A Boy & His Shepherd (1 Samuel 17/Psalm 23)

The Philistine’s challenge rang across the valley like the drums of war often played before the siege of a city:

“Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us. I defy the ranks of Israel this day.”

The entire valley grew silent at the challenge, which had been offered now for forty days in a row, each day with a similar response from the Israelite camp: nervous mutters from trembling lips, but no champion who would dare fight the giant. They were stationed just opposite the Philistine army, the Valley of Elah lying bare between them as a natural amphitheater that amplified the giant’s voice. He stood nearly ten feet tall – nearly twice the height of most grown men amongst the Israelite rank – and his armor was forged from iron, a durable metal that the Israelites had not yet perfected their use of. He was an intimidating foe, and even Saul, the Israelite king who stood a head taller than any other man in the camp, would not dare fight him. To do so would be certain death. And with the death of the Israelite warrior, the enslavement of the people. And with the enslavement of the people, the end of the nation. They had spent years enslaved in Egypt…they would not be enslaved again.

As the young shepherd boy trudged up the mountain toward the Israelite camp, he heard the giant’s call, and fire flowed through his youthful veins, immediately angered by the man’s blasphemous words. He turned his eyes unto the Israelite camp, dismayed at their trembling. They looked like sheep without a shepherd, and their king most frightened at all, for he had the most to lose.

Amidst the dismay, the young boy couldn’t help but feel compassion for his brethren, muttering fearfully at the giant’s challenge. Much like the sheep under his charge back in Bethlehem, these men were prone to wander, and if they couldn’t hear their shepherd’s voice, they would fall quickly into ruin and would injure themselves. They were right in not fighting; if any one of them went out there and fought, they would lose. A sheep without a shepherd will certainly be devoured by the wolves.

But how could they stand idly by while this uncircumcised Philistine muttered such bold challenges against the people of God? In insulting Israel, was he not directly challenging the God of Israel, spitting in his face and declaring him lesser than their petty god Dagon? Once again the fire flowed through the lad’s veins, and he pressed up the mountain.

The LORD is my shepherd.

He was accustomed to being the odd man out. The youngest of his father’s sons, he was the one placed in charge of his father’s flocks while his brothers went off to do bigger and better things, and no one ever thought he was capable of anything great. But in those endless days and nights out in those fields, he had come to know deeply and personally Someone who would never forget him, never forsake him; just as he tended his father’s flocks, so he had learned that there was Someone who was tending to him, seeing to his every need, providing him with every comfort that love, joy, peace, can provide. And this Some was not just anyone. It was the God of Israel, Yahweh, the LORD of Lords and King of Kings, the God who was and is, the God who created the heavens and the earth, who had crafted him in his mother’s womb.

The very God this Philistine giant now defied.

“What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel?” the boy asked once he reached the men at the top of the hill. “For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

His brother’s – those that were in the army, whom he had brought some food for – scoffed at his boldness and called him childlike and foolish and ignorant and cocky, but nevertheless some of the other men answered him: “The king will enrich the man who kills him with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father’s house free in Israel.”

I shall not want.

Such prizes seemed meaningless to him. What freedom was greater than the freedom that came through enslavement to righteousness? What riches could be deeper than the riches of God’s love? The LORD was his shepherd, and so how could he possibly want anything more than that? To have the attention of God and to be in relationship with Him was to be fully satisfied, in want of nothing; what more could one desire than the care of He who formed the cosmos? Just as he would go to great efforts to ensure that his own flock would have everything they needed so that they would be in want of nothing, so he knew that the LORD would do the same with him…was already doing the same with him.

He asked if he could speak with the king. “Let no man’s heart fail because of him,” said he to Saul upon standing in his presence. “Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.”

Saul was noticeable baffled, taking in the fact that the boy was just that, a boy. “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.”

The boy may have been young in age, but those years in the fields had formed him into a man outside of anyone’s notice. He was not one prone to boasting, but he was desperate to stand on that battlefield against the giant, lest the armies of the living God continue to be defied, and so he called upon the greatest demonstrations of God’s faithfulness in his own life, justifying his ability to stand against the giant: “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he rose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.”

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

Not “allows,” but “makes.” Even in the midst of his strivings, the LORD had granted rest unto his burdened soul. With the LORD as his shepherd, he knew he needn’t fear the bears and lions and wolves, because his shepherd would protect him; he was forced to simply lie in rest in the pastures while his Shepherd did this fighting for him. There was no rest apart from Him, but with Him, he could not help but rest…and oh, how verdant that rest is! His Shepherd commanded him not simply to feed, but to lie down; the pastures were not merely for consumption, but for enjoyment – not only to satisfy his needs, but to give in excess, that he might marvel at the beauty of God’s grace! Even as he tussled with the bears and wrestled with the lions, a peace had overcome him, for the LORD was with him, and the LORD fought on his behalf – all he must do was recline on the comfortable couch of God’s pasture while God took the lions’ beard in His mighty hand. With this in mind, the youth – David was his name – said unto Saul, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of  the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”

At long last, Saul relented. “Go, and the LORD be with you!” He tried to provide David with his armor, but the armor was too big, and he was not accustomed to it. What armor need I? thought he, Your Spirit in me. Don’t cast it away, but mold me to Thee. “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them,” said he to the king. “My staff and my sling shall be enough.” Then, with a smile, “The giant won’t get close enough for me to need armor.”

