The Power of Remembrance – David, Saul and Goliath
Most of us know the story. Even if you didn’t grow up in a church or around Christians, chances are you’ve heard of David and Goliath. It’s a perennial favorite; the story of a little guy overcoming a humongous obstacle. We use it in business to encourage small start-ups, telling them they can compete against the established giants in their field. We use it in relationships, encouraging people struggling with seemingly insurmountable adversity. We use it in church, admonishing people to simply have faith because with enough faith even the biggest giants will come crashing down at our feet.
Unfortunately, the ways we use the story of David and Goliath are largely wrong…and the real reason that God recorded this story for us in the Bible is a powerful lesson for Thanksgiving.
You see, the story of David and Goliath isn’t really the story of David and Goliath at all. It’s actually the story of David and Saul; specifically, it’s the explanation of why God replaced Saul with David as king of Israel.
Saul was the first Israelite king. Interestingly, the Israelites already had a ruler: God. But the Israelites wanted to be like the rest of the kids on the block and they insisted on having a king so that they could be “like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20). So Saul was selected as king. His qualifications? He was “a handsome young man without equal among the Israelites– a head taller than any of the others” (1 Samuel 9:2).
It’s interesting that Saul was selected as king in order to lead the Israelites in battle and because he was taller than all the other Israelites. Given this, when we read that the Israelites went to battle against the Philistines who sent out a champion named Goliath, a well…a very tall warrior, we fully expect Saul to be the one to stand up to him. After all, that’s the precise reason he was made king in the first place! Besides that, the fact that he was considerably taller than all the other Israelites makes him the only fit opponent for Goliath. And yet, when Goliath’s challenge was issued, “Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified” (1 Samuel 17:11). Note that the author of Samuel specifically highlights that not only were the Israelites as a whole terrified but that this emotion was shared by their king as well.
See, Goliath was like a vice: he squeezed down hard on his opponents, allowing us to see what came out under pressure. For Saul, what came out was fear. But of course, when David showed up and Goliath put the squeeze on him, what came out was faith. When confronted by Goliath, David’s response was “Let me at him! God will deliver him into my hands!” Saul ran from the battle but David ran towards it, not because he was confident in his own strength but because he was secure in God’s.
You see, in the end, Saul was a man of fear and David was a man of faith. Goliath was simply the foil that allows us to see what kind of men they were. That’s why I say that what we often call the story of David and Goliath is really the story of David and Saul. It’s a comparison between these two men and their character.
But why were they so different? Was it simply the way they were brought up? Were they just hardwired differently? What made Saul a man of fear and David a man of faith? Is there anything in this story that tells us how to be more like David and less like Saul? There is.
One of the most important parts of the story of David and Saul (or David and Goliath if you simply can’t re-orient your thinking) occurs at the very end of the narration of the famous battle. David has defeated Goliath. The battle is over, victory won. But right after recounting David’s victory, the book of Samuel suddenly backtracks in time and says this:
55 As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, O king, I don’t know.” 56 The king said, “Find out whose son this young man is.” 57 As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with David still holding the Philistine’s head. 58 “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”
(1 Samuel 17:55-58)
That is the conclusion to the story of David/Saul/Goliath. Why? What’s the point of returning to something Saul asked before David went out against Goliath? Why mention that he asked this at all…and then jump back ahead to the “present” part of the narrative to say that after David won, Saul directly asked him whose son he was? (This question, by the way, is essentially the same as asking “who are you?”) Why is this even here in the text?
Stranger still is the fact that Saul’s question itself makes no sense if you’ve been reading along in the book of Samuel up to this point. Why? Because Saul already knew who David was. David had already been serving as a court musician and armor-bearer for Saul, comforting Saul in times of great distress. David had already been, for quite some time, God’s provision to Saul. The author of the book of Samuel has made that very clear. In fact, Samuel has made this point just before telling us the story of David/Saul/Goliath. Here’s the bit that immediately precedes the story we all think we know so well:
Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” 20 So Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them with his son David to Saul. 21 David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. 22 Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.” 23 Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.
(1 Samuel 16:19 – 17:1)
So given all this, why in the world would Saul have had to ask Abner whose son David was? And why would the author put it in the narrative at all?
Because…in this question we see exactly why Saul was a man fear: because he wasn’t a man who remembered. Specifically, he was a man who tended to lose sight of how God had provided for him. Saul had experienced God’s blessings; he had experienced God’s provision. But…he regularly forgot what God had done for him. What the author of Samuel is doing here is illustrating this tendency of Saul’s, by making note of it both before and after the story of the battle with Goliath. There is no reason for Saul not to have known precisely who David was, yet Samuel went out of his way to highlight Saul’s lack of remembrance.
And by the way, I strongly suspect Abner’s own ignorance was fake. He knew who David was. In other words, I think Abner lied about not knowing who David was. As Saul’s commanding officer, the idea that Abner wouldn’t have known Saul’s armor-bearer is absurd. Abner almost certainly knew who David was, but he was afraid of calling attention to Saul’s own forgetfulness. And this, in turn, suggests that Saul’s forgetfulness was a touchy subject.
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that Saul’s major problem was that he forgot details. I’m saying that the author of the book of Samuel is highlighting a spiritual failing in Saul: Saul apparently regularly forgot how God had provided for him.
And do you know what happens when we don’t remember God’s faithfulness? We become people of fear, never confident that God can be trusted in our next time of trial.
David, on the other hand, was a man of faith. Why? I’m sure there are several reasons, but the one Samuel is highlighting here is that David made a practice of remembrance. Samuel highlights this fact about David when he records this quotation from David:
But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”
(1 Samuel 17:34-37)
See? David remembered. He remembered God’s faithfulness. He remembered how God had provided, and secure in the remembrance of God’s trustworthiness, he approached the future – and whatever giants it happened to contain – with unshakable faith.
Saul was a man of fear because he forgot what God had done for him. David was a man of faith because he remembered. He kept it before him and lived in light of it. He might have gone out against Goliath without chain-mail and sword, but he was well-armored with a faith that was grounded in the knowledge of God’s trustworthiness.
So how about you? Do you remember God’s faithfulness in the past and does this give you strength for the future? Or do you regularly forget what God has done so that every new struggle fills your heart with fear? I’m not asking if you have a good memory or a bad one. I’m not asking if little details slip your mind. I’m asking if you make it a habit of reminding yourself of what God has done in your life. If not, Thanksgiving is a really good time to start a new spiritual discipline: the discipline of remembrance…and of giving thanks for all those evidences of God’s faithfulness in your life.