By Elizabeth Prata
The LORD, the Psalmist’s Shepherd. A Psalm of David.
The LORD is my shepherd,
I will not be in need.
He lets me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For the sake of His name.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.
Certainly goodness and faithfulness will follow me all the days of my life,
And my dwelling will be in the house of the LORD forever.
As my elder read the Psalm during our time of congregational prayer, I wondered, how could a rod comfort a person? Isn’t a rod a metaphor for God’s justice, or his discipline? I made a mental note to look this up, and went back to listening.
I didn’t forget my mental note, and once home I looked up about a Shepherd’s rod and staff, also known as a “crook.” We’re all familiar, I think, with the crook. It’s the shepherd’s tool, the hooked rod usually associated with that profession. It is the symbol of the Shepherd’s Conference-
The staff usually had a curved end that was large enough to hook around a sheep or lamb’s neck so as to prevent it from falling into a ditch, or to reroute away from something dangerous, like poisonous plants or a snake’s nest. It was long enough to do this before the shepherd entered its fear sphere and then bolt.
The staff and the rod were almost an extension of the shepherd’s arm. It represented power, control, and authority of the flock. The rod was authoritative. You remember that it was the staff that God used to demonstrate His power through Moses to Pharaoh. (Exodus 4:17).
The Shepherd relied on the rod to beat back predators, protecting the flock. He would use it to poke a bush and look for snakes. He used the rod to scan the sheep. Their fluffy wool could hide parasites, skin diseases etc, so the shepherd used the rod to part the wool in order to examine its skin and wool for anything untoward. The shepherd’s hands would then run all over the sheep to make sure he was healthy and not beginning with some disease.
Each night as the sheep were brought into the shed or the fold, they would pass under the rod, which was used as a counting stick. Each sheep was touched by the rod in counting so that the shepherd ensured all of them were present, and none were lost. This was called ‘passing under the rod”.
The rod was also used for disciplining the sheep. Shepherds in Africa had a rod with a knob at the end called a knob-kerrie they would hurl at a sheep to startle it from, say, not running down a cliff or into a ditch if they couldn’t get there in time.
That David, the shepherd, said ‘the rod and the staff comfort me’ now becomes easier to understand. Jesus is THE Shepherd. His staff guides us, keeps us away from the ditch or falling down a cliff. His rod unearths the snakes and the poisonous weeds. His staff guides us to fresh clover and green pastures, still waters of living water. He counts each and every one of us so that none are lost, knowing where each of us is at any given moment. As we pass under his rod he checks us for disease or injury.
Even the rod of discipline, if it becomes necessary, is for our good. Don’t eat that poisonous weed! Don’t get near that wolf! Don’t run down that ditch! It is a comfort that the Shepherd can see from the heights of His vantage point the things we cannot. Our low vantage point and limited view often leads us to trouble, but He leads us to still waters and green pastures. He uses his rod and his staff to do it, and this is such a comfort.