Is There Not a Cause?

In 1 Samuel 17, we gather around the classic story of David and Goliath, which has been retold across all the centuries and to all ages, from infant to hoary head. It will likely still be told around the campfires of heaven.

When young David arrived at the army encampment, he saw the giant Philistine come out, and heard Goliath’s taunt waft across the valley: “... choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me. If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us. And the Philistine said, I defy the armies of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together.” (1 Samuel 17:8-10)

All the mighty soldiers, even the king himself, were silent. No one knew what to do. David heard the soldiers talking about the reward the king had offered: great wealth, marriage to the king’s daughter, and to be tax-free for life. But when David began to ask, “What shall be done to the man that killeth this Philistine...?” he did not have stars in his eyes, carried off by dreams of great rewards. He continued with words that abruptly changed the direction of what the soldiers were saying: “What shall be done to the man that killeth this Philistine, and taketh away the reproach from Israel? for who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (verse 26).

David started with the reward to the man who would kill Goliath, but his mind immediately leapt ahead to what was really important to him — removing the reproach or disgrace with which Goliath’s words covered Israel; and, more especially, the dishonor shown to the God of Israel. The soldiers were thinking materialistically; David was thinking theistically. Israel’s army had their affections set on things on the earth; David was thinking of things which are above.

But David’s brothers seemed embarrassed by his words. They thought to quiet him by imputing bad conduct and motives to him: “And Eliab his eldest brother heard ... and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, Why camest thou down hither? and with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know thy pride, and the naughtiness of thine heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle” (verse 28).

In reply to their unjust accusations, David said, “What have I now done? Is there not a cause?” (verse 29). This is the very center point of the Scripture’s account: “Is there not a cause?” That great penetrating question of David about a cause ought to resonate, reverberate and resound again in such a time as our own.

If you read this verse in the New International Version, they have replaced “Is there not a cause?” with the words, “Can’t I even speak?” I find this translation very disappointing. The Hebrew word does have a great breadth of meaning, being translated variously as “cause” or “word” or “speak.” But “cause” fits much better in this context. To think David said “Can’t I even speak?” robs the story of its grand central thrust. It changes the center of gravity from God’s honor to a resentful David’s personal right to speak his mind. It has David going out against Goliath merely to show his right to talk, instead of to defend a cause come down from heaven. To my mind, the new translation unfortunately cheapens the account.

Now consider the setting of this story. The Philistines had migrated to Palestine. They were idolaters, unprincipled, grasping, greedy and acquisitive. And they were making a land grab for Israel’s territory, which God had given them and they had won by their own exertions in battle with the Canaanites in the time of Joshua. The Philistines were after not only the land, but also their service. Goliath’s challenge said that if he won, the Israelites would become the servants of the Philistines. The picture of the Philistine people painted in the books of history leads us to recognize that different “Philistines,” by other names, have been found in many generations. Their counterparts are in the world today. They grasp for what they have not made and dishonor the one true and living God. There was a “cause” back in David’s time, and there is a “cause” in our day.

Still looking at the setting from which David voiced his question, there — across the Elah valley from the Philistines — was the encampment of the army of Israel. The Philistines were Sea people; Israel was an Elect people, the people of God. God had bestowed the land of Israel upon them in fulfillment of His promise to their forefathers. But specially favored as they were by God, there had been many moments of unfaithfulness and apostasy from Him. They had turned away from Him, then returned and looked for deliverance, only to turn away yet again. The history of the nation recorded right up to this chapter was of a mixed character — faithfulness mixed with unfaithfulness, holiness with worldliness, dedication to God mixed with self-seeking. In spite of the presence and steadfast service to God by good men and women in Israel, faith and devotion to Him was enfeebled, greatly flawed and broadly inconsistent.

The army of Israel into which David walked on that day long ago was a reflection of the national religious character and condition. There was nominal religion, but there was no sense of dedication to a cause, until David arrived and voiced his question, then followed it up by running — running, mind you — to meet Goliath in hand-to-hand combat. God used the question and actions of a youth to light the lamp of the cause of God and to energize an army in its behalf against the Philistines.

When David appeared on the scene and heard the voice of Goliath ring across the valley in defiance and challenge of Israel’s army and their God, he heard no reply from the Israelite side. The Philistines’ challenge went unanswered. All was quiet on Israel’s mountain. All the men of might had lost not only their hands, but also their voices. All was quiet until David, to the chagrin of his brothers, started asking probing questions: “What shall be done? Is there not a cause?”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a cause as “a principle or movement militantly defended or supported.” If we think of Bible Christianity as a cause, it is something to be militantly, vigorously, firmly defended and put forward.

David’s cause, God’s cause, required speaking out — lifting up voices like trumpets. Even today it demands that men say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” David’s cause had detractors. The detractor diverts attention. He diminishes the importance of a thing. Those in the army of Israel were detractors from the cause which David saw by the eye of faith. They only had eyes for being rewarded with great riches, having the daughter of the king for a wife, living tax free. What would be given the man who killed Goliath was the first thing David heard when he entered the camp. King Saul, who more than any other man should have taken the lead in God’s cause, was a detractor. After David told the King, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine,” Saul replied, “Thou art not able … to fight with him: for thou art but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth” (verses 32–33).

David’s brothers were detractors. When David spoke up, they came back at him with attacks — attacks on their own brother — on his character. They thought they knew “the pride and naughtiness of his heart.” They thought they knew his motive — that he had “come down that he might see the battle.” The brothers were detractors. They drew away attention from a great cause by taking up unworthy and unfounded insinuations.

Goliath could shout his humiliating challenge across the valley of Elah, and it stirred not a word from the brothers. But when David merely asked a question, they immediately launched a verbal attack. Those attacks had to sting, but no one ever yet stood for the cause of God without enduring a shower of arrows. Many who call themselves Christians today are more likely to attack and denigrate the fundamental Bible believer than to speak out against those who undermine God’s Holy Word.

Finally, David’s cause was not something he ferreted out for himself in the quieter hours of shepherding his father’s sheep. David believed in a God who had revealed His mind and will. From Judean pasturelands he could look up into the heavens and say that they “declare the glory of God,” and he could look into the pages of memorized Scripture, the very words of God, and say, “the law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.” David put the right value on the God-revealed Scriptures. They were “more to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold.” He had the right taste for them: “sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.” He could say of God’s words, “by them is thy servant warned,” and that they were how a young man should “cleanse his way.” (see Psalm 19:1–11 and Psalm 119:9).

From his youth, David displayed the first mark of a believer—humility before God. He had a cause because he had a Bible to which he subscribed as the very word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.

In our day, the cause of God and of Christ widely lacks a militant defense, because of the loss of reverence for the Bible as the special revelation of the mind and will of God. If the cause of God is ever to come back with militancy, it will be because men bow human reason to divine revelation. If souls are ever to stand up for a cause in the way that David did, they must see and feel that it carries the sublime weight of God’s authority. •