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David the Shepherd

Michael Vogelsang

At the end of his life, David described himself as the ‘sweet psalmist of Israel’ (2 Sam. 23:1). One of his best known compositions is Psalm 23. When he called the Lord his shepherd he knew what he was writing about — he had been a shepherd himself from his youth. When Samuel went to Jesse to anoint one of his sons, David, the youngest, was not there. He was not even considered a choice by his own family. Where was he? What does Jesse say? ‘Behold, he keepeth the sheep’ (1 Sam. 16:11). One thing David learnt there was how to feed the sheep — a valuable lesson for his later life. Feeding the people of God (the earthly people of his time and all saints through the ages) was a task for which the Lord used him. David’s psalms in particular have provided spiritual nourishment, consolation and encouragement for generations of believers.

Not only did David’s family forget him, but Saul considered him inadequate to the task of fighting Goliath. He said: ‘Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him: for thou art but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth’ (1 Sam. 17:33). Goliath was ‘a man of war from his youth’. And David? He was a shepherd from his youth. Saul thought that that was no match for Goliath. But what did David tell him? ‘Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock: and I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him. Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God’ (1 Sam. 17:34–36). David not only learnt how to feed the sheep, but also to protect them from enemies. He had trusted the Lord when he went against lion and bear, and he trusted the Lord in his encounter with Goliath as well. Protecting the sheep was David’s training for protecting his people Israel when he became king. He was a man of war, a mighty man of valour later in his life, and in most of his battles he trusted in the Lord who had helped him in the past.

This attitude of a shepherd was so deeply engraved in his innermost being that David showed a shepherd’s heart not only towards sheep but also towards people. When in the cave of Adullam ‘every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented’ came to David (1 Sam. 22:2). And when Abiathar the priest came to him there, David said, ‘Abide thou with me, fear not: for he that seeketh my life seeketh thy life: but with me thou shalt be in safeguard’ (v. 23). Later when David was king he considered himself as the shepherd of Israel and the people as his sheep. This meant responsibility for him in the first place, and he took his responsibility seriously. When he sinned in numbering the people, and God’s judgment fell upon Israel, he reacted in a very touching way when he saw what they suffered as a consequence of his sin: ‘Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly: but these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, be against me, and against my father’s house’ (2 Sam. 24:17). Over the course of their history, it was often the case that Israel suffered because of the wrong actions of their false shepherds that they had (cf. Ezek. 34), but not so with David! He was willing to take the responsibility exclusively on himself.

The heavenly people of God in the New Testament are also seen as sheep in the flock of God, and there are those among the people of God who are called to do shepherd service. They can learn much from David, a good shepherd. A shepherd’s job involves:

  • feeding the sheep (‘them … who have spoken unto you the word of God’: Heb. 13:7);
  • protecting the sheep (‘Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock’: Acts 20:28);
  • doing both with a sense of responsibility to God (‘they watch for your souls, as they that must give account’: Heb. 13:17).

Some further features may be seen from an interesting passage in Psalm 78 where Asaph speaks about David: ‘He chose David also his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds: from following the ewes great with young he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance. So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands’ (vs. 70–72).

  • ‘He chose David’ — the Lord chooses the shepherds; they are not appointed by men.
  • ‘David … his servant’ — shepherds are servants of God. In Christianity a lot is said about ‘leadership’ or even ‘servant-leadership’, but Scripture simply speaks about servants.[1]
  • ‘and took him from the sheepfolds’ — the Lord found David where he was. Let us not forget where we came from, where the Lord has found us.
  • ‘from following the ewes great with young’ — David knew about special needs among his sheep.
  • ‘to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance’ — never forget: the sheep are the Lord’s sheep, not ours! ‘Feed my lambs … Shepherd my sheep … Feed my sheep’ (John 21:15–17).
  • ‘So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart’ — the first requirement for shepherds is a right moral condition of heart.
  • ‘and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands’ — a special skill is also needed for this work. The Lord gives a gift according to one’s ability (Matt. 25:15). Then follows the training in the school of the good and great and chief shepherd (John 10:11; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 5:4).

[1] Scripture refers to leaders (Heb. 13:7, 17) but in these verses it is not a question of aspiring to be a leader but rather of those who have spoken the word of God (eds.).