Choosing Our Five River Stones
Photo credit: Scott Webb
Readings: I Samuel 17, Secrets of Heaven #1197 (see below)
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This is probably one of the most familiar stories in the Old Testament. It certainly has made its way into our collective imagination and our language, as even for people unfamiliar with the bible generally, the names David and Goliath unequivocally recall the potent narrative of the underdog, the triumph of the little guy over insurmountable odds.
So, first, a little background on the story. As noted by the name of the book I Samuel, the story takes place in the days of the prophet Samuel. The children of Israel desired a king to rule over them, and so Samuel installed Saul as monarch. But ultimately God rejected Saul as king, due to a number of transgressions, and so Samuel anoints a new king in secret: David, the youngest and smallest of the sons of Jesse.
But meanwhile, Saul remains king, and readies for war with the Philistines. The Israelites are not confident in their ability to win, and they are mightily intimidated by the Philistine champion, Goliath, who at six cubits and a span, was about 9 feet 9 inches tall. And David, the secretly anointed but utterly forgettable brother comes to visit his older siblings on the war front. They are not pleased. Yet somehow David has a kind of unbelievable confidence that carries him to the notice of Saul. Saul agrees to let David fight Goliath, and even though David eschews traditional armor and weapons, he wins, using his very simple sling and five smooth stones he had gathered at the river.
It is a crazy, detailed, and exhilarating story. And as we look through a Swedenborgian lens, we of course see that the story is a metaphor for our internal life. Swedenborg tells us that the Philistines represent faith separated from charity and Goliath as the conceit of self-intelligence.(1) We can see how these two go together, in that, in a more general way, as we try to separate what we know and believe from how we live in relationship to others, we are tempted to retreat further and further into a silo of self-righteous and high self-opinion.
It is a threat to our spiritual life, a danger, when we try to separate what we know from how we live our life, as if somehow our true self is made up of the thoughts we think, instead of the way that we actually show up to our life and our relationships and our world. This threat is pictured by the Philistine army. But a particular danger is that the more we place value and prestige on our thinking, on our intelligence, or on our beliefs, (rather than our living) then a giant of self-centeredness starts to grow, until only *we* can be right (because our ego demands that we must be), and we have lost the humility and the reflective ability that is so central to spiritual evolution and a spiritual, loving life.
And there are many varieties of mental and emotional Goliaths that keep us immobilized, that keep us centered in fear and ego. So many giants that feel so big and strong, and loom so large over our internal landscape.
Who would have thought, though, that is answer would be David? David, who is picked on by his brothers, David who says “Now what have I done?”, the small and inconsequential shepherd boy? Because sometimes, our truest loves, our cherished ideals, our lofty goals, our bleeding hearts, our desire to make a difference, they seem so small and ridiculous compared to “they way the world works.” But those things, those depths of our hearts, those true north principles, when out on the field on their own, they pulled the sheep from the lion’s mouth without a moment’s hesitation. David’s faith was powerful, but it was just a different kind of power. He had no use for the armor or the sword.
And I’ll quote now a passage about how David armed himself, from the Dole Notes, an in depth treatment of many familiar bible stories along with their internal sense:
David's weapons were his shepherd's staff, his sling, and five smooth stones from the brook. The staff was his reliance on the Lord; the smooth stones from the brook, particular truths of the Word readied by experience (five meaning a few but sufficient); and the sling, the understanding-also gained by experience-which enabled him to direct the truth against a particular evil and to communicate to it the force of his zeal. We all may have David's weapons. The Lord promises support to all who obey His commandments. We all have the Word, the clear stream of truth, and we all have the power to find in it truths which we may prove by experience. We make a sling for ourselves by meditating on the truths of the Word and their application to life and conduct. We should be constantly choosing "smooth stones from the brook" and putting them in our "shepherd's bag" ready for use when an enemy attacks any of our innocent affections. (2)
David’s triumph over Goliath pictures how when we find our internal giants are taking up too much space, intimidating us, immobilizing us, even leading us, that there are small smooth indestructible and completely available truths that can re-center us. Some examples of these might be: the golden rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you, love your neighbor, we are all made in the image and likeness of God, blessed are the those who mourn, The Lord is my shepherd, and many many others. The smoothness of the stones is important, meaning that the truths need to be anchored in goodness. A rough truth harshly applied might conquer a giant for a time, scare it away for a moment, but at what cost to our spirit? For example, if some Goliath fear or flaw is preventing us from doing something useful, we could certainly marshal the doctrine of use against ourselves in a judgmental way, and that might shame us into action. But that won’t deal with the deep-seated assumptions that brought the giant into being in the first place. It won’t help us understand how to love better, either ourselves or others. Swedenborg speaks in many places in his works about truth alone being sharp and angular, and good having the quality of being soft, smooth or flexible. David’s sling could only be effective, his aim could only be true, when the stones were smooth. Likewise, we need the clarity of truth against our giants, but without self-compassion we won’t take the time to do the difficult reflection we might need to do.
