How can a rod and staff bring comfort? W. Phillip Keller in his book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 brings some clarity to the issue. A rod and a staff are the universal instruments used by shepherds.
The rod serves four basic functions. First, the rod stands “as a symbol of the shepherd’s strength, his power, and his authority in any serious situation.” Second, it is the instrument the shepherd uses to discipline and correct wayward sheep that wandered off. “With it, the owner is able to carry out effective control of his flock in every situation.” Third, the shepherd uses his rod to examine and count the sheep. The Old Testament term was “passing under the rod and 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.” Finally, the rod serves as an “instrument of protection for the shepherd and his sheep when they are in danger. It is used both as a defense and a deterrent against anything that would attack.”
The spiritual parallel to the rod is God’s Word. It stands as absolute Truth and has full authority over our lives. It serves as an “extension of God’s mind, will and intentions to man.” The clarity of God’s Word “keeps our lives free from confusion and chaos.” His Word brings peace and “quiet serenity.”
When we make bad choices and sin, God uses His Word as a tool to discipline us. “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.” What would we do without it?
The passing under the rod was particularly interesting to me because it speaks of the shepherd peeling back the wool and revealing problems that lurk beneath. The Good Shepherd wants to do this in my life. He wants to "examine me with care to see that all is well… for only in this way can my hidden problems be laid bare before the Shepherd.” We are so good at hiding things. Presenting a perfect front but inside we’re filled with hurt, pain, disease. How can our Good Shepherd heal us without examining our hearts? As David said in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me oh 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.”
Who doesn’t want to be protected? As a follower of Jesus, I can count on His Rod, the Bible, to counter the attacks and assaults of Satan with truth. “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.”
The staff was used solely as a source of comfort for the sheep and “speaks of all that is longsuffering and kind.” When I read this, I laughed. How can a curved stick be a source of comfort? The author elaborates with three uses for the staff.
First, the shepherd uses it to draw sheep together into intimate relationship. If a newborn lamb is separated from his mother, the shepherd uses the crook of the staff to lift the lamb and reunite it with the ewe.
Second, the shepherd uses the staff to draw the sheep “close to himself for intimate examination.” He can, for the purpose of establishing relationship, use his staff to pull in timid sheep that would typically keep their from the shepherd.
The third purpose of the staff is to guide the sheep. The shepherd will reach out his staff and tenderly lay it on a sheep. The sheep is comforted by his touch and with some gentle pressure, the shepherd guides the sheep in the direction he desires.
The spiritual parallel to the staff is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s job is to provide comfort to believers - to be the still, small voice that stirs our soul to desire intimacy with God and intimacy with other people. Jesus promised that God would send the Holy Spirit and that “the Spirit of Truth will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13).
The author beautifully says, “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.”
No matter how big or small the issue is, if I take the time to ask God for guidance and direction, the Holy Spirit “conveys the mind of Christ in the matter to my mind.” It brings me great comfort knowing “there is a calm, quiet repose in the knowledge that He is there to direct even in the most minute details of daily living.”
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. Amen.