David’s victory over Goliath is one of the Bible’s most famous stories (I Samuel 17:1-54). While relaying provisions to his three older brothers (I Samuel 17:12-23), David, then a young shepherd, learns that the mammoth Philistine has laid down the gauntlet to engage any Israelite in single combat (I Samuel 17:8-10). Enraged that none of his compatriots has accepted the challenge, David agrees to battle the giant (I Samuel 17:26, 31-32).
The text does a great job of promoting this fight, spending 40 verses on the pre-fight build up (I Samuel 17:1-40) as compared to nine on the battle itself (I Samuel 17:41-49) and another nine on the post-fight analysis (I Samuel 17:50-58). Like a tale of the tape before a championship prize fight, the Bible carefully relates the armor of both contestants. It describes Goliath’s immense armor (I Samuel 17:5-7), whose mass is as impressive as its owner’s (I Samuel 17:4). In contrast, King Saul attempts to fit David with his own armor (I Samuel 17:38-39). Instead David adopts a less is more approach choosing the more familiar garb of a shepherd (I Samuel 17:40). The battle is not the time for experimentation.
David’s meager arsenal consists of a stick, some stones and a sling (I Samuel 17:40):
He took his stick in his hand and chose for himself five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in the shepherd’s bag which he had, even in his pouch, and his sling was in his hand; and he approached the Philistine. (I Samuel 17:40 NASB)Eugene H. Merrill (b. 1934) recaps:
David armed only with his confidence in God, a sling, and five smooth stones, slew Goliath and brought back his severed head in triumph (I Samuel 17:33-51). (John F. Walvoord [1910-2002] and Roy B. Zuck [1932-2013], The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, 448)The verse has rhetorical elements in Hebrew that are lost in translation (I Samuel 17:40). J.P. Fokkelman (b. 1940) reveals:
The verse regarding David’s weaponry has a virtuoso style [I Samuel 17:40]. Two very short lines with the rhyme beyaādō...surround two long lines, so that I Samuel 17:40abcd is a series ABB'A'. The middle lines I Samuel 17:40bc concern the smooth stones from the brook (I Samuel17:40b, look for, I Samuel 17:40c put away) an their length reflects the care and precision which David devotes to the hard core of his equipment. They start with “he chose” and end in “in the shepherd’s bag”, and that is a splendid find in Hebrew: the roots of yibhar and yalqūt are very close semantically and the substantive yalqūt looks like an imperfect. The pair is accompanied by the rhyme lō. The density of phonetic means continues however, and is impressive...The alliteration is exceptionally rich: h (5x), m (7x), q (5x), l (8x), and it has a special centre. The qof and the lamed, in fact, occur together in all four “weapons” (mql, hlq, ylqt, ql‘), nota bene in an alternation which respects and strengthens the pattern ABB'A', and this means that Israel’s secret weapon (the youth’s shepherd’s gear) is the motor of the sound patterns. Note that Goliath a little later on complains about the stick (mql) and breaks into curses (qll!!) [I Samuel 17:43], but will be tamed by the three weapons that he does not mention. By continuing with the alliteration with q and l he unwittingly digs his own grave. The abuse he utters [I Samuel 17:43-44], the last we hear from him himself, becomes a swansong which contributes to the power of Israel’s secret weapon. (Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, Volume 2, 178)David brings his “staff” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or “stick” (CEV, NASB) (I Samuel 17:40). Since he will not use the staff when facing Goliath, this “weapon” may have been a diversionary tactic.
Robert Alter (b. 1935) considers:
He took his stick [I Samuel 17:40]. That is, his shepherd’s staff, which he is used to carrying. David evidently does this as a decoy, encouraging Goliath to imagine he will use cudgel against sword (compare I Samuel 17:43) and thus camouflaging the lethal slingshot. (Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, 108)If the staff is intended to conceal David’s game plan it works. Goliath takes note of the stick as evidenced by his taunts (I Samuel 17:43).
David has his weapon on hand but no ammunition so he carefully selects five smooth stones (I Samuel 17:40). Rachelle Gilmour comments:
He [David] prepares himself for battle in I Samuel 17:40 by selecting five smooth stones and placing them in his pouch. He does not rush into battle like Saul [I Samuel 11:1-16]...but pauses to give Goliath a rather lengthy theological statement on the victory that is about to take place (I Samuel 17:45-47). David’s self-control after he receives the spirit is further highlighted by the contrast with Saul in I Samuel 16:14-23 who has now received an evil spirit. Saul is tormented and only the skillful lyre playing of David provides calm. (Gilmour, Representing the Past: A Literary Analysis of Narrative Historiography in the Book of Samuel, 123)David’s attentiveness to his weaponry demonstrates that the shepherd has had time to think about the decision he is making. Marshall Ganz (b. 1943) suggests:
Plainly, David is courageous. But it takes more than courage to defeat Goliath. David wins the battle because he thinks about it differently. At first, he accepts the shield, sword, and helmet that conventional wisdom deems necessary [I Samuel 17:38-39]. He then realizes, however, that he cannot use these weapons effectively against a master of them. Instead, he conceives a plan of battle—a strategy—based on the five stones he notices in a creek bed, his skill with a slingshot, and the giant’s underestimation of him [I Samuel 17:40]. (Ganz, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement)David secures the stones in a shepherd’s “bag” (ASV, CEV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NLT, RSV), “pouch” (ESV, NIV, NRSV) or “pack” (MSG), which he has brought with him (I Samuel 17:40). It likely serves the same function as a contemporary fanny pack.
The Hebrew vocabulary used for the receptacle is obscure (I Samuel 17:40). Ralph W. Klein (b.1936) informs:
The word ילקוט is a hapax legomenon. An ancient gloss was placed before it, identifying it as a shepherd’s bag (cf. I Samuel 17:40 and Julius Wellhausen [1844-1918]). (Klein, 1 Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 179)The future king procures the stones from the “brook” (ASV, CEV, ESV, KJV, MSG, NASB, NKJV, RSV), “stream” (NIV, NLT) or “wadi” (HCSB, NRSV) (I Samuel 17:40).
David Toshio Tsumura (b. 1944) defines:
Wadi (hannahal) is the dry riverbed (see Genesis 26:17) of the Valley of Elah [I Samuel 17:2, 19]. (Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 459)Specifically, David finds “five smooth stones” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) (I Samuel 17:40). The literal Hebrew is “smooth ones” with virtually all translations supplying the necessary noun.
A. Graeme Auld (b. 1941) describes:
An adjective used as a noun: “smooth ones.” The form is unique: B’s teleious is a mistaken correction of the literal leious (“smooth”). (Auld, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 206)Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) and Michael O’Connor (1950-2007) explain:
Because the boundary between adjectives and substantives is not fixed or rigid, it is common to find nouns that are most often used as adjectives in substantive slots...Adjectives may occur as constructs, usually with a superlative force [Isaiah 19:11, Ezekiel 7:24; II Chronicles 21:7; I Samuel 17:40]. (Waltke and O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 261)These stones are hardly pebbles. Ronald F. Youngblood (b. 1931) depicts:
Such stones were part of the normal repertoire of weapons in the ancient world (cf. II Chronicles 26:14), usually balls two or three inches in diameter and manufactured from flint (Ovid R. Sellers [1885-1975], “Sling Stones in Biblical Times,” Biblical Archaeologist 2/4 : 41-42,45). David, however, had a ready supply of naturally spherical stones of the right size at hand. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], 1 Samuel ~ 2 Kings (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 183)The archaeological record attests to such weaponry. Stephen J. Andrews (b. 1954) and Robert B. Bergen (b. 1954) document:
Excavations in Israel have revealed hundreds of sling stones at many fortified sites. They are typically the size of tennis balls and weigh about a pound each. An accomplished warrior could sling a stone this size at a rate of 100 to 150 miles an hour, making it a very lethal weapon. It is most likely that David chose stones from the dry stream bed of this size and weight. (Andrews and Bergen, I & II Samuel (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 127)Robert B. Bergen (b. 1954) adds:
Examples of ancient Near Eastern slingstones are on display in the Lachish exhibit at the British Museum. Photographs of slingstones from Middle Eastern cultural sites can be seen in The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, editor James B. Pritchard [1909-1997] (London: Princeton: 1958, plate 101; and New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, editor Eprhaim Stern [b. 1934] (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 2:463. A Middle Eastern slingstone from the private collection of David A. Dorsey [b. 1949] at the Evangelical School of Theology weighs approximately 450 grams, very much in line with those on display elsewhere. (Bergen, 1,2 Samuel (New American Commentary), 194)The stone’s smoothness is essential for their purpose (I Samuel 17:40). Smooth stones make superior slingshot pellets as they produce more predictable trajectories and are less apt to get caught on the cradle.
