"And when the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him; for he was but a youth." 1 Samuel 17:42.
I. A story that is still alive
Here is a story so gripping and human that it will live forever.
Israel is being invaded by an old and persistent enemy, the Philistines. When the armies stand facing each other, a champion comes forward from the ranks of the Philistines and proposes to settle the issue by single combat.
Such contests, as you know, were quite common in classical and medieval times.
This champion was all that could be desired in the way of brute force. He was nine feet in height. He had a coat of mail that weighed one hundred and fifty pounds. He had a spear like a weaver's beam, and a voice like the roar of a lion. At his challenge, the knees of the most heroic in the army of Israel went weak, and no man dared fight him. Each day this champion renewed his challenge, becoming all the while more arrogant and bold and insulting. Each day the Israelites refused to accept, thus weakening their morale and becoming more cowed and shamed and hopeless.
David's arrival was to mean the dawning of a new day. But nobody believed it. Goliath, the champion, looked upon him with utter contempt. This would not have been so bad had his contempt not been shared by the soldiers on both sides of the line. This contempt found its fullest expression in the biting words of David's own elder brother, Eliab. Saul was more friendly, but the best he could do was to look wistfully at the young fellow and shake his head. He was desperately eager for a champion, but he could see no hope here. "Thou art not able," he murmurs sadly, "for thou art but a youth." What was wrong with David? What was his crime? Why did they receive him with such an utter lack of enthusiasm? There seems only one answer: He was guilty of being young. Now, age and youth have always had a tendency clash. Here, for instance, is a story that comes out of the book of Ezra. After Jerusalem had been conquered and her people carried away into exile, it was the fondest dream of certain pious and patriotic Jews that they might once again return to Jerusalem and rebuild their ruined city and restore their desecrated temple. After long years of waiting, their dream has been so far realized that a handful of them has returned and restored the walls and in some measure rebuilt the city. And now they have come to that which was the very climax of their hopes. They are laying the foundation of the temple. When this was done there went up a loud shout of sheer joy. But mingled with this shout of joy were the sobbing of some who seemed utterly brokenhearted. Who was doing the shouting? It was the youth. They were looking ahead. They were thinking what a glorious temple theirs was to be, and how sure they were to meet God in it in the days to come. It was the old folks that were sobbing. They were thinking of the temple that they knew when they were young. It was so much bigger and more beautiful than this one, that a glimpse of it through the haze of memory made them burst into tears.
This clash of age with youth is quite vigorously alive today. You young people certainly have us worried. We are wondering just what you are going to do next.
Not a few of us elders feel that you are about the worst generation the world has yet seen. Then there is little doubt that we are worrying you, not greatly, but enough to be annoying. We are making you wonder just how you are going to get it across to us that we have forgotten the score, lost step, and are at least a half century behind the times. How can you let us know, without hurting us too much, that we are just fossils, kindly fossils maybe; at times harsh and stupid fossils, perhaps; but fossils nonetheless.
Now, while this age-old conflict between age and youth is easy to explain, it is hard to correct. It is so difficult to get springtime and autumn to see each other's viewpoint. You who are young have never been old. Therefore it is hard for you to put yourselves in our places. It is hard for you to realize that soon you, with your burdens and wrinkles and graying hair, will seem prosaic to your juniors as we to you. Then we who are older have such a tremendous tendency to forget that we were ever young. Once we knew everything, even as you. Once, too, we were not absolutely perfect, as surprising as that confession may seem. We forget this, and therefore, fail to put ourselves in your places. Thus our attitude too often becomes one of carping criticism rather than one of sympathy. It was so in the case of David in the long ago. When he came forward eager to help, his elders tried to kill his enthusiasm by finding fault.
Look at the charges brought against youthful David. They have a decidedly modern flavor about them.
II. The charge against David
1. David is accused of seeking a big job while he is making a mess of the one he has. "Why are you here?" asks his indignant brother. "With whom have you left those few poor sheep?" What Eliab means is that David simply will not settle down to the faithful performance of his duty. "You do not stick to your job," he tells him, "as I did when I was a boy." What a familiar falsehood that is, and how utterly useless! "You are bent on beginning at the top," he continues. "You want to build a spire without taking time to lay a foundation. You are eager to get into a hogshead when, as a matter of fact, you are rattling around in the shell of a mustard seed. You must start at the bottom and work up, as I did."
Now, this is a serious charge. This is the case because the only sure way to get ready for tomorrow is to be faithful in the use of today. The best road into a bigger job is making the most possible out of one that is small. Some of our youth forget this. But David did not. He may have had just a few sheep, but he kept them faithfully. When one night a bear came after one of his lambs, the bear did not get the lamb, but David got the bear. The story is the same when a lion had undertaken a raid on his flock. Though his task was small, and though it was performed under no human eye, he did it faithfully and well, even at the cost of risking his life.
2. David is accused of being forward. "I know your forwardness," says this angry elder brother. "I know how cocksure you are, how certain you are that you know everything. You have absolutely no respect for your elders. You have no reverence for anything nor anybody." That, too, sounds a bit familiar. It is what many of us are thinking of modern youth, and not without reason. It was in some measure true of David. It is possibly yet more true of the youth of today. Certainly you who are young have no disposition to flatter your elders by your too high regard for their opinions. You shock us by your discussions of subjects once taboo. You shock us even more by your frank confession of delinquencies that our generation would never have thought of confessing. Then when we become alarmed, you regard us with about as much seriousness as a young duck disporting itself upon a pond would manifest toward a fussy old hen that was frantic with fear lest her adopted offspring might not be able to swim. Yes, youth is usually a bit forward. But that is not altogether bad. The certainty that you can improve upon your elders is one of the secrets of your strength.
