Famously, the Bible refers to David as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14). But David was guilty of some of the blackest sins in all of scripture. How do we reconcile his failures with having the heart of God?
This question is deeper than a mere turn of phrase. The scriptures paint David as the prototype of Jesus, the Messiah. It’s clear that Jesus was called to reign on David’s throne. The prophets even refer to the Messiah as “David ” (Eze 34:23-24, etc.).
How can a man who committed adultery with Bathsheba and who murdered her husband to cover it up be thought of this way? What was so special about David?
Well, these sorts of questions are best answered through poetry — and song. And so we begin with the 23rd Psalm. And because the psalms were written to be sung, we start with sung versions of the 23rd Psalm —
It’s a familiar chapter of the Bible, but I’m convinced we often read it very incorrectly. You see, we read “The Lord is my shepherd” personally. And this is, of course, true. God really is your shepherd and my shepherd. But David wrote this psalm, and he meant “The Lord’s is David’s shepherd.”
To dig deeply into the psalm, we have to read it from the perspective of David. And we have to imagine that he wrote it while in Jerusalem, in his palace, after becoming king, but looking back on his days as a shepherd and, more importantly, on his days fleeing from Saul in the Judean wilderness.
Why then? Well, because he refers to events and places that didn’t exist until he was in Jerusalem until he’d conquered it. (I can’t tell you what yet, because that would take away all the fun.) And because the imagery fits his days fleeing Saul very well.
I can’t prove my theory, but humor me and see whether such an interpretation might bring new depth and power to the words.
[For the teachers of this material, I’ve uploaded a PowerPoint presentation with the photos for use in class here.]
(Psa 23:1-6 ESV) The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
Imagine David in the Judean wilderness, fleeing from Saul — the king of Israel and a madman — pursuing David with an army intent on killing him.
David had been anointed king of Israel by Samuel, and Saul, in a fit of rage and insanity, drove David into the desert, to flee for his life as Saul pursued him even to the point of neglecting his responsibility to defend Israel against its enemies.
David and his men lived off the land — a dry, barren desert — and the kindness of strangers.
In one scene, David hides in the “stronghold” (1 Sam 24:22), generally considered Masada —
Imagine penning the 23rd Psalm while hiding from Saul’s armies at Masada. See any green pastures? Still waters?
It’s doesn’t seem to fit at all, and yet this is surely the situation from which the Psalm arises.
It was in the Judean wilderness that David was pursued by his enemies — and it’s in the Judean wilderness that shepherds feed their sheep
You see, we Westerners see the Psalm pictured something like this —
But if you were to ask a shepherd in Judea to show you a “green pasture,” he’d show you something more like this —
It’s hard to imagine that many sheep and goats living on such dry and barren land – in the wilderness. But in Israel, farmland is too precious to waste on sheep and goats. That’s for crops — to feed people. The farms are on the western side of the mountains and on the coast, where the rains come.
But east of Bethlehem, the land becomes wilderness. Americans would call it “desert.” And the sheep aren’t allowed on the farms and must stay to the east.
Most days, a fog comes in from the Mediterranean and waters the ground — just a little — just enough for a sprig or two of grass to grow among the rocks — just enough to feed the sheep for day. If you’ve ever lived in Central California, you’ve seen the same kind of fogs that come over the mountains and water the ground.
You see, if you were in a field knee-deep in alfalfa, you wouldn’t need a shepherd to help you find green pastures. A sheep could lay about in the same field for months and be well fed. But in the Judean wilderness, the sheep must stay on the move because the food won’t last for long.
The same was true of David as he fled Saul. He couldn’t stay anywhere for long. There wasn’t much food and the enemy was always in pursuit. And yet he praised God for “green pastures” because he had enough food to survive — enough to make it one more day.
As a sheep relies on its shepherd, David counted on God to provide his food each day. “He makes me lie down” means that it’s God who finds the pastures. David could not do this by himself. Only the Shepherd knows where the next morsel of grass will be, where one more day’s food will be found. And the sheep’s job is to follow the Shepherd — not to go looking for a better field on his own.
And this means change. God leads us all to green pastures. We would often prefer that the pastures be greener, and that we could stay in the same pasture longer. But this is not the nature of a Judean shepherd or sheep. Every day or so, it’s time to move on to find a new place to eat and lie down. To stay still, to remain in the same place day after day, would be to starve.