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Occasional Letters: Sheep and Shepherding

D Newell, Glasgow

Some years ago I visited "The Big Sheep", a tourist attraction in Devon offering to the jaded city dweller sheep-shearing, sheepdog training, sheep racing, and other ovine delights. Of course, it boasted the obligatory gift shop where one could purchase cuddly sheep of all shapes and sizes. Unlike the real thing, however, they were all blessedly problem-free – never diseased, never straying, never lost. But the Bible uses real sheep to picture man's innately sinful wanderlust and, in the shepherd, God's longsuffering care. From Abel to Amos we encounter shepherds good and bad, but all, to a greater or lesser extent, illustrative of the Good Shepherd towards whom God's Word points. It is the great typical principle of Old Testament history that the many anticipate the One. Contrary even to Samuel's expectations, God chose the youthful shepherd David to govern Israel, because His ideal of national leadership was neither the bullying tyranny of the heathen, nor the grossly overrated democracy of modern western civilization, but a divinely appointed monarchy which rules through practical example and tender care. Eastern shepherds, we must not forget, led from the front. As the Lord reminded David, "I took thee from the sheepcote, from following the sheep, to be ruler over my people, over Israel" (2 Sam 7.8). Asaph later memorialized this truth in poetry: "He chose David also his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds: From following the ewes great with young he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance. So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands" (Ps 78.70-72).

That final verse summarises the shepherd's qualifications: integrity of heart and skilfulness of hands. "Integrity" translates a term meaning completeness, uprightness. It first appears in Genesis 20.5 to describe the blamelessness of Abimelech, misled by Abram and Sarai's joint deception into thinking Sarai was available for his harem. The Hebrew word "skilfulness" denotes intelligence. It is first used (rendered "understanding") to describe the abilities granted Bezaleel for tabernacle construction: "I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge" (Ex 31.3). Put the words together and we have an upright heart and understanding hands, hands functioning with intelligent skill. The heart comes first because "out of it are the issues of life" (Prov 4.23): as I am in my heart so will my actions be. And David was a man after God's own heart (1 Sam 13.14; Acts 13.22), possessing both the right attitude and the appropriate ability to feed and guide God's people. In the same way, assembly overseers "must be above reproach…able to teach" (1 Tim 3.2, ESV).

Yet even good shepherds can stumble. The sad story of David's census is perhaps less familiar than his sin with Bathsheba, but it was equally calamitous, especially as it was a failure in the area of public responsibility. Crucial to the narrative are the three statements of the chastened king as he became aware of the magnitude of his error. Here's the first: "And God was displeased with this thing; therefore he smote Israel. And David said unto God, I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing: but now, I beseech thee, do away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly" (1 Chr 21.7-8). This, David's confession as a sinner, is a frank admission of guilt, making no attempt to shelter behind excuses. He spoke as one who knew that only the Lord could deal with and pardon his sin. It's a lesson he learned in that earlier black spot: "I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight" (Ps 51.3-4). To his new confession God responded graciously yet severely: "Choose thee Either three years' famine; or three months to be destroyed before thy foes, while that the sword of thine enemies overtaketh thee; or else three days the sword of the Lord, even the pestilence, in the land, and the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the coasts of Israel. Now therefore advise thyself what word I shall bring again to him that sent me. And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let me fall now into the hand of the Lord; for very great are his mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man" (1 Chr 21.11-13). This takes us a stage further, for we detect David's confidence as a saint. His choice – to leave matters entirely with the Lord – demonstrated a deep knowledge of and trust in God. "Mercy" is found frequently in his writings (Ps 25.6; 40.11; 51.1) and in Psalm 119.156 the exact collocation recurs ("great mercy"). The same word is rendered "compassions" in Lamentations 3.22 and "tender love" in Daniel 1.9. David spoke as a believer already deeply indebted to God's abundant kindness. But there's more: "David lifted up his eyes, and saw the angel of the Lord stand between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem…And David said unto God, Is it not I that commanded the people to be numbered? even I it is that have sinned and done evil indeed; but as for these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, O Lord my God, be on me, and on my father's house; but not on thy people" (1 Chr 21.16-17). Only now do we truly glimpse David's compassion as a shepherd. For the first time, it seems, he looked beyond his personal failure to contemplate the nation's suffering. A flock of helpless sheep had been brought to grief by a foolish shepherd. How it must have wrung David's heart! Nor were they his people, but "thy people". Perhaps it was the lordly pride of an oriental potentate relishing his wealth that prompted the original census, but now David acknowledged unreservedly that all he had was from God. And God's gifts are solemn entrustments. The plight of the people assigned to his care touched the king's heart. Ironically, the suffering brought on Israel by his own sin now drew out his pastoral tenderness: David was never a truer shepherd than at this moment. The New Testament teaches that local assembly elders have a shepherding role: "Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock" (1 Pet 5.2-3). Godly elders do not take up their spiritual ministry grudgingly, as a result of outside pressure, or with a view to financial reward, or because of a craving for power. True shepherds are not motivated by obligation, or remuneration, or domination. Rather, they are characterised by a God-given concern for the flock, accompanied by a skill to teach the Word. They have both the heart and the hands to feed and to guide.

The practical lessons of David's census are many. Let me list some. Our mistakes damage others; sin brings suffering; confession may unlock pardon but the earthly consequences of sin may continue; God is more merciful than men; it is best to leave decisions with Him; the reality of our knowledge of God is tested in the emergency; human leaders are fallible; a shepherd heart is seen in prioritizing the needs of others whatever the cost to self. And the outstanding marvel of the story is that even in our failures God can still glorify His name. David's sin brought death and distress to Israel on a monumental scale: 70,000 perished because of his folly. And yet David, filled with bitter grief, unconsciously anticipated Another in his willingness to bear the blame: "let thine hand, I pray thee, O Lord my God, be on me…not on thy people". David only volunteered to bear a punishment he fully deserved; our sinless Shepherd actually endured the judgment of His guilty people. Although David could never truly be a substitute for the nation, his compassion reminds us of our unfailingly sympathetic Saviour. Read about David; think about Christ. Out of our very disasters God is able to bring forth something in our hearts for Himself.

To be continued.


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