Rock Star—The David Saga, I: Shepherd

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September 16, 2018

Rock Star—The David Saga, I: Shepherd

Passage: I Samuel 16:1–12

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Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And Jesse said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’
—I Samuel 16:11


I went down one of those Internet rabbit holes this week when I asked Google “Which rock star wrote the most songs?”  Rock includes pop, soul, folk, rap, and R&B.

So what do you think? This is a very unscientific survey, but I found that Paul Simon, Prince, Jay Z, Kanye West, Elton John, and Lennon and McCartney wrote about 200 songs each.

My music expert Rob Lancaster tells me that Max Martin, someone I’d never heard of wrote about 200 songs for almost everybody, including Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and the Backstreet Boys.

Joni Mitchell wrote 240. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys wrote 256. The Boss wrote 318, still writing. Willie Nelson, 337. Bob Dylan, 356. And the King of song writing in our lifetimes is, no pun intended...Carole King, 527 songs.

I call King David of Bethlehem a rock star for two reasons. First, it’s because in his own day he was more famous than Bruno Mars. Women swooned in his presence and men hated him for that very reason, but they wanted his autograph anyway.

Hebrew historians adore King David, and so he bestrides the two testaments of the Christian Bible like a colossus.

Yale scholar Harold Bloom calls him the most charismatic protagonist in Western literature, bigger than Odysseus, Achilles, Arthur, or Henry V.[1] So in the popular imagination David has been a Rock Star for 3,000 years.

But he’s also a rock star because he wrote so many Billboard top 40 hits. According to the Bible, David wrote 73 of the 150 songs in the Hebrew Psalter, almost half of them, including the most beloved hit of all time, “The Lord’s My Shepherd.”

In your mind’s eye, can’t you see shepherd-boy David picking at his harp and making up the notes and words as he watches his sheep in their green pastures and beside still waters?

That’s exactly what David is doing when the prophet Samuel taps him on the shoulder, quite literally, to be the next king of Israel.

It’s too complicated to get into just now, but for various reasons, Yahweh and his press secretary Samuel have given up on Saul, who’d become Israel’s first king a generation ago. Impeachment time: new leadership.

Yahweh tells Samuel that there’s a wealthy guy named Jesse with eight sons over in the little sheep-herding village of Bethlehem, and when Samuel gets there, Jesse parades his seven eldest sons past Samuel like it was a Miss America pageant.

These guys are royal timber-strapping, handsome specimens who walk 20 miles a day up and down the hillsides of Judea, with chiseled calves and quads and pecs.

But God tells Samuel, “This isn’t a beauty contest, Samuel. Don’t be deceived by a pretty face or fantastic physique. God looks on the inside, to the heart and soul and substance of a man.”

This happens seven times. Tom Seaver once struck out ten batters in a row; this is like the Detroit Tigers batting lineup—seven consecutive K’s. It looks like Jesse is out of sons and out of luck.

Baffled, Samuel asks Jesse, “Haven’t you got any more kids?” Jesse says, “Well, yeah, there’s the runt of the litter, but he’s watching the sheep.” David is forgotten in his own family. Is anybody here forgotten even by your own family?

One of Jesse’s sons goes to the pasture to fetch his little brother and David comes back to town from the fields and prances down the runway for Samuel like his brothers and sure enough, this is God’s candidate. Finally, a base hit.

God might not look on external appearances, but this doesn’t prevent the Hebrew historian from pointing out “David was ruddy and handsome and had beautiful eyes.” This is just the first in a long catalogue of casual but adoring asides the Hebrew historian cannot resist throwing David’s way in this sprawling narrative.

Well, so what, right? How is this God’s word for us today? How is David’s story our story? Well, I’m glad you asked. I have a couple of suggestions.

Put yourself in David’s shoes. David is invisible in his own family. Is anybody here invisible in your own family? Are you an afterthought even among those who love you most and know you best?

When they chose sides for the soccer match on the playground, were you out in the field watching the sheep?

When the admissions department at Northwestern leafed through a towering pile of applications, were you out in the fields watching the sheep?

When all these beautiful people are swiping right on the dating apps, were you out in the pasture being swept left?

When they assigned a creative team to the huge new account at the ad agency, were you out watching the sheep?

So if you feel small or invisible or forgotten or insignificant, toiling away at your ordinary, menial task in a neglected corner of human commerce, here’s some advice: be patient.

Because could it be that a stealthy providence is sculpting an extraordinary future out of an ordinary present, crafting in a small, quiet place the experiences and skills you will need for something larger and more public?

It’s the oddest thing. It’s so common we don’t notice it, but somehow the most menial vocation has become a symbol for the most important task in the world—queen, president, premier, prime minister.

When an able regent cares for her folk, the image that leaps unbidden to mind is a good shepherd. This has been true for 5,000 years in every culture in every land in every corner of the earth—an able regent is called The Good Shepherd.

A good shepherd makes an able regent, because it’s the same job. Good shepherds and able regents both lead the tribe or the flock down safe paths in right directions toward goodness and mercy.

Both shepherds and regents provide adequate hydration and ample nourishment for the tribe or the flock.

Both regents and shepherds guard the group against predators and enemies and will die for the flock or the nation if necessary.

