by Al Maxey

Issue #634 ------- September 19, 2014
To conquer without risk is
to triumph without glory.

Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)

Five Stream-Smoothed Stones
A Reflection on David's Selection

A reader from Houston, Texas recently wrote to me with a question about one of the details in the account of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). We are all, I'm sure, very familiar with this story. "The Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Socoh in Judah. They pitched camp at Ephes Dammim, between Socoh and Azekah. Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them" (vs. 1-3). Such battles between the people of God and armies from surrounding nations were not uncommon during this period of Israel's history. Time and again large forces came against the Israelites with the intent of destroying them. Yet, God stood with His people and protected them. In this present account, however, there was something rather unique: the Philistine army had "a champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, and he was over nine feet tall" (vs. 4). Goliath issued a challenge to the Israelite army: send your best man out to fight me. If Goliath won, the people of Israel would become the slaves of the Philistines; if the champion of the Israelites won, the Philistines would become the slaves of God's people. "On hearing the Philistine's words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified" (vs. 11).

Thus, the scene was set for one of the great accounts from the Old Testament writings. Young David, who was one of eight sons born to Jesse in the city of Bethlehem, was sent by his father to the scene of the impending battle to check on three of his older brothers "who had followed Saul to the war" (vs. 13). When David arrived on the scene he discovered that for 40 days the Philistine giant had been issuing his challenge to the Israeli army, a challenge that had yet to be accepted. Instead, every time the giant came forth on the battlefield of the Valley of Elah, the soldiers of Israel "all ran from him in great fear" (vs. 24). David, although just a young lad, was disgusted by the lack of courage he beheld from his own people. He said, "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?!" (vs. 26). Therefore, David went to King Saul and said, "Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him" (vs. 32). Saul almost certainly scoffed at this offer, saying to David, "You are only a boy!" (vs. 33). Yes, replied David, that is true, yet it is also true that if one would place his trust in the Lord, then God would deliver the one who went forth to do battle with the giant. David's faith in God was great, and so Saul said, "Go, and the Lord be with you" (vs. 37). Saul offered David his own armor and sword, but David refused them. Instead, "he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd's bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine" (vs. 40).

"Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him. He said to David, 'Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?' And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 'Come here,' he said, 'and I'll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!' David said to the Philistine, 'You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord's, and He will give all of you into our hands'" (vs. 41-47). One cannot but help think of the statement by the aged apostle John: "Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4). I am reminded also of the hymn we sing titled "The Battle Belongs To The Lord," which was written in 1985 by Jamie Owens-Collins. The first stanza reads: "In heavenly armor we'll enter the land, the battle belongs to the Lord. No weapon that's fashioned against us will stand, the battle belongs to the Lord."

As we all know, the Lord God, by means of a young lad, prevailed that day in the Valley of Elah. "As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him" (vs. 48). What a difference from the fearful flight of his brethren (vs. 24). "Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground. So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine's sword and drew it from the scabbard. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword. When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran" (vs. 49-51). The Israelite army then pursued the fleeing Philistines and won a great victory over them, plundering their camp afterward. Abner, the commander of the Israeli army, then "brought David before Saul, with David still holding the Philistine's head. 'Whose son are you, young man?' Saul asked him. David said, "I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem'" (vs. 57-58).

As previously noted, this is a story we are all familiar with; one we have heard many times. Even our young children can recite the details of this account. However, there are a few aspects of this story that have raised questions in the minds of biblical scholars for centuries. For example, there seems to be some debate, based on the wording of the text, as to what actually killed Goliath. Verse 50 seems to suggest the giant was killed by the force of the stone "sinking into his forehead." Others feel this may have only knocked him out, for verse 51 seems to suggest David drew Goliath's sword from its scabbard and killed him with the giant's own sword, and then removed his head from his body. Ultimately, it matters little what actually killed Goliath, for the important part of this account is that a young boy, carrying only "sticks and stones," felled the champion of the Philistines, and David did so by the power of God. It is also interesting to note that nothing is said of the shield bearer who marched ahead of Goliath. We can only assume that when the giant fell to the earth, he fled back to the ranks of his fellow soldiers (who themselves were fleeing). Many other questions arise from this account: why did David cut off the head of Goliath, and then carry it around with him for a time? Why did David take Goliath's weapons and place them in his own tent (vs. 54)? What did he intend to do with them? Why did he carry his shepherd's staff in his hand as he went out to meet Goliath (vs. 40)? As you might imagine, theories abound. In this present study, however, I want to focus on another detail that has fascinated biblical scholars for centuries: the five smooth stones David selected from a stream as he went out to meet the Philistine giant. "Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd's bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine" (vs. 40).

David's weapon of choice, with which he had apparently become quite skilled, perhaps using it to ward off animal attacks against the flock he was shepherding, was the sling. This was composed of two long leather straps connected to a leather pouch in the center (where the stone would lie). One strap was tied to the hand, while the other strap was held between the thumb and the middle joint of the forefinger. After whirling the sling a few times (to gain force from the velocity) the end of the strap held between the thumb and forefinger was released, which in turn released the stone. "The use of the sling requires much practice, but when once this dexterity is acquired, the sling is nearly as fatal as the musket or bow" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 264]. Judges 20:16 informs us that among the soldiers from the tribe of Benjamin, "there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss." These "kinsmen of Saul from the tribe of Benjamin, were armed with bows and were able to shoot arrows or to sling stones right-handed or left-handed" (1 Chron. 12:2). It appears that David, at a young age, was equally skilled with the sling. Many years later we find this weapon being used as part of the arsenal of the Israeli army. King Uzziah of Judah, for example, "provided shields, spears, helmets, coats of armor, bows and sling-stones for the entire army" (2 Chron. 26:14).

The choice of stones for this sling also required some thought, for not just any stone would do. If the stones were jagged and irregular in shape, they could easily get snagged in the pouch of the sling, which snagging could affect the direction of the stone upon release. Such a jagged stone would also "not have passed easily through the air, and their asperities would, in the course of their passage, have given them a false direction" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 264]. Thus, smooth stones were the ideal for use in a sling. Such stones could be easily found in streams, where the action of the water, over the course of time, would wear down the jagged exterior. Thus, we are told David "chose five smooth stones from the stream" (1 Sam. 17:40) which just happened to be nearby (a location chosen by the army for its camp as it would provide water for the troops). So, "David had a ready supply of naturally spherical stones of the right size at hand" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 700].

The question scholars have wrestled with for centuries is this: Why did David choose FIVE stones? Is there any significance to this number of stream-smoothed stones? Why not four, or six, or even just one? Needless to say, there are countless theories as to why David chose this specific number of stones. Some of the most interesting of these theories are a result of certain scholars employing the Allegorical Method of biblical interpretation. Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C. to c. 40 A.D.) brought this method to prominence, seeking "to harmonize the religion of Moses with the philosophy of Plato by the help of an ingenious but arbitrary allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament writings" [Dr. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 1, p. 88]. This method seeks to "discover behind the outer form an inner substance of truth" [Dr. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, p. 163]. In many ways, the Bible is perceived by those who have embraced this hermeneutic as a riddle that must be solved. This, of course, often places the meaning of the biblical text "at the whim or fancy of an interpreter" [ibid, p. 164]. Thus, "what the Bible may mean to any man will depend upon what the man would like to have it mean" [Dr. D. R. Dungan, Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures, p. 61]. For example, Genesis 2:10 -- "A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters" -- was allegorized by Philo this way: the main river was "goodness" or "virtue," and the four headwaters were "prudence, temperance, courage, and justice."

With respect to the five stream-smoothed stones chosen by David, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), in his commentary, wrote, "So our Divine David, the Good Shepherd of Bethlehem, when He went forth at the temptation to meet Satan -- our ghostly Goliath -- chose five stones out of the brook. He took the five books of Moses out of the flowing stream of Judaism. He took what was solid out of what was fluid. He took what was permanent out of what was transitory. He took what was moral and perpetual out of what was ceremonial and temporary. He took stones out of a brook, and with one of these He overthrew Satan ... with this sling and stone of Scripture He laid our Goliath low." Augustine believed he saw in the David and Goliath account a deep mystical reference to the temptation of Jesus by Satan after the Lord's 40 days in the wilderness (the same period of time, by the way, that Goliath challenged the Israelites -- 1 Sam. 17:16). Such speculations are most certainly very interesting, but they are also a bit far-fetched (at least in the thinking of most scholars). But, this is no less fanciful than other allegorical speculations. Some, for example, believe the five stones represent prayer, fasting, confession, the Bible, and the Eucharist. Another writer says the five stones stand for faith, obedience, service, prayer, and the Holy Spirit. I have also seen some say they represent "the five steps to salvation" (hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized), while others say they represent "the five acts of worship" (singing, praying, giving, preaching, and the Lord's Supper). A few also believe that there is spiritual significance to the fact David drew the smooth stones from the stream: i.e., the water washed away the rough edges of the rocks, making them useful in the hands of the master. This would symbolize how our own "rough edges" would be washed away in the waters of baptism, thus making us useful in the service of the Master to confront the evils of the world around us. We could go on, but you get the idea.

I think we can safely put such allegorical speculations aside (fascinating though they may be). Yet, we are still left with some serious questions. If David firmly believed that God would be with him in this confrontation with the Philistine giant, and that the battle belonged to the Lord, and that the victory was already assured, then wouldn't a single stone have been sufficient? After all, he did indeed drop Goliath with just one stone. Why, then, did he feel the need to add four more stones to his bag? Some have assumed from this that David, in spite of his statements to the contrary, may have harbored some doubt in his mind as to the outcome. "What if I miss with the first stone?" Thus, he sought to cover his own potential inadequacy, rather than trusting fully in God. Had he trusted God fully, he would have selected a single stone; perceiving his own personal limitations, however, caused him to try to cover his own imperfections with additional ammunition ... "just in case." Somebody said such faith is like a Christian singing "Blessed Assurance" with his fingers crossed! Did choosing five stones, instead of one, manifest a flaw in the faith of David? Some scholars think so. Such a view, however, in my opinion, seems entirely inconsistent with the context, where we see a very confident and determined young man who hesitates not to confront the enemies of God and His people.

Moving away from those who tend to allegorize this account, we find a number of views that tend to be a bit more practical in nature. Some scholars, for example, suggest that David merely sought to fill his bag, and choosing five stones was simply because that was how many stones of that size his bag would hold. Indeed, the explanation may be just that simple. David chose to go into battle fully armed with his weapon of choice, and his support equipment (the bag) would hold no more than five stones. Perhaps the lesson here is simply that we are to go into battle fully prepared to engage the enemy. After all, doesn't the apostle Paul tell us to "be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power, and put on the full armor of God" (Eph. 6:10-11)? Don't go into battle with the enemy only partially prepared to engage him. Be fully armored and armed, spiritually speaking. Yes, we are to trust our God completely, knowing that in Him the victory is assured. Yet, we also must never become presumptuous of His protective care. Such presumption might say to Paul, "Why do I need to put on any armor? God will protect me, so I don't need it." If we are God's weapon in the fight against evil, then let's present unto Him a weapon fully loaded. David knew the battle belonged to the Lord; he had complete faith in that, and also in the outcome. Nevertheless, when he went to confront the giant, he went as a fully loaded weapon in the hands of his God. We dare do no less today. It is certainly possible that David did not know how many stones it would take to drop the giant to the ground; perhaps God intended to use two, or even more. Whatever God had in mind for this occasion, David intended to be fully prepared.

Another popular theory is that David may have believed that after defeating the giant, he would then have to face some of the other troops from the Philistine ranks. If killing Goliath caused the enemy to charge the Israelites, rather than fleeing in fear (which is was happened), then David would be prepared to assist his brethren in that fight. Similar to this theory is one that suggests David knew that Goliath had four brothers, and perhaps he felt these brothers may have chosen to step forward and take revenge. If they did, then he had one stone for each of them. The weakness with this theory is that there is nothing in the text which suggests David had any knowledge of the family history of this Philistine giant. Where do we get the notion that Goliath had four brothers (although some scholars believe the text suggests it was actually four sons)? This is assumed from 2 Samuel 21:15-22 and 1 Chronicles 20:4-8. It is certainly tempting to try and explain the four extra stones by linking it to four brothers/sons of Goliath, however this is little more than speculation. There is certainly no direct evidence for this assumption.

In the final analysis, although it is interesting to speculate and even allegorize such details, the reality may simply be that such incidental details of the narrative are just that: incidental details that tend to flesh out the account, but which are not theologically significant in themselves. David chose five smooth stones from the nearby stream. We can speculate all day as to why, but the truth is: we'll likely never know. Of far greater significance in this account is the weak faith of the Israeli army in contrast with the strong faith of a young boy, and the great truth that greater is He who stands with you in battle than he who stands against you!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Colorado:

Al, enclosed you will find my check for the following four items (three of your books and your latest CD set): (1) Down, But Not Out, (2) One Bread, One Body, (3) From Ruin To Resurrection, and (4) Revelation: A Reflective Study. My husband and I really enjoyed listening to several of your previous CDs on our recent road trip. Thank you for all you do in the name of Jesus. You are so appreciated!

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From a Reader in Alabama:

My brother, I loved your article titled "Deuteronomistic Theology" (Reflections #633). Thank you very much for it. Please keep ones like this, as well as "The Saving Grace of God" (Reflections #631), coming! I do love Grace! His name is Jesus! Brother, you are loved and appreciated!

From a Reader in New Delhi, India:

I have been studying Romans. Is my understanding of Romans 4:9-12 correct: that Abraham was justified because of his faith in God before he was circumcised? Would I also be right in understanding that we are justified by a like faith in the Lord before our spiritual circumcision (Col. 2:11-12)? My mind is in turmoil as I am restudying and reflecting on God's Word. The question that comes to my mind is: how do I teach these truths to the congregation without upsetting the ultra-conservative element here who are stuck in "the old paths"?

From a Minister in Arkansas:

Dear Brother, I am so glad to be able to read your studies and to see the genuine hearts of others who write to you and share their own journey. Thank you for being His child, and for your yearning to please Him as you long for better understanding in yourself and the rest of us. Yes, I am grateful for such a godly spirit as yours in the midst of a hell-raising crew who have been indoctrinated to fuss and fight instead of love and forgive. I still think about that unexpected hug you gave me a few years ago at The Tulsa Workshop, even though you had never met me. I remember the look in your eyes of acceptance. Such unconditional love is intelligible in any language. For what it's worth, I would rather be known as a "change agent" than someone claiming to be a Christian while denying every change Jesus asks us to make for Him. Thank you, brother, for making me think, reason, and even squirm at times. The Gospel is supposed to do just that!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Romans 8:3 clearly reveals that we are hopelessly lost if our obedience to law is the determining factor of our salvation. Why would anyone want to substitute a means to salvation that has never been sufficient to save for one that will never fail?! Grace is sufficient.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

I just read your last Reflections ("Deuteronomistic Theology"). Bravo! Job's so-called comforters had the same philosophy, didn't they? According to them, if Job would just admit he had sinned, then God would "be nice" to him again.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Al, you are a ten pound diamond in the Churches of Christ. I know for a fact that you have changed a great many minds through your teaching, leading them to freedom in Christ Jesus, for my wife and I are among that number. If you were ever to leave Alamogordo, I really don't know what we would do. We have learned so much from you, and to think we might have to go back to listening to our leaders preach legalism again would cause an abundant outcry from most here. So, you just have to stay put, because we love you to pieces!

From a Reader in California:

Remove me from your mailing list immediately!! I am not allowed to receive any emails from "Reformed Baptists." (LOL) Seriously, though, that was an excellent article this week. I had never heard of "Deuteronomistic Theology;" we called it Reward and Retribution when I was in school. Shades of Job's friends. I always enjoy your writings and the readers' responses. Blessings to you, my friend.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

"The Hand-Under-Thigh Oath" (Reflections #632) was an excellent article, and it points to the importance of in-depth Bible study, as opposed to a casual reading. The average Christian would just read right through that passage and simply assume the literal meaning of "thigh." Yet, as you have pointed out to us, the literal understanding of the Hebrew term brings out a much deeper meaning. Another good example of this is Isaiah 64:6 -- "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags." Some translations say "garments" instead of "rags." In the Hebrew, however, the words used actually refer to a woman's menstrual cloth. Viewing our righteous deeds as no better in the sight of God than a filthy menstrual cloth brings a whole new appreciation to the passage. Like you said in your article, too many translators softened this phrase so as not to offend modern sensibilities.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Thank you, Al, for another good article ("Deuteronomistic Theology"). You have helped me so much over the last few years with your clear and honest approach towards what God teaches in the Bible.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

I just finished reading your excellent book From Ruin To Resurrection. I was challenged and enlightened by the study. After further review and study I have come to the personal opinion that the Scriptures do indeed support your (and Edward Fudge's) conclusions regarding death, resurrection and eternal judgment. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective through this fine book. I think it paints a much truer picture of a loving and merciful God.

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