The LORD is my shepherd,
so I don’t lack anything.
I learned that from David ben Jesse—the biblical King David—who was called a man after God’s own heart.
He was called that by God himself!
But “after God’s own heart“? That is intriguing because I most often hear about God’s will, or of his knowledge, or his holiness, his power, his wisdom, and so on, and not his heart. This came from my teachers at Bible college, and later at seminary, as they unveiled an inscrutable and emotionally detached—“impassible”—God to us, a God committed solely to enhancing his own glory. So, given such insights into a demanding and disaffected God, what does it mean to speak of his “heart”? Such language seems too soft, too tender, too vulnerable—certainly not befitting an awesome God.
So maybe “heart”—at least as the Bible applies it to God—speaks of an all-wise, holy, sovereign, omniscient, predestinating will? Ummm . . . maybe.
But what if it actually does speak of his love? What if it means exactly what we think of when we talk about “opening my heart” to someone? What if God’s heart is his own affective center—the dynamic movement of his collective, inherent, mutual-triune love—poured out into our own hearts by his Spirit? That his being and doing is moved by love? What if that is actually true?
I find the thought both attractive and disconcerting! It brings me back to a question raised when my teachers reshaped “love” for the sake of good theology. I learned, for instance, that the biblical term agape speaks of a divine—will-based—love. Which can lead to a painful sigh: “Okay, I know God loves me . . . but could he ever like me?”
So, once again, just how was David’s heart like God’s heart?
We need to consider David and his heart. If ever there was a powerful figure in the Bible— surpassed by Jesus alone—it was David. Yet David was passionate. He wore his heart on his sleeve. Sometimes too much so! David danced his heart out before God and the nation. So boldly and wildly that it offended his wife. He wrote Psalms that still vibrate with urgent devotion and delight. He loved God with a rare courage and persistence. He loved Jonathan as the only other man in Israel bold enough to defend God’s reputation against overwhelming odds. He loved his mighty men, refusing to even sip some water that represented their life-risking devotion to him. He loved Bathsheba. And he killed her husband. So David—as a test case—was a lover, but his overall track record—the Uriah principle—warns us away from equating his profound capacity to love with his “heart after God’s own heart.” Correct?
Again, maybe. So, again, what should we make of the Heart-to-heart linkage?
The answer certainly rests in the common ground David shared with God: both David and God are shepherds.
David called God his own shepherd. God called David to be the shepherd of Israel. And it wasn’t just David. God always loves good shepherds—remember that it was a group of humble shepherds who received the great angelic serenade celebrating the birth of the ultimate shepherd, Jesus. David’s brothers left their youngest brother with what they saw as a demeaning job—the family sheep-chaser. Yet the role was, for David, an entryway to the wealth of God’s spreading goodness. He tasted God’s love as he found delight in caring for God’s creatures.
So David came to be captured with a vision of God’s deepest values as he sat among his family’s sheep night after cold night. As he fought off wild animals—the lions and bears—he looked for the best pastures and the safest watering holes. He loved his sheep and was ready to die protecting them. A sling against a lion? Casting pebbles against a bear? No problem, as long as God was his companion and the sheep were his concern.
It would have been during the long nights that God whispered new insights to his young companion-in-care, so that in the morning David could write what he learned: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
And care for David, God did! As we read in the prophetic books, God measured leaders by how well they served as shepherds to the people God gave them to lead. Over time the report was grim. Ezekiel, speaking on God’s behalf (in chapter 34), summarized the reason for Judah’s Babylonian captivity: “My sheep were scattered [by their false shepherds]; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” What was God’s promised solution? “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD.”
And so he fulfilled his promise by coming—in the Son—as “the good shepherd” of John 10. Just as David once stood between the lion and the sheep, Jesus came as the one who “lays down his life for the sheep.” Why? Because he cares for the flock! And how profound is this care? Jesus measured it by the quality of the care he found in his Father’s bond with him: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
It was this bond of love between the Father and the Son, by the Spirit, that God shares with his flock—stated yet again in the prayer of Jesus in John 17:22-23 as he asked the Father, “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
So David was a pioneer and exemplar of that bond of love, both with God and his people, Israel. He had the heart of a shepherd—of a bold lover of others, even at the expense of his own welfare!
But what about David’s murder of Uriah after stealing the man’s wife? David had violated his own shepherd’s heart. He had “eaten” from the flock that was meant to be under his care. Yet we must never forget that God used a “proper” passion to confront David’s ungodly passion. Nathan, by God’s direction, confronted David: “the poor man,” God said through Nathan, “had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought.” This beloved lamb was then stolen by a despotic rich man.
David’s response—the response of a good shepherd—was instant: “the man who has done this deserves to die” he commanded. Nathan then turned the table: “You are the man!”
God knew, even though David’s heart had turned away from him for a time, that a shepherd’s passion was still alive. It was one shepherd—God—speaking to another—David. They still shared a common heart. A heart all of us are invited to share with the LORD, our shepherd.
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron helped to launch Cor Deo UK in 2011, and retired from the ministry at the end of 2015. He continues to blog at his “A Spreading Goodness“. His doctoral thesis on Richard Sibbes is still available from Cor Deo and is well worth reading. For more information on Cor Deo, including the weekly theological blog, please visit www.cordeo.org.uk. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.