And now that we have seen the inner landscape of this story, we can also see how it might apply in a broader sense, how we might complete the circle and integrate this inner landscape into our relationship to the outer world, one might say the “real” world.
Just as we have Goliath tendencies, habits, fears, in our own minds, there are Goliaths to contend with in society and culture: assumptions, prejudices, systemic injustices, ingrained inequalities, war, corruption, racism and so much more.
And I think what we can glean from this story is, that these giants are not vanquished by *also* assuming might, or by being uniquely clever or skilled and outwitting them. These giants are vanquished by being willing to go to the river and find those smooth stones, those key, elemental, inviolable truths that we can easily carry with us and that give us the courage to stand forth day by day.
David tried putting on Saul’s armor but he could barely walk in it. We can’t mimic cultural Goliaths that are perpetuating harm, can’t put on their trappings of earthly power, or emulate their systems, for then we will just turn around and perpetuate harm in different ways. Nor can we use the weapons that Saul provided; they are too heavy upon the soul, to difficult to carry.
And, neither was it skill in wielding the sling that was key. Certainly, David did need to know how to use it, but also only a perfectly smooth stone can be wielded by the sling in an effective way. That is the choice that matters. Truth alone, a sharp stone, might seem like the perfect weapon but it is not. The smoothness of a truth that is anchored in goodness, this is what can ultimately vanquish evil; it is the only thing that can. So we must ask ourselves: What are the principles that are guiding us as we confront our giants? Are they anchored in lovingkindness, made smooth by the water of life, by the way that God’s love flows toward us, in and around us? May God guide the search to answer these questions. Amen.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, The Doctrine of Faith #52
(2) Anita Dole, The Dole Notes Volume 3, p142
I Samuel 17
1 Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah…2 Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. 3 The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them. 4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits and a span. 5 He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; 6 on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. 7 His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him. 8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” 10 Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” 11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.
12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul’s time he was very old. 13 Jesse’s three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war… 14 David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, 15 but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. 16 For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand. 17 Now Jesse said to his son David, “Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. 18 Take along these ten cheeses to the commander of their unit. See how your brothers are and bring back some assurance from them. 19 They are with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines.” 20 Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. 21 Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. 22 David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and asked his brothers how they were. 23 As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. 24 Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear. 25 Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel.” 26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” 27 They repeated to him what they had been saying and told him, “This is what will be done for the man who kills him.” 28 When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.” 29 “Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” 30 He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before. 31 What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him. 32 David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.” 33 Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.”
38 Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. 39 David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
41 Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. 42 He looked David over and saw that he was little more than a boy, glowing with health and handsome, and he despised him. 43 He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!” 45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the LORD will deliver you into my hands…47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” 48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground. 50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.
Secrets of Heaven #1197
The ancient church used the label of Philistine for all those who talked and talked about faith and about the idea that salvation is found in faith and yet completely failed to live a life of faith…
These people by nature could not help turning religious knowledge into a matter of memorization. The knowledge of spiritual and heavenly realities and even the mysteries of faith become nothing more than objects of memory when the people who are adept at them have no love for others.
Memorized details are dead objects to us unless we live according to them as a matter of conscience. When we do, then as soon as something becomes part of our memory it also becomes part of our life. That is when it first becomes something in us that remains useful to us and our salvation after physical life ends. Neither secular nor religious knowledge means anything to us in the other life — even if we have learned all the secrets that have ever been revealed — unless it permeates our life.
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