3. Another charge against David is that of self-will. "I know your self-will," says this indignant brother. "You are bent on having your own way. You are determined to live your own life, to do absolutely as you please." This is a charge that is especially up-to-date. We seem to be in the midst of a veritable orgy of doing as we please. We are at present about the most lawless nation on the earth. Our biggest single business is crime. The majority of those engaged in the crime business are young. The average age of our present day criminal is only nineteen years. Self-will is certainly, therefore, one of the besetting sins of the youth of today.
But in this, our young people are far more sinned against than sinning. The tragic breakdown did not begin with them, but further back. Many of the safeguards that we older folks knew in our youth have become greatly weakened, or have been thrown into the discard. For instance, our generation has witnessed a weakening of the restraints born of religion. "Where there is no vision, the people cast off-restraint." Vast numbers of us elders have lost all sense of God, and have, therefore, cast off restraint. Many of our youth are but shattered fragments of broken homes. Others come from homes where there is no serious effort at right training, either by precept or example. Where self-will is the law of life for so many fathers and mothers it is not surprising that it has put its defiling touch upon some of our youth.
4. The final charge against David is that he is not serious. He is a mere thrill hunter. He cares for nothing but a good time. For instance, he has come to the front just to see the battle. He cares nothing for the outcome. It matters not to him whether Israel wins or loses, rises to honor, or sinks into shame. All he is concerned about is the thrill of seeing the battle. He is forever seeking something that will pack a punch, that will give him a kick. There are many today who are ready to bewail the fact that our young people are so dreadfully wanting in seriousness, that they are so thoroughly flippant. It is a serious charge, and one that is far older than the story of this youthful shepherd lad.
III. The truth about David
Let us learn it, not from his critics, but from his own conduct.
1. He is tremendously in earnest. True, he is quite young. The roses of springtime bloom upon his cheeks and the light of morning sparkles in his eye. Yet he is not flippant. Saul himself is hardly more deeply concerned for the destinies of Israel than he. And somewhat of this deep seriousness we dare claim for the youth of today. We have all passed, during recent years, through a bit of a fiery furnace. Nor have any of us come out altogether without the smell of fire upon our garments. Youth bears its wounds and scars even as you and I. But whatever faults we may charge against them, flippancy is not one of them. Not for long, I dare say, has there been a generation of youth more genuinely serious than the one with which we are privileged to work. This is in itself greatly hopeful.
2. David has a capacity for a fine moral indignation. When he hears the insulting challenge of this giant of brute force, he expects to see the hand of every soldier of Israel leap to the sword. He expects to see every man eager for battle. But when he realizes that the only response that they dare to make the swaggering bully is a tame and spineless submission, his expectancy gives way to shame, and his shame to hot anger. "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine," he asks with glowing checks and flashing eyes, "that he should defy the armies of the living God?" We like these brave and burning words, all of us. We are glad to see David refuse to worship the god of things as they are. We rejoice that he will not allow bullying wrongs to go unchallenged today just because they went unchallenged yesterday.
Now, this capacity to blaze against wrong has been a characteristic of youth at its best through the centuries. It is one of the most heartening facts of our day. Social injustice, race prejudice, the hell and madness of war are being challenged and fought today as never before. This is pre-eminently a youth movement. By this I do not mean that all who are engaged in it are young in years. But real youth is not a mere matter of the almanac, it is a matter of the heart. As long as we can rise against wrong in hot indignation, we have youth, whatever the calendar may say. But when we come tamely to submit, that means that we are old, however few our birthdays.
"The lamp of youth will be clean burnt out, But we will subsist on the smell of it. Whatever we do, we will fold our hands, And suck our gums, and think well of it. Yes, we shall be perfectly pleased with ourselves And that is the perfectest hell of it."
3. Finally, he has courage. David is possessed of this high virtue that is universally admired. It is fine to be in earnest about the things that count. It is fine to be able to burn with a clean indignation against wrong. But even all this is not enough. We must have the grit to do something about it. David might have given vent to his indignation by merely criticizing his elders as they had criticized him. He might have squandered his energies in boasting what he would do in their place, or what he was going to do when he was older and better prepared. But he does not wait for some easy tomorrow when the odds against him might not be so great. With a fine madness that stirs our hearts, he offers to do battle then and there. Then and there he takes upon himself the weighty task of doing the impossible. That is the call to the youth of today. To answer it requires courage of the highest order.
How has David come by such courage? It was not born of his consciousness of superior strength. No more was it the result of his belief in the superiority of his equipment. He knows that in these he is no match for Goliath. His courage was born of his faith in God. He believes that the supreme forces are those that are spiritual. "Thou comest to me with a sword and spear and shield, but I am come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel whom thou hast defied." Here is the secret of courage at its highest and best. "I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand I shall not be moved." In the courage born of faith, this youth went forth to battle and to victory.
And now the scene shifts from that far-off time to our desperate and difficult days. Colossal wrongs still stalk abroad, and gigantic evils loll about us unafraid. In our need we appeal to you who are young. It is up to you to help bring in a better day. To this end you were born, and for this cause you came into the world. Of course, you may refuse to heed the call. You may take a coward's way and bewail the fact that the times are out of joint and that you were ever born to set them right. But you may also take the way of faith and courage and throw yourselves wholeheartedly into the fight. If you do this, as I believe you will, your very difficulties will become advantages. You will be enabled, to sing with joy as you zestfully press the battle:
"Blest is it in this dawn to be alive; But to be young, is very heaven."
Clovis G. Chappell, outstanding Biblical preacher of the beginning of the twentieth century.