The idea first came to him when he was still a boy, out in the hills, watching his Father’s sheep. As he led the flock to better pastures, as he found safe waters for them to drink and defended them from wild beasts, it occurred to him that the Lord was rather like a shepherd as well. He was certainly the defender of His people, everyone knew that when the people followed God truly He protected them from their enemies, and when they fell away into false worship, He withdrew His protection and their enemies were victorious. Why, oh why was Israel so slow to learn that the gods of the surrounding nations were only stone and wood and metal, and had neither power nor love?
And there he was stuck. God was most certainly their protector and provider, but what else could he say? He put the analogy aside and got on with his life. There were sheep to be tended, music to be made, a giant to be destroyed to relieve Israel’s shame, and a mad king to be soothed and relieved. There was a strange moment, too precious to be spoken of, when the prophet Samuel came and anointed him as king. Time passed. There was a princess to be won (at a price of blood), a prince to heal his heart with deep friendship, and then the mad king became his enemy, throwing spears at him and sending armies after him. He and his men took shelter in the wilderness, a bunch of lonely outlaws, and the years passed over them.
Then the mad king died, along with the friend who held his heart and in the fullness of time the shepherd boy became king of Israel. Now the challenges were different. He had a kingdom to rule, a family to manage, and temptations that almost destroyed him. And his God was still his highest joy. There were years of glory and years of shame. He was no longer managing just his father’s flock, he was trying to learn how to shepherd all of Israel, and discovering in the process that it was his own heart that needed shepherding most of all. And he could not do it, there was only one who could.
So he took out that old idea again, that picture of God as the perfect shepherd, and found that now he knew what to say. God was the one who could direct him on right paths and keep him walking in honour. God was the one who had walked beside him in the very presence of death. God was the one who had filled him with good things in the very presence of his enemies, just as a shepherd removed the poisoned weeds so that the sheep might know abundance. And God was the one who keep him safely in holy joy all the days of his life, and beyond life’s end. He took up his pen and began to write the song of his life: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall lack not be in want …”
He did not know that, a thousand years later, it would be his own descendant who would stand and declare, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” but he knew, and sang of, the mercy of the Shepherd, his God, who was utterly faithful.