KJV - 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
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The Hebrew word for rod is "shebet" which means staff, branch, offshoot, club or scepter. The staff is "mish-eneth" translated as staff or support. A different word "mat-tah" is used in the context of the rod that Moses held in Exodus 4:2 but the two are related. The rod is noted as a tool for chastisement (Prov 13:24). Back to Ps 23, the presence of these two instruments had a twin effect on the sheep. First they cautioned them that the shepherd may apply it against an errant sheep. Secondly, they gave them confidence that the shepherd would protect them against wild animals using the same rod and staff. They also symbolized the shepherd's instruments of guidance for his sheep. David's declaration in Psalm 23:4 is evidence of his total trust in God's rule as his ultimate source of protection and guidance even in the darkest or most trying moments of his life. The Valley of the Shadow of Death was reckoned as one of the most dangerous places not only for sheep but for shepherds too. They could slip and fall from dangerous cliffs or be attacked by wild animals. They could also loose their path and be vulnerable to prey. The sheep therefore totally relied on the expert skill of the shepherd to secure them across this dangerous terrain which took them across to the good pastures. As a shepherd boy David knew these terrains well and understood the practical dangers that lurked there. David suffered the dark valley experience when he sinned with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:3-5) and lost the son from the ilicit affair under God's judgment (2Sam 12:15-23); He later suffered a humiliating palace coup mounted by Absalom his spoilt son (2Sam 15:1-18:19) among other low moments of his life. Yet David bounced back when he repented his sins and emerged stronger and humbled because God showed him grace and Jesus our Saviour came through his lineage. God is in the business of refining and guiding us to a greater and better future but our journey takes us through dangerous and perilous terrains. However, those who place their trust in Him can rest assured that His eyes can see through the dark valleys and his powerful hand will carry us through our pilgrimage journey so that we emerge more obedient and approved of God. We can (for argument sake) relate the staff and the rod to the Word of God and His Spirit which admonish and guide us in righteousness and comfort us in times of peril. They both symbolize the authority and the presence of God and His reign over us. There are moments when the word will speak harshly to our foolish decisions and conduct and there are times when the word illuminates the path for us more clearly and the Holy Spirit comforts us in our pain. The two are indispensable to our victory over sin and evil and the source of our spiritual guide to the green pastures for our souls. Just as the shepherd has total control over his sheep, so does God superintend over our lives in all facets if we yield to Him. At times He chastises us for our disobedience but His rod does no harm but is like bitter medicine that treats the sick. Ps 23:4 encourages us to focus on the end result rather than the painful process of spiritual suffering. Similarly, James 1:1-4 exhorts us to count it all joy when we suffer various trials because the ultimate result is to refine our faith. This is the comforting truth because when we suffer under God's chastisement we improve in our spiritual character. Finally, we conclude with Hebrews 12:6 (KJV) which declares "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth." This is the ultimate lesson in Psalm 23:4.
Psalm 23 is known as "The Shepherd's Psalm", so many of the metaphors in this piece of poetry, or Psalm, are relative to being a shepherd or a sheep in God's pasture field. The rod and staff were tools of the sheep trade. They were used to protect the sheep, to guide the sheep, to move obstacles, and to save the sheep from difficult circumstances, like getting caught in bramble or falling over an embankment. So a sheep could take comfort in knowing that the shepherd was there to protect and guide him. In the night hours a shepherd had to be on guard for predators like wild animals that would harm his flock. He would be listening for sounds that would indicate the sheep were in danger. If a shepherd encountered a difficult circumstance, he would often put a notch in his staff, a reminder of the story. This was much like the old gun slingers of the west, notching their rifles. If he killed a lion or bear, he would put a notch in his staff. The shepherd's staff became like a journal to him. In the night hours, perhaps when fear had the greatest potential, he could run his fingers down over his staff and remember how the Lord had helped him in each circumstance, and had protected him from danger and predators. By retracing his story of the Lord's provision and protection, a shepherd would find comfort through his rod and staff, that God had continually been there by his side, helping him through difficult circumstances.
The rod is God's word that puts us right when we're wrong, and the staff is God's strength, that he gives us when we go through trouble.
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