2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 | Order of Worship
The biblical story of David begins in 1 Samuel 16, when we meet him as the eighth son of Jesse, somewhere outside of Bethlehem, beckoned in by the prophet Samuel, the shepherd boy in from the fields. By the time we reach our passage today, 2 Samuel 5, David is established with the fullness of power and prestige as the second king of Israel. It’s the climactic moment in David’s long rise, as the tribes of Israel come to him with the message: “The Lord said, ‘It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.’” The shepherd boy has become the shepherd king.
I suppose most of us feel about as far from the practice of herding sheep as we do from the practices of an ancient monarchy, but this is less the case in the British city of Brighton, where in recent years a trend of urban shepherding has arisen. It started when the city council began using sheep as a cheap and eco-friendly alternative to mow the grass in some of the city’s parks. They then put out a call for volunteers. In this coastal community, with a large number of retirees, the slots filled quickly. 72 people signed up as urban shepherds with another 50 placed on a waiting list and many more turned away. To train these novice shepherds, the city offered a one-day course, featuring such skills as what to do with an ailing sheep and how to ward off aggressive animals, drilling the volunteers on such skills as how to clamber about on steep slopes, how to grapple with an uncooperative sheep and how to handle electric fencing. It’s not all been smooth. There were some especially tense standoffs with dog-walkers early on! But in the words of one urban shepherd, retiree Vivien Eliades, “It’s a lovely way to spend an hour or so, being out in the fresh air… I go along two or three mornings a week, make sure there are no holes in the fence, check on the sheep…Also I’m a keen knitter, so I was hoping to get some wool out of it, which I have.” (1)
With our distance from shepherds and sheep, perhaps shepherding evokes pastoral images of green pastures and still waters, comforting woolen scenes. Maybe it seems like something that could be enjoyed a couple mornings a week as leisurely exercise, with a cup of coffee if you like. But in the ancient world, this was not a waiting list job.
Shepherds had a hard life. They faced all of the hardships their sheep faced, only not merely as one of the flock, but as the ones responsible for the lot. They were just as vulnerable – to the elements, to animal predators, to thieves and bandits and a host of other threats. Their lives were isolating. They were poor prospects as spouses, since they would leave behind a vulnerable family. The definitive characteristic of an effective ancient shepherd was that they lived not for themselves, but for the flock.
And what’s the very first thing we learn about David, way back in chapter 16? “Jesse said to Samuel, ‘There remains one more son, the youngest… but he is keeping the flock.’”
It’s who David is. It’s somewhere deep down, engrained through so many nights under the stars, and days spent amidst the flock. But his rise from the fields outside Bethlehem to his anointing at Hebron has also been far from leisurely and pastoral. The Lectionary, which we follow in our worship and preaching, is organized to give us a broad view of the biblical story, but that means it often presents snapshots. It gives us moments along the timeline but not all the details. It’s a broad view, but also a limited view, meaning it would be easy to mark the path from shepherd boy, to giant slayer, to newly anointed king without taking in all the complexity, and tragedy, and violence, and change that has led us here.
In actuality, after killing Goliath and being hailed by the people, David quickly becomes a threat to Saul, who is overwhelmed with murderous rage, obsessively hunting David. David flees continuously from one place to another, gradually gaining power along the way, becoming a magnetic leader, skilled and decisive, and gaining influence with the blessing of the Lord. Finally, following a series of reconciliations between David and Saul, Saul acknowledges David as successor, at least symbolically. David’s regime grows stronger as Saul’s weakens more and more until Saul’s death in battle, along with his son and David’s beloved friend, Jonathan. Ultimately, David is made king in the south – Judah – while Saul’s son, Ishbaal, grapples for control of the north – Israel. But through backchannels and backstabbing, those loyal to David clear a path to the throne of Israel. With Ishbaal dead, our passage begins in 2 Samuel 5, as the tribes of Israel come to David at Hebron.
As you can see, when they find him there, it’s not as an innocent, fresh-faced shepherd, but as someone already shown to be corruptible, complicated, surrounded by those conniving and manipulative, conforming in so many ways to the patterns of the world. In fact, as David opens his arms to receive the elders who arrive, I imagine you can see blood on his hands. So their coronation call – “You shall be shepherd” – is not so much a declaration of who David has been as it is a commission of who he is called to still become.
The symmetry of the story shows that all along it is the intention of the Lord that the shepherd boy will become a shepherd king. But what about David’s intention? David has to decide what kind of king he will be, which means he has to decide what kind of person he will be. The elders remind him of what is deep down in him somewhere. They urge him to reclaim what was probably an increasingly distant memory amidst his rise to power. Thus says the Lord your God: “You shall be a shepherd…”
It’s one of our most enduring biblical metaphors for leadership. “The Lord is our shepherd,” we profess in Psalm 23. The shepherd strengthens the weak, heals the sick, pursues the strays, searches for the lost, we learn in Ezekiel 34. The shepherd lives for the flock, because the shepherd lives with the flock.
