A Sheep Looks at Psalm 23
It's no secret that sheep are not the most intelligent of the animal kingdom. They need a shepherd! In the darkest time of my life it was Psalm 23 that comforted me over and over. But I must admit I was baffled by "They rod and
thy staff, they comfort me." Growing up as I did, rods were not used to comfort me!
In the early '70s I bought a book written by Dr. W. Phillip Keller called A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23 ©1969 The Zondervan Corporation. The late Dr W Phillip Keller was born in East Africa and was always an "outdoors" boy. He was trained in agronomy (management of farm land) and spent many years on ranches in British Columbia. He lived among the sheep and their shepherds and was a keen observer of sheep and their relationship to the shepherd. So he knew what he was talking about when he wrote his books on shepherding!
This was one of the most informative books I have ever read. David, the author of this poem was not only a shepherd, but also a son of a shepherd. He would later be known as the "Shepherd King" of Israel. David stated "The LORD is my Shepherd" and he was referring to Jehovah, the Lord God of Israel. How interesting that David wrote this poem as both a shepherd and as a sheep needing a shepherd! His statement, "The LORD is my Shepherd," was later confirmed by Jesus Christ when He said, "I am the good shepherd: the shepherd lays down his life for his sheep." (John 10:11)
Sheep Need a Shepherd! Dr Keller pointed out that sheep cannot just take care of themselves. They need a shepherd who knows every inch of the land, every pit fall, and every hide out where predatory creatures hide as they wait for the unsuspecting sheep. He compares their intelligence and knowledge to the shepherd's, then draws the parallel between our limited abilities and God's Divine Intelligence. He refers to Isaiah 53:6 "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way." And then he says it is no mere whim that God refers to us as sheep. He calls our rush to self-determination "self-destructive" and "terrifying". He attributes it to arrogance and pride on our part.
Now the shepherd does not beat his sheep with the rod or staff. When the shepherd is in the field with his sheep, it is customary to carry the bare minimum of equipment. The African herdsmen shepherd their stock with only a long slender stick and a rough knob-kerrie in their hands. Each shepherd boy takes special pride in the selection of a rod and staff exactly suited to his own size and strength. The sapling from which the rod is carved is shaped to exactly fit the owner's hand. The boy then spends hours practicing with this club, learning how to throw it with amazing speed and accuracy because it will become his main weapon of defense for both himself and his sheep.
The Authority of the Shepherd The rod was an extension of the owner's own right arm. It stood as a symbol of his strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation. It was also the instrument he used to discipline and correct any wayward sheep that insisted on wandering away. The rod speaks of the spoken Word, the expressed intent, the extended activity of God's mind and will in dealing with men. It is the authority of divinity: "Thus said the Lord." How do we know this?
Remember Moses? When God called him, the desert shepherd, and sent him to deliver Israel out of Egypt from under Pharaoh's bondage, it was his rod that was to demonstrate the power vested in him. It was always through Moses' rod that miracles were made manifest! This was so the people of Israel would be reassured of God's sovereignty, as well as to convince Pharaoh of Moses' divine commission. The Word of God is a comfort to this sheep, I can tell you - especially the Psalms.
Protection of the Sheep It has been often said that The Word of God (Bible) will keep us from sin. It is clearly demonstrated in the hurling of the African herders' knob-kerries at predatory beasts, or at a sheep entering poisonous grass, or at a stubborn sheep straying from the protection of the herd. All those sheep had to hear was the whirling of the club and they would scurry back to the herd.
Counting the Sheep Also, the rod was used in the counting of the sheep. In the Hebrew terminology of the Old Testament this was referred to as passing "under the rod" (Ezekiel 20:37). This meant not only being counted, but being carefully inspected by the sheepherder. Because of their long wool (or in humans, their persona) it was not always easy to detect disease, wounds, or defects in sheep. The skilled judge would take his rod and part the sheep's wool to determine the condition of the skin, the cleanliness of the fleece, and the conformation of the body. As Dr Keller said, "In plain language, 'One just does not pull the wool over his eyes.'"
Intimate Inspection of the Sheep The shepherd carefully inspects each and every sheep. He outstretches his rod, the sheep stops, and then the inch-by-inch examination of each sheep is performed in intimate detail. This is what is being referred to in Psalm 139:23-24 when the psalmist wrote, "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
This brings such joy to my soul! To think that my shepherd, Jesus Christ, cares so much for me that He's intimately familiar with all the jots and tittles of my mind, emotions, will, body, dreams, thoughts... just every nuance of me, all known to Him! And there's nothing I, or anyone else can do to "pull the wool over His eyes"!
As a Christian, I am so blessed to have the written rod - the written Word of God -- to keep me from danger! It doesn't take a genius to figure out not only can the world be a dangerous place, but just living inside my own mind can be dangerous! The more I measure my thoughts and feelings against "the rod", the less likely I will wander off into self-destructive behaviors.
So now that I have an understanding of what "the rod and staff" are really for, I love reading God's Written Word! It is a "lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path."