The Donkey-Herder vs. the Good Shepherd

First impressions matter. They don’t tell us everything, but they do tell us something. Especially in a story. The way a character is introduced usually says something about who they are. With that in mind, it is really interesting to see the way the first two kings of Israel are introduced in the biblical narrative. Saul and David. There were a lot of similarities between the way these two are introduced, but I think the differences were even more significant. And their character is evident from the outset. Clearly, God didn’t want a king for his people. He was their king. He wanted his people to be free, not toil under a monarch. But since they insisted on having a king, he wanted them to have a good king. Not all kings were equal.

We meet Saul for the first time in 1 Samuel 9, and the first detail we are given about him is that he is really good looking, and really tall. In fact, he was the best looking guy in all of Israel, and a head taller than anyone else (v. 2). So far so good. Being tall and good looking is important, especially in politics.

The second thing we learn about Saul is that his father, a “mighty man of power,” (v. 1, NKJV) trusted him. He is sent by his father to go out and find some donkeys that have gone missing. The third thing we learn about Saul is that he is lazy. Or at least not very persistent. He looks for the donkeys for awhile, a few days even, but then he gives up. In v. 5 he says (my paraphrase), “Let’s just forget about these stupid donkeys and go home.”

This reminds me of the way I used to look for my shoes when I was a little kid – scan the room quickly and then yell out, “Mom! I can’t find them!” Typically, my mom would respond by saying, “Ok, let me look. But if I find them you are in big trouble.” At this point I would miraculously remember where I had last kicked my shoes off. Granted, lost shoes are not the same thing as misplaced donkeys, but you do kind of get the feeling that Saul wasn’t trying very hard. He was about to leave when his servant says, “Hang on. Let’s at least go see the prophet Samuel. He lives right here and maybe he can help us.” So they go see Samuel, and in the meantime, God tells Samuel to anoint Saul as king.

The fact that Saul gave up on the donkeys may seem like a small detail that is not that important, but it does foreshadow some of Saul’s dubious behavior that occurs later on. True, being sent to find missing donkeys is not the most exciting way to spend your days. And true, donkeys are hard to find when they don’t want you to find them. But it is kind of telling that when Saul was given this task to perform he made an effort, but when things didn’t work out for him right away, he simply gave up.

Saul’s introduction as an apathetic donkey-finder stands out even more when it is contrasted with the way David is introduced. We first meet David in 1 Sam. 16, when God tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem and anoint the one he would show him. Samuel sees some of David’s older brothers and they are very physically imposing and they make a good impression on him. Samuel thinks for sure that one of them must be God’s chosen one. But in v. 7 God tells him (my paraphrase), “Don’t be so shallow. We already tried a tall, good-looking king, and that hasn’t worked out very well. Now we are going to pick someone with a personality.”

Finally, almost as an afterthought, David is brought before Samuel, the last of his brothers. He has been out tending to his father’s flock of sheep. David is also good-looking, with bright-eyes (v. 12), but not in the obvious way Saul was. He has “ruddy” (read “rustic and unpolished”) complexion. Think farmer’s tan vs. tanning booth. But the real difference between them becomes evident in the next chapter, when David volunteers to go out and fight Goliath. He explains that even though he is young he has already faced a lion and a bear when they tried to take his sheep, so he is not afraid of Goliath. Everyone knows this story, so it is easy to just glide right over it, but I just want to repeat that for emphasis: one of his sheep was snatched up BY A LION!

David could have easily given up at that point. No one would have blamed him for letting the sheep go. No one would have blamed him if he had shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, I guess there isn’t anything I can do,” and concentrated on keeping the rest of his flock safe. But instead he “struck it [the lion], and delivered the lamb from its mouth,” and when the lion came against him, he “caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it” (1 Sam. 17:35 NKJV).

Straight up.

This story reminds me to this awesome video:

Make sure you watch all of it (not that you will be able to stop watching it before the end – it is gripping).

David was a good shepherd, which is why he made a good king. He was willing to risk life and limb for his sheep, and even when the situation seemed desperate, he didn’t give up. That is what being a shepherd means. It is also what being a king means. A life a service and sacrifice. God chose David to be king because he was a shepherd (Ps. 78:71-72 NKJV), because of the “integrity of his heart” and the “skillfulness of his hands.” Throughout the Bible, the image of the shepherd is one of a leader, and David is seen as the archetypal figure of the good king.

In Matthew 18:12-14 (NKJV) Jesus talks about shepherds, and asks an interesting question. He says, “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.”

For many people (most people), the answer to Jesus’ question is no. No, you do not leave behind ninety-nine sheep to go after the one that wandered off. That is what the pragmatic among us would say. The rational and clearheaded. Sometimes you have to cut your losses, they say. This is the attitude of Saul. You have to count the cost. To do otherwise is to give in to sentimentality. To foolishness. It is childish. But it is not foolishness. If you let a lion steal one of your sheep today, tomorrow he will steal two. No one is touching my sheep. That is the attitude of David. If you are a real shepherd, who cares about his flock, you will not let even one sheep go.

But Jesus takes it even further. After all, David was a good shepherd, but Jesus was the good shepherd. In John 10 Jesus says that the good shepherd is one who knows his flock, cares about his flock, and is even willing to die for his flock. David was brave when he went up against a bear and a lion. But he wasn’t expecting to die. Jesus on the other hand came to die for his flock. In John 10:11 (NKJV) he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”

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One Response to The Donkey-Herder vs. the Good Shepherd

  1. Dudu says:

    Maybe the “The Warren Harding Error” should really be called “The King Saul Error.” But Saul wasn’t voted in, so I guess that’s why.

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