A SHEPHERD LOOKS AT PSALM 23 #8
THY ROD AND THY STAFF COMFORT ME
WHEN THE SHEPHERD is afield with his flock in the high
country, it is customary for him to carry a minimum of equipment.
This was especially true in olden times where the sheepman did
not have the benefit of mechanized equipment to transport camp
supplies across the rough country. Even today the so-called
"shepherd shacks" or "cabooses" in which the herder spends his
lonely summers with the sheep are equipped with only the barest
But during the hours that he is actually in the field the
sheepman carries only a rifle slung over his shoulder and a long
slender staff in his hand. There will be a small knapsack in
which are packed his lunch, a bottle of water and perhaps a few
simple first aid remedies for his flock.
In the Middle East the shepherd carries only a rod and
staff. Some of my most vivid boyhood recollections are those of
watching the African herdsmen shepherding their stock with only a
long slender stick and a rough knob-kerrie in their hands. These
are the common and universal equipment of the primitive sheepman.
Each shepherd boy, from the time he first starts to tend his
father's flock, takes special pride in the selection of a rod and
staff exactly suited to his own size and strength. He goes into
the bush and selects a young sapling which is dug from the
ground. This is carved and whittled down with great care and
patience. The enlarged base of the sapling where its trunk joins
the roots is shaped into a smooth, rounded head of hard wood. The
sapling itself is shaped to exactly fit the owner's hand. After
he completes it, the shepherd boy spends hours practicing with
this club, learning how to throw it with amazing speed and
accuracy. It becomes his main weapon of defense for both himself
and his sheep.
I used to watch the native lads having competitions to see
who could throw his rod with the greatest accuracy across the
greatest distance. The effectiveness of these crude clubs in the
hands of skilled shepherds was a thrill to watch. The rod was, in
fact, an extension of the owner's own right arm. It stood as a
symbol of his strength, his power, his authority in any serious
situation. The rod was what he relied on to safeguard both
himself and his flock in danger. And it was, furthermore, the
instrument he used to discipline and correct any wayward sheep
that insisted on wandering away.
There is an interesting sidelight on the word, "rod," which
has crept into the colloquial language of the West. Here the
slang term "rod" has been applied to hand-guns such as pistols
and revolvers which were carried by cowboys, and other western
rangemen. The connotation is exactly the same as that used in
The sheep asserts that the owner's rod, his weapon of power,
authority and defense, is a continuous comfort to him. For with
it the manager is able to carry out effective control of his
flock in every situation.
It will be recalled how when God called Moses, the desert
shepherd, and sent him to deliver Israel out of Egypt from under
Pharaoh's bondage, it was his rod that was to demonstrate the
power vested in him. It was always through Moses' rod that
miracles were made manifest not only to convince Pharaoh of
Moses' divine commission, but also to reassure the people of
The rod speaks, therefore, of the spoken Word, the expressed
intent, the extended activity of God's mind and will in dealing
with men. It implies the authority of divinity. It carries with
it the convicting power and irrefutable impact of "Thus saith the
Just as for the sheep of David's day, there was comfort and
consolation in seeing the rod in the shepherd's skillful hands,
so in our day there is great assurance in our own hearts as we
contemplate the power, veracity and potent authority vested in
God's Word. For, in fact, the Scriptures are His rod. They are
the extension of His mind and will and intentions to mortal man.
Living as we do in an era when numerous confused voices and
strange philosophies are presented to people, it is reassuring to
the child of God to turn to the Word of God and know it to be His
Shepherd's hand of authority. What a comfort to have this
authoritative, clear-cut, powerful instrument under which to
conduct ourselves. By it we are kept from confusion amid chaos.
This in itself brings into our lives a great sense of quiet
serenity which is precisely what the psalmist meant when he said,
".... thy rod ... comfort[s] me."
There is a second dimension in which the rod is used by the
shepherd for the welfare of his sheep - namely that of
discipline. If anything, the club is used for this purpose
perhaps more than any other.
I could never get over how often, and with what accuracy,
the African herders would hurl their knob-kerries at some
recalcitrant beast that misbehaved. If the shepherd saw a sheep
wandering away on its own, or approaching poisonous weeds, or
getting too close to danger of one sort or another, the club
would go whistling through the air to send the wayward animal
scurrying back to the bunch.
As has been said of the Scripture so often, "This Book will
keep you from sin!" It is the Word of God that comes swiftly to
our hearts, that comes with surprising suddenness to correct and
reprove us when we go astray. It is the Spirit of the Living God,
using the living Word, that convicts our conscience of right
conduct. In this way we are kept under control by Christ who
wants us to walk in the ways of righteousness.
Another interesting use of tbe rod in the shepherd's hand
was to examine and count the sheep. In the terminology of the Old
Testament this was referred to as passing "under the rod"
(Ezekiel 20:37). This meant not only coming under the owner's
control and authority, but also to be subject to his most
careful, intimate and firsthand examination. A sheep that passed
"under the rod" was one which had been counted and looked over
with great care to make sure all was well with it.
