It was not long ago that the Philistines were soundly beaten, and put to the worse, before Israel, and they would have been totally routed if Saul’s rashness had not prevented; but here we have them making head again. Observe,
I. How they defied Israel with their armies, 1 Sam. 17:1. They made a descent upon the Israelites’ country, and possessed themselves, as it should seem, of some part of it, for they encamped in a place which belonged to Judah. Israel’s ground would never have been footing for Philistine-armies if Israel had been faithful to their God. The Philistines (it is probable) had heard that Samuel had fallen out with Saul and forsaken him, and no longer assisted and advised him, and that Saul had grown melancholy and unfit for business, and this news encouraged them to make this attempt for the retrieving of the credit they had lately lost. The enemies of the church are watchful to take all advantages, and they never have greater advantages than when her protectors have provoked God’s Spirit and prophets to leave them. Saul mustered his forces, and faced them, 1 Sam. 17:2, 3. And here we must take notice, 1. That the evil spirit, for the present, had left Saul, 1 Sam. 16:23. David’s harp having given him some relief, perhaps the alarms and affairs of the war prevented the return of the distemper. Business is a good antidote against melancholy. Let the mind have something without to fasten on and employ itself about, and it will be the less in danger of preying upon itself. God, in mercy to Israel, suspended the judgment for a while; for how distracted must the affairs of the public have been if at this juncture the prince had been distracted! 2. That David for the present had returned to Bethlehem, and had left the court, 1 Sam. 17:15. When Saul had no further occasion to use him for the relief of his distemper, though, being anointed, he had a very good private reason, and, having a grant of the place of Saul’s armour-bearer, he had a very plausible pretence to have continued his attendance, as a retainer to the court, yet he went home to Bethlehem, and returned to keep his father’s sheep; this was a rare instance, in a young man that stood so fair for preferment, of humility and affection to his parents. He knew better than most do how to come down again after he had begun to rise, and strangely preferred the retirements of the pastoral life before all the pleasures and gaieties of the court. None more fit for honour than he, nor that deserved it better, and yet none more dead to it.
II. How they defied Israel with their champion Goliath, whom they were almost as proud of as he was of himself, hoping by him to recover their reputation and dominion. Perhaps the army of the Israelites was superior in number and strength to that of the Philistines, which made the Philistines decline a battle, and stand at bay with them, desiring rather to put the issue upon a single combat, in which, having such a champion, they hoped to gain the victory. Now concerning this champion observe,
1. His prodigious size. He was of the sons of Anak, who at Gath kept their ground in Joshua’s time (Josh. 11:22), and kept up a race of giants there, of which Goliath was one, and, it is probable, one of the largest. He was in height six cubits and a span, 1 Sam. 17:4. They learned bishop Cumberland has made it out that the scripture-cubit was above twenty-one inches (above three inches more than our half-yard) and a span was half a cubit, by which computation Goliath wanted but eight inches of four yard in height, eleven feet and four inches, a monstrous stature, and which made him very formidable, especially if he had strength and spirit proportionable.
2. His armour. Art, as well as nature, made him terrible. He was well furnished with defensive armour (1 Sam. 17:5, 6): A helmet of brass on his head, a coat of mail, made of brass plates laid over one another, like the scales of a fish; and, because his legs would lie most within the reach of an ordinary man, he wore brass boots, and had a large corselet of brass about his neck. The coat is said to weigh 5000 shekels, and a shekel was half an ounce avoirdupois, a vast weight for a man to carry, all the other parts of his armour being proportionable. But some think it should be translated, not the weight of the coat, but the value of it, was 5000 shekels; so much it cost. His offensive weapons were extraordinary, of which his spear only is here described, 1 Sam. 17:7. It was like a weaver’s beam. His arm could manage that which an ordinary man could scarcely heave. His shield only, which was the lightest of all his accoutrements, was carried before him by his esquire, probably for state; for he that was clad in brass little needed a shield.
3. His challenge. The Philistines having chosen him for their champion, to save themselves from the hazard of battle, he here throws down the gauntlet, and bids defiance to the armies of Israel, 1 Sam. 17:8-10. He came into the valley that lay between the camps, and, his voice probably being as much stronger than other people’s as his arm was, he cried so as to make them all hear him, Give me a man, that we may fight together. He looked upon himself with admiration, because he was so much taller and stronger than all about him; his heart (says bishop Hall) nothing but a lump of proud flesh. He looked upon Israel with disdain, because they had none among them of such a monstrous bulk, and defies them to find a man among them bold enough to enter the list with him. (1.) He upbraids them with their folly in drawing an army together: “Why have you come to set the battle in array? How dare you oppose the mighty Philistines?” Or, “Why should the two armies engage, when the controversy may be sooner decided, with only the expense of one life and the hazard of another?” (2.) He offers to put the war entirely upon the issue of the duel he proposes: “If your champion kill me, we will be your servants; if I kill him, you shall be ours.” This, says bishop Patrick, was only a bravado, for no nation would be willing thus to venture its all upon the success of one man, nor is it justifiable; notwithstanding Goliath’s stipulation here, when he was killed the Philistines did not stand to his word, nor submit themselves as servants to Israel. When he boasts, I am a Philistine, and you are servants to Saul, he would have it thought a great piece of condescension in him, who was a chief ruler, to enter the lists with an Israelite; for he looked on them as no better than slaves. The Chaldee paraphrase brings him in boasting that he was the man that had killed Hophni and Phinehas and taken the ark prisoner, but that the Philistines had never given him so much as the command of a regiment in recompence of his services, whereas Saul had been made king for his services: “Let him therefore take up the challenge.”
4. The terror this struck upon Israel: Saul and his army were greatly afraid, 1 Sam. 17:11. The people would not have been dismayed but that they observed Saul’s courage failed him; and it is not to be expected that, if the leader be a coward, the followers should be bold. We found before, when the Spirit of the Lord came upon Saul (1 Sam. 11:6), none could be more daring nor forward to answer the challenge of Nahash the Ammonite, but now that the Spirit of the Lord had departed from him even the big looks and big words of a single Philistine make him change colour. But where was Jonathan all this while? Why did not he accept the challenge, who, in the last war, had so bravely engaged a whole army of Philistines? Doubtless he did not feel himself stirred up of God to it, as he did in the former case. As the best, so the bravest men, are no more than what God makes them. Jonathan must now sit still, because the honour of engaging Goliath is reserved for David. In great and good actions, the wind of the Spirit blows when and where he listeth. Now the pious Israelites lament their king’s breach with Samuel.