Phil Farver (b. 1956) praises:
Picking smooth stones showed wisdom on David’s part [I Samuel 17:40]. He demonstrated that he knew the weapons he chose, how to use them and what they could accomplish. The smoothness showed that the stones had gone through a refining process by being tumbled around, tossed to and fro, in the stream and polished, ready to be used. The smoothness also guaranteed a faster, straighter flight from sling to target, generating more force against that intended target. Odd shaped stones or stones with jagged edges were not reliable and very difficult to control. (Farver, Five Smooth Stones: Proven Steps for Positive Success, 27-28)Thomas D. Logie (b. 1951) compares:
Modern rifling to impart a spiral would not have been available to David. For the same reason as a baseball pitcher wants a seam in a baseball to make it break, David wanted to avoid seams or similar irregularities because he needed to throw hard and straight. So David learned to use smooth stones as his ammunition. I Samuel 17:40 reflects accurate science; if David had to use his slingshot in an emergency, the last thing he needed was to throw a knuckleball. (Logie, Meditations on Holiness)These stones are selected for their compatibility to a sling (I Samuel 17:40, 50). David Toshio Tsumura (b. 1944) identifies:
Sling (qela‘) is a military weapon, common in the ancient Near East; Egyptian evidence goes back to the beginning of the second millennium B.C. Note the slingers, wearing iron helmets and coats of mail, depicted on the reliefs in the royal palaces at Nineveh and Nimrud. Hebrew usages support this meaning, though the Ugaritic counterpart of ql‘ could mean “shield” on the basis of Akkadian kabābu (ga-ba-bu in Die Keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit 4.63:24, etc.) “shield.” (Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 460)W.E. Nunnally (b. 1955) describes:
A weapon consisting of two thongs made of rushes, animal sinews, leather, cloth, or hair attached to a wider pocket that held the projectile. The projectile was placed in the pocket and swung above the head one to three times. When the desired centrifugal force had been generated, one thong was released, discharging the missile. The sling was inexpensively manufactured and required little technical know-how to produce. Optimum accuracy (Judges 20:16) was achieved only by years of practice. Stones were carried into battle in a bag (I Samuel 17:40). During a siege they were piled at the slinger’s feet. The average slingstone was slightly smaller than a tennis ball. (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], “Sling”, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 1233)V. Philips Long (b. 1951) clarifies:
One is not to think of a forked stick with an elastic catapult stretched between it, which is a modern invention, but of a leather or cloth pouch to which two cords were attached. A slingstone, either crafted by hand or, as in the present instance, rounded by water action, was placed in the pouch and then, after swinging the sling overhead or to the side to gain momentum, was released at great speed by letting go of one of the cords. Slings were affordable but effective weapons used, for instance, by shepherds to drive off predators. David’s background as a shepherd would have afforded him opportunity to develop considerable skill in the use of a sling. In time, slings became (along with bows and arrows) a regular part of the long-range arsenal of ancient Near Eastern armies. (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 351)The birth of the sling represented an important military development in the ancient world. Richard A. Gabriel (b. 1942) traces:
An important innovation was the sling. Evidence of its existence appears at Catal Hüyük between 5500 and 4500 B.C. Most likely the early sling fired stones selected for their small size and smoothness. David, prior to his battle with Goliath, selected just such stones in preparing for battle. At Catal Hüyük we see the first evidence of shot made from sunbaked clay, man’s first foray into making a specific type of expendable ammunition. The sling represented a giant leap in the range of killing technology. (Gabriel, The Culture of War: Invention and Early Development, 28)Ralph W. Klein (b.1936) supports:
Assyrian slingers wearing copper helmets and coats of mail, are depicted in Sennacherib’s palace (7th century, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary 1, 115). The slingstone was held in a pouch with cords attached at opposite ends. The sling was whirled over the head until one end was suddenly released. While I Samuel 17 apparently understands the sling as a shepherd’s weapon, it could also be used by organized armies, and with amazing accuracy as the Benjamites demonstrated (Judges 20:16; cf. also I Samuel 25:29; I Chronicles 12:2 and II Chronicles 26:14). (Klein, 1 Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 179)The sling could be highly destructive in the hands of a skilled user. Robert P. Gordon (b. 1945) assesses:
In a skilled hand the sling could be a deadly weapon. According to Judges 20:16 the tribe of Benjamin could at one time count on the services of seven hundred left-handed slingers every one of whom ‘could sling a stone at a hair, and not miss’. Compare also the ambidextrous Benjamites mentioned in I Chronicles 12:2. The sling was commonly deployed in near eastern armies, the evidence in the case of Egypt going back to the beginning of the second millennium BC. (Gordon, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, 157)Malcolm Gladwell (b. 1963) appreciates:
Slinging took an extraordinary amount of skill and practice. But in experienced hands, the sling was a devastating weapon. Paintings from medieval times show slingers hitting birds in midflight. Irish slingers were said to be able to hit a coin from as far away as they could see it, and in the Old Testament Book of Judges, slingers are described as being accurate within a “hair’s breadth” [Judges 20:16] An experienced slinger could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of up to two hundred yards. The Romans even had a special set of tongs made just to remove stones that had been embedded in some poor soldier’s body by a sling. Imagine standing in front of a Major League Baseball pitcher as he aims a baseball at your head. That’s what facing a slinger was like—only what was being thrown was not a ball of cork and leather but a solid rock. (Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, 9-10)The sling is especially emphasized in the story of David and Goliath (I Samuel 17:1-58). The Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery observes:
