3. The Shepherds of Israel

After settling into the land of Cannan, and progressing through the period of the Judges, the Israelites demanded a king. Their first king was Saul the son of Kish. At this time there were many battles with the surrounding Philistines. In 1 Sam 15, God called on Saul to fight against the Amalekites and completely destroy them.

1 Samuel 15:1: Samuel also said unto Saul, The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD. 2. Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. 3. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

So in verse 1, Samuel had been sent to Saul with the message that he had to destroy the Amalekites. In v4, Saul responded to the call, and gathered the people together to number them. Later, In v7, it is recorded that he “smote the Amalekites from Havilah until thou comest to Shur”. This shows that it was a successful battle for Saul, and he had achieved a resounding victory. But, in v9, we see that Saul failed to carry out the original commandment to the full. It is recorded that he spared the king Agag, and the best of the sheep, oxen, fatlings and lambs, and indeed anything that was “good” They did destroy the refuse and everything that was “vile”, but that wasn't the commandment that had been given to Saul. He had been told to destroy everything and not to take a spoil. Saul and the people would have thought that it was senseless to destroy the good things and that they might as well keep them They had done what they thought was the important job, and followed their own logic where it didn't seem reasonable to follow out the original commandment to the letter.

Shortly after this, God appeared to Samuel and said,

1Sam 15:11: It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night.

When Samuel confronted Saul the next day, Saul claimed that he had done the right thing,

1Sam 15:20: And Saul said unto Samuel, Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and have gone the way which the LORD sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. 21. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God in Gilgal.

Saul thought that he had done a good thing by offering the sacrifice --- but he was wrong. But Samuel replied that it was better to obey than to offer sacrifice.

The final result of this episode was that it was the final nail in the coffin of Saul's reign. This blatant disobedience on the part of Saul showed that he was not a suitable leader for God's people. As a result, God then called Samuel to anoint for him a new King over Israel,

1 Samuel 16:1: And the LORD said unto Samuel, How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? fill thine horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons.

So there was to be a new king, which was to be one of the sons of Jesse. Samuel then went to Jesse to anoint one of his sons, and then at Samuel's request,

1 Sam 16:10: ... Jesse made seven of his sons to pass before Samuel. And Samuel said unto Jesse, The LORD hath not chosen these. 11. And Samuel said unto Jesse, Are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep. And Samuel said unto Jesse, Send and fetch him: for we will not sit down till he come hither.

The son that had been chosen was the youngest, who was out keeping the sheep. This David was then to go on to become perhaps the greatest military King of Israel, and a man after God's own heart. It appears fairly common practice that the youngest in the family became the shepherd. Usually, the yougest would keep the sheep while the elder boys would help with the sowing, plowing and harvesting. As they grew up the job would continually be passed down to progressively younger boys, until the youngest was left with the job of being the family shepherd.

A brief analysis of this situation reveals a number of similarities between Saul and Cain. Both Cain and Saul attempted to please God, but by using their own reasoning, rather than following the commandments of God. The pride of the elder and first was such that they did not relent to the will of God, and as a result lost His blessing. In both cases, animosity resulted, with Cain killing Abel, and Saul attempted to kill David on many occasions. So in each case, the shepherd humbly took on the commandments of God, where the elder had fallen short. This sequence of events was to occur again, however, with yet another shepherd.

Jesus, the good shepherd went through a similar ordeal. At the time of Jesus, the chief priests were the representatives of God in Israel. But they had left from following the commandments of God and instead worshipped the traditions of men. They may have felt that they were pleasing God, but just as in the case of Saul, they sought justification in traditions and sacrifices rather than obedience. To complete the similarity, just as Cain did to Abel, the chief priests through envy delivered Jesus up to death.

Life of David

The life of David introduces us to some aspects of shepherd life. His first major public appearace was at the time of a dispute with the Philistines.

1 Sam 17:3: And the Philistines stood on a mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on a mountain on the other side: and there was a valley between them. 4. And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.

