Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
The Hebrew word here translated “rod” has a long history. Its meanings include rod, scepter, and weapon. It does not refer to a “walking stick” as we often see this depicted in drawings. The rod is the shepherd’s primary offensive weapon for protecting the flock from enemies, whether the threats are wild animals or human thieves. A shepherd’s rod is about two and a half feet long with a mace-like end that the shepherd embeds heavy pieces of iron. When used as a weapon it becomes intimidating and deadly.
The rod and staff mentioned in Psalm 23, verse 4 represents God’s defense and His divine guidance. His rod is used to drive off our enemy, Satan and his minions. God’s staff is used as guidance to the flock and to lift them back on the pathway when they fell.
People like sheep are stubborn. We must be directed back. Often, we don’t return until we have exhausted every other option. The illustration below will shed light on that bit of truth.
Dr. Andrew Bonar told me how, in the Highlands of Scotland, a sheep would often wander off into the rocks and get into places they couldn’t get out of. The grass on these mountains is very sweet, and the sheep like it, and they will jump down ten or twelve feet, and then they can’t jump back again, and the shepherd hears them bleating in distress. They may be there for days until they have eaten all the grass. The shepherd will wait until they are so faint they cannot stand, and then they will put a rope around him, and he will pull that sheep up out of the jaws of death. “Why don’t they go down there when the sheep first gets there?” I asked. “Ah!” He said, “they are so very foolish they would dash right over the precipice and be killed if they did!” And that is the way with men; they won’t go back to God till they have no friends and have lost everything. If you are a wanderer, I tell you that the Good Shepherd will bring you back the moment you have given up trying to save yourself and are willing to let Him save you His own way. – Moody’s Anecdotes, pp. 70-71.
The various uses for this rod mentioned in the Bible include:
- To count sheep.
And every tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. Lev. 27:32
Going Deeper. Tithing is misunderstood. For the ancient Israelites, there were three tithes: 1) the general tithe (Lev 27), 2) the tithe of the sacred meal with the Levite (Deut. 14:22–27), and (3) the tithe paid every three years to the poor (Deut. 14:28–29). In Leviticus, Moses addresses the general tithe. The method the shepherd used to calculate his portion is counting every tenth animal that passed under the shepherd’s rod (27:32).
As the shepherd returns to the sheepfold in the evening, he holds his rod horizontally across the entrance just high enough for the sheep to pass under it one at a time. That way he can track the sheep. If a sheep is missing, the shepherd will immediately begin searching.
In the sheepfold of God, He uses the shepherd’s rod as an alarm system to assure the safety of the flock. If any sheep is lost, Jesus the Good Shepherd will overturn heaven and earth until the lost lamb is found.
- To protect the sheep from wild animals and thieves.
Lorrie Anderson, missionary to the head-shrinking Candoshi Shapra Indians of Peru, was looking for a quiet place for her daily time of Bible reading and prayer, so she went down to the edge of the river. After reading the Bible, she took up her prayer list. Eyes closed, she did not see the deadly anaconda weaving through the water until it struck, burying its fangs into her flesh. It withdrew to strike, hitting her arm again and again as it held her, screaming, in its coils. It reared up for the death blows. Then suddenly the giant snake, never known to release its prey, relaxed its grip and slithered off through the water. While Lorrie was being treated, a witch doctor from a nearby village burst into the hut and stared at her. She couldn’t believe Lorrie had survived. She said her son-in-law, also a witch doctor, had chanted to the spirit of the anaconda that morning and sent it to kill the young missionary. “I’m certain,” Lorrie said, “that except for the protection of God, it would have worked.” – Daily Bread, August 13, 1990.
The psalmist can meditate on the shepherd’s rod and say to himself, “I am safe from any threat and all harm. My confidence is my shepherd. He is skilled, armed with his rod and I know he is skilled in using it. The shepherd’s staff and his love for me are all I need for protection.”