Perhaps the most famous sling is the one carried by David and used to fell Goliath. This particular weapon is not just mentioned in the narrative (I Samuel 17:40) but assumes a rhetorical role in the summary: “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” (I Samuel 17:50). As it turns out, this weapon choice has something to say about Israel’s up-an-coming king. First, it says that David was smart. When we consider the list of weapons carried by Goliath (I Samuel 17:4-7), we can see that he intended to engage his Israelite competitor in close-range combat. While David had briefly considered the use of a sword (I Samuel 17:39), he quickly abandoned it in favor of the sling. In doing so David betrayed his intentions; he was not planning to get anywhere near the Philistine fighting machine but rather to dispatch him from a distance. While this reveals his thoughtful intelligence, it also says something about this faith in the Lord. David took only one weapon into the fight, counting on the Lord to guide his aim and the stone toward his bellicose target. Thus the author of I Samuel directs us to the sling because it was the smart choice and because it was the choice that marked David as a leader after God’s own heart [I Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22]. (John A. Beck [b. 1956], “Sling”, Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery)George B. Caird (1917-1984) notices:
It is curious that although both sources agree on David’s use of the sling on this occasion [I Samuel 17:40, 50], we never hear of it again in any of his subsequent battles. (George Arthur Buttrick [1892-1980], Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel (Interpreter’s Bible), 978)The use of the sling is part of David’s presenting himself as he truly is: as a shepherd (I Samuel 16:11, 19, 17:15, 20, 28, 34). The sling is a shepherd’s tool. James E. Smith (b. 1939) imagines:
David chose to arm himself with what he knew best. He took his staff in one hand. He selected five smooth stones from the stream nearby and out them into the pouch of his shepherd’s bag, i.e., something akin to a knapsack. With his sling in his hand he went out to confront the Philistine. Obviously David was skilled in the use of the sling, having practiced endless hours with it while guarding the sheep. (Smith, I & II Samuel (College Press NIV Commentary), 228)Shawn Easton connects:
We see in I Samuel 17:40 David taking the staff that he used to fend off wild beasts while tending to the sheep. He also took five smooth stones out of the brook and put them in a shepherd’s bag. There we see a reference to David’s experience as a shepherd. We see David taking something out of his victorious past (the shepherd bag and staff) and combining it with something from the present (five smooth stones) to deal with the future (the Philistine Goliath. (Easton, Divine Connections: The Key to Unlocking the Purpose in the Kingdom, 89-90)While there is a rationale to David selecting stones, there is question as to why the Bible specifically references the number five (I Samuel 17:40). Keith Bodner (b. 1967) asks:
Does the reader have any clues as to why David chose five stones? Did he lack confidence in his swinging ability? Or is the head of Goliath a rather big target that may require more than one rock to penetrate? (Bodner, National Insecurity: A Primer on the First Book of Samuel, 130)There are many metaphorical interpretations associated with the number five. Five appears in Biblical expressions relating to being hopelessly outnumbered (Leviticus 26:8; I Corinthians 14:19). Biblical numerologists cite five as the number of the Bible and suggest that David’s selection represents his using the very word of God to defeat Goliath. In charismatic circles it has been said that five represents the “five fold ministry” of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher.
Likely the most famous allegorical use comes from Augustine (354-430). Ferdinand Lot (1866-1952) chronicles:
Saint Augustine [354-430] himself, while protesting against the dangerous neglect into which the literal significance of the Holy Scriptures had fallen, is thoroughly imbued with the method. For example, here is the analysis of his sermon on David and Goliath, preached at Hippo:—“David pre-figures Christ, and Goliath the Devil. David takes five stones from the brook and puts them in the vessel used for milking his sheep; then, armed, he marches against the enemy. The five stones are an image of the five books of the law of Moses. The Law, in its turn, contains ten precepts; that is why David fights with five stones and sings to an instrument with ten strings. Observe that he does not sling five stones but only one, which is the Unity that fulfils the Law, namely Charity. (Lot, The End of the Ancient World, 375-76)Edward A. Gosselin (b. 1943) interprets:
Augustine [354-430]’s abandonment of the Old Testament event for the New Testament reading may be seen in the following, rather typical example. In explicating, Psalm 43, Augustine points out that the historical event which prompted the psalm’s composition was the battle between David and Goliath. Quickly shedding the Old Testament ambience, Augustine explains that David is really Christ, Goliath Satan; that the five stones with which David armed himself were the Pentateuch, while the one stone which David hurled at Goliath was the New Testament. Thus, says Augustine, the Law of Moses was made efficacious by the grace of the New Testament, which killed Satan and sin. (Raymond-Jean Frontain [b. 1951] and Jan Wojcik [b. 1944], “Two Views of the Evangelical David: Lefèvre d’Etaples [1455-1536] and Theodore Beza [1519-1605]”, The David Myth in Western Literature, 57)Some more recent homileticians have also tried to connect David and Jesus using the five smooth stones (I Samuel 17:40). Fulton J. Sheen (1885-1979) preaches:
A new David arose to slay the Goliath of evil, not with five stones but with five wounds—hideous scars on hands, feet, and side; and the battle was fought not with armor glistening under a noonday sun, but with flesh torn away so the bones could be numbered. The Artist had put the last touch in his masterpiece, and with the joy of the strong He uttered the song of triumph that His work was completed. (Sheen, Life of Christ, 559)Pseudo-Philo adapts the number of stones to better fit a less literal reading. Frederick J. Murphy (1949-2011) notes:
In I Samuel 17:40, David chooses five smooth stones for his sling. They become seven in Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum 61:5 and on them David writes the names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, himself, and God. This symbolic act underlines Israel’s very identity. Israel’s relationship with its God is its very core. (Murphy, Pseudo-Philo : Rewriting the Bible: Rewriting the Bible, 210-11)Other interpreters have attempted to link the number five to Goliath himself. The five stones may in some way correlate to Goliath making five boasts in his mocking challenge to the Israelites (I Samuel 17:8, 9, 10, 43, 44). If there is a connection here, it is an editorial insertion after the battle as only three of Goliath’s insults occur before David selects the rocks (I Samuel 17:8, 9, 10).
