The Story: A Man After God’s Own Heart, Part 2

He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul.

Sheep are afraid of running streams. After all, sheep can’t swim. When their coats are soaked with water, they are far too heavy.

shepherd6And in Judea, the problem is even worse. Much of the water is found at the bottom of a wadi — in the American west they’re called arroyos — dried river beds. When the snow melts in the mountains or rains come, the ground is too hard and dry to absorb the water, and so floods come rushing down the wadi.

Often the rain is too far away to see or hear, and so there is usually no warning of the flood until it’s too late to climb out of the wadi.

shepherd7As a result, the most common cause of death in the Judean desert is drowning.

And yet those pools of water at the bottom of a wadi are just incredibly tempting. But they aren’t “still water.” They can kill you and your sheep. And the sheep likely represent the life savings of your family, accumulated over generations.

The shepherd leads the sheep away from dangerous waters — no matter how appealing — and toward still water. And, of course, this means the sheep has to follow the shepherd. There’s no leading unless there’s also following.

The sheep likely think the shepherd is foolish, refusing to head downhill toward a pristine, beautiful pool of water. They don’t know that it’s not safe down there. They question the judgment of the shepherd, and yet they follow him.

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

The Judean desert is filled with paths, worn by sheep and shepherds who’ve traveled the desert for thousands of years before. Some of those paths lead to green pastures and still waters. Some paths were made by the shepherds who drowned along with their sheep. Not all paths are paths of righteousness.

And here’s the difference between sheep and goats. The shepherd walks a path and the sheep follow precisely on the same path the shepherd walks. They follow the shepherd.

But goats are always smarter than the shepherd. They may ultimately go where the shepherd goes, but they are going to go their own way. They refuse to follow. goat1

And they are more agile than sheep. They have gifts the sheep don’t have. But sometimes the goats miscalculate and get too close to a cliff, show off their talents, and fall down and die.

goat2Now you know why, in Matt 25, Jesus takes the sheep to heaven and condemns the goats. It’s not because goats are evil. They just refuse to follow the shepherd.

They think they’re too talented, too gifted, and too agile to follow someone else.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

The Judean desert is mountainous. And in the evening, the valleys turn dark before the rest of the desert. And in the desert, when it’s dark, it’s very dark indeed.

The air is so dry that the humidity doesn’t scatter the light the way the air does here. It can become completely dark all at once.

shadow1If you’re walking through a desert valley and step into a shadow, it can appear almost like night — and robbers, lions, and hyenas like to hide in the shadows. It’s a scary place to be.

But sheep with a shepherd have no fear because they trust their shepherd to keep them safe.

You can imagine what it was like for David. He was fleeing Saul and his army. At dusk, whenever he turned a corner from light into shade, he could’ve been stepping into an ambush. And yet he had no choice but to flee through the shadows. He could only count on God to keep him safe.

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

roadstaff.The shepherd carries two sticks, a rod used to defend the sheep against predators and a staff to prod straying sheep back into line. The shepherd’s job was both to defend against wolves and to discipline unruly sheep.

In the Bible, the phrase “rod and staff” is always used of power and control, not comfort, except in Psalm 23  —

(Isa 9:4 ESV)  4 For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

(Isa 10:5 ESV) 5 Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury!

(Isa 10:24 ESV) 24 Therefore thus says the Lord GOD of hosts: “O my people, who dwell in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrians when they strike with the rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did.

And yet David praises both — God’s protection and his discipline. We, of course, love God’s protection — but when we’re in the dangerous valley among the dark shadows, God’s discipline matters just as much. If we stray, the shepherd can’t protect us. Safety is found with the herd. If we wander off on our own in dangerous places, we should pray that God’s staff pulls us back to the herd.

Recall that David fled into the desert from his wife’s bedroom, in fear for his life. His time fleeing from Saul was not fun — and required intense personal discipline. Had David made the least misstep, he might have been killed by Saul or by the many enemies of Israel in the surrounding territories.

Discipline is hard. Discipline is embarrassing. Discipline requires submission. Discipline is extremely unpopular in the modern church. And yet David thanks God for it — even though the discipline he was experiencing was life in the desert, fleeing from an angry king.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

It seems most likely that David is referring to his anointing by the elders of Judah at Hebron after Saul’s death — the end of David’s flight from Saul and the beginning of his reign as king. David had no enemies when he was first anointed by Samuel. But at Hebron, not only were the Philistines his enemies, so was Saul’s oldest surviving son, who sat on the throne of the other 11 tribes for seven years.

In this verse, David looks forward to the outcome of God’s leading. Because David follows God wherever God leads, God rewards him with sumptuous food, ample drink, and a crown. David is anointed king — by the elders of Judah, in recognition of God’s choice of David as king — and so he leaves the desert and goes to live in a palace.

David’s enemies —the Philistines, others who want to take his throne — could only stand back and watch as God blesses David and gives him Saul’s kingdom.

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.

But “the house of the Lord” is not the palace. Throughout the Old Testament, the phrase refers to the Tabernacle and, later, to the Temple (220 other times!)

During David’s reign, the ark of the covenant was brought to Jerusalem, but the tabernacle was not moved to Jerusalem until the Temple was built by Solomon (2 Chron 1:3). However, because the ark was in Jerusalem, David built a tent there to house the ark and instituted formal singing and instrumental worship (1 Chron 6:32).

Therefore, the “house of the Lord” is surely a reference to this temporary tent (compare 2 Sam 12:20), replaced by the grandeur of Solomon’s temple only after David’s death.

David’s real goal was not the palace, where kings live, but the ark — because God sits enthroned on the mercy seat above the ark. David’s goal was to be with God, even though it meant leaving a palace to spend time in a tent.

Having spent so many years in the desert, where his only protection and his only sustenance was God, when things got good, when he could take his ease, he still saw his home as near God’s throne, rather than sitting on his own.

A man after God’s own heart

David's Grief Over Absalom - Artist Unknown - early 20th CConsider these attributes of Lord’s anointed –

* A man of great faith. Think of Goliath and David’s refusal to kill Saul, patiently trusting God to make things right in due course.

* A man who waits on direction from God. Recall when he hid in Philistia among the Philistines. He returned to his home village with his men, only to find that their wives and possessions had all been stolen by raiders. David refused to pursue them until he’d received word from the Lord, even though his men (quite naturally) threatened to stone him for his delay.

* A man who keeps his covenants. David honored Mephibosheth for the sake of Jonathan, allowing his lame son to eat at his table, even though Mephibosheth was next in line to Saul’s throne and could easily have led a rebellion against David.

* A poet and composer of songs, a great musician. We forget that God is a  poet. His Spirit inspired nearly as many pages of poetry as prose in the Bible.

* A man of great mercy. Consider David’s treatment of Shimei. Shimei made every effort to shame David as Absalom claimed David throne in outright rebellion. Any other man would have had Shimei killed, but David left it in the hands of God.

* A man who loves his sons so much that he is blind to their sins.

Frankly, I can’t respect David as a rearer of children. He did a terrible job with his three oldest sons. But I’m thrilled that God — like David — is blind to my sins! The difference is that God disciplines me. He lets me suffer the earthly consequences of my mistakes — but he forgives me. And that’s a greater blessing.

[Note to teachers: I give you the PowerPoint to help make the lessons tangible to the students. They’ll remember the pictures better than the lessons you draw. You should read the portions of 1 Samuel that describe his flight from Saul (1 Sam 19) up until the end of the book. Many of the stories will present themselves as illustrations to make the points re Psalm 23.]

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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