With that, he departed, descending the mountain and crossing over to a creek. With the giant in sight – the giant had not yet seen him – he crouched beside the creek and plucked five smooth stones from the river’s bed, though he knew he would only need one.

He leads me beside still waters.

He looked into the creek bed, allowing his mind to be at peace. The anticipation of the clash was setting in – and with that, a tinge of nervousness – but he knew it was for naught. The Lord was with him, leading him beside still waters? What need he fear? The LORD has guided him from Bethlehem for this very moment, and the LORD was guiding him now. With the LORD as his Shepherd, the work in His name was as equally enjoyable as the rest, the strivings as splendid as the slumber. Even in facing this giant, he could be at rest and wholly free, and yet still progress into being conformed more and more into His Shepherd’s image, made into a man after His own heart. No torrent threatened to sweep him away, and no waves of excitement crashed against him; no, for wherever his Shepherd led – be it palace or prison, crown or cave, vertex or valley – the waters were quiet and his soul could be still. He may follow in peace, strong even in his weakness; He who designed the pastures and marked out the creeks knew which paths lie before him, and so he could follow confidently in his Shepherd’s steps, knowing that He who went before him would not lead him astray. And with those thoughts, all nervousness passed away, replaced instead by a calm resolve, a zealous anticipation.

He restores my soul.

He stood back up, placing the stones in his pouch as he trained his eyes once more on the giant. With total confidence he stepped away from the creek-bed and stepped into the valley, drawing sudden silence from giant, who until then had still been looking up into the Israelite camp and calling out insults and curses.

The Philistine surveyed him, glancing up and down. Compared to the Philistine – in full battle array, with shield and sword and spear, and armor-bearer before him – David was essentially naked. He wore no shirt, carried no shield, and wielded no sword. A shepherd’s staff was clenched tightly in one hand, a small, crudely-made leather sling in the other. The giant looked up with frustration at the Israelite camp, then back at the young man, standing a few hundred yards away.

“Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” His insult was evident; there was a certain amount of respect demanded by men of war, and while the giant would certainly delight in killing the young shepherd, there was no pride to be gained in so easy a match. Nevertheless, the giant sneered: “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.”

David only a smiled in return, walking calmly further into the valley. When he spoke in return, the voice was not that of a boy, but of a man. Still some two hundred yards away, he called out to the giant with a mighty shout, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”

He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

Not to mine, but to Your name, be the glory, thought David as he stood confidently before the giant. The path that lay before him was one of victory – and, through victory, fame and fortune – but he could care less about these things, and he wanted to make that abundantly clear. Even as he had shouted the words to the giant, he felt his musical side begin to overcome him, the Spirit of God descending upon him and guiding his words and crafting an elegant speech that was for one name and one name only. He would not fight for his own name, but he fought in the name of the LORD of hosts. On his own, he was incapable of walking along paths of righteousness; only by the leading hand of his shepherd could he follow through with this, and it had to be in His name.

The giant stood before him, unphased by his poetic words. For a moment David felt a flinch of doubt, the valley stretching before him and the giant’s shadow seeming to pass over him even from such a great distance away. The man was indeed big, bigger from this perspective than he had appeared from atop the mountain…

But no.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.

What did he have to fear from this giant? Though the valley stretched long and the giant’s shadow seemed to loom over him – though the threat of death stood before him – what reason had he to fear? He who created life was on his side, not the giant’s, and was with him even now. No valley could make him tremble, for the LORD alone did he fear, and His love was as a soothing ointment to the burdened soul. He fought  in the LORD’s name, and would the LORD allow his name to be blasphemed? This giant defied the LORD and so was, in his eyes, the personification of evil. If the good God who was abundant in love and mercy and kindness was with Him, what reason have he to fear evil?

Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Yes, the giant was big; his God was bigger. The lions and bears had been big as well, yet with youthful hands he had been granted strength enough to tear them apart. In the moment, those trials had seemed a great burden to him, difficult tasks sent to plague the forgotten child of a poor man. With aching muscles and pouring sweat he had slain those mighty beasts, and in exhaustion he had asked God why. But just as he disciplined his own sheep to strengthen their bodies and keep them from staying, so now he saw how his own Shepherd had disciplined him for a moment just as this. Had he not fought the lion and bear, he would not have been granted admission to this battlefield. Had he not fought the lion and bear, he would not be nearly so confident as he stood before this oh-so-small giant. Those disciplinary actions which had once been a burden to him, in retrospect, came now as a comfort. It had all been building to this, that, through him, the LORD his God could receive the glory due His name.

David could not keep the smile from his face, and words poured from his mouth once more. “This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the LORD’s and he will give you into our hand.”

