A God-Shaped Imagination
The face-off between David and Goliath in the Valley of Elah is one of the most well-known and beloved stories from the Bible. Even people who have never read the Bible have heard this one. And yet, despite its familiarity, it is often misunderstood.
We love stories like David and Goliath because we read it as an inspiring story about an underdog. David is a small, young, and inexperienced boy who does not stand a chance against the battle-tested Goliath. But David doesn’t play by the traditional rules of combat. He relies on his brains rather than his brawn, and he takes Goliath out with the unconventional weapon of a sling. Goliath literally never sees it coming. The moral of the story seems to be: The bigger they come, the harder they fall. We find stories about underdogs so compelling because we see ourselves in the same light. We like to imagine that it is “us” against “the world,” and if we can meet life’s challenges with enough courage, grit, and strength, we, too, can be the hero of our own story.
But this is precisely how the story of David and Goliath—and the Bible as a whole—is often misread. The Bible is not all about you and what you must do for God, but rather the Bible is all about God and what he does for you by his grace.
David is not simply a brave little boy who is unafraid of the big, bad giant. He is not merely an underdog who is unusually courageous. He is the Lord's Anointed who has been chosen to fight the Lord's battles. He does not demonstrate mere courage, but rather the courage of faith. Most people think that faith is believing without, or even against, the evidence. It is a blind, irrational leap in the dark. But that is not a biblical conception of faith. Faith is simply learning to see things the way they really are. Faith means perceiving reality. By reality, I do not mean a world that has been stripped of God, but rather a world that is saturated with God. We will never become fully human, discover our truest selves, or be able to navigate the myriad stresses and strains of life until we learn to live by faith.
An Imagination Dominated by Goliath or God?
The difference between David and everyone else in the Valley of Elah was that David was filled with a God-dominated imagination rather than a Goliath-dominated imagination. The fundamental problem for many of us is that we have a Goliath-dominated imagination. Goliath is all we can see. Goliath becomes all-important, and everything else is insignificant. Goliath becomes the defining reality of our lives and paralyzes us with anxiety and fear.
For some of us, our Goliath is relational. There is a person—a boss, teacher, family member, or colleague—who is standing between us and something we want. The person opposing us consumes all our thoughts, directs all our emotions, and controls all our actions. For others of us, our Goliath is situational. We are dealing with a challenging circumstance we never saw coming, like the betrayal of someone we love, the loss of work, or the diagnosis of a chronic illness. Suddenly, we are forced to contend with circumstances well beyond our control, and we wonder how we will ever get through it. Or maybe our Goliath is societal. The latest political news or the volatility of the markets casts a looming shadow over the entire landscape. It is all we can ever think or talk about.
David, by contrast, had a God-dominated imagination. Eugene Peterson writes:
“The moment we permit evil to control our imaginations, dictate the way we think, and shape our responses, we at the same time become incapable of seeing the good and the true and the beautiful.
But David entered the Valley of Elah with a God-dominated, not a Goliath-dominated, imagination.
In the Bethlehem hills and meadows, tending his father’s sheep, David was immersed in the largeness and immediacy of God. He had experienced God’s strength in protecting the sheep in his fights with lions and bears. He had practiced the presence of God so thoroughly that God’s word, which he couldn’t literally hear, was far more real to him than the lion’s roar, which he could hear. He had worshiped the majesty of God so continuously that God’s love, which he couldn’t see, was far more real to him than the bear’s ferocity, which he could see. His praying and singing, his meditation and adoration had shaped an imagination in him that set each sheep and lamb, bear and lion into something large and vast and robust: God.
His imagination was so thoroughly God-dominated that he couldn’t believe what he was seeing and hearing [in the Valley of Elah]—Goliath terror, Goliath phobia. It was an epidemic worse than cholera, everyone down with Goliath-sickness, a terrible disease of spirit that had Saul and his entire army incapacitated.”
All the people could see was Goliath, and they were filled with fear. All David could see was God, and it filled him with hope.
David engages Goliath in single combat as a “champion,” a Hebrew word that literally means “the man in between.” In order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, two warring parties would choose a warrior to represent each side in the conflict. In keeping with this common practice in the ancient world, David risks his life to fight for his people as their representative. If David wins, his people win. If David loses, they lose. The stakes could not possibly be higher.
But the reason why David enters the fray when he hears Goliath’s taunts is not to defend his honor, nor his people's honor, but God's honor. He says in 1 Samuel 17:26, “‘Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?’” It is God's name that is on the line. And he places his trust, not in himself, but in God to deliver him. In verse 37, he says, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” He comes to Goliath in apparent weakness, and it is precisely his apparent weakness that is his strength. Verse 50 emphasizes: “There was no sword in the hand of David.” The only reason why David saves his people is because God gives the blessing. David wins, and now the people win in and through him, even though they did not do a single thing to contribute to the victory.
David’s Greater Son
The story of David and Goliath is meant to encourage us to be courageous, but in order to understand how we can be courageous, we must recognize the real hero of the story is not David, it is David’s greater son, Jesus. Like David, Jesus voluntarily chooses to fight the ultimate enemy on behalf of his people. Rather than running away from the danger, Jesus runs towards the danger, not to defend his own name, but God’s name. Jesus does not win the victory against sin, evil, and death by relying on a sword or a display of brute force, but rather he utilizes the unconventional weapon of a cross. Like David, Jesus is our champion and representative who fights, not merely for his people, but as his people, and he does so not only at the risk of his life, but at the very cost of his life.
When you put your faith in Jesus for your relationship with God rather than yourself, your faith so unites you to Jesus that everything that is true of him becomes true of you. If Jesus dies on the cross in your place, then you have died in him. If Jesus has conquered over sin, evil, and death through his resurrection, then you have been raised to new life in him. It is as good as done. His victory is yours because of what he accomplished on the cross.
When you understand that Jesus is the true champion and the mediator who does for you what you could never do for yourself, then you can handle anything life throws at you. And you will gratefully realize that you are not the hero of your own story—Jesus is. With a God-shaped imagination, you can deal with whatever lesser giants you may face, recognizing that although you did not do a single thing to contribute to the victory, the real battle has already been won.
Adapted from David and The Good Life: Imagination, a sermon delivered by Jason Harris on September 25, 2022. Listen to the sermon or read the full transcript.
"Christ and Contemporary Culture" is a journal written by Jason Harris which reflects on the intersection between Jesus Christ and our contemporary culture. If you are skeptical or resistant to Christianity, the hope is that you might pause to reflect on your pre-existing ideas about the way things are and perhaps think again. For those who have embraced Christianity, these posts will serve to encourage you in your ability to communicate the gospel in a way that takes our current cultural context seriously.
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee