With apologies to Malcolm Gladwell, the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 is not intended to offer a lesson in how underdogs can defeat heavily favored opponents. Nor can we find corporate-leadership strategies or advice for tackling life’s giants ranging from debt to weight problems to addiction. Nor is the lesson “use the armor that’s authentic to you.”
So how then is the story of David and Goliath relevant?
A more useful approach is to ask what God is up to in Scripture as a whole, beginning in 1 Samuel. When we read this story in its canonical context, we can begin to see how it connects to Jesus Christ, and through Jesus Christ to us.
Seeing Jesus: David, Goliath, and the Bible’s Big Story
In 1 Samuel, God is transitioning his people from rule by chieftains to rule by kings, and raising up a monarch with whom he will make an eternal covenant (2 Sam. 7). Because that covenant line spills over outside of 1 Samuel, our interpretation should probably follow suit. And it turns out there are a number of clues in the text that invite a whole-Bible, Christ-centered interpretation.
By mercilessly waging war against the people of God, Goliath and the Philistines have aligned themselves against the Creator and his purposes. But in Genesis 3:15, God had promised that the great enemy of his people would be brought to heel. God puts enmity between the woman and the serpent, between her offspring and his offspring. He promises that her offspring will crush the tempter’s head even though his heel is bruised. Goliath becomes a part of the serpent’s warfare against God’s purposes and people, and thus it is fitting that he dies from a head wound (1 Sam. 17:49, 51; cf. Gen. 3:15). (The books of 1 and 2 Samuel are obsessed with head wounds. Even those who escape beheadings get their hair or beard caught on their way to their demise.)
Another Genesis 3 hint is Goliath’s armor. The NASB and NET Bible translations reflect the Hebrew well: Goliath has “scale armor” (i.e., chain mail). In the Philistine context this recalls Dagon, their “merman” god who is half fish, half man. But a biblical reader with a modest imagination can see a link to the serpent of Genesis 3.
Finally, Goliath is known as a “champion”—the common rendering of what is more literally “the man of the space between [two armies].” He is a substitute, the “man of the space between” who battles on behalf of his people. He does what they cannot or should not do. And that’s also what David does: he stands between his people and their enemies and strikes the decisive blow.
But the greatest enemies of God’s people are Satan and their own sin. If we read carefully, noting the biblical patterns, we will see in this text the shadow of David’s greater Son, the true substitute who stands-in-between on our behalf, securing a greater victory.
Seeing Ourselves: David, Goliath, and Our Story
But our task is not yet complete. Having begun to see Jesus by following these textual clues and whole-Bible ideas, we can also begin to see ourselves.
We can see ourselves in the Israelites, who are inspired by David’s victory to join in the fight and plunder (1 Sam. 17:52–53). Not only are we meant to be recipients of the great substitutionary work of the man “in between,” we are also meant to join in his fight.
We can see how Scripture makes this connection in two statements from Romans, one at the beginning and one at the end. Like the Roman Christians, we are committed to the good news that David’s Son is now Lord (Rom. 1:3–4), having died for us and defeated our enemies. And like the Roman Christians, we share the promise that God himself will soon crush Satan under our feet (Rom. 16:20). Note Paul’s careful grammar: God himself is the one crushing Satan; he happens to use our feet. We are involved in the fight, but any victories in our fight are not merely our work, but God’s (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10).
Paul probably learned this kind of interpretation from Jesus. When David’s Son hears the reports of the kingdom ministry from his 72 returning disciples, he notes that Satan is falling from his position of power, and that he himself has given them authority to tread on scorpions and serpents, creatures who have represented the spiritual opponents of God’s people since Genesis 3 (Luke 10:17–20).
Elsewhere, Paul also talks about our Christian warfare, encouraging us to put on the Messiah’s armor and to participate in his fight against sin and Satan (Eph. 6:10–20; cf. Isa. 11:5; 49:2; 52:17). Our weapons and warfare are not physical. Just as Jesus fought with words and deeds and the cross, we fight with weapons like faith and peace and the words of God, not with spears and slings and stones.
All of this is at once profoundly humbling. We don’t get to author this victory, and we’re not the true champion. It’s also deeply encouraging and ennobling to be summoned to the fight. Seeing ourselves requires imagination and faith—the same imagination and faith that Jesus has conquered the giants of Satan and sin decisively. By God’s grace, we are simultaneously recipients of God’s great victory and participants in the battle of the ages.
Looking Forward: The ‘Not Yet’ Nature of David’s Victory
We also see Jesus and ourselves in David’s story because, for neither David nor his greater Son, is life simply about victory. After David’s success, the story quickly shifts into an extended period of tension. The anointed king and champion is now despised and rejected, hunted unjustly by Saul.
Many of David’s psalms become something of a template for Jesus’s life (no fewer than five explicitly mention Saul’s pursuit of David in their superscription). Despite his status as anointed king, he is rejected, given vinegar to drink (Ps. 69:21), has his clothes divided and joints torn (Ps. 22:16–18), faces slander and rejection from close friends who’ve shared his bread (Ps. 41:9), is subjected to false witness (Ps. 27:12), and so on.
David’s suffering serves as a typological pattern for the anointed-yet-rejected Son of David. And since the Psalms are still God’s prayer book for his people, they speak not just of the Messiah but also of our experience. We are God’s beloved children who will “inherit the earth” (Ps. 37:11; Matt. 5:5), but that doesn’t rule out suffering in the present.
Like David and his Son, we too must carry our cross, deny ourselves, and resist the schemes of the Devil. But the good news is that the decisive contest has already been waged at Calvary. The wrath that we feel from Satan is the fury of a defeated foe (Rev. 12:12). Unlike Goliath, he may still be prowling around (1 Pet. 5:8); but like Goliath, his head has already been crushed (Col. 2:15; John 16:11; Heb. 2:14).