Posted by: Heather | November 7, 2010

Psalm 23: Thy Rod and Thy Staff

 

 

Psalm 23:4b “…thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

(You may read previous discussion on Verse 1, Verse 2, Verse 3, and Verse 4 here.)

For a shepherd to do his job well, he would need to carry a minimal load, especially in biblical days when they didn’t have the luxury of power equipment, like technology affords us today.   The rod and the staff were the instruments of choice in the profession.  Each had a very specific function, and both were necessary to carry out the responsibilities assigned to these young boys, only one of which is assuring the safety of the flock.

Each shepherd boy chose his own wood for both pieces of equipment.  A sapling tree or a piece of wood of comparable size was chosen.  The size of the wood was determined by the size and strength of the boy that would use it.  After the wood was chosen, it was carved into a rod that fit the size of the young man’s hand exactly.  This piece of wood became almost like the right arm of the shepherd.  He would practice with it for hours on end to learn how to use it with great speed, and throw it with precision.

When out in the field, if danger was to approach, such as a wild animal, coyote, or some other threat, the shepherd would quickly and almost effortlessly use the rod to strike and kill, or scare away the intruder.  It was likely the rod that David used to kill the lion and the bear in scripture.

The rod was also used as a tool for discipline.  If a sheep decided to wander away, the shepherd would quickly throw the rod toward the straying one to startle it, so it would run back to the flock.  If any were approaching danger, such as poisonous weeds that might be mistaken for food, or going toward a dangerous place, the rod could be used to jab it, so it would move away.

There is a term in scripture called ‘passing under the rod’.  This term is associated with counting the sheep.  As the sheep would pass under the outstretched rod of the shepherd, they would be counted to make sure all were present.  But, there is another reason for this.  Every so often, the shepherd would need to examine the sheep for wounds, disease, or other problems.  Because their wool is so thick, it’s difficult to see if there are any problems on the body, or underlying issues that need to be addressed.  As the sheep passes under the rod, it is stopped.  The shepherd will take the rod, and use it to part the wool.  This way, he can see if there are any problems with the sheep’s skin, and run his hands over the body to be sure there are no issues that would not be detected otherwise.  It was a very thorough process to check each one completely.

Because of the fleece’s thickness, it was possible for owners of sheep that took them to shows to disguise problems by cutting the coat in a way that would mask the underlying problem.  However, if a judge was wise, they would part the wool and check underneath it.  This is where we got the term ‘to pull the wool over someone’s eyes’.

The staff has a totally different use altogether.  This is the piece of equipment most of us associate with shepherds.  The staff is a long stick, also chosen specifically by the shepherd.  It is shaped just for him, and how he needs to use it.

The staff has a crook at one end.  The interesting thing about this is that the staff is only for sheep.  It is shaped and sized in such a way that it fits no other animal.  It can be used to draw a fearful or timid sheep to the shepherd for care.  When a sheep begins to wander off the path, the shepherd may use the staff to put pressure on its side to guide it back to the right way.  It can be used to rescue a sheep from a place of danger, or free it when it gets its wool caught in a thorny hedge.  It is also used if a newborn lamb becomes separated from its mother.  Because some sheep can reject lambs that have been handled by humans, a shepherd will lift the baby on his staff and place it back with its mother.

These are two very different instruments with two very different purposes.  The rod represents discipline, authority, and protection from danger.  The staff, in contrast, represents kindness and gentleness.

Although both are used for different reasons, they are both a comfort to the sheep.  The rod is used for safety purposes, and to check the sheep for problems on its own body that may go undetected.  The staff is used for gentle guidance and reassurance.

This section of Psalm 23:4 is the 2nd part of the verse.  It is on the heels of ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me’.  The rod and the staff are intimately associated with the darkness of the valley and the trials we go through.  As sheep, these trying times show the LORD and us what we’re made of.  All of the wounds, disease, and imperfections in us become bare before Him when we’re in times of dark trial.  He must examine us to ‘see what we’re made of’, and suffering will bring it out, for good or for bad.  We must trust that it’s for our own good, and He only does it because He loves us.  If these things are never brought to the surface, they can’t be dealt with and overcome.

Even though this part of going through trials might be unpleasant, it is a great comfort to know that He wouldn’t do it if He didn’t love us.  Even during the times of inspection and examination, He gently guides us, and reassures us of His presence through it all.  Even when we can’t feel it, He draws us close to Himself.

Jesus, our Good Shepherd, can hold the rod of authority and discipline in perfect balance with the staff of longsuffering and kindness.  It is He alone that brings us comfort through all of our times of trial and testing.

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Responses

  1. So enjoyable to read the background to shepherding, and this led me to a sudden thought: if ‘chesed’ (often translated as mercy, but more accurately ‘covenant faithfulness’) can be symbolised by the rod, then ‘racham’, often translated as ‘bowels of mercy’ or ‘pity’ could be symbolised by the staff. One is firm and exact according to covenant laws, the other is soft and ‘from the heart’, tender mercy. King David appealed to God for both after he committed his sin with Bathsheba. I shall delve into this wonderful subject even more now! Thank you!

    • Beatrice,

      Thanks for your comment, and giving me another point of view to study!

  2. This part is intriguing-
    ” If a sheep decided to wander away, the shepherd would quickly throw the rod toward the straying one to startle it, so it would run back to the flock. If any were approaching danger, such as poisonous weeds that might be mistaken for food, or going toward a dangerous place, the rod could be used to jab it, so it would move away.”

    Rather than throwing the rod TOWARD the sheep it was actually thrown In Front Of the sheep. Sheep are guided almost entirely by instinct. They follow whatever has captured their interest, and by passing a flying object through their line of sight- the sheep is effectively protected from the consequences of his unwise attentions.

    The Rod therefore represents an Intervention rather than a punishment (what you termed Discipline).

    Very enjoyable, on the whole.

    greenegem

    • Thanks very much greenegem! I appreciate the clarification. I read many articles and researched quite awhile to try to find material that represented the actual viewpoint of a shepherd to do this series. I’m always glad for someone to mention when they know something more correct.

  3. […]   Psalm 23:4b "…thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." (You may read previous discussion on Verse 1, Verse 2, Verse 3, and Verse 4 here.) For a shepherd to do his job well, he would need to carry a minimal load, especially in biblical days when they didn't have the luxury of power equipment, like technology affords us today.   The rod and the staff were the instruments of choice in the profession.  Each had a very specific function, and b … Read More […]

  4. Very well daid, thank you!

    • Thanks so much…thank you for reading!


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