with nothing to do. But it might mean going about our lives, doing our work on God’s behalf, and seeking to grow in our spiritual maturity with greater joy, with greater confidence, with a firmer sense that God can and will prosper our efforts. We don’t have to work ourselves to death or slave to the point of exhaustion in the arrogant belief that it’s finally up to us to make the church successful or to somehow make ourselves perfect. The battle is the Lord’s. Praise the Lord! Amen.