A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 [Part 8: Your Rod & Staff ]

 It has been quite a few weeks since my last post on this wonderful book. A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller is just that: an insider's look at this familiar psalm from the perspective of a man who was both a shepherd of people (a lay pastor) and a shepherd of sheep. See HERE for my previous chapter reviews and insight thus far.

This week, I am focusing on the latter half of verse four:

"Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me"

It is common for shepherds to be minimalists when it comes to what they bring their long treks with their flock. Only the essentials are worth the extra weight and effort, especially when climbing up deep hills and rocky paths. Typically, a rod and staff fit that criteria for shepherds during King David's time as well as contemporary shepherds in nomadic cultures. But, what are their purposes? 

The Rod

The rod is used primarily for discipline and protection. A shepherd may fling the rod to alert a wandering sheep of danger, such as a nearby cliff or a poisonous plant and can correct that same sheep with the rod afterwards to deter it from aimlessly wandering into danger again. Likewise, the shepherd uses a rod to protect his flock from predators. His rod is whittled and shaped to fit his hand perfectly and he practices his aim and precision so that he can swiftly throw the rod at wolves, foxes, or other animals that are preying on his sheep. His rod symbolizes his authority, power, and defense. It is his weapon and he knows how to use it.  The rod is also used for close inspection. A shepherd can use the rod to gently separate the thick wool and look for scabs and ensure the underlying skin is healthy. The sheep can find comfort in the shepherd's skillful protection because he is capable and strong enough to do what the sheep cannot do on their own.

There is an often negative connotation of the rod with disciplining children, because it often entails spanking. "Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care to discipline them." (Proverbs 13:24). I will admit, this verse makes me squeamish since it historically has been used to justify severe corporal punishment. But it was helpful to read a few commentaries on the verse. David Guzik mentions that "proper discipline for a child comes from both wisdom and love" and should be done promptly after the disobedient act so that there can be a connection between the error and the correction. This is a general principle that can be applied whatever type of discipline a parent may use, whether some form of physical discipline or a different form of correction. Matthew Henry explains that if parents refuse to administer any kind of discipline, in a way they are hating them even if their initial focus is to avoid discipline as a way to love them.  They are essentially abandoning them to their own sinful devices, inherited from the original sinners, Adam and Eve. He argues that discipline "by all proper methods, severe ones when gentle ones will not serve, make them sensible of their faults and afraid of offending." While I absolutely do not want my son afraid of me (so that latter part of Henry's quote bothers me), some sort of correction is needed to help guide him away from disobedient, sinful attitudes and actions that will ultimately hurt him, hurt others around him, or hurt his relationship with God. So, whatever form of discipline we end up using, the overarching  translation of "rod of discipline"  that I am accepting is that  we as the parents should show authority balanced with love and wisdom to guide our son toward God's ways as well healthy/safe living and respect for others, defend him from sinful and unwise living, and teach him the consequences of disobedience in a way that he will remember but also feel loved in the process. In this way, we will be acting like a shepherd, and ultimately, like Jesus the Good Shepherd, which is a reminder that we can only do this with His help. 

From a spiritual perspective, the rod can symbolize the Bible. It is authoritative, directing us towards God's way of living, showing us the right way when we go astray. The Holy Spirit can use verses from the Bible to warn of sinful patterns when a Christian is making sinful choices and can bring conviction (not condemnation) when we have strayed into sin. Christ, the Good Shepherd, wants us to walk in righteousness, and His Word provides us the ability and direction to obey Him. 

"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." (p. 119)

And just as a rod can be used to detect if the sheep's skin is unhealthy under all that heavy wool, God can search our hearts and minds for anything that does not please Him, as it says in Psalm 139:23-24 ("Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting"). He does this through the Word as well as the Holy Spirit, which is symbolized by the staff. 

The Staff

The staff, on the other hand, is a slender stick with a hook that symbolizes patience and gentleness. With the staff, a shepherd can draw his sheep towards him in a gentle embrace. He can also use the staff to draw sheep towards each other for closer intimacy: a newborn lamb can be reunited with his mother if separated by a shepherd picking it up with a staff (because picking it up with his hands could cause the ewe to reject the lamb due to the new odor from the shepherd). He can also stroke his sheep to communicate his affection and nearness with the staff. Another primary purpose for the staff is for guiding. The tip of the curved end of the staff can gently apply pressure to sheep to steer them in the right direction like a little tug on the hand of a toddler when turning a corner on a walk. 

"But when He, the Spirit of Truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on His own; He will speak only what He hears, and He will tell you what is yet to come." (John 16:13).

Just as a shepherd can use the crooked end of the staff to gently pull a sheep out of a dangerous position, such as a ditch it wandered into, so can Jesus lift us out of our own self-imposed difficulties. Our pride and selfishness can often derail us from following the Good Shepherd to going our own way and we often get stuck in our own self-made ditches. What a comfort that He can rescue us from ourselves, patiently and compassionately redirecting us back to Himself. Other times, it is by no fault of our own that we encounter tragedies, difficult circumstances, and pain that make us feel lost or distant from the Good Shepherd. His presence and nearness through the Holy Spirit helps to comfort us in those times. His gentleness and compassionate embrace, like that of the staff used by the shepherd, draws us near to Himself.

"It is He who gently, tenderly, 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 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 special affection... He can be relied upon to assist us in every decision, and in this there lies tremendous comfort for the Christian"  (p. 122-123). 

Our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, is the perfect balance of the rod and staff. He does bring discipline and correction into our lives when we have gone astray, and He is all-powerful and has authority and lordship over all of His creation. But that does not make Him a cruel, unfeeling, distant dictator deity.  He is also loving, compassionate, full of grace and mercy, like a kind shepherd using a staff to comfort his sheep. If He were only loving and did not concern Himself with justice, righteousness, truth, He would be weak because He would be allowing all manner of sin and debauchery from His children, which would lead to danger, hurt, suffering, and separation from Himself since He is holy. But He is both sovereign and good. What a comfort we can draw from his rod and staff!

Questions for Reflection:

1. What positive or negative connotations do "rod" and "staff" have for you? Did that change while reading Keller's descriptions of them? 

2. When have you experienced God's comfort, guidance, or gentle re-direction? 

3. In what way can a parent, sibling, or mentor be shepherd-like in pointing others to God's Word and the Holy Spirit for guidance, correction, protection, and comfort? 


Here is a playlist I created with songs about Psalm 23 for further reflection, meditation, and prayer