The 23rd Psalm is all about how the Lord leads His people. My favorite part of the Psalm is verse 2:
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. (K.J.V.)
Green pastures and still waters, you gotta love those.
Verse 4, however, describes the sheep being led to a much different place:
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. (K.J.V.)
Finding comfort in the serene tranquility of green pastures and still waters? Sure, put me down for that. Finding comfort in the Lord’s rod and staff while He’s leading me through the valley of the shadow of death? Sorry, I think I’ll pass..
First of all, the place itself isn’t exactly inviting. I mean, it’s not called the valley of the shadow of life, is it? Second, when I hear the word “rod” or the word “staff” my mind doesn’t automatically associate either with comfort. Having studied this issue, however, I have to admit that I’ve learned that my mental association is incorrect.
I’ll start with the rod. A shepherd’s rod is more or less a club he uses to either defend his sheep against predators or to keep a wayward sheep from going far astray. The rod’s purpose is not to cruelly beat a sheep into submission to keep the creature in lock step or to wale away in discipline on it for having wandered from the flock. There’s certainly no comfort in either of those propositions. No, the rod is an instrument whereby the shepherd protects the sheep from enemies and protects the sheep from itself.
Author Phillip Keller grew up in the African country of Kenya as the son of missionary parents. By far his most famous book is A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. In that book, he writes the following about how he watched the shepherd boys of Kenya make their rods from young saplings and through much practice learn to wield them effectively:
The sapling itself is shaped to exactly fit the owner’s hand. After he completes it, the shepherd boy spends hours practicing with this club, learning how to throw it with amazing speed and accuracy. It becomes his main weapon of defense for both himself and his sheep. I used to watch the native lads having competitions to see who could throw his rod with the greatest accuracy across the greatest distance…The rod was what he relied on to safeguard both himself and his flock in danger.
With Keller’s description in mind, we can understand how a shepherd’s rod can bring comfort to a sheep. A poisonous snake is lying in the path of the sheep. The rod comes flying and WHACK; the snake is either dead or fled. A lion is stalking the flock and getting within striking distance. The rod comes flying and WHACK; the lamb doesn’t look so appealing anymore. Christian, don’t you love the idea of Jesus, your Shepherd (John 10:11-30), throwing His rod and keeping your enemies at bay in your life? Now we’re talking comfort!
Remember, though, that a shepherd also uses his rod to keep a wayward sheep from going astray. On this subject, Keller writes of his upbringing in Kenya:
I could never get over how often, and with what accuracy, the African herders would hurl their knob-kerries at some recalcitrant beast that misbehaved. If the shepherd saw a sheep wandering away on its own, or approaching poisonous weeds, or getting too close to danger of one sort of another, the club would go whistling through the air to send the wayward animal scurrying back to the bunch.
Here again we can see how a certain comfort can be associated with a shepherd’s rod. Whereas a shepherd will throw his rod with ill intent, even lethally, toward a predator, his intent will be totally different when his aim is toward one of his sheep. The goal in that situation is loving protection or loving persuasion rather than adversarial harm. It’s a case of the shepherd inflicting a bit of hurt upon the sheep in order to keep the sheep from carelessly or foolishly getting into more serious hurt. Does any one of us want to dispute the fact that the Lord, like a loving father who sets boundaries of safety for his child, has on occasion either rebuked us through His word or whipped us through circumstances to keep us away from truly serious harm?
So, all this covers the idea of the Lord’s rod providing us with comfort as He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. But what about His staff doing the same? What is a shepherd’s staff anyway? And how can it be used to provide comfort? I’m glad you asked.
A shepherd’s staff is a long, slender, straight stick with a u-shaped crook at the top of it. Such an instrument, in the hands of a skilled shepherd, has a wide variety of uses. Keller, in his book, describes several of them. Here’s a compiled list:
- A shepherd uses his staff as an instrument to gently lift a newborn lamb and lay it alongside its mother.
- A shepherd uses his staff to reach out and draw individual sheep to himself for closer inspection.
- A shepherd uses his staff to draw individual sheep that are shy or standoffish into the unity of the flock.
- A shepherd uses his staff to guide individual sheep into the proper path.
In regards to the 23rd Psalm’s picture of the shepherd’s staff providing the sheep with comfort as the sheep traverses the valley of the shadow of death, it’s that last usage that best defines the staff’s role. The valley of the shadow of death is no place for a sheep to be exploring new paths or wandering around aimlessly. To the contrary, it’s a place where a loving shepherd will keep extra close guard on a sheep to ensure that the sheep doesn’t drift off course. Since death’s shadow is all around, it is imperative that the shepherd keep the sheep in line.
And just exactly what is “the shadow of death” in our lives? While it’s true that these words have been effectively used as the text for countless funerals, the word “shadow” actually implies that the valley isn’t necessarily a valley of literal death. Certainly it’s a valley of potential death, but it’s not a valley of certain death. The difference might very well be in how closely the sheep obeys the shepherd’s guidance and walks in the safe path while in the valley.
Understanding the valley this way, the valley of the shadow of death in our lives represents any difficult experience through which we must walk. Times of suffering? They qualify. Times of temptation? They qualify. Times of persecution? They qualify. Times of injustice? They qualify. Times of loss? They qualify. Times of disappointment? They qualify. Times of spiritual warfare? They qualify. Times of fear? They qualify. Times of stress? They qualify. Times of confusion? They qualify. Times of perplexity? They qualify. Times of anxiety? They qualify. Times of depression? They qualify.
These are all “valley of the shadow of death” experiences, and in each of them we would be well advised to find our comfort in the Lord’s guiding staff of wisdom and direction. You see, He knows the safe way through the valley. Not only does He know how to lead us into the valley, He knows how to lead us through it and out the other side. That’s why your best move, little sheep, whenever you find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death, is to feel for the great Shepherd’s crook around your neck and go with that flow rather than against it.
Now let me close out this post with one final word about the shepherd’s staff. Since I’ve already quoted so extensively from Phillip Keller’s wonderful book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, it seems only appropriate that I do so again. As you read Keller’s words, apply them to your own life and your own walk with the Lord. By doing this I think you’ll find great comfort in them:
Sometimes I have been fascinated to see how a shepherd will actually hold his staff against the side of some sheep that is a special pet or favorite, simply so that they “are in touch.” They will walk along this way almost as though it were “hand-in-hand.” The sheep obviously enjoys this special attention from the shepherd and revels in the close, personal, intimate contact between them. To be treated in this special way by the shepherd is to know comfort in a deep dimension. It is a delightful and moving picture.
Well, I suppose all I can say to that is, yes, it certainly is.