History Crash Course #17: David: Shepherd & Warrior

Still too young to fight in the army, David becomes Israel’s champion when he slays Goliath.

After Prophet Samuel realizes that Saul’s and his descendants will not continue to rule Israel, he goes looking for another candidate.

Guided by God, Samuel finds himself in the town of Beit Lechem (today’s Bethlehem), paying a call on a man named Jesse among whose sons the next king is to be found.

Jesse presents seven of his sons, and Samuel sees that all are amazing men – physically fit, well-educated in Jewish law, dedicated to God. But not good enough. The Bible relates that as Samuel is admiring one of Jesse’s sons, he gets a message from God:

God said to Samuel, “Do not look at his countenance and at his tall stature, for I have rejected him. For it is not as man perceives it; a man sees what is visible to the eyes but God sees into the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

So Samuel asks: “Don’t you have any more sons?” Jesse, a little flustered, responds: “Well, there still the youngest one, but he is out tending sheep.”

The little one is David. Samuel demands that Jesse go get him and as soon as little red-headed David appears, Samuel knows he is the one. Despite the fact that physically he’s not so impressive, he has what it takes to be the strong leader Israel needs.

This teaches us a very important lesson on how we’re supposed to judge people. We live in a superficial world. We are judged by how we look, which is why plastic surgery and looking eternally young is such a big thing. Judaism says true greatness of the individual is not measured by outward appearance; true greatness resides in the soul.


Samuel takes a flask of oil and pours it on David’s head. This is called “anointing” — in Hebrew moshach, which is where the word Moshiach or Messiah comes from.

When Samuel anoints David, this does not mean David becomes king. It just means he has been designated by God as next in line.

Meanwhile, Saul continues to reign not knowing what has happened, although previously he has been told by Samuel that his days are numbered.

The Bible relates that the moment that David was anointed, “the spirit of God left Saul” and he fell into a black depression. To help relieve his angst, his advisors decide to bring in a harp player, reasoning that listening to music will make the king feel better.

And this is how David, still the shepherd, is brought to the palace — he plays the harp beautifully and his playing relieves King Saul who doesn’t know that this youth will soon replace him.


During this time Israel is constantly at war with the Philistines (whom we introduced previously.)

We know that ancient warfare was highly ritualized. In Homer’s Iliad, we read how battles were conducted in ancient times in the epic story of the siege of Troy, (circa 1200 BCE). We see that each side would send out its great champion who would fight on behalf of his people. Often the battle would end with that, because whichever champion won the other side would be so demoralized it would retreat.

This is the same situation at this time in Jewish history — the Philistines have a champion who is a pretty awesome guy. His name is Goliath and he’s huge.

(There used to be in world of wrestling a guy by the name of Andre the Giant. I remember seeing this guy. He was 7-foot-5″ and weighed 450 lbs. He used to wrestle three guys at once. Goliath was even bigger.)

The problem is that the Jewish forces have no champion at all.

The Jewish troops are stationed on the one side of the Elah Valley, south of Jerusalem — a place which you can still visit today in Israel — and the Philistines are on the other. Goliath is marching out in front of the Philistine lines, shouting curses at the Jews and challenging someone to come and fight him:

“Choose yourself a man and let him come down to me! If he can fight me and kill me, we will be slaves to you; if I defeat him and kill him, you will be slaves to us and serve us.” (1 Samuel 17:8-9)

The mortified Israelite army has to listen to this, because no one is willing to take on Goliath.

One day, David — who is still a shepherd and not a soldier — shows up on the battlefield bringing food for his brothers and he’s shocked by what he sees.


Outraged at Goliath’s blasphemous insulting of the God of Israel, David volunteers to fight Goliath, though he has a hard time convincing everybody to let him go out into the field. Finally, he convinces King Saul with his steadfast faith in God:

And David said, “God who saved me from the claws of the lion and the claws of the bear, He will save me from the hands of the Philistine.” (1 Samuel 17:37)

To that Saul answers:

“Go and may God be with you.”

David goes out to meet Goliath without sword or armor, only with his slingshot and a few stones, and his deep abiding faith in God.

Seeing him Goliath laughs:

“Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?”

But David is undisturbed:

“You come towards me with a sword, a spear and a javelin, but I come to you with the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the battalions of Israel whom you have insulted. This day God shall deliver you into my hand … and this entire gathering shall know that it is not by a sword or with a spear that God saves…” (1 Samuel 17:47)

As Goliath advances toward him, David uses his sling to hurl a rock at the giant’s face. It hits him in the forehead and he falls to the ground, flat on his face. David then removes Goliath’s sword and cuts off his head.

The stunned Philistines start running, pursued by the Israelite army. The end result is a tremendous victory for the Jews.


The words that David speaks on the battlefield are very powerful. He emphasizes that the true strength of the Jewish people is God, echoing the famous words of the Prophet Zechariah:

“Not by strength, not by might, but with My spirit,” says the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)

Jews have to remember that they will win if God is with them, but as soon as they lose sight of that, they are in trouble. We’ll see this when we get to modern Israeli history — the great victory in 1967 and the terrible losses of 1973.

The Jewish People must always remember where the source of their strength comes from.

David is one Jewish leader who is not likely to forget that, even though overnight he becomes a super hero. As a reward for his valor he is given Saul’s second oldest daughter, Michal, as a wife. And even a song is composed about him and it becomes very popular: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”

The rise of David’s popularity is paralleled by the rise of Saul’s jealousy of him.

“They have attributed to David ten thousand, while to me they have attributed thousands! He is lacking only the kingship.” And Saul eyed David with suspicion from that day on.

It happened the next day that Saul was overcome by a spirit of melancholy…and he raved incoherently in the house. David was playing [the harp]…and a spear was in Saul’s hand. Then Saul threw the spear [at David]…But David alluded him twice. (I Samuel 18: 8-11)

Saul hunts him all over the country, and David has to go into hiding.

But Saul has not much left to his reign; he is about to be killed in battle.


The Philistines attack again — near Mount Gilboa, in northern Israel and west of the city of Beit Shean.

It’s amazing how far the Philistines manage to encroach into the country. They are no longer just on the coast, they have actually reached deep into the eastern part of Israel along the area of the major trade route in the ancient Near East – the Via Maris (Way of the Sea) — which led from the coast through the Jezreel Valley and to the west of the Gilboa mountain range. From there the route skirted to the west of the Sea of Galilee and then up through the Golan Heights and on to Damascus. Strategically they’re in a bad place for the Jewish people. Saul marches out with his army to go fight the Philistines.

Saul always knew the outcome of each battle by consulting with the prophet Samuel. But now the prophet is dead. He manages to contact him in the other world however, and Samuel tells him that he stands no chance, because God is no longer with him.

Nevertheless, Saul is no coward and he leads the Jewish people into battle despite the odds. His sons are killed before his eyes and defeat appears certain. Lest he, himself, be captured by the enemy, the wounded Saul falls on his sword and dies.

The Philistines take Saul’s body and remove his head, which they send on tour around the country. They hang his body and the bodies of his three sons on the walls of the city of Beit She’an, but the Jews come back at night, steal the headless body and bury it.

Meanwhile, David reappears down in the south in Hebron, where he is crowned king and it is the story of his reign that we shall take up next.

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