From shepherd to king

How David flourished in the desert and wilderness of Israel, and rose up to become a warrior

cave 521 (photo credit: DAVID SMITH)
cave 521
(photo credit: DAVID SMITH)
King David’s name appears more than 1,000 times in the Scripture. Almost half of the books of the Bible refer to the shepherd king, who is considered to be the author of most of the Psalms.
With such a resumé, believers tend to focus on David’s accomplishments (uniting the kingdom, securing Jerusalem as capital, numerous military victories), while overlooking his roots as a shepherd. This is an error, as David acquired many of the skills he would need to lead Israel while he was keeping sheep in the Bethlehem area.
The Psalms seem to testify this was God’s plan.
“He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.” (Psalms 78:71-72) The qualities of a shepherd would serve David well in his future role, as it was then that he learned self-defense, caring for the flock, wilderness survival skills, music, composition, patience and dependence on God.
Paul Wright, director of Jerusalem University College, explains, “Lengthy experiences in the wilderness prompt two different, yet compatible ideas: One, reliance on one’s own developed survival skills, and two, the realization that those are not enough and one has to rely on someone or something greater. Hence David’s overall realization that his life was in the hands of God.”
David speaks clearly of these two truths in his first recorded conversation with King Saul, attributing his eminent victory over the Philistine giant to both his expertise with a sling as well as God’s protection.
“Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”(1 Samuel 17:34-37) The shepherd had learned courage while protecting the flock against enemies and recognized the need to act decisively, as the road to his hometown, Bethlehem, was in jeopardy.
While the armies of Israel held the highlands and the Philistines the plains, the shfela (lowlands) made for a natural battleground, and the Eila Valley offered access to the Patriarchal Highway and Bethlehem. A Philistine victory here would render the highlands vulnerable to Philistine control. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that Saul’s kingdom was at risk, since his home base of Gibeah would likely fall next.
One senses the shepherd’s frustration that this enemy had lingered due to the faintheartedness of Saul’s soldiers.
“Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Samuel 17:26) This exhibition of the shepherd’s faith, courage and defense skills inspired Israel’s army to rout the Philistines back to Gat (Goliath’s hometown) and Ekron.
ANOTHER BATTLE for Bethlehem, fought on a completely different front, prepared David for his lengthy stints in the desert while a fugitive. The town of Bethlehem sits on a seam, a thin green line between the arable and the arid, the possibility of pasture land or a potentially fruitless search for it. In years of moderate rain, the besieged town staved off the invading desert, but when rain faltered the wilderness crept grimly through Bethlehem.
The story of Naomi, who left a drought-stricken Bethlehem with her husband and sons, returning years later (with Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law and David’s great-grandmother) to enjoy the town’s bounty, illustrates the point well.
To succeed as a shepherd in Bethlehem, David clearly had to find pasture land in the encroaching desert.
Wright expands this point, explaining: “The lack of resources and harsh living conditions in the wilderness east of Bethlehem where David likely spent much of his time as a shepherd certainly taught him wilderness survival skills.
The very fact that he was likely out in the wilderness for days or weeks on end, far after his supply of food and water that he brought from home would have run out, meant that he had to live off the land. And what a difficult land to live off of it is!” Due to victories against the Philistines, David’s popularity grew, prompting Saul’s jealousy and aggression. As the situation grew increasingly dangerous for David, and warned by Jonathan, he escaped to the Judean wilderness he knew so well, frustrating Saul, a relative northerner who found the desert unaccommodating.
David’s escape through the wilderness of Ziph, Ein Gedi, Maon and Paran would have taken him through terrain previously trekked by the shepherd who would have learned which passes led to water, where to find shade midday, avoidance of the region’s snakes and scorpions, how to travel quietly while listening for one enemies, and where hidden caves existed which offered sanctuary.
Years later the shepherd king again found himself a refugee – this time from his own son, Absalom – and David again went east, weeping as he fled over the Mount of Olives into the wilderness.
