Actually, You ARE David in 'David v. Goliath'

It is very common for young, Reformed guys to criticize broadly evangelical pastors for preaching moral statutes from the Old Testament. The example used most often is the story of David and Goliath. A common expositional trope in this passage is to identify with David in the fight, and to suggest that David represents the believer, who ought to trust in facing difficult obstacles that God is on his side.

The New Calvinist Constraint Upon Davidic Narrative

The typical Reformed rebuttal to this reading is that David is a messianic literary type of messiah—what interpreters call an “antitype,” which is a figure which categorically foreshadows its fulfillment. So, some Reformed argue, David does not represent the believer, but Christ—and it is the soldiers who “all fled from Goliath in great fear” (1 Samuel 17:24). In other words, the story exclusively and primarily serves to represent Christ’s active role in redemption, and the believers’ passive role in accomplishing the victory of Christian salvation.

This lay Reformed rejection of a moralistic reading of the passage—really only made by New Calvinists, not confessional Christians who know better—indicates an ignorance about how typology works, an ignorance about the use of the Old Testament in the New, and an ignorance of the Reformed tradition.

Even though 1 Samuel is narrative and not law as far as its genre goes, its relationship to the New Testament functions categorically as law, since the very same rules and institutions established in the books of Moses are extrapolated upon and codified historically in the narrative books. Now, moving on to the proper way to understand the David and Goliath narrative as Christians.

The Three Uses of the Law 

In order to understand how to properly understand this passage, it is necessary to understand what John Calvin calls the three uses of the law, which is a derivation a previous Lutheran distinction between three different uses. The three uses of the law are, according to Calvin:[1]

1.     To condemn us.

2.     To point us to Christ.

3.     To morally instruct us.

The first use of the law was meant to display how pure and impossible God’s holiness is for men in their own power. The second use of the law is to move men to believe in Christ in order to be saved. The third use of the law is, in Calvin’s view, exclusively for Christians—that is, to morally instruct them about how to live. To be fair, Lutherans tend to think that the third use of the law reverts Christianity back to the legalism of Phariseeism, and therefore only serves as a second variation of the second use of the law.

But the Reformed tradition staunchly insists upon the legitimacy of the third use of the law as a necessary way of reading the Old Testament. One of their defenses for this is the clearly positive role the law plays in the spiritual life of David, Jesus, and the Apostles. David says: “Great peace have those who love your law” (Psalm 119:165). Jesus himself gives a moral commandment to follow his example, which is the fulfillment of the Old Testament law (Matthew 5:17): “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).

It is this third sense of the law—moral instruction—which opens these Old Testament narratives for straightforward moral analogies between the actions of Old Testament heroes and readers themselves. For example, there are several moral lessons from the narrative of David and Goliath.

A first is that if your leader neglects to act rightly out of fear, it is morally praiseworthy to take the role he ought to have taken and to fulfill his responsibility—as David did for Saul. A second moral lesson is that we don’t know how God will use our past experience to enable us to have victory at an opportune moment in the future—that is, I doubt that when David was killing lions and bears, he was thinking, “One day, this experience will enable me to kill a giant who threatens our country.” Yet when the time comes, David reflects: “Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them” (1 Samuel 17:36).

A third moral lesson is that believers ought not be intimidated by unbelievers who threaten the integrity of the Christian system—they may be strong in worldly power, but Christians are the recipients of God’s very own self-testimony, and that both the intellectual integrity of the Christian system and the ethical state of the unbeliever’s heart both belong to God, and we ought to trust God as David did, who comments: “it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s” (1 Samuel 17:47).

Exposition like this constitutes a bulk of what you will find in Calvin’s commentaries on the Old Testament. He does not constrain himself to seeing only the antitypical function of the Old Testament to tee up Christ’s messianic fulfillment of the text. Calvin sees moral instruction for the Christian life everywhere in the Old Testament, and would have balked at the notion that believers are represented by the fearful soldiers. Quite the contrary. Believers should be like David, and in that sense, the story is true. The second use of the law and the third use of the law have simultaneous export for this text.

