When we look back at our lives, I’m sure most of us can see the various ways that God has prepared us for where we are now and what we are presently doing. Back then, we may not have been aware of how God was building our knowledge, experience, or character, but now in hindsight, we can see God’s method in the madness. It’s been said that we live life going forward, but we only understand it looking backwards.
What would have been the best training for a future king of Israel? How might God prepare someone who would rule and lead his people? Looking after a bunch of dumb, defenseless, and smelly sheep might not be the most intuitive answer. But that’s exactly where David found himself in 1 Samuel 16 when he was anointed as the next king of Israel. How did his role as a shepherd prepare him to lead God’s people?
Being a shepherd at that time and place took a lot of courage. In 1 Samuel 17, David spoke to Saul before he went out to battle Goliath. “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God…The Lord who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”
As a shepherd, David was willing to put his life on the line to protect his dad’s flock of sheep. When the little lambs were in harm’s way, David engaged in hand to hand combat with dangerous and wild animals to ensure that his father lost none of those entrusted to his care. It wasn’t easy, but David wasn’t alone in this venture. He relied on God to protect him and deliver him from danger. In fact, rather than self-reliance, David practiced God-reliance, not only as a shepherd of his father’s sheep, but later as a shepherd of God’s people. The shepherd was a common metaphor used to describe the role of a king in the ancient Near East, and in David’s most famous Psalm, Psalm 23, the metaphor of God as a shepherd bleeds into the actual description of God as our King.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me besides still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”
As much as anything, David’s time as a shepherd taught him to rely wholly and completely on God, his true shepherd, his true king. More than anything else, that equipped David to be the ruler and leader of God’s people later in life.
David’s life as a shepherd points us to another shepherd who lived about a thousand years later. John chapter 10 paints the picture for us beautifully. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd…and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
David, the shepherd, was willing to risk his life to protect the sheep of his father, Jesse. Jesus, the good shepherd, freely laid down his life for his Father’s sheep. What David was willing to do, our shepherd, Jesus, did do - to the fullest possible extent. So, we can join David in proclaiming, “The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want…Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives and we will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.” - Shay