Because of their long wool it is not always easy to detect
disease, wounds, or defects in sheep. For example at a sheep show
an inferior animal can be clipped and shaped and shown so as to
appear a perfect specimen. But the skilled judge will take his
rod and part the sheep's wool to determine the condition of the
skin, the cleanliness of the fleece and the conformation of the
body. In plain language, "One just does not pull the wool over
In caring for his sheep, the good shepherd, the careful
manager, will from time to time make a careful examination of
each individual sheep. The picture is a very poignant one. As
each animal comes out of the corral and through the gate, it is
stopped by the shepherd's outstretched rod. He opens the fleece
with the rod; he runs his skillful hands over the body; he feels
for any sign of trouble; he examines the sheep with care to see
that all is well. This is a most searching process entailing
every intimate detail. It is, too, a comfort to the sheep for
only in this way can its hidden problems be laid bare before the
This is what was meant in Psalm 139:23, 24 when the psalmist
wrote, "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my
thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me
in the way everlasting."
If we will allow it, if we will submit to it, God by His
Word will search us. There will be no "pulling the wool over His
eyes." He will get below the surface, behind the front of our old
self-life and expose things that need to be made right.
This is a process from which we need not shrink. It is not
something to avoid. It is done in concern and compassion for our
welfare. The Great Shepherd of our souls has our own best
interests at heart when He so searches us. What a comfort this
should be to the child of God, who can trust in God's care.
Wool in Scripture speaks of the self-life, self-will,
self-assertion, self-pride. God has to get below this and do a
deep work in our wills to right the wrongs which are often
bothering us beneath the surface. So often we put on a fine front
and brave, bold exterior when really deep down below there needs
to be some remedy applied.
Finally the shepherd's rod is an instrument of Protection
both for himself and his sheep when they are in danger. It is
used both as a defense and a deterrent against anything that
The skilled shepherd uses his rod to drive off predators
like coyotes, wolves, cougars or stray dogs. Often it is used to
beat the brush, discouraging snakes and other creatures from
disturbing the flock. In extreme cases, such as David recounted
to Saul, the psalmist no doubt used his rod to attack the lion
and the bear that came to raid his flocks.
Once in Kenya photographing elephants, I was being
accompanied by a young Masai herder who carried a club in his
hand. We came to the crest of a hill from which we could see a
herd of elephants in the thick bush below us. To drive them out
into the open we decided to dislodge a boulder and roll it down
the slope. As we heaved and pushed against the great rock, a
cobra, coiled beneath it, suddenly came into view ready to
strike. In a split second the alert shepherd boy lashed out with
his club killing the snake on the spot. The weapon had never left
his hand even while we worked on the rock.
'Thy rod ... comfort[s] me.' In that instant I saw the
meaning of this phrase in a new light. It was the rod ever ready
in the shepherd's hand that had saved the day for us.
It was the rod of God's Word that Christ, our Good Shepherd,
used in His own encounter with that serpent Satan - during His
desert temptation. It is the same Word of God which we can count
on again and again to counter the assaults and attacks of Satan.
And it matters not whether the guise He assumes is that of a
subtle serpent or a roaring lion that desires to destroy us.
There is no substitute for the Scriptures in coping with the
complexities of our social order. We live in an evermore involved
and difficult milieu. We are part of a world of men and women
whose code of conduct is contrary to all that Christ has
advocated. To live with such people is to be ever exposed to
enormous temptations of all sorts. Some people are very subtle,
very smooth, very sophisticated. Others are capable of outright,
violent, vituperative attacks against the children of God. In
every situation and under every circumstance there is comfort in
the knowledge that God's Word can meet and master the difficulty
if we will rely on it.
We turn now to discuss and consider the shepherd's staff. In
a sense the staff, more than any other item of his personal
equipment, identifies the shepherd as a shepherd. No one in any
other profession carries a shepherd's staff. It is uniquely an
instrument used for the care and management of sheep - and only
sheep. It will not do for cattle, horses or hogs. It is designed,
shaped and adapted especially to the needs of sheep. And it is -
used only for their benefit.
The staff is essentially a symbol of the concern, the
compassion that a shepherd has for his charges. No other single
word can better describe its function on behalf of the flock than
that it is for their comfort.
Whereas the rod conveys the concept of authority, of power,
of discipline, of defense against danger, the word "staff" speaks
of all that is longsuffering and kind.
The shepherd's staff is normally a long, slender stick,
often with a crook or hook on one end. It is selected with care
by the owner; it is shaped, smoothed, and cut to best suit his
own personal use.
Some of the most moving memories I carry with me from Africa
and the Middle East are of seeing elderly shepherds in the
twilight of life, standing silently at sunset, leaning on their
staves, watching their flocks with contented spirits. Somehow the
staff is of special comfort to the shepherd himself. In the tough
tramps and during the long weary watches with his sheep he leans
on it for support and strength. It becomes to him a most precious
comfort and help in his duties.
Just as the rod of God is emblematic of the Word of God, so
the staff of God is symbolic of the Spirit of God. In Christ's
dealings with us as individuals there is the essence of the
sweetness, the comfort and consolation, the gentle correction
brought about by the work of His gracious Spirit.