Now, the giant was unsettled. He was obviously shocked by the youth’s brazen confidence, spoken with the smooth tongue of a man at a feast, not the nervous quiver of a young man facing a battle-hardened warrior.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

Yes, in the midst of the fight, he could feast on the LORD’s love, for God went before him and stood behind him, protected him from his left and from his right, shielded him from above and from below. It was the LORD fighting on his behalf, and while his enemies strived and fought, he would be as one feasting in the banquet hall of God’s provision, at total rest amidst the greatest trials.

His comment had obviously infuriated the giant to the point that he could stand it no longer, and so the giant began to move forward, his armor-bearer moving before him. He walked slowly and carefully, confident in his victory yet obviously curious to the young man’s confidence.

As the giant approached, time seemed to still. David closed his eyes.

You anoint my head with oil.

His mind retreated back to that day, years before, when one of his brothers had begrudgingly retrieved him form the shepherd’s fields, saying that the prophet Samuel wanted to see him. The prophet had anointed his head with oil, had told him that God would make him the future king. He was not sure if he was equipped to be a king – and he would certainly miss those days out in the fields with his sheep and with his God – but with that anointing had come the promise of a future hope, and he knew that no word from God would be left void. Who could stand against the LORD’s anointed? With his eyes closed, he could hear the giant’s approaching footsteps in the distance, yet peace overflowed him: his mind was established on the future hope, in which his faith was firmly placed. It was grace that he was saved, even now, through faith, not of his own doing, but the gift of God.

He allowed his shepherd’s staff to fall to the ground. He was a shepherd no more; now, he was a warrior in the army of God.

He reached into his pouch and retrieved one of the stones. Opened his eyes.

My cup overflows.

He had everything he needed and more. In truth, he did not need the sling, nor did he need the stones. One weapon alone did he need, and that was to kneel at the throne of God and ask for His provision. The sling and stone he now held in his hands were but instruments for God’s glory, as equipped for the job as his own hands or fire straight from heaven. God had not only filled his cup with what he needed to accomplish the job; he had filled it over the brim with his super-abundant grace, abounding beyond his wildest dreams.

With this thought in his mind, David opened his eyes.

And then he ran.

He placed the stone firmly in his sling and began to swing the device as he ran to meet the giant, who was quite obviously shocked by his enthusiasm to meet him at the battle line. The giant stopped in his tracks, aimed his spear, and chucked it, but with the swiftness of a gazelle David dodged to the right, all without losing his momentum nor messing up his swing.

He felt his breath increasing, but so did the speed of his feet. He was now crossing the battle line, standing in Philistine territory. The giant, now taller than ever and only some fifty yards away, began to fumble for his sword, but it was too late:

With a mighty shout, David launched the stone from his sling. It traversed the span in but a moment, hitting with perfect precision and sinking into the giant’s forehead in the tiny break in his armor. The giant fell to the ground with but a mighty crash, and David knew that he was dead. Nevertheless, he did not break his momentum, but crossed the remaining distance in but a few seconds. He cast his sling to the ground and, without hesitation, drew the Philistine’s sword and brought it down on his neck.

Silence passed throughout the valley. Everything was still.

The young shepherd lifted up the giant’s head, holding it up high for all to see. He lifted his eyes to the sky and prayed a prayer of gratitude.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

No matter what strive was yet to come, David was sure of this truth: The LORD’s goodness and His loving-kindness would be his constant companions all the days of his life. If the LORD was his Shepherd, than these were the shepherd’s attendants, tending to the sheep and protecting them in the midst of the night, lying before the gates and keeping them safe from all threats of conflict. They had protected him just now, and they would protect him all his life.

As he held the head high into the sky, two things happened simultaneously: the Israelite camp erupted in applause of shock and awe and victory, and the Philistine camp turned and began to flee. David stood there with the giant’s head in his hand as the Israelite army barreled down the mountain in pursuit of the Philistines, and many of them stopped to congratulate him as they passed by.

In that moment, David knew that everything had changed. The LORD, by His grace, had exalted him amongst the people; the lowly shepherd boy would one day become a king.

But first and foremost, he was a warrior. A warrior in the name of the Almighty, protecting His name and declaring His glory. Perhaps one day his life would be lost on the battlefield, he did not know. But he did know that all the days of his life, God’s goodness and God’s mercy would be his constant companions, protecting him form the forces of evil. And when, at last, that time came to an end, and those constant companions of him were finally relieved of their charge, he knew that, even then, his hope was not lost.

And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

He did not know what the future held in store for him on this earth. Perhaps he would die in battle. Perhaps he would die in a palace. All he knew was that, no matter what, he had a hope and a future, and it was to dwell in the very house of the Shepherd, the house of He who prepared the banquet for him, who anointed him, who filled his cup. And so even when his end of days drew nigh, he knew that his joy would grow all the more, for he would but be joining his LORD in still closer union.

And, with this thought in mind, David picked up the giant’s sword, and joined his brothers in their pursuit.


The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your road and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Psalm 23