Five Smooth Stones

I Samuel 17 – The 4th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, June 21, 2015

“He then grabbed his staff and chose five smooth stones from the streambed.” (I Samuel 17:40)

 . . . and chose five smooth stones from the streambed . . .
. . . and chose five smooth stones from the streambed . . .

Remember mighty King David?

But first, he was merely David.

A good-looking kid, David was the eighth of eight brothers. Which meant he usually was left behind to guard the sheep. Which meant he likely scraped the bottom of the food bowls at mealtime and washed in cold and dirty water when—if—he bathed. Whatever praises his father Jesse muttered to encourage David had probably been used first for the older brothers. How often did Jesse call David by one of his brother’s names? Haven’t parents always done that? How many times had David been insulted by a sarcastic brother? With seven male siblings, one of them would always be in a foul mood. How many times had David been shoved to the ground for something he did, or . . . just because? With seven male siblings, one of them would always be angry enough to launch a punch or a kick.

The eighth son was easily forgotten. Easily ignored.

Then came the war.

We remember David because he was king, because of his heroics, because of his youthful (and boastful) belief in the One True God. He was the killer of bears if they threatened his father’s sheep. He was the chosen, the brother that pleased the Lord and felt the anointing oil swirl through his hair and dribble down his cheeks.

He seemed, even in youth, a warrior.

Was he also fearless? Honest? Strong? Did he truly trust the Lord?

Did he?

For here came Goliath, the soldier tested on the battlefield. He was the Sequoia-sized warrior with scars, the Philistines’ on-call grim reaper. He could eat Israelites for lunch and still have room for dessert. No one could match his terrible strength or sadistic cruelty.

No one.

And yet here came David, the boy with smooth skin, with older brothers that likely loved him as much as they despised him. He had an elderly and feeble father. He claimed a faith in the One True God based more on home school lessons than hard-earned experiences.

We know this faithful tale, at least for young David, ended well. The kid who hasn’t yet shaved will slay the horrible giant. And to this day, thousands of years after the story of the boy who would become king was told and retold around campfires and Sunday school classrooms, we understand—whether or not we know the Biblical stories—the metaphor of David and Goliath. The weak can overcome the strong! The small can prove themselves great with their actions! Even in the worst of times, have faith!

The Bible, God bless it, gave us heroes and villains, without much reflection about what made one person good and another bad. David, in the dramatic seventeenth chapter of I Samuel, was clearly the hero. But he was also as complex a figure as the stories of the Bible ever revealed to readers. This ruddy, scrappy youth would become a revered king, and yet he was also a manipulative bastard whose lust for Bathsheba led to the shameful murder of her husband. He could eloquently praise God and God’s glory, and yet he engaged in petty, pathetic acts of selfishness.

Goliath waited. He bellowed boasts. He taunted the soldiers of Saul. His feet stomped the ground like thunder.

Greek helmet. Gold-plated bronze from 2600 year ago . . .
Greek helmet. Gold-plated bronze from 2600 years ago . . .

David dressed in Saul’s battle gear, but he’d never felt a bronze helmet jam against his head with the weight of two anvils, or had a cumbersome, razor-sharp sword strapped to his waist. Swaddled in armor that more trapped than protected him, David could barely move or think. His rapid, anxious breathing probably sounded like Star Wars’ future, fictional Darth Vader.

I wonder what David thought in that metal cocoon of false protection? Did he continue to have heroic thoughts, or did his once brave words feel like bile rising in his mouth? I imagine he was momentarily grateful for the suffocating helmet. It disguised his teary eyes and trembling lips.

Goliath, like all things all humans always dread, waited. Goliath bellowed. Goliath taunted. Goliath smirked.

What are you afraid of? What causes your soul to shake with doubt? What causes your bladder to feel like it will suddenly burst from gallons of bent-up piss? What causes your cheap confident words to clang like hollow lies in your ears?

David stripped off the armor. Now naked, his world narrowed to two choices.

Run away?

Trust God?

David, not yet the hero, not yet the king, settled on his haunches by a shallow, winding creek near the front lines of a war that will never end. There he selected five smooth stones. What was he thinking as he reached for the first stone? What did he truly believe as he slipped the second and third and fourth stones into his shepherd’s bag? In this Biblical moment, David was as alone as he’d ever been. Even before fingering the fifth and final stone, he surely feared he’d barely have time to launch one. Did he linger as the water flowed by like a wet wound on the land, wishing he were elsewhere? Was he desperately hoping to find the perfect, magical, giant-killer stone? Did he long for a Holy voice to tell him all would be fine?

imagesThe Bible would have us believe he was the hero.

But wasn’t David also a boastful and foolish boy? Aren’t most boys? He’d loudly bragged he trusted God, to his seven brothers and to Saul his king, just enough to kneel by water in a desert, searching for stones that could be the death of him. I believe David, this future royal dreamer of the best dreams and schemer of the worst schemes, realized for the first time that he’d have to trust God.

The five smooth stones rattled in the bag. Goliath waited.

I believe David prayed, perhaps for the first time that mattered.


(Painting image from artist Anna Kodama. Find her here.)

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  1. Your essay fairly groans with the pressure of all the words you withheld, lending it a tension most fitting for the subject. Your ending in what Faulkner would have called a violent hiatus, a time of no time, when all that has gone before and all that is to follow are connected by that original act…”that mattered”. Thanks for your good work.

    1. Well, I’m not sure Faulkner would agree!

      But thanks for your comments, and I’m always glad (and humbled) when my words reach another.

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