Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years. The three eldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle; the names of his three sons who went to the battle were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah. David was the youngest; the three eldest followed Saul, but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.
Jesse said to his son David, ‘Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers; also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See how your brothers fare, and bring some token from them.’
Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. David rose early in the morning, left someone in charge of the sheep, took the provisions, and went as Jesse had commanded him. He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage, ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him.
All the Israelites, when they saw the man, fled from him and were very much afraid. The Israelites said, ‘Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. The king will greatly enrich the man who kills him, and will give him his daughter and make his family free in Israel.’ David said to the men who stood by him, ‘What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’ The people answered him in the same way, ‘So shall it be done for the man who kills him.’
His eldest brother Eliab heard him talking to the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David. He said, ‘Why have you come down? With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.’ David said, ‘What have I done now? It was only a question.’ He turned away from him towards another and spoke in the same way; and the people answered him again as before.
This passage reads like a third introduction to David and again presents him as the youngest of eight brothers expected to tend his father’s sheep while his three eldest brothers go off to fight the Philistines as members of Saul’s army. Jesse sends David with some provisions for his brothers; and to find out how they are faring.
On arrival David overhears Goliath issue a challenge to the Israelite army which makes them very afraid. No-one wants to fight one-to-one against the Philistine, for he is a ‘giant’, well-armed warrior. Even the rewards on offer from Saul for the man who kills Goliath – marriage to Saul’s daughter and freedom from royal servitude for the man’s family – are insufficient to persuade them to volunteer.
David speaks to those around him in a way that is both asking an innocent question and implying that one of Saul’s men ought to have the courage – and faith in God – to step up to fight this foreigner. Eliab, David’s oldest brother, responds angrily as though he is being charged with cowardice; and accuses David, in turn, with neglecting his responsibility as a shepherd and being ill intentioned. David seems surprised by this rebuke; but he turns away before it escalates further.
Perhaps David’s words hit a raw nerve in Eliab who was ashamed of being fearful. Or maybe Eliab had ambitions about marrying into Saul’s family himself. Or was it because David had brought God into the situation that Eliab reacted as he did?
It is so easy to overreact to someone else’s words, especially if we are feeling unsure about our own position. It takes maturity to know when to ‘bite one’s tongue’ and to turn away from conflict; and maturity has very little to do with a person’s age.
Gracious God you know us as we truly are and you understand our hopes and fears. Help us to be self-aware and to recognize the motivations behind our words and actions.
Forgive us when our own insecurities lead us to be unkind or disdainful towards others; and save us from letting sibling rivalry become hurtful.
Grant us the maturity to know when to remain silent. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
The Revd Dr Janet E Tollington A retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge