1 Samuel 17:13-15 “Jesse’s three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war: The firstborn was Eliab; the second, Abinadab; and the third, Shammah. David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.”
David’s long history in the bible opens at a strange time in Israel. Their very first king, Saul, had turned the fortunes of Israel around, almost destroying the Amalekites in the East, and his son Jonathan had leveled the playing field against the Philistines in the West. But God had rejected Saul as king for his disobedience at his moment of triumph and Israel was now facing a prepared Philistine army, which these young men followed Saul to face.
It’s interesting to note that by the time David faced Goliath as a boy he had already been anointed as replacement king of Israel, but it was to be a further 15 years or more before he actually became king.
There was a standoff between the armies of Israel and Philista and, as was common practice, one side brought forth a champion. The simple rule was that instead of risking the lives of hundreds of men each side’s strongest would fight it out, the looser’s side would then concede.
But the Philistine champion was a mountain of a man, it was a stroke of genius and amazing courage which landed David in front of Goliath; foolhardy Faith, I call it, and it is one of the most memorable stories in the bible. But it would never have happened if David had remained at home like four of his older brothers, and it almost didn’t happen because David, alone of his fathers sons, also carried the sole responsibility of his father’s sheep.
It seems amazing to me that in a family of 8 sons that the youngest of them would willingly care for the family’s sheep as well as respond to the adventure of battle. Sheep caring was a full time, dangerous occupation even for a grown man, let alone an adolescent; and it does not seem like any of the other brothers who did not go to war shared the responsibility. When David left for the battle front he did not leave the sheep in the care of one of the other brothers, but with a shepherd:
1 Samuel 17:20 ” 20 Early in the morning David left the flock with a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry.”
The fact that David felt torn between his duties at home and his thrill seeking desire for the front line tells us a lot about him. It seems like shepherding was no more a duty for David than defending his country or writing songs. He loved what he did as a shepherd but he so badly wanted to defeat those Philistines. There is no indication in scripture that he was considered too young for the army, that may have been the case, but he was there as often as he could be, not cowering in the back, but dropping his goods with the store man and ran to the front line.
This broad shouldered attitude of taking on a challenge with love, diligence and joy, and which set David apart from his brothers, served to make a very dramatic entrance for him. Goliath had come forward and taunted the Israelites for 40 days now, and things were looking desperate. David supplied the courage that was so desperately lacking, and just in the nick of time.
His oldest brother, Eliab, very quickly turned on him. This probably was not the first time that David had showed him up in his lack of courage and leadership. In verse 28 Eliab ridicules both David’s selfless shepherding and is boldness – the contradiction in his ridicule does not seem obvious to him. A David type responsibility is very disarming, for Eliab, Goliath and later we will see even for Saul.
I don’t think that we should glean from this story that David was one of those people who did not know how to say ‘No’, that he ran himself ragged trying to please everyone else. Taking on more and more responsibility so as to try and keep peace is a law of seriously diminishing returns if ever there was one. That is not the David motive. No David loved his sheep, and David was an astounding warrior, and he was prepared to be both shepherd and warrior. You will also notice that three times David was told of the reward Saul offered to Goliath’s vanquisher.
So the story starts by contrasting David with his brothers. David was not the sort of man to throw down one load when he became excited about carrying another.
We live amongst a generation who seem allergic to long term commitment, especially to commitment as simple as shepherding; as servant leadership. Thrill seeking, adventure tourism and reality TV has us itching to squeeze more out of our overworked adrenal glands. Lifelong, honest monogamous marriage has been toted as dull and boring by the vast majority who have never tried it. Those who have tried it and succeeded, however, tell us of adventure, excitement and deep deep satisfaction.
There also seems, in this age, an eagerness to rise into conflict with those closest to us, and to make bonds of friendship with our enemies. Many parents are intimidated by political correctness, technology and pure aggression. David’s responsibility gave him a very clear focus as to who the enemy was. He identified his enemies because he knew so well whom it was he was protecting. David was not just a blood thirsty adventurer, or some cunning strategist vulnerable to corruption. He knew that he was protected, and he knew whom he was called to protect.
Can it be said of us, like of David, that we can kindle our passion again in the intimate moments, that we can be satisfied at being unrecorded warriors fighting shepherd battles that no one will ever know about?
The only way we can do that is with a deep seated assurance of our position in God, and some perseverance training in the wilderness:
1. Don’t be afraid of a fight. Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but it’s still a battle.
2. Identify the enemy, don’t turn on the ones closest to you.
3. Forgive those weaker than you when they loose their courage, especially when they turn on you.
4. Take on the Nehemiah duality with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other (Neh 4:17).
Jesus did the same:
Looking after His disciples, maintaining his close friendships and not forgetting or neglecting the battle, to the point of sweating blood; Jesus is the true shepherd whom David represents in his responsibility.
It’s often asked why it is that the Old Testament was full of racial battles between people groups with God most often siding with the Hebrews, and that the New Testament rejects bloodshed between people and instead makes the battle a spiritual one. Some regard this as contradictory saying that if God never changes why is there such a vast difference between the Testaments?
The bible is clear that it has always been God’s plan to get inside people, to change them from the inside out. Jer 31:33 ““This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.””
It is the single most delicate operation removing the tumor of sin from the souls of men. God’s way to do it was to choose a man, Abraham, and make from him not just a nation, but a culture… an ethos. Cultures are not born, neither are they established, without bloodshed and conflict.
Within that ethos God created a context for Himself, not just for a messenger but for Himself to come.
It is not God who has changed, but God has changed what He is doing. He is no longer building an earthly kingdom.