The story of David and Goliath is one of the best known stories in the Old Testament (OT). It finds a home in our children stories and in our adult classes. It’s an OT story that made its way into popular culture through use in movie plotlines, sports analogies, and motivating speeches. The story of an ultimate underdog taking down the oversized enemy engages the emotions of both young and old.
But what is the story mainly about? Is it a story meant to teach moralistic principles? Is the story merely meant to relay a piece of Israelite history? Does it point the reader to Jesus? These are good questions that demand careful answers.
I am thankful for the movement among Christians, especially those with reformed leanings, to caution us from reading our OT (indeed, the whole Bible) in merely moralistic fashion. The Bible is more than Aesop’s Fables. That is, the Scriptures do not simply pass on a system of morality. Yet, morality is certainly not absent from the Bible. While I believe it does much more than teach moralistic ideas, David and Goliath clearly passes on moralistic principles that we should emulate. We look to the characters in the story and we love what is good and hate what is evil (Rom. 12:9). We imitate David as he lives righteously and honors the Lord (cf. Phil. 3:17).
Furthermore, the story of David and Goliath is obviously historical. The author is tracing the history of Israel’s monarchy. Specifically, the Lord has rejected Saul (1 Sam. 15) and has appointed David as the next King of Israel (1 Sam. 16). The story of David and Goliath is found in a portion of Scripture concerned with recounting the history of Saul’s collapse and David’s rise to the throne. The story of David and Goliath is an important historical development in Israel’s history and has direct bearing on the Israelite monarchy. Clearly, we learn a bit of history as we read this story.
Is the story about Jesus? Well, I believe the whole of the Bible is meant to point to Jesus. The question is, how does it do so? Do we simply read this story and jump to the idea that Jesus is our unlikely hero that fights our battle at the cross and wins the day? That’s a glorious truth, but I think more work needs to be done to read the text in its own grammatical and historical context. We must get to Jesus, but we must do so along the correct path.
Mike Riccardi, of The Masters Seminary, helpfully walks us to Jesus along what seems to be the correct hermeneutical path:
From a redemptive-historical perspective, the point of the story of David and Goliath is to bring David onto the scene of prominence. He will be the King of Israel who trusts in Yahweh in ways in which it is clear that Saul did not (1Sam 13:8–13). He will be the man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14), from the tribe of Judah (1Sam 17:12; cf. Gen 49:10)—not Benjamin, as Saul was (1Sam 9:1)—who will rule Israel in righteousness. This sets the stage for Yahweh to make His covenant with David, which promises a righteous ruler in Israel to sit on David’s throne forever and ever. This, of course, finds its fulfillment in Jesus, the Son of David, the Lion of Judah, whose dominion will be everlasting (Dan 7:14; Rev 11:15).
I think Riccardi has it mostly right. The text is a narrative concerned with the Israelite monarchy. Israel has requested an earthly king (1 Sam. 8:5) and God has given them Saul (1 Sam. 8:22; 10:19–27). Yet, Saul fails to obey the word of the Lord and loses the throne (1 Sam. 15). Now the kingship would pass to one from the tribe of Judah. This king from Judah is an unsuspecting figure. He is not a man of war, a political elite, or a prominent man in any way. He is a lowly shepherd boy. Yet, it is with David that God would establish what we know today as the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7). It is this Davidic throne that would never pass away. And it is Jesus who comes as the descendant of Abraham, the Son of David, the Son of God (cf. Matt. 1:1–17).
Still, I think we can walk a little further along the hermeneutical path than Riccardi. The King of Israel that came from Judah would be akin to a lion, who you should not rouse (Gen. 49:9). Goliath has poked the lion. Having been poked, the shepherd-boy-king goes before his people and fights on their behalf. He fights the enemy that they cannot defeat. He wins the day. And his people rise up behind him and run the rest of the enemy out of the country.
If that doesn’t raise images of Jesus in your mind, then I’m not sure what will! Jesus, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Rev. 5:5), the King of Israel, the Son of David, goes to battle at the cross. There he triumphs over Satan, sin, and death (Col. 2:15). He conquers rebels and brings them into relationship with the Father (2 Cor. 2:14). He wins the day. And we rise up behind our conquering King and push back darkness as we share the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ with a lost and dying world.
The story of David and Goliath has plenty of moralistic principles for us to imitate. It teaches us a good bit of history. And it ultimately takes us to Jesus who comes as the Son of David to deliver his people. And it shows us that the ruler of God’s people will fight, and has fought, on their behalf.
The people of Israel needed a savior to deliver them from the Philistines. They get David. And in getting David, they get a promised Judean king.
The people of God have always needed a savior to deliver them from the wrath of God. We get the Son of David, the Son of God. We get Jesus.
David and Goliath is about the rise of the great Judean King David.
That get’s us ready for great David’s Greater Son, namely Jesus. He is the Lion from the Tribe of Judah. He faces the giants on our behalf.