David leaves an adviser-spy in Absalom’s court who dissuades the young man from pursuing his father into the desert, stressing “you know your father and his men, that they are mighty men...” (2 Samuel 17:8) Given David’s (and by this time, his men’s) desert savvy, it is reasonable to ask why David dispatched this advice. Did he know his men would vanquish the young man’s army, resulting in the death of his son? Certainly the Scriptures are not clear on this, but David’s ordering of his men “to be gentle with the young man, Absalom, for my sake” and his mourning at his son’s death (“O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you – O Absalom, my son, my son!”) prompt this question.
MIDDLE-EASTERN temperaments and lack of water resources necessitated some cooperation and alliances among shepherds. For the sake of the flock, a competent shepherd would have secured working relationships with others, often from his extended family, and be looking to extend pasturing rights by establishing additional allies against competing clans.
While a fugitive from Saul and living in the cave of Adullam, the charismatic David employed this principle, securing the faithfulness of his brothers and a band of followers who were unhappy with Saul’s rule. David is even willing to work with his former nemesis, the Philistines, in order to defeat common enemies and cement his band’s loyalty.
For protection, a shepherd would often turn to extended family, as is observed when David tapped into his Moabite ancestry (through his great-grandmother Ruth), petitioning the Moabite ruler for sanctuary for his parents. Lest this appear one-sided, one can assume the Moabites, protective of their own pastures and water resources, noted “cousin” David’s ascendancy and thought this gesture would eventually pay off.
David commissioned his nephew, Joab, commander of the army, and the move was initially successful as Joab’s courage and ingenuity combined to wrest Jerusalem from Jebusite hands.
Joab’s familial loyalty to David was initially unquestionable, but he eventually became unruly. Still, the conquest of Jerusalem was crucial to David’s plan, as it allowed him to move the capital north to Benjamin, a diplomatic stratagem necessary to appease the northern tribes and combine all 12 into a unified family/nation.
DAVID DIDN’T merely survive, but flourished in the desert. During stints in the desolation, David likely invented musical instruments with which he is credited (2 Chronicles 7:6; Amos 6:5).
When the shepherd is introduced to Saul, it was in his capacity as a musician.
While the wilderness meant death to most, David wrote poems about it, likely using musical abilities honed during long hours and days with the flock, to create songs of praise. In Psalm 23 he employed the imagery of a shepherd, a dreaded valley and the promise of green pastures to convey the protection and fellowship of the Lord.
Psalm 63 begins, “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is...”
The first verse informs us it is a Psalm of David, composed in the wilderness of Judea. This Psalm is associated with David’s time of seeking refuge from Saul and correlates to 1 Samuel 22-24.
“Thirsty land” is an apt description of the Judean wilderness, with its scarce rainfall, which due to the Senonian chalk soil and steep declines, runs down to the Dead Sea. The chalky soil is poor for water storage such as springs, so death from dehydration is a constant threat in the wilderness.
David takes this clear physical need and raises it to the spiritual level, emphasizing that his greatest need is for fellowship with God. Being in a very vulnerable position, fleeing from Saul, trying to survive for long periods of time in the wilderness, he depended on God for protection, food and water. But as the continuation of the Psalm makes clear, it is communion with God, through prayer and praise, that he most needed and desired.
WRITING CENTURIES later of a reunited Israel, the prophet Ezekiel writes conclusively that the nation’s eventual leader would possess David’s shepherding qualities.
“And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd.” (Ezekiel 37:24) According to Wright, “the biblical writers seem to all have worked with the idea that the best image for leadership is that of a shepherd,” who “knows and loves his sheep. These are, after all, his constant companions, 24/7, and require constant attention and care.”
The combined shepherding traits of strength, courage, humility and dependence on God served David and Israel well. On his deathbed, David’s last words to his son, Solomon, urged him to embrace these and pass them on to his descendants as the proper model for rule. “Then you will do well in all that you do and in every place you go.” (1 Kings 2:1-4)