Of all the Old Testament characters whom we know as having been shepherds, the first to come to mind is almost certain to be David, Psalm 23 sees to that! Then, as well as being told a great deal about his military exploits, starting with his defeat of Goliath, and the ups and downs of his forty-year reign, we are also given clear information as to how he actually carried out his shepherding.
Possession and provision of the sheep
First of all he assures king Saul that although he was ‘but a youth’, his work as a shepherd had prepared him for the task of facing up to Goliath even though the giant had been ‘a man of war from his youth’. In saying ‘thy servant kept his father’s sheep’ see 1 Sam. 17. 32-34 the word ‘kept’ that he uses has the sense of tending or pasturing, evidencing a concern for the all round wellbeing of the flock. It was such concern that led him to hazard his own life against the lion and the bear in order to protect those unable to protect themselves. Asaph, speaking of ‘thy people and sheep of thy pasture’, Ps. 79. 13, shows that as being just how God sees His people, those for whom He accepts full and ultimate responsibility. He reminds them, and us, that ‘ye (are) my flock, the flock of my pasture’. It is ‘my flock’ that has the needs and it is ‘my pasture’, that which I provide and make available which meets those needs, see, e.g., Ezek. 34. 31.
How else though did David show such heart concern for his sheep? The psalmist says of God, ‘He chose David also his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds: from following the ewes great with young’. Pregnant ewes would find travelling much more difficult than would, for instance, healthy young rams, but in David’s eyes all members of the flock were equally important. So, although it no doubt required a great deal of patience, he followed behind to ensure that none of them strayed or got cut off. Such a policy was put into effect in a far wider sphere later on, when he was brought by God ‘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’, Ps. 78. 70- 72. His heart concern was matched and enhanced by an ongoing practical activity.
So, here we have a good example of the way that the scriptures promise us that ‘he (God) shall feed his flock like a shepherd’, but much, much more than that, ‘he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young’, Isa. 40. 11. That really is beyond human comprehension, that God can and does care for His people with such tenderness and patience. Remember though what God said through Ezekiel, ‘Ye … are men, and I am your God’, Ezek. 34. 31, and it is that which makes the seemingly incredible not just a possibility but a reality.
Protection of the sheep
But the potential danger to David’s sheep sometimes developed into actual danger in the form of aggressive attack. In his discussion with Saul, when he told him of his exploits with a lion and a bear, David showed that his presence with the flock was not just a deterrent but an evidence that he would move resolutely to counter any outside incursion. One such attack was at first successful, a lamb being actually snatched from the flock. David could say though, ‘I went out after him (the attacker), and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth’. But still the attacker wasn’t finished ‘He arose against me, I caught him … and smote him and slew him’, 1 Sam. 17. 35. That was a complete deliverance, a lamb rescued from certain death, and the attacker destroyed. The writer to the Hebrews shows the Lord Jesus accomplishing fully that of what David’s exploit was a mere foreshadowing, and it shows the very purpose of His coming into this world as a man. ‘Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil (of whom the lion and the bear were pictures); and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage’, Heb. 2. 14, 15. The immeasurable difference between the Lord Jesus and David is encapsulated in the phrase ‘through death’. David was prepared to hazard his life but was not required to make the ultimate sacrifice. The Lord Jesus could say, ‘I lay down my life for the sheep’, John 10. 15. Old Testament pictures, types and shadows are illuminating and instructive, but at best are only pale reflections of the realities of Calvary. Remember that ‘all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition’, 1 Cor. 10. 11. ‘Admonition’, here, has more of the idea of a warning and is often translated as such in the KJV, see, e.g., 1 Thess. 5. 14; 1 Cor. 4. 14. Paul, the very writer who associated the record of past happenings as being for our admonition, reminds us also that ‘whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope’, Rom. 15. 4. These two approaches evidence rounded shepherd care: warnings to protect against danger and continued ongoing concern for our well-being.
Patterns of the Perfect Shepherd
So, in thinking of David’s commendable actions as a shepherd, we get just a glimpse of the even greater shepherd heart of God concerning His flock and of the Lord Jesus concerning His own sheep. By what actual channel does such love, care and concern come to the Lord’s people? Asaph, speaking to God of the Israelites long and wearisome forty years journey through the wilderness says, ‘thou leddest thy people like a flock’, so it was God that was leading, but He was doing so ‘by the hand of Moses and Aaron’, Ps. 77. 20. Those two, like David, on occasion failed and sometimes failed badly, but the Person who had chosen and appointed them didn’t fail. So the Israelites were led safely through the wilderness and eventually over Jordan into the Promised Land.
A similar situation applies to believers today. The personal care of the Lord Jesus does not and never will change, but as He himself said, ‘Now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world’, John 17. 11. He has, in consequence, entrusted the sheep, still ‘His own sheep’, into those divinely appointed to that charge, see Acts 20. 28. That is not an arbitrarily imposed appointment, it requires both spiritual aspiration, ‘If anyone aspires to exercise oversight he desires a good work’, 1 Tim. 3. 1 JND, and application, see 1 Tim. 5. 17-18, but neither of these implies perfection. As James says when speaking specifically of leaders, ‘in many things we offend all’, Jas. 3. 2, so all spiritual gifts, and there are many others besides shepherding, see Eph. 4. 11; 1 Cor. 12. 7-11, need to be carried out ‘as of the ability which God giveth’. The result looked for, including as it does the blessing of His people, is ‘that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever, Amen’, 1 Pet. 4. 11.