This Goliath challenged the people of Israel to an individual challenge --- a one-on-one fighting contest where Goliath said,

1 Sam 17:9: If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us.

With Goliath being such a formidable opponent, there was no-one in the camp of Israel who thought that they could take on this challenge, and indeed, they were “sore afraid”. When David heard of it, however, he immediately sought to find out more about it, and then went to Saul to gain approval. It was hard to convince Saul, of course, as David was “but a youth”, but he gave this argument,

1Sam 17:34: And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock: 35. And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him. 36. Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God. 37. David said moreover, The LORD that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine. And Saul said unto David, Go, and the LORD be with thee.

David was drawing on his experience as a shepherd to show that he could defeat the Philistine He saw Goliath as being just like the lion and bear that threatened his sheep in the past. Even more than this, David knew that God would deliver him, particularly because Goliath had “defied the armies of the living God”. When the time came, David refused to wear the armour that Saul had supplied him with, as he had not proved it. So instead,

1 Samuel 17:40: And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd's bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.

1 Sam 17:48: And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came and drew nigh to meet David, that David hasted, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine. 49. And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.

David then used Goliath's own sword to kill him. From the surface, this is a terrific story of the triumph of the underdog, but knowing that the support was from God, we know that really the victory was to the strong, and the man that trusted in God.

Shepherd's Implements

Throughout this episode, we learn of some of the equipment and methods of the shepherds of the time. In v40, David “chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd's bag which he had, even in a scrip” The scrip is a bag made of dried skin, and typically this was used to carry food while the shepherd was out in the fields, such as bread, cheese, dried fruit or olives.

A shepherd would also normally carry a rod. This rod would be used for protection and a weapon against wild animals. It would typically have been made of oak wood and be a couple of feet long, and one end was typically thicker --- this was the hitting end --- the one with more inetia In addition to the thickened lump, spikes would be driven into it for a greater impact.

Ezekiel refers to the rod in Ezekiel 20,

Ezekiel 20:37: And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant:

this refers to the practice of causing the sheep to pass under the rod for counting or inspecting. In the book of Leviticus, Moses wrote of the tithe of the herd,

Leviticus 27:32: And concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, even of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the LORD.

In order to do this, the flock was herded through a narrow opening. The shepherd would dip the end of the rod in some colouring material, and mark the head of every tenth sheep as it passed. In this way one tenth of the flock could be separated out without partiality.

The scepter, which was an implement of the kings of the time, had its origins in the shepherd's rod. As a king, they were the shepherd of the people, and the rod was a symbol of protection, power and authority.

David's weapon of choice against Goliath, however, was not the club, but his sling. The sling was also a very useful implement. Typically, it was made of a patch of leather to hold the stone, and two strings of sinew, rope or leather. By swinging the apparatus above his head, and letting go of one of the strings at the appropriate time, the stone could be made to travel quite some distance. As in the case of Goliath, this could be used as a weapon against predators, such as the lion or bear or even robbers.

The sling could also be useful as a herding implement. If a sheep was lagging or heading off in the wrong direction a stone could be directed either behind or ahead of the sheep, as appropriate, to redirect it. contrast between the sling and scrip in 1 Samuel,

1 Samuel 25:29: Yet a man is risen to pursue thee, and to seek thy soul: but the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the LORD thy God; and the souls of thine enemies, them shall he sling out, as out of the middle of a sling.

Another implement carried by shepherds, was their staff, mentioned, for example, in Psalm 23:4. This was a stick of about 1.5 metres long, and was used for sheep handling, a walking stick, and as another protection device.


Before leaving David, we should consider Psalm 23 as it draws on the role of the shepherd,

Psalms 23:1: (A Psalm of David.) The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

In this chapter, David is likening God to a shepherd. Indeed, he is saying that God is his shepherd, In v2, he makes him lie down in green pastures. Green pastures, of course, are rich in food and save from starvation. He also leads him beside the still waters. Sheep don't like drinking from any fast-flowing watercourses, and instead need still ponds or pools of water. So, here the shepherd is supplying the basic needs of the sheep.

In v3, David goes beyond the shepherd analogy and speaks of how God leads him in the “paths of righteousness for his name's sake”. And though he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, he fears no evil (v4). The reason for this is that His rod and staff are a comfort, so here David is placing his trust in God as sheep do in their shepherd. The sheep don't know what their master's plans are for them, but follow him believing he will look after them. In the same way David had his problems in walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but had faith in the protecive ability of God. In particular, the staff and rod, the armour of the shepherd are a comfort.