We began studying Psalm 23 two weeks ago (see Part 1 and Part 2) by looking at the first two verses, specifically focusing on the picture of the Lord as our shepherd, and the truths indicated by that language. We noted that the text doesn’t merely say that God is our Shepherd; it says that Yahweh, the eternal, self-sufficient God of Israel is our shepherd. And we also noted that the New Testament further fills out how Jesus is specifically called our Good shepherd.
We saw from the gospel of John that Jesus is the good shepherd in three ways. First, he knows his sheep. He intimately knows his sheep, with all their problems and foibles, and yet he still loves them and makes them part of his flock. Second, he feeds his sheep. He feeds his sheep by giving them the heavenly and spiritual food of his own body and blood, he gives them the nourishment of his life for theirs and his death in place of theirs. And third, Jesus cares for his sheep. He cares for them by guiding them, directing them, providing for them, and laying his own life down for them. Jesus really is our good shepherd.
Last week we saw that our Good shepherd restores us. He rights us. He puts us back on our feet when we get ourselves flipped over or cast down by sin. And we also looked at 9 different ways that God can use the dark valleys of our lives for our good, specifically noting how we need not fear in those valleys because God is with us, indeed IN us, by the presence of His Holy Spirit that resides in every one of His children.
Today we will continue in verse 4. I fully intended at the outset of our study to finish this psalm in three weeks. But, after spending more time in this verse in particular, and hearing some feedback, I thought it would be profitable to just slow down and take my time finishing the psalm. So, today we will, Lord willing, finish verse 4, and then I’ll finish up the rest of the psalm on Sunday evenings, before returning back to Proverbs.
Let’s read Psalm 23, and I’ll be focusing on the latter half of verse 4 today:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
In verse 4 David confidently proclaims that he can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, literally the valley of deep darkness, without fear, because God is with him.
Then he specifically mentions two items as providing particular comfort to him. He says “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” This language might be a little foreign to us, since most of us are not shepherds, so what is David saying by mentioning these two items: God’s rod and God’s staff?
Well, each of these tools is used by shepherds in the care and oversight of their flock. A rod is a specially chosen and crafted stick or club. They are usually heavier on one end, and taper down toward the handle. Great care is taken in the selection of an appropriately sized and balanced rod that can most effectively be used. Shepherds practice from an early age throwing the rod with surprising accuracy, even across great distances.
As you probably have guessed, the rod is used as a tool of protection, both for the shepherd and for the flock. It was even used as a tool of discipline and correction for any wayward sheep.
As it relates to our Lord, scripture uses language his Rod in similar categories. One of which is the “rod of his judgement.” In Psalm 2 we hear these words: “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the end of the earth your possession. You shall break them [that is, the nations] with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’” God’s son will be given an inheritance of the nations, and he will rule them with a rod, and judge them.
Similarly, Revelation 2:26-27 promises: “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule[c] them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.”
We see similar themes here in Revelation as we did in Psalm 2: themes of authority, ruling, dominion, judgement, authority, even just punishment. The nations rebel, and God judges and will ultimately rule over them with a rod of judgment.
Sidenote: sometimes God’s judgement is not what we expect. Sometimes it looks like fire and brimstone from heaven, like God judging Sodom and Gomorra. Sometimes it looks like the complete opposite. In fact, to the eyes of the world, God’s judgment might look like God’s blessing. That’s because God’s judgment sometimes looks like him giving you over completely to the idols of your heart. If a man is greedy and in love with money, then God’s judgement upon him might actually to give him loads of worldly success and riches. If your idol is sensuality, then God might give you boat loads of opportunities for indulgence and fornication.
That’s what God does in Romans 1. Mankind turned away from God, begins to worship created things rather than the creator, and God judges them by turning them over to the lusts of their flesh.
So, one immediate application for these verses about God’s rod of is that if you are outside of Christ, you need to know that God will judge you with his rod of iron, and don’t let worldly success and happiness deceive you into thinking that his rod of judgement isn’t already upon you. He will judge the nations for their iniquity, and he will use his rod of judgment to strike down all that are not united to him by faith.
Revelation 19:11-15 speaks of God’s coming use of his rod. John is given a vision of Christ seated on a White horse, coming in righteousness to judge and make war. It says he has eyes like flaming fire, has crowns on his head, and is flanked by the armies of heaven robed in white linen, and also riding on horses. And then it says in verse 15, “15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”
God’s judgment of evil and wickedness is certain. Are you ready for that day?
But particularly for our text today, we should ask, “Why is God’s rod, especially his rod of judgment a comfort to David, and therefor for us?”
- We can be comforted in God’s rod of judgment that wicked men can no longer sin against God.
- We can take comfort in God’s justice being revealed to the world. Think of how God’s people felt at the sight Pharaoh and his armies being judged in the red sea. What comfort and assurance that surely brought to God’s people.
- We can take comfort in God’s rod of judgment when we see God’s church delivered and true religion flourish. For example, in Acts 12 we read these words:
- “On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. [and then listen to the very next verse] 24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.”
God judged a wicked man, and the church began to flourish.
God’s rod can comfort us because we live in a world of conspicuous evil. We see injustice all around. We see people acting in murderous and greedy ways, we see the powerful take advantage of the weak. And we often see people commit these evils with seeming impunity. They either get off with an unjustly light sentence, or they get away with it entirely.
Without an understanding of God’s certain rod of judgement, then we might despair. We’d be left to wonder if the wicked REALLY Did get away with murder. Who will hold them to account?
The Lord our shepherd, that’s who. And that’s why David can draw comfort from our rod-wielding judge of a shepherd.
Next, scripture doesn’t only speak of the rod of the Lord in terms of judgment. It also speaks of God’s rod of discipline. God’s rod of discipline.
Shepherds often have to use their rod to correct a sheep that was misbehaving, or continuously wandering off, or that kept going after the poisonous weeds. They didn’t use it in a punitive way, or a hateful way, but as a loving corrective. In fact, it would have been unloving for the shepherd not to act, and to just let the sheep wander off into danger. But because a good shepherd cares for his sheep, he uses his rod to train, correct, and protect the sheep, even from themselves.
That’s exactly what David is saying here too. That the rod of the Lord, his rod of discