All of Holy Scripture points to Jesus Christ. I’ve thought for some time that an interesting way to teach a 1-year Bible introduction would be to start with the Gospels and move outwards from there. The Old Testament looks forward to Christ. The New Testament looks backward to Christ.
While the Old Testament’s witness to Christ is primarily seen in the prophecies of Jesus’ birth, suffering, death and resurrection, the Church has historically also seen in the OT a secondary, more narrative witness to Christ, a witness typological or figural in nature.
For example, Numbers 21 has the story of the people of Israel being bitten and killed by snakes. Yahweh instructed Moses to create a bronze snake and raise it on a pole. Any Israelite who had been bitten by a serpent could look up at the snake and live.
The Church has understood this story on one interpretive level as a foreshadowing, or prefiguring, of Christ and his work on the Cross. St Augustine wrote, “As then formerly he who looked to the serpent that was lifted up, was healed of its poison, and saved from death; so now he who is conformed to the likeness of Christ's death by faith and the grace of baptism, is delivered both from sin by justification, and from death by the resurrection: as He Himself said; That whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. What need then is there that the child should be conformed by baptism to the death of Christ, if he be not altogether tainted by the poisonous bite of the serpent?” (quoted in St Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea)
Note that this very patristic hermeneutic is focused on Christ, not on contemporary concerns. Many exegetes today will look to the Old Testament primarily for transferable principles, such as “the Lord helped Moses and he’ll help you.” While that method is certainly legitimate, figural interpretation explores another layer in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, looking for pictures of our Lord and his life on Earth.
Here, I want to pursue a figural reading of the story of David and Goliath. Elements of my exegesis are reflected in various patristic writers, but I have yet to find a systematic figural interpretation of 1 Samuel 16 & 17 such as I offer here.
I begin with the actual battle of David and Goliath, then move to the secondary characters of David’s brothers and King Saul, and conclude with a “practical application” that moves beyond an exercise in exegesis to good news for the modern follower of Jesus Christ.
David & Goliath
The primary opponents of 1 Samuel 17, David and Goliath, foreshadow the true opponents of the Gospels: Jesus and Satan.
David is the preeminent Old Testament character associated with Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is of the line of David (Matthew 1:1). The Gospel of Matthew includes no less than nine references to Jesus as “Son of David.” David can easily be seen as prefiguring Jesus Christ.
Goliath is the enemy of Israel, bent on terrorizing, defeating and ultimately enslaving the people of God. While these qualities do not make him unique in the Old Testament, he is certainly the epitome of evil in this story. Goliath prefigures the Adversary.
David attacks and defeats Goliath with two weapons: a sling, and Goliath’s sword. As David approaches Goliath in the field of battle, 1 Samuel 17:40 tells that he put “five smooth stones” into his pouch for use with his sling. There is nothing in the immediate context to indicate why the writer gives this unusual detail of the number of stones.
From a Hebraic numerological perspective, the five stones could represent the five books of the Law. Other Old Testament parallels of five include the number of several materials used in the building of the Tabernacle (e.g. Exodus 36:10, 16, 31-22, etc.). More closely might be the few times in the historical books where groups of five kings opposed to Israel are mentioned, such as five kings of Midian (Numbers 31), or five Amorite kings (Joshua 10), both groups of which were eventually executed. Each of these possibilities has potential hermeneutical value in a non-Christological interpretation of the “David and Goliath” story.
For this essay, viewing the Old Testament through the lens of the Gospels, let us look to the life of Christ, more specifically, the five wounds suffered at his crucifixion: two in the hands, two in the feet and one in the side. The wounds of Christ, signifying his death, were certainly the means by which Christ defeated Satan on the Cross. As five smooth stones were gathered by David to conquer Goliath, so five wounds were suffered by Jesus as he defeated Satan.
The second element of David’s victory over Goliath was Goliath’s own sword, which David uses to cut off Goliath’s head. The prefiguring continues: just as David used Goliath’s own weapon to completely defeat, so Christ used Satan’s own weapon to completely defeat him: by death he destroyed death.
David and his brothers
1 Samuel 16:1-13 opens with God instructing the prophet Samuel to go to Jesse of Bethlehem, to anoint one of his sons as king of Israel. Each of David’s brothers is rejected by the Lord, despite their appearance of being perfect candidates. Finally Jesse calls David, who is away tending sheep. Yahweh instructs Samuel to anoint David king, which he does, in front of his brothers.
In 1 Samuel 17, the three oldest brothers are part of the army of Israel facing Goliath and the Philistines. They react with anger at David’s appearance at the battle (1 Samuel 17:28), even though David is only there following the bidding of his father, bringing them gifts of food (Caesarius of Arles sees in Jesse a type of God the Father sending his Son).
Let us consider David’s brothers as prefiguring the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They would have been considered the presumptive favorites for leading Israel, just as David’s brothers. Just as David’s brothers saw themselves rejected in the anointing of David as king, so the Pharisees would have seen themselves passed over at the baptism of Jesus (for which they were present, and which clearly signified God's favor upon Jesus). The Pharisees and Sadducees then respond in anger and jealousy to the Son who had simply been bringing them gifts from the Father. David’s brothers, in their presence, rejection and anger and jealousy, prefigure the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day.
Saul’s importance to the story comes in 16:31. He has heard that David is questioning why Israel allows Goliath to speak about Israel the way he does, and sends for him. When he finally allows David to go fight Goliath, he clothes him in his own armor, which David cannot use. David instead needs to fight Goliath on his own terms, not as an armored warrior, but as a shepherd. The people of Israel try to clothe Jesus in their own conception of what a Messiah should look like, seen especially in the disciples’ numerous queries about when Jesus will restore Israel, as well as the shouts of Hosanna to the Son of David at the Lord’s entrance to Jerusalem. Saul, the King of Israel representing the people of Israel, also prefigures the people of Israel in the time of Jesus.
So let’s say you buy it. The question now: so what? Surely it is an interesting hermeneutical exercise, but is there nothing more? At least two applications come to mind.
On one level, it is encouraging for the Christian to gain perspective on Christ’s victory over sin and death. Any time that we reflect on what Jesus did for us on the Cross, we can grow in our love for the Lord and our commitment to obedience to his will for our lives. That ought to be enough for any faithful follower of Jesus Christ.
However, there is another interesting applicative layer, for which we go to the verses of 1 Samuel 17 immediately following the slaying of Goliath—the decapitation does not end the story. The Philistines see that Goliath is dead, they flee, and the Israelites, with a shout, take chase and pursue the Philistines as far as Gath and Ekron.
Here is where the believer can take great courage today. It is clear in the New Testament that Israel prefigures the Church. Just as the battle with the Philistines was won by David conquering Goliath, so the battle with sin, evil and death was won by Jesus conquering Satan and the grave in the Crucifixion and Resurrection. We, the Church, are like Israel routing the Philistines—we’re in the mop-up of the battle against evil. Let us never retreat from a defeated foe; let us remember that the battle has been won, the victory has been secured by Christ’s victory on the Cross.