Kings and Shepherds: Power Corrupts… (1 Samuel 9; 17:33-37)

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This post has spun out of material I heard in the Mars Hill Bible Church Sermon ‘How To Use The Bathroom in a Cave’ by Kent and Ed Dobson. I go to a different place with it, so it’s worth checking out the original sermon here.

Kings are shepherds.

That’s the metaphor the Bible uses, for kings and priests and people in authority. The flock needs someone to lead, someone to defend, someone to care. The shepherd is in charge and the flock follows.

That’s why it’s important to note that, when David shows up, well before he takes the throne, he’s depicted as a literal shepherd, and a good one at that. When explaining why he thinks he can take on Goliath he describes how he got between his sheep and wolves, bears, lions, how he fought wild animals and won and protected his flock. Even if you don’t know how the story turns out, David’s obviously already a hero in waiting – he’s a good shepherd, surely that means he’ll make a good king?

But the Bible has a problem with kings. Sure they’re anointed by prophets and appointed by God, but the whole monarchy thing seems to be a Plan B at best. After all, look at how we’re introduced to Israel’s first king, Saul, long before the heroic David turns up. Saul’s looking after his father’s donkeys, but they go missing and the only reason he gets them back is that he encounters a seer during the search. The guy can’t even look after a bunch of donkeys, we should be asking questions about how well we should expect his reign to turn out.

And that’s how the story goes – the bad shepherd proves to be a bad king, and needs to be replaced by the good shepherd who goes on to become Israel’s greatest king. It just goes to show that you should always pay attention to the metaphors.

But power corrupts, so they say, and it’s true. David was a good shepherd, a man after God’s own heart, yes, but one day there came a point when he saw a beautiful but married woman bathing and decided that, as king, the rules didn’t apply to him; the shepherd who refused to kill an enemy in order to take his throne is now a king who plots to kill a friend in order to take his wife. As a young man he sought to end the oppression of the Philistines; as an old man he doesn’t even act to get justice for his own daughter.

If the man who wrote Psalm 23, who toppled giants, can fall so far, is it any wonder that the Bible has an ambiguous attitude towards kingship?

And so maybe the idea of power is one of our idolatries. Many Christians love the idea of getting together to vote for ‘their’ candidate, or ‘their’ party. We follow mega-pastors who can declare an internet war with a single tweet, we want to proclaim our countries as ‘Christian’, regardless of the atrocities in which they’ve been involved. We love our kings, so much so that we’re inclined to turn a blind eye to when they’re less than noble shepherds. Because, when it comes down to it, we want our leaders to kick ass.

And yet there’s the key to all this. After all, it’s not the idea of a king itself that the Bible has issues with, it’s that there’s already a King and we’re too quick to try to put someone else on his throne. God is King, and, through Jesus, his throne is a cross. When he’s tempted in the wilderness with the trappings of kingship (“Rule the nations! Never see you or your people go hungry! Never suffer for your rule!”) he rejects the short cuts of temporal and economic and political power. When he needs to demonstrate what a true king looks like, he wraps a towel around his waist, washes the feet of his friends, then heads out into the night to face the nails of Calvary.

That’s why such a big deal is made over Jesus being the Good Shepherd.

Because that’s what a real King looks like.

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