I recently had a conversation with a pastor about Psalm 23 that got me thinking about the famous phrase in verse 4: “your rod and your staff- they comfort me.” I’ve never really thought about it, but in what way is a sheep comforted by a rod and a staff? I’m no expert on shepherding, but “comfort” wouldn’t be the first thought that would pop into my mind when I think about the shepherd’s rod and staff.
I think we have two pictures here with the rod and staff: protection and correction. The protection motif is easy enough to understand; when a dangerous animal would threathen the sheep, the shepherd’s job is to ward off the potential (or real) attack. A rod could certainly be used for this, along with something like a sling and stone (think: David). I suppose it’s easy enough to see how comfort could be drawn from the knowledge that the shepherd stands ready with rod in hand.
But the correction connected to the staff is not as comforting in most of our minds. Why would a shepherd need a staff? For walking, of course. But that doesn’t bring comfort to the sheep (unless, I suppose, their shepherd is elderly a unstable, but I doubt that’s the metaphor here).
The staff was used to guide the sheep. Now, that sounds unremarkable until you really think about it. Does the shepherd use the staff as a pointer, “hey, let’s go to that lake over there!”? Doubtful. Does he throw it like a javelin out ahead of the sheep and they rush to it? Ridiculous.
No, the shepherd uses the staff to prod a straying sheep. When the sheep would wander off the path, away from the rest of the group, it put itself in danger. It doesn’t realize there is danger in separating from the group and out of sight of the shepherd. But the danger is nonetheless quite real; the sheep could fall into a pit or into the jaws of a wolf.
So the staff provided comfort in an unusual way. The shepherd used the staff to “encourage” the sheep to rejoin the safety of the flock. This would mean, of course, poking or perhaps even whacking the sheep. That staff would actually cause some level of physical pain for the sheep- comfort, indeed! I’m not saying that the shepherd would lean back and tee off like a home run derby contestant, but we can’t exactly call it a gentle massage, either. Pain? Sure, but for the right purposes. That is where true comfort is found.
When we think about God as our comforter, I wonder which picture more readily comes to mind: God giving us a nice, firm poke with his staff or God giving us a nice big hug. Now, to be sure, the picture of the shepherd picking up the hurt sheep and carrying it on his shoulders is perfectly applicable to God. But that is not the picture in Psalm 23:4.
We ought to expect that when we stray away from the right path, even the path that leads through a dark, shadowy valley, God stands ready to correct our course. It will not necessarily feel pleasant or loving, but it will be true comfort. When such “comfort” does come, we must remind ourselves that God is simply doing his job as the Great Shepherd.