More commonly, David’s selection of the five smooth stones is presented as the shepherd preparing for retribution from Goliath’s four relatives. This is based upon II Samuel 21:15-22 and a parallel passage in I Chronicles 20:5. Though the Bible does not specifically state that Goliath had four brothers, he had at least one (II Samuel 21:19).
J. Vernon McGee (1904-1988) typifies:
Some people believe that David chose five smooth stones so that if he missed his first shot, he could use one or all of the others. David did not intend to miss, friend. Then why did he select five stones? The answer is found in II Samuel 21:22: “These four were born to the giant in Gath, and fell by the hand of David, and by the hand of his servants.” Goliath had four sons, and David was sure they would come out when he killed their father. This is why David picked five stones. That was the number he needed. (McGee, First and Second Samuel (Thru the Bible), 98)This conjecture does not fit the context because even if Goliath did have four brothers, it is doubtful that David would have been aware of this fact. David is portrayed as being shocked by Goliath’s challenge and is seen asking questions about the situation (I Samuel 17:26, 29).
Phil Farver (b. 1956) situates:
Why five smooth stones [I Samuel 17:40]? Why not one? Why not ten?...I have heard preachers explain that since Goliath had four brothers, David took with him the number of stones he would need: one each for Goliath and his brothers. I researched the story and I don’t believe that David knew that Goliath had four brothers. According to what is written David came into the camp without any prior knowledge of what was happening at the time, other than the fact that Israel was involved in a military battle with the Philistines. In fact, it seems he was taken by surprise by what he observed when he entered the camp [I Samuel 17:26, 29]. (Farver, Five Smooth Stones: Proven Steps for Positive Success, 27)That the four remaining stones are not connected to Goliath’s family is supported by the fact that David does not slay any other giants. Further, he is facing a huge obstacle and for optimum results, his sole focus should be on Goliath, the giant at hand.
A more likely yet no more substantiated supposition is that David planned complete obliteration of the enemy. The Philistines controlled five cities each led by a lord (Joshua 13:3; I Samuel 6:16, 17, 18). Goliath was the representative of Gath (I Samuel 17:4, 23), one of the five Philistine strongholds.
The simplest explanation to David’s rationale is that the shepherd is being pragmatic (I Samuel 17:40). He could not have carried many stones and the extras provide a contingency plan in the event he misses or one blow is not adequate to fell the giant. Likewise, carrying more than five would be pointless as had five shots been unequal to the task, he would likely have already been defeated. From this perspective, David is not placing all of his eggs in one basket. Proponents of this explanation laud David for being responsible and not limiting God to a single result.
The debate over the meaning of the five stones rages as it pertains to whether or not David exhibits complete trust in God. Many have viewed a pragmatic David as hedging his bets. A deficit in faith does not seem to fit the context as a lack of confidence is not part of this story (I Samuel 17:26, 32-37). In the parlance of today’s youth, David had to have some serious stones to undertake this mission in the first place.
Some have even seen the five smooth stones as evidence of doubt (I Samuel 17:40). Jentezen Franklin (b. 1962) assures:
Do you know why I think David picked up four more stones than he needed? I think it was afraid he might miss. It doesn’t take a lot of faith; it only takes faith the size of a mustard seed [Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6]— just a little faith. You don’t have to have great faith, just a little faith. (Craig Groeschel [b. 1967], “God is Able” What Is God Really Like?, 87)David does not violate any command when selecting the five stones (I Samuel 17:40). He is not told that one shot will slay the giant and it is quite possible that one stone may not be enough.
Clark Strand (b. 1957) considers:
In the end, it isn’t a matter of how much or how little faith David has that God will help him defeat the giant. He still doesn’t know how many stones it will take. He still doesn’t know how much, or for how long, God expects him to fight...Once the conversation with God is underway, we will be told everything we need to know, as we need to know it. And if we need to know...That is what is so beautiful about the moment in the story when David stoops down at the brook to gather five stones for his scrip [I Samuel 17:40]. How long will he have to fight? He doesn’t know. How much of the outcome will be determined by his skill with the sling and how much by God? There is no way to separate the two...Even when the story is over and the giant lies dead at his feet, there is no clear line dividing David from the one he calls “the Living God” [I Samuel 17:26, 36]. (Strand, How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not, 89-90)Instead of doubt, perhaps David exhibits humility and prudence.
The same God who guides David against Goliath provides not one but five suitable rocks in the brook (I Samuel 17:40). As is often the case, God presents more than is necessary (Ephesians 3:20-21).
