9/11. Apollo 11. Pearl Harbor. Appomattox. Yorktown. These names and places refer to events that determined the course of American history. To live before and then after these events probably felt like living in a different country. I wonder if the word “Elah” had a similar effect on many Israelites. Perhaps just as some of us say, “That was before 9/11,” some of the Israelites said, “That was before Elah.”
In 1 Samuel 16, Samuel quietly visited Bethlehem as the Lord commanded. He found David, the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, and anointed him to lead Israel. He then went home with no fanfare. In the second half of the same chapter, an evil spirit plagued Saul while God’s Spirit rested on David. The only way Saul found relief was through David’s music.
The Valley of Elah was near the much-contested border of Israel and Philistia. Saul and Jonathan had won early victories against the Philistines, but the Philistines remained a force to be reckoned with. Soldiers from the Philistines’ easternmost city, Gath, had gathered to fight Israel in the Valley of Elah. As the armies were at a stalemate, a man whose height surpassed modern records came forward to represent the Philistines as their champion. The height, the weapons, the armor, and the confidence we see in 1 Samuel 16:3-11 were enough to undo the Israelites. No one came forward to fight.
Then an adolescent sheep herder came to bring food to his older brothers. When David heard the Philistine’s taunts, he immediately volunteered to fight. In addition to lacking size, armor, and experience, he couldn’t even use Saul’s armor. It’s hard to see how the possibility that David would win could have been on anyone’s radar — yet, after a brief exchange of words, David quickly killed Goliath and thus defeated the Philistines. After being enlisted in Israel’s army, he would continue to dog them in chapter 18.
What do we learn from this ancient showdown? First, David was like many of the other major figures in 1 Samuel: Hannah, Samuel, and the early Saul. An infertile woman in a polygamous marriage, a boy priest and prophet, and a shy son looking for his dad’s donkeys, like an adolescent shepherd bringing food to his brothers, were all unlikely instruments of redemption. The Lord still, as Hannah exulted, “raises the poor from the dust” while “the bows of the mighty are broken” (1 Samuel 2:8, 4). In redemption, the last become first and the first last.
Second, sometimes we hear that David’s skill with the sling or a hormonal disease from which Goliath suffered caused David’s victory. Is it possible that these explanations have some truth? Yes. Is it possible that they caused the victory? No. Even David knew that the Lord was the one who defeated the Philistines (17:34-37, 45-47; cf. Psalm 20:6-8).
Lastly, sometimes we think of 1 Samuel 17 as a guide to overcoming problems or “slaying giants” in our lives. While David’s faith is certainly an example for us to follow, I believe that the primary purpose of this story is not to show us how to be like David. Unlike us, David was the newly anointed king over Israel, and the Lord’s Spirit equipped him to shepherd all of God’s people. The only path to genuine victory over our enemies of Satan, sin, and death is to follow the anointed, Spirit-filled King into battle: Jesus Christ. Before trying to be like David, we must look to his great descendant, Jesus. Elah points to Golgotha.