For example, Calvin comments on Joshua 1:6, which reads: “Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shall thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I swear unto their fathers to give them.” Calvin comments:

From this passage, therefore, let us learn that we can never be fit for executing difficult and arduous matters unless we exert our utmost endeavors, both because our abilities are weak, and Satan rudely assails us, and there is nothing we are more inclined to than to relax our efforts. 21 But, as many exert their strength to no purpose in making erroneous or desultory attempts, it is added as a true source of fortitude that Joshua shall make it his constant study to observe the Law. By this we are taught that the only way in which we can become truly invincible is by striving to yield a faithful obedience to God. Otherwise it were better to lie indolent, and effeminate than to be hurried on by headlong audacity.[2]

Moreover, God would not only have his servant to be strong in keeping the Law, but enjoins him to contend manfully, so as not to faint under the burden of his laborious office. But as he might become involved in doubt as to the mode of disentangling himself in matters of perplexity, or as to the course which he ought to adopt, he refers him to the teaching of the Law, because by following it as a guide he will be sufficiently fitted for all things. He says, You shall act prudently in all things, provided you make the Law your master; although the Hebrew word שכל, means to act not only prudently but successfully, because temerity usually pays the penalty of failure.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were reading Malcom Gladwell. This sounds like self-help. Calvin sounds here like Tony Robbins. The main takeaway Calvin exports from Joshua 1:6 is: TRY HARD TO BE REALLY GOOD. Does that make him a heretic? Should we assume that Calvin doesn’t understand how genre works in Scripture? Should we accuse him of being an uninformed expositor? Should we call him insufficiently Reformed? 

No. Because one of the takeaways from this passage which says “Be strong and of good courage” is: “Be strong and of good courage.” God wasn’t talking to Christians about the Christian life. God was making a specific promise to Joshua about his accompaniment of Joshua in his conquest of Canaan. Did Calvin not get that? Of course he got that. He also got that this promise is made true for us in an even greater sense in Christ, just as God’s accompaniment of David in facing Goliath is made true for us in Christ, and is therefore morally instructive for us.


There are two takeaways from this for New Calvinists. First, you need to assume less about what are the constraints of orthodoxy. Many seminary students think, after one year of Greek, that their pastor was an idiot because he doesn’t have their specific insights about a passage. That’s the problem with theological education—often, students can think that their insights are the only legitimate insights about the Bible. So, if you hammered your pastor for preaching a moral message from the Davidic narrative, you need to recognize that he was firmly in line with Calvin, and certainly also in line with the New Testament.

Take Hebrews 11, an entire chapter that gives almost 30 examples of Old Testament saints whose faithful behavior is morally instructive for believers through Christ. I guarantee that if the early church had Facebook, Marcion would have trolled Luke, who wrote the book of Hebrews,[3] and said: “Luke is so stupid for writing in the book of Hebrews that the Old Testament about how we should act; it’s not about us, it’s about Christ; those characters don’t represent us, they represent Christ.”  

In the words of Ben Shapiro, two things can be true at the same time. The Old Testament is entirely about how we should live, and at the same time, it’s entirely fulfilled by Christ (Romans 10:4). The Old Testament characters 100% represent us, and are 100% fulfilled in different ways by Christ. 

It is mainly the New Calvinists who glibly and condescendingly mock preachers for drawing an analogy between David and the Christian. “Christians are the soldiers standing on the sidelines shaking,” they say. In fact, that’s a narrow, un-Reformed, unbiblical, unintelligent, incorrect take on that biblical passage in particular and on biblical interpretation generally. And, just to throw a wrench in the works, Jeremiah 29:11 is about you, too. “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

God’s plan of redemption for Israel after the Babylonian exile as expressed by Jeremiah is fulfilled in Christ, as evidenced by Matthew’s quotation of Jeremiah 31 in Matthew 2: “Thus says the Lord: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.’” Matthew comments about Herod’s infanticide of Jewish children: “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled.”  

That’s the second use of the law. Doesn’t Matthew know that Jeremiah was talking about the exile? Doesn’t Matthew know that Jeremiah had a clear historical antecedent fulfillment which renders his interpretation inaccurate? No. It’s not inaccurate. It’s typologically fulfilled and applied to Christ—more than that, the lamentation of Israel during exile is applicable to believers in grief today, because that’s the purpose of the book of Lamentations, which was about the same exile that was said to be fulfilled at the birth of Christ.  

Every Old Testament text has multiple applications and fulfillments. The fulfillment and exportation of Redemptive historical truths and themes is multivariate and composed of layers of fulfillment and application. There is no such thing as “This passage applies only to one thing in one way.” There are still right and wrong ways of interpreting passages, but there are at least three meanings—which are the three uses of the law—in every Old Testament text.

Our main takeaway here is that young theologians who just read Geerhardus Vos for the very first time should get off their theological high horse and recognize that the Reformed tradition is complex—the more you understand the Reformed tradition, the more you will perceive how much theological liberty there is within the richness of the tradition. This produces hermeneutical license for pluriform interpretations, not monadic interpretive constraint.  Get off your theological high horse. That’s all. Get off your theological high horse.


[1] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeil (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 2.7.6-13.

[2] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Joshua, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1854), 31.

[3] David L. Allen, Lukan Authorship of Hebrews, New American Commentary Studies in Bible and Theology 8 (Nashville: B&H, 2010).


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