Both shepherds and regents inoculate the flock or the tribe against disease.

When it’s time to birth the babies, good shepherds and able regents make sure the mothers are in a safe place with expert oversight in case something goes wrong, and neither a good shepherd nor an able regent will ever, ever separate the babies from the mothers.

So put yourself in David’s shoes: your own family might have forgotten you, but God hasn’t. It’s possible that God is sculpting an extraordinary future from the clay of an ordinary present.

Or maybe that doesn’t work for you. Maybe you don’t feel invisible or forgotten but very visible and in fact integral to the thriving of the community, and if that’s the case, put yourself in Samuel’s shoes. As the earthly agent of a stealthy providence, whose shoulder could you tap to send them in the direction of greater things?

This is David’s call story, of course. This is the story of how a stealthy providence reset the trajectory of David’s quiet life and sent it in a new, world-changing direction. Sometimes all we need is a little push.

In 1940, Warren Buffett’s father took him on a trip to New York City for his birthday. Warren was ten years old. Some ten-year-olds on a trip to New York want to see the Empire State Building or the zoo, but all Warren wanted to see was the New York Stock Exchange.

At the Exchange, Warren struck up a friendship with a senior partner at Goldman Sachs, and after talking for a couple of minutes, the banker threw an arm around Warren’s shoulder and looked up at the big board and said, “So Warren, what stock do you like?”  People have been asking Warren Buffett that question ever since.[2]

So you know who turned the Santa Clara Valley into the Silicon Valley, right? In 1938, Bill Hewlett and David Packard were engineering students at Stanford. Back then after graduating, all those brilliant Stanford engineers had to go to the east coast to get decent jobs at General Electric and IBM, so Bill Hewlett and David Packard raised $538 and started a little electronics company and called it—you guessed it—Hewlett Packard.  All those other tech companies eventually followed HP out there to Silicon Valley—Intel, Cisco, Oracle, Apple, Google, Facebook.

Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard did pretty well for themselves, and 30 years later, in 1967, for some reason, Bill Hewlett picks up the phone himself at the office one afternoon—maybe his assistants were at lunch or something—and there’s a 12-year-old kid on the other end, and the kid asks this engineering tycoon for some spare parts so that the boy can make something called a frequency counter.

Mr. Hewlett is so surprised and so pleased by this bold request that he not only gives the kid the spare parts but also gives him a job for the summer making frequency counters at HP.

Nine years later, in 1976, this 12-year-old kid turns 21 and decides to start his own electronics company and he will use what he learned at HP to build it up into something similar, and he will call it Apple Computer.[3] Twelve-year-old Steve Jobs. Spare parts.

There are so many little ways we can assist a stealthy, unseen providence turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

We Christian pastors are proud to be called shepherds. That’s what the word means, right? The word ‘Pastor’ is related to the word ‘pasture’—literally, the shepherd.

September 11 fell on a Tuesday this year, just like it did 17 years ago. On Tuesday I spent some time thinking about the events of that day and remembered Father Mychal Judge. Father Judge was the chaplain to the New York City Fire Department.

At 9:59 a.m. on September 11, 2001, Father Judge was standing in the lobby of the North Tower praying for the first responders and the people in the building. When the South Tower fell, the rubble flew into the North Tower lobby and killed several people, including Father Judge, busy at his prayers.

You’ve seen the famous photograph of five FDNY firefighters rushing Father Judge’s body out of the rubble in an office chair.  What you might not know is that those five firefighters took his body all the way to St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church down the street, laid it in the chancel in front of the altar, draped it with a shroud, placed his priestly stole and his fireman’s badge on top, and said a prayer before going back to what was left of the Twin Towers.

When Father Judge’s body finally made it to the morgue, the medical examiner gave him a death certificate which reads: Victim #0001. Obviously Father Judge was not the first to die on 9/11, but he was the first to be processed.

At his funeral, Father Judge’s friend Mike Duffy brought this up. Why was Father Judge Victim #0001? Why was he the first?

And then Father Duffy answers his own question. He says, “I think it’s because during his life, Mychal’s job was to bring those firefighters into the presence of God, and Mychal Judge wanted to do in death what he’d done in life, bring people into the presence of God.”

Three hundred and forty-three firefighters died at the Twin Towers on 9/11. Father Duffy says, “Father Judge could not possibly have ministered to them all in this life, so he was the first to cross over to the other side and welcome them into God’s loving arms.”[4]

That’s what a shepherd does—he leads the way. That’s what a pastor does—she goes on ahead.

So where do you think King David learned to be such an able regent for Israel for 40 years?  “The Lord’s my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie in green pastures; he leadeth me beside...”

That’s where.

[1]Harold Bloom, The Book of J (New York: Grove Weidenfield, 1990), pp. 41–42.

[2]Alice Schroeder, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (New York: Bantam, 2008), quoted by Janet Maslin, “The Richest Man and How He Grew (and Grew a Company Too),” The New York Times, September 29, 2018.

[3]John Markoff, “William Hewlett, A Pioneer of Silicon Valley, Dies at 87,” The New York Times, January 13, 2001.

[4]Mike Duffy, “The Happiest Man on Earth: the Eulogy for Father Mychal Judge,” September 15, 2001, St. Francis of Assisi Church, New York City, archived at