In her book The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a conversation she had with a friend who grew up on a sheep farm in the Midwest. According to him, sheep are not nearly as dumb as people assume. He says it’s a lie spread by cattle ranchers! And it’s all because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear by hooting cowboys with cracking whips, but that doesn’t work with sheep. Stand behind them making loud noises and all they will do is run around you, because they prefer to be led. You push cows, her friend explained, but you lead sheep, and they will not go anywhere that someone else does not go with them.
Sheep know their shepherd and their shepherd knows them. The friend went on to say that it never ceased to amaze him how he could walk right through his sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger could not step foot in the fold without causing pandemonium. (2)
The shepherd knows what it is to be with the sheep. The shepherd knows what it is to be vulnerable, to be out in the cold. The shepherd is with the sheep. The shepherd is among them.
Today as we celebrate our “Happy Hearts” class and ministry, I want to acknowledge the ways we see this kind of relationship in all of you. We see it when you are singing together or ringing together. We sense it when we receive a birthday card or a gift so graciously given. It’s there when you greet us at the door or in the service, or in the ways you enjoy one another, or share at Christ’s table together, always making space for every person. It’s such a model for all of us of what Christian community can be.
It recalls for me a story that is told in circles among the Special Olympics community. Our own Kristen Massey was sharing with us last Wednesday about her accomplishments at Special Olympics recently, where she is a decorated athlete. The story is told of the 1976 track and field event held in Spokane, Washington. The competitors for the 100-yard dash took their marks, and at the start, one competitor stumbled and fell. At that point, the race continued, but several others slowed down and a few even went back for him. They helped one another up, and then when they were ready, long after the winner had crossed the line, this group joined together and walked across arm in arm to the roar of the crowd. Because leadership is not about crossing first, so much as making sure that all cross. It’s the kind of thing we might see in a shepherd king who gives himself not for his own pursuits, but for the flock.
You can imagine how radical this would be in the ancient world. This was an entirely new theory of governance, for there were those rulers who assumed the sheep existed for their well-being, gain, and profit. There were those authorities who would manipulate the flock, or coerce it – those who were way out ahead of the flock, or un-attentive to any who would lag behind; those who never cared to look for the lost or find space for the least.
And you can imagine just how radical it would be today if our leaders – or if any of us – looked more like shepherds. Because all of us have to decide what kind of person we will be and what we will do with what God has entrusted to us. Will we look deep down to the call that has been there all along? Will we give ourselves for others? Will we use the enormous gifts of God for the sake of the wider community, or merely for our own pursuits?
It’s the choice before us all, as it was the choice before David that day.
But we who know the full scope of the story know that this climactic moment of David’s rise is also the high point from which he will fall. There are times when David will give himself for the flock, yes. But many more times, he will use the flock for his own ends. In fact, years later when the prophet Nathan comes before David with an indictment, Nathan will draw on the metaphor of the Shepherd in 2 Samuel 12, because David will become the one who takes the poor man’s lamb. David is not with the flock– his people will go out and fight, as he keeps comfort and security in the palace. David is not for the flock – he will control others and prioritize his own desires, all from the insulated position and elevated perch of his throne. In fact, we already begin to see it in the verses skipped by our lectionary today. Verse 6-8 are a disturbing account, as David takes the city of Jerusalem, and in doing so already establishes boundaries and parameters, excluding those “lame and blind” from the city itself. David will become at times the kind of shepherd of whom Ezekiel will write centuries later: “Woe to you shepherd of Israel who only take care of yourselves… you have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, found the strays, searched for the lost.” You have lived above all else for your own sake.
We prefer to skip right over such moments in David’s story, and in our own stories, too. But that’s so often who David becomes. And it’s so often who we can become, too. We can end up occupying a place of comfort or power, without considering our responsibility and call. We can use those around us for our own ends. We can attempt to grapple or control. We can try so hard to get out front that there’s no thought of who is behind. We can stay so comfortable in the safety of the flock that we never count; we never walk gently amidst the sheep by moonlight to see if any have yet to make it home.
And yet today we remember the call is still before us, to remember what is deep down, what God created in us, saw in us, and sees in us still. The ones who can live not for themselves, but for a wider community; can envision a world where no one is lost or forgotten and then work for it, remembering that in those times we were lost, someone came to find us.
“I know my own and my own know me,” Jesus once said in the gospel of John. The descendant of David, who so fully embodied this image that he became known as the Good Shepherd, he left full comfort and security at the side of God, to live not ahead of us or behind us, but with us and among us. He took on every bit of our vulnerability even to the end. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” And because he showed us this way and gave himself so fully, we have the opportunity to hear again this call to David, and to all of us: “The Lord said to you: In this world with no shortage of kings and rulers and authorities of every kind… you shall be a shepherd.”
- Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, pp. 146-147