Wess Stafford (b. 1949) reflects:
The bit about David choosing five smooth stones from the stream (I Samuel 17:40) made perfect sense to my little band of marksmen. No, not because of the elaborate conjecture I’ve since heard from Bible expositors about Goliath having four fierce relatives to be killed, and so this was some great symbolism for the future. When you live and die by the slings as we did, you’re always walking around with one eye on the ground looking for the next perfect stone. Round rocks are hard to come by and can make all the difference in the world. If one has a little bump on a side, the rock can veer off in flight. Flat rocks? Forget about it? You’re not going to hit anything...I’m pretty sure David picked up five smooth stones simply because they were right in front of him. All us boys knew he should need only one to take care of Goliath, but why pass up the other four? (Stafford, Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most, 29)Perhaps David picks up the rocks simply because they are there. He could always use the other four later; they can be saved for a rainy day.
None of these theories regarding David’s five smooth stones is wholly satisfying (I Samuel 17:40). What is clear is that regardless of how many stones David takes into battle, he appears overmatched in this contest. David’s strategy is clearly offensive minded, which offends Goliath (I Samuel 17:43). In bringing no protective gear, the shepherd is quite literally defenseless. In choosing not to play by Goliath’s rules, David becomes the proverbial man taking a knife to a gun fight.
Walter Brueggeman (b. 1933) comments:
David proposes a radical alternative, only five smooth stones (I Samuel 17:40). David must have appeared to Saul (and to all the others) to be unarmed and defenseless. David’s alternative must have seemed to be no viable alternative at all. The narrator, however, permits no protest or reservation against David by Saul. David’s refusal of Saul’s armor is let stand as the last word [I Samuel 17:39]. David’s confidence is in the “living God,” who has delivered and who will deliver [I Samuel 17:26, 36]. Such faith is David’s alternative to conventional modes of self-defense. (Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 131)
Five proves to be an excess of four as David needs only one smooth stone to fell the Philistine giant (I Samuel 17:49). After the fact, five stones may seem like overkill or an abundance (I Samuel 17:40). But going into battle David’s arsenal likely seem quite insufficient. The difference in perspective pertains to hindsight. It often does.
Why does David procure precisely five stones in preparation to face Goliath (I Samuel 17:40)? Is there any reason why David would not take all of the adequate ammunition which presented itself? Does having enough ammo to take multiple shots represent a lack of faith or prudence? Does David’s taking more than one stone into battle in any way diminish his triumph; is it indicative of doubt? Do the four unused stones provide any benefits? Why does the Bible include David’s selection of exactly five smooth stones (I Samuel 17:40); what, if anything, does this detail add to the story? Were you David, would you have picked up the “extra” stones? When have you presumed you had too little only to find later that you actually had a surplus?
There are many contrasts to be made between David’s armor and that of the other two primary figures in the story, Goliath and Saul (I Samuel 17:5-7, 38-39). Notably, David respectfully declines his king’s offer of armor (I Samuel 17:39). Many have noted the shepherd’s wisdom in not donning his king’s bulky gear.
Jerry Sutton (b. 1951) approves:
David could not, did not, and would not use Saul’s armor and weapons [I Samuel 17:39]. His assessment, was, “These are untested.” So what did he do? He went to war with the familiar: a sling, a pouch with five smooth stones, and perhaps a staff [I Samuel 17:40]. He played to his strengths, trusting for God’s intervention, and walked away a hero. (Sutton, A Primer on Biblical Preaching, 14)This observation is ancient. John Cassian (360-435) apprises:
We sometimes see a bad example drawn from good things. For if someone presumes to do the same things but not with the same disposition and orientation or with unlike virtue, he easily falls into the snares of deception and death on account of those very things form which others acquire the fruits of eternal life. That brave boy who was set against the most warlike giant in a contest of arms would certainly have experienced this if he had put on Saul’s manly and heavy armor, with which a person of more robust age would have laid low whole troops of the enemy. This would undoubtedly have imperiled the boy, except that with wise discretion he chose the kind of weapon that was appropriate for his youth and armed himself against the dreadful foe not with the breastplate and shield that he saw others outfitted with but with the projectiles that he himself was able to fight with [I Samuel 17:40]. Conference 24.8.1-2. (John R. Franke [b. 1961], Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture), 272)Eugene H. Peterson (b. 1932) applies:
The offer of bronze helmet and coat of mail was well intentioned [I Samuel 17:38]. But to accept it would have been disastrous. David needed what was authentic to him. Even as I do. For even though the weaponry urged upon me by my culture in the form of science and knowledge is formidable I cannot work effectively with what is imposed from the outside. Metallic forms hung on my frame will give me, perhaps, an imposing an aspect but will not help me do my proper work. (Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, 240)Kenneth L. Chafin (1926-2001) concurs:
