Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered, and encamped in the Valley of Elah, and drew up in line of battle against the Philistines. And the Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. And he had bronze armor on his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver's beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron. And his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.
Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years. The three oldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle. And the names of his three sons who went to the battle were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah. David was the youngest. The three eldest followed Saul, but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father's sheep at Bethlehem. For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.
And Jesse said to David his son, “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers. Also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See if your brothers are well, and bring some token from them.” – 1 Samuel 17:1-18 ESV
The exact timeline of the story of David can be a bit difficult to piece together. Samuel, who wrote the book that bears his name, seems to have been less interested in providing a precise chronological outline of David’s life than he was of highlighting the details of how he came to be king. A case is point is the reference to David found in chapter 16. It was made by one of King Saul’s servants when the king began to suffer the effects of the harmful spirit placed upon him by God.
“Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him.” – 1 Samuel 16:18 ESV
He refers to David as a man of valor and a man of war. But the last reference we have of David is that of his anointing by Samuel. Immediately after that event, David is said to have returned to his sheep. And with David being the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, it is believed that he could have been no older than 15 at the time of his anointing by Samuel. So when did he become a man of valor and war? It would seem that some significant time has passed since David’s anointing – enough time for him to grow up and join the army of Israel. He must have gained some experience in battle to have earned the reputation as “a brave warrior, a man of war” (NLT). But regardless of how much time has passed, one thing remained unchanged about David: …the Lord was with him (1 Samuel 16:18). David had the Spirit of God resting upon him. He had the power and the presence of God available to him. His anointing with oil by Samuel made his selection by God to be Israel’s next king official, but it was his anointing with the Holy Spirit that would make him fit for the office of king.
It is interesting to note that when Saul sent for David, he was found back with the sheep. So whatever deeds of valor and bravery he had done must have been done on the side or as a result of his responsibilities as a shepherd. Later on in the story, David himself will recount to King Saul a few examples of his exploits in the field caring for the sheep. It seems that it wasn’t as safe an occupation as one might thing.
“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears…” – 1 Samuel 17:34-36 ESV
But back to our timeline. David had been hired by the king and given the responsibility to minister to Saul when he experienced the fits brought on by the “harmful spirit.” He was also made the king’s armor bearer. Which presents another interesting issue. When chapter 17 opens, the Israelites are preparing to do battle with the Philistines. And while King Saul is there with all his troops, David, his armor bearer, is not. He was at home tending the flocks. The text tells us that “David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem” (1 Samuel 17:15 ESV). It seems that David was pulling double-duty, balancing the demands of a bi-vocational lifestyle that required him to split his time between his responsibilities as a shepherd of sheep and a servant to the king.
It is essential to keep in mind that, all during this time, David was the God-appointed and Holy Spirit-anointed successor to King Saul. And yet, here he was dividing his time between tending sheep and plucking out tunes on his lyre in order to calm the heart of the current king of Israel. Saul was still on the throne and tasked with the responsibility of defending the nation of Israel from their enemies. But he was ill-equipped for the job. He no longer enjoyed the anointing of God’s Spirit. He had all the physical attributes to make him “a brave warrior, a man of war,” but when Goliath challenged the armies of Israel to send out a champion to fight him, Saul and his troops were “dismayed and greatly afraid” (1 Samuel 17:11 ESV).
Samuel’s interest is not so much in establishing an exact chronology of the events as he is in creating a stark contrast between the warrior-king and the shepherd-servant. With the introduction into the story line of Goliath and the Philistines, Samuel reminds his readers that there is something far more significant going on here than just who will sit on the throne of Israel. This is about the future well-being of the people of God. The king of Israel was to be much more than a figure head. He was to be the leader of God’s people, providing them with physical protection and spiritual direction. He was to be a man after God’s own heart, who listened well, followed instructions obediently, and protected God’s people faithfully. Saul was tormented by a spirit that attacked him relentlessly, leaving him unable to do his job as king. Goliath represents a physical manifestation of that same spirit, tormenting the people of God and creating in them fear and dismay. They stood before their enemy leaderless and helpless. They had to suffer his daily taunts and jeers, unable to do anything about it. He demanded that they send one man who would be willing to face him a winner-takes-all match. But no one stepped forward. Nobody had the guts to face the Philistine champion and keep God’s people from becoming their slaves.
The stage was set. Saul, the king, stood immobilized and paralyzed by fear. But all of that was about to change, when the Lord’s anointed stepped onto the scene. David, the sheep-tending, lyre-playing, armor-bearing, food-delivering son of Jesse was about to provide an unforgettable lesson in faith and godly leadership. The least-expected was going to do the unexpected. The sheep-tender was about to become the giant-killer.