There are three areas of sheep management in which the staff
plays a most signicant role. The first of these lies in drawing
sheep together into an intimate relationship. The shepherd will
use his staff to gently lift a newborn lamb and bring it to its
mother if they become separated. He does this because he does not
wish to have the ewe reject her offspring if it bears the odor of
his hands upon it. I have watched skilled shepherds moving
swiftly with their staffs amongst thousands of ewes that were
lambing simultaneously. With deft but gentle strokes the newborn
lambs are lifted with the staff and placed side by side with
their dams. It is a touching sight that can hold one spellbound
But in precisely the same way, the staff is used by the
shepherd to reach out and catch individual sheep, young or old
and draw them close to himself for intimate examination. The
staff is very useful this way for the shy and timid sheep that
normally tend to keep at a distance from the shepherd.
Similarly in the Christian life we find the gracious Holy
Spirit, "The Comforter," drawing folks together into a warm,
personal fellowship with one another. It is also He who draws us
to Christ, for as we are told in Revelation, "The Spirit and the
bride say, Come."
The staff is also used for guiding sheep. Again and again I
have seen a shepherds use his staff to guide his sheep gently
into a new path or through some gate or along dangerous,
difficult routes. He does not use it actually to beat the beast.
Rather, the tip of the long slender stick is laid gently against
the animal's side and the pressure applied guides the sheep in
the way the owner wants it to go. Thus the sheep is reassured of
its proper path.
Sometimes I have been fascinated to see how a shepherd will
actually hold his staff against the side of some sheep that is a
special pet or favorite, simply so that they "are in touch." They
will walk along this way almost as though it were "hand-in-hand."
The sheep obviously enjoys this special attention from the
shepherd and revels in the close, personal, intimate contact
between them. To be treated in this special way by the shepherd
is to know comfort in a deep dimension. It is a delightful and
In our walk with God we are told explicitly by Christ
Himself that it would be His Spirit who would be sent to guide
us, and to lead us into all truth (John 16:13). This same
gracious Spirit takes the truth of God, the Word of God, and
makes it plain to our hearts and minds and spiritual
understanding. It is He who gently, tenerly, but persistently
says to us, "This is the way-walk in it." And as we comply and
cooperate with His gentle promptings a sense of safety, comfort
and well-being envelops us.
It is He, too, who comes quietly but emphatically to make
the life of Christ, my Shepherd, real and personal and intimate
to me. Through Him I am "in touch" with Christ. There steals over
me the keen awareness that I am His and He is mine. The gracious
Spirit continually brings home to me the acute consciousness that
I am God's child and He is my Father. In all of this there is
enormous comfort and a sublime sense of "oneness," of
"belonging," of "being in His care," and hence the object of His
The Christian life is not just one of subscribing certain
doctrines or believing certain facts. Essential as all of this
confidence in the Scriptures may be, there is, as well, the
actual reality of experiencing and knowing firsthand the feel of
His touch - the sense of His Spirit upon my spirit. There is for
the true child of God that intimate, subtle, yet magnificent
experience of sensing the Comforter at his side. This is not
imagination - it is the genuine, bona-fide reality of everyday
life. There is a calm, quiet repose in the knowledge that He is
there to direct even in the most minute details of daily living.
He can be relied on to assist us in every decision, and in this
there lies tremendous comfort for the Christian.
Over and over I have turned to Him and in audible, open
language asked for His opinion on a problem. I have asked, "What
would you do in this case?" or I have said, "You are here now.
You know all the complexities; tell me precisely what is the best
procedure at this point." And the thrilling thing is He does just
that. He actually conveys the mind of Christ in the matter to my
mind. Then the right decisions are made with confidence. It is
when I do not do this that I end up in difficulty. It is then
that I find myself in a jam of some sort. And here again the
gracious Spirit comes to my rescue just as the shepherd rescues
his sheep out of the situations into which their own stupidity
Being stubborn creatures sheep often get into the most
ridiculous and preposterous dilemmas. I have seen my own sheep,
greedy for one more mouthful of green grass, climb down steep
cliffs where they slipped and fell into the sea. Only my long
shepherd's staff could lift them out of the water back onto solid
ground again. One winter day I spent several hours rescuing a ewe
that had done this very thing several times before. Her stubbor-
nness was her undoing.
Another common occurrence was to find sheep stuck fast in
labyrinths of wild roses or brambles where they had pushed in to
find a few stray mouthfuls of green grass. Soon the thorns were
so hooked in their wool they could not possibly pull free, tug as
they might. Only the use of a staff could free them from their
Likewise with us. Many of our jams and impasses are of our
own making. In stubbon, self-willed, self-assertion we keep
pushing ourselves into a situation where we cannot extricate
ourselves. Then in tenderness, compassion and care our Shepherd
comes to us. He draws near and in tenderness lifts us by His
Spirit out of the difficulty and dilemma. What patience God has
with us! What longsuffering and compassion! What forgiveness!
Thy staff comforts me! Your Spirit, 0 Christ, is my
To be continued