Saul’s effort to help David has been copied by many since then [[I Samuel 17:38]. Nothing comes more naturally to people than trying yo get someone to fight our battles the way we would were we fighting them. Through the centuries that Christians have been reading this story they have been moved by the wisdom of David for not trying to do battle with someone else’s armor. People need to have confidence in their own gifts, experiences, and abilities if they are to face the giants in their lives. (Chafin, 1, 2 Samuel (Mastering the Old Testament, 145)John R. Bisagno (b. 1934) concludes:
David was faithful to hone those skills that came naturally to him. Our Lord only expects the employment of the natural gifts He has placed within our hands. God’s question is always, “What are you going to do with what you’ve got?” Whether it is a staff, a lunch, an empty net or a sling, God doesn’t ask for very much at all. He just asks for all of you. Five smooth stones will do just fine. (Bisagno, Principle Preaching: How to Create and Deliver Purpose Driven Sermons for Life Application, 88)David is also outfitted entirely differently from his opponent, Goliath. A. Graeme Auld (b. 1941) contrasts:
The pieces of armed protection provided by Saul correspond strikingly to the elements of Goliath’s armor (I Samuel 17:5-7). They are not said to be heavy, but David is unable to walk, and what else could a bronze helmet be but heavy? Nor are David’s own weapons of choice called “light.” But the name of everything he does select (I Samuel 17:40) plays on and hints at qal, the Hebrew adjective for “light” and “fast”: most obviously his “stick” (mql) and “sling” (ql’), but also (with the key consonants reversed) the “smooth” [stones] (hlqy) and his “pouch” (ylqwt)—with this young champion in the making, words and reality are in perfect fit. (Auld, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 211)David does not just reject the king’s armor he rejects armor in general (I Samuel 17:38-40). This further underscores the disparity between David and Goliath. Robert B. Bergen (b. 1954) juxtaposes:
The weapons David gathered for use against Goliath—the stick and the stones [I Samuel 17:40]—were not products of human artifice; rather, they were shaped by God. As such the author may have included these details as a counterpoint to I Samuel 13:19-22; the Philistines feared and relied on weapons pulled from human forges, but David would conquer them with divinely manufactured weapons. Armed with these provisions, David “approached the Philistine” [I Samuel 17:40]. (Bergen, 1,2 Samuel (New American Commentary), 194-95)David Jobling (b. 1941) bolsters:
Goliath, decked out for battle in a massive weight of “bronze” and “iron” (I Samuel 17:5-7) contrasts starkly with David, who refuses any armor at all (I Samuel 17:38-39) and fights with stones, natural objects (I Samuel 17:40). Goliath’s grotesquely metallic appearance may be lined with the Philistine monopoly on iron (I Samuel 13:19-22)—he is a fantasized version of Philistine technological superiority. (Jobling, 1 Samuel (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 220)Walter Brueggeman (b. 1933) critiques:
Saul does not understand anything. He has uttered Yahweh’s name. But he wants to outdo Goliath on Goliath’s term in I Samuel 17:38-39. so he offers armor, helmet, coat of mail, sword—David “tried in vain to go” with such encumbrance. David’s contrast is with both Saul and Goliath. Unlike them, he goes unencumbered (“I am not used to them” [I Samuel 17:39]). Both of them—the one a braggart, the other a coward—trust in arms. But David does not trust in arms because of who he is and who his people are: people who have learned that the others always have a monopoly on arms. The tribe must fight in another way. David takes five smooth stones and his sling. They are enough [I Samuel 17:40]. (Brueggemann, David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory, 25)The most puzzling piece of the story remains why the Bible sees fit to include the detail about David’s five smooth stones (I Samuel 17:40). Preachers have often used David’s arsenal as sermon fodder.
For instance, in his best selling book, Facing Your Giants, Max Lucado (b. 1955) writes:
David took five stones [I Samuel 17:40]. He made five decisions. Do likewise. Past. Prayer. Priority. Passion. And persistence...Next time Goliath wakes you up, reach for a stone. Odds are, he’ll be out of the room before you can load your sling. (Lucado, Facing Your Giants: A David and Goliath Story for Everyday People, 159)Though this sermonic technique can be effective, it can often defeat the purpose of the story. Richard D. Phillips (b. 1960) evaluates:
The story of David’s victory over Goliath has launched many five-point sermons, one point for each of the smooth stones that David took from the brook and put into his pouch [I Samuel 17:40]. Usually these sermons list principles or behaviors by which even the skinniest Christian can take down the brawniest spiritual enemy...David’s victory, however, was anything but the triumph of an “everyman.” David was not just anyone in Israel, but the one man whom God had especially anointed to lead and deliver his people, for which God had equipped him with the Holy Spirit (see I Samuel 16:3). (Phillips, 1 Samuel (Reformed Expository Commentary), 304)Wayne Grudem (b. 1948) advises:
