Today I’d like to take you on a journey, not only to another place, but to another time. To a place thousands of kilometers away, and a time three thousand years ago. To the Middle East, and to a different world.
1. The Shepherd (1 Samuel 16-17)
Because there on the slopes of Bethlehem, a town eight kilometers south of Jerusalem, we can find a fifteen-year-old boy. He is the youngest of eight sons. And his responsibility is to look after the family’s sheep. And very good he was at it too.
He knew that the safety of the flock was his responsibility. He knew that if anything happened to any of his charges, he would have to pay for any losses out of his own pocket (that is, unless he could prove that a wild beast was responsible for the loss). He was a responsible boy, considered an adult in those days. And even at the tender age of fifteen, he had acquired the skills necessary in order to carry out his duties. He knew how to care for his flock, and protect them. And his skill with a sling to ward off predators was not only something in which he had become very proficient, but was something that in later years would become very well noted.
2. The King (1 Samuel 16 and 2 Samuel 5)
Now, I want you to travel with me off the slopes, and down into Bethlehem itself. Because something important is going on there. Indeed, one of the most important religious leaders of the time has arrived. And led by God, he is looking for someone to anoint as a future king.
Imagine your surprise then when a fifteen-year-old boy—the same fifteen-year-old boy as we’ve just seen on the slopes—is selected. He’s a shepherd—not seen as the greatest job there ever was. He’s the youngest of the family—not the eldest. In fact, he’s not someone you’d normally think was suitable to be king at all. And here he is being anointed to be king, when the current king dies.
Now you’ve probably worked out by now who our shepherd-king is. It’s David. And the twist to the story is that he doesn’t become king for another fifteen years. By which time his life will have been threatened on more than one occasion. And even when he does become king, it will take a further seven years to fight off all the challenges from the previous king’s family and descendants.
3. The Man of God (1 Samuel 17 & 2 Samuel 7)
But leaving that twist aside for a moment, as you look at the fifteen-year-old boy—the shepherd boy being anointed king—you become aware of something else about him. This is no ordinary boy. This is a man of God—someone with deep religious beliefs and convictions; someone who believes that God is guiding him through life; someone with a real faith that God is in charge, and that he needs to be obedient to him.
That’s not too say you get the impression that David is an angel. Indeed, even though history would describe David, as being the greatest king of Israel, it would also describe some major faults. But it would describe David’s acknowledgement of God’s hand in helping him in daily life—from delivering him from attacks by lions and bears, who were attacking his sheep, as a shepherd boy, to acknowledging God’s hand in giving him the throne.
It’s not surprising then, that at some stage in his life, David would envisage God in terms of his own experience—of being both a shepherd, and a king. And being a bit of a musician he wrote a song. And I think you’ll find the words are very familiar.
1. The Caring Shepherd (1-4c)
The Lord is my shepherd; I will lack nothing. He lets me rest in grassy meadows. David knew what it was like to be a shepherd. He was well aware of the shepherds’ role in looking after the needs of the sheep. And he saw God’s role in his life as being a far more superior shepherd. God provided all his needs. He never wanted for anything. And he could rest peacefully, knowing God was looking out for him, and was on constant guard for his safety.
He refreshes me besides quiet waters. He restores my soul. David knew all about the responsibility to guide the flock, to provide water for refreshment, and to provide rest—to restore the sheep back to vitality when they needed refreshing. And he called on God many times for his leadership and direction, and to thank him for his abundant provision.
He leads me along paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. David knew all about keeping his flock on the right path. He knew too the jealously kept reputation that shepherds had for caring for their flock. He knew from personal experience, that he had strayed from the straight and narrow many times. But each time God had guided him back, and set him straight once again.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will not fear evil. David knew that even in rough times—when things looked bad and the sheep were getting scared and fearful—that the sheep would look to him for guidance and protection. This was indeed a vital role for the shepherd. And David had experienced some pretty rough times himself. But he always came through the situation with the confidence of knowing he wasn’t alone, but that God was with him.
2, Summary of the Shepherd Section
In the song that he wrote, then, David didn’t just describe any old shepherd, he described God. He described God as someone far superior and far more able to care than he ever was, would be, or could be. And, of course, he described his own relationship with him.