Asking what the original author intended the original readers to understand will help the interpreter avoid fanciful allegories that improperly interpret the text. For instance, an interpreter who doesn’t follow this procedure might find all sorts of fanciful interpretations of the “five smooth stones” that David took to fight Goliath (I Samuel 17:40). A modern charismatic interpreter, given to allegorizing, might say that these five smooth stones are the fivefold manifestations of the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 4:11. “But no,” a Calvinistic interpreter might answer. He would say that it’s obvious that the “five smooth stones’ represent the famous “five points of Calvinism.” Then a third allegorical interpreter, an ethics professor, might say that they were both wrong because David is going forth to war against Goliath, and therefore the “five smooth stones” obviously represent the five sides of the Pentagon building in Washington, DC, and they therefore give support to the “just war” theory!...Unless we first anchor our interpretation in what the original author wanted the original readers to understand, there will be no limit to the variety of such incorrect interpretations that have nothing to do with the actual meaning of the text. (Leland Ryken [b.1942] and Todd Wilson [b. 1976], “Right and Wrong Interpretation of the Bible: Some Suggestions for Pastors and Bible Teachers”, Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes [b. 1942], 67)John H. Walton (b. 1952) and Kim E. Walton (b. 1954) refocus:
David is not the hero—God is. To paint David as the hero runs exactly opposite to David’s own perspective and what the narrator wanted to emphasize. Furthermore, just because God brought down David’s enemies does not mean that he will give us victory over all our enemies. We cannot extrapolate the work of God to everyone’s situation at any given time. Resist using the “lesson by metaphor.” We should not be asking, “What giant in your life does God need to overcome?” or “What are the five stones that you have in your bag?” These do not get to the authority of the teaching of the text, clever as they may be. (Walton and Walton, The Bible Story Handbook: A Resource for Teaching 175 Stories from the Bible, 165)The most important contrast in the story is not between David and Goliath or even David and Saul; instead it is the apposition of David’s giant God and the giant Philistine.
Technically, though David credits God for his success (I Samuel 17:37, 45-47), the narrator never explicitly does so. Peter D. Miscall (b. 1943) acknowledges:
We cannot automatically assume that success or failure indicates that good or evil, in whatever sense, has preceded. For example, David’s killing of Goliath [I Samuel 17:1-58] can be explained in a variety of ways, including an element of chance, i.e. David gambles and wins. Throughout the remainder of I Samuel, David will generally succeed, but we can only ask, and then again, why? Is his success due to the Lord’s intervention, and, if so, does this have anything to do with David’s character or behavior? Or is it due to his own ability and sagacity, to Saul’s incompetence, to the help of others, or to just plain luck? The same applies to Saul’s failure. (Miscall, 1 Samuel: A Literary Reading, 123)There can be little doubt that the Bible assumes God’s agency in David’s victory. Gnana Robinson (b. 1935) supplants:
He [David] merely takes his shepherd’s weapons — a staff, a sling, and “five smooth stones” (I Samuel 17:40). The emphasis here is that it is not so much David who is going to fight, but the LORD (I Samuel 17:37; cf. I Samuel 17:45-47). (Robinson, 1 & 2 Samuel: Let Us be Like the Nations (International Theological Commentary), 101)Frank Johnson (b. 1943) presumes:
Clearly David’s inexperience and inadequate equipment mandate divine assistance. But David is convinced that God will deliver him and aid him, just as before [I Samuel 17:37, 45-47]. He is not afraid. (Johnson, First and Second Samuel (Basic Bible Commentary), 64)Richard D. Phillips (b. 1960) expounds:
Divested of Saul’s armor [I Samuel 17:38-39], David turned to face the Philistine giant: “Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine” (I Samuel 17:40). But it was not with these only that David went forth to fight Goliath: “He went to the conflict with a blazing concern for the honour of God, with confidence in the certainty of his promises and with the power of the Spirit of God.” David advanced against the Philistine not in the armor and identity of “a king...like all the nations,” which Saul was (I Samuel 8:5), relying on nothing really different from the armor and weaponry of evil Goliath, but as a shepherd-servant of the Lord, defending God’s honor and protecting God’s people in the power of the Lord himself. In this way, whether he realized it or not, David identified with God’s great champions of prior years, shepherd-leaders such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, men of spiritual valor who lived and fought by faith in the promises of God. (Phillips, 1 Samuel (Reformed Expository Commentary), 299)Elizabeth Achtemeier (1926-2002) contends:
What a hero! No, David slays Goliath “that all the earth may now that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s (I Samuel 17:46-47). It is God who wins the victory...God chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong (I Corinthians 1:27). It is always thus in God’s working in this world. (Achtemeier, Preaching and Reading the Old Testament Lessons: With an Eye to the New, Cycle B, 156)David takes only five smooth stones and faith to face a giant (I Samuel 17:40). Yet they are enough. Equipment and armament do not decide the battle. Nor do David’s skill and courage. It is God who assures the shepherd’s victory. David’s triumph over Goliath echoes throughout history as a reminder that God is indeed sufficient.
What do you take into battle with you? On which are you more reliant, God or technology? Do you credit God with your successes? If so, how? Do the “extra” stones in any way detract from God’s miracle? Do you, like David, have confidence in God’s sufficiency?
“The greatest need of our age and of every age, the greatest need of every human heart, is to know the resources and sufficiency of God.” - A.B. Simpson (1843-1919), But God, Preface