3. God with us (4d-f)
It’s perhaps not surprising then that he linked this first section—the Shepherd section of the Psalm—with the idea of the assurance of God’s presence: For you are present with me; your club and your shepherd’s staff bring me comfort. The club, used by a shepherd for defense, to drive away wild animals. The staff, much longer than the club, used as a support.
There’s a reassurance, David described, in knowing that God is there. And that he has the ability and the power, to protect his people no matter what the circumstances.
4. The Gracious King (5-6)
Now at this point in David’s song the images of the far superior shepherd are complete. He has described God and his relationship with him in terms of being a shepherd. But when he wrote this, David had not only been a shepherd, but he was currently a king. So, in his Psalm he turned to some images of kingship, and the imagery of the royal court.
You have set a table before me, and I can feast in the presence of my enemies. David knew well what it was like to be king, and still to be surrounded by enemies. At the beginning of his reign, there was Saul’s family. At the end, his own family. And during his reign there were the Philistines, and all the other surrounding nations. David could identify his God therefore as a king who still provided for his needs even though some very serious situations remained unresolved.
You have anointed my head with oil. The cup you have given me is overflowing. Oil, symbolic of rejoicing, and used on festive occasions. This wasn’t just a God who provided for his people’s basic needs. This was a God who was a generous host. He just didn’t look after people’s basic needs, he provided in abundance for his people.
Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life. David knew all about the welfare a king needed to provide for his people. And David felt literally pursued by the goodness of God.
I will live in the house of the Lord. Forever. David knew that being on the throne, living in Jerusalem, and life itself, was something that someday would come to an end. So, he expressed trust and confidence that his relationship with God was something that would continue beyond the grave. And indeed, it would be one that would never end.
5. Summary of the King Section
Now this wasn’t just any king that David was describing. This was God. Far from being a human king with all their weaknesses and limitations, this is an image of a gracious king—a God concerned with the welfare of those devoted to him, making sure that his followers not only had their basic needs met, but that their needs were met in abundance.
Now, one of the problems with the twenty-third Psalm is its familiarity. We hear it at church, at funerals, and weddings. We sing it in various forms, like “The Lord’s my Shepherd” or “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” or one of a number of variations. And in a sense, it’s become too familiar.
So, it’s helpful to be reminded that the Psalm is an attempt by one man to use his experiences of life, as both a shepherd and a king, to describe God in terms that he could understand. And he did so by describing both a shepherd and a king, but in a way that was far superior than he could ever be.
It’s also helpful to be reminded, that David may have written about more than he could possibly have known. Because it’s no coincidence that Jesus, a descendant of David, and born in the same town where David lived as a young boy, used the same images of being a shepherd and king to describe himself.
1. The Good Shepherd (John 10:14-15)
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and my sheep know me, just as the father knows me and I know the Father. I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus identified himself as the shepherd, and he took personal responsibility for his sheep—us.
2. The King of the Jews (Luke 23:3)
And the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus just hours before he died: “Then Pilate questioned Jesus. He said, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus answered him, “It is as you say.” Jesus claimed to be king over his people, and he gave up his life so that they (and we) could be saved.
Now there’s no doubt that this Psalm had a lot of meaning for David. It is very personal. But is David’s shepherd-king the one we know and experience too?
After all, do we experience God as the caring shepherd? As someone who is concerned for our needs. Who is constantly on guard for our (spiritual) safety. Who restores us to life. Who brings us back to vitality when we are down. Who is someone who, when we stray, puts us back on the straight and narrow. And when things look bad, is someone who we can look to for guidance and protection.
And do we experience God as the gracious king? Providing for our needs, even in the midst of our enemies—even though many things remain unresolved. Who not only provides for our needs, but provides in abundance. Who cares for our welfare, and indeed pursues us with goodness. And who has committed himself to a continuing personal relationship that will continue beyond the grave.
And do we experience God, as the one person who has the ability and power to protect his people, no matter what the circumstances?
Without doubt in his Psalm, David conjures up some very powerful images of God. A God who he knew intimately. But is this our God? And do we identify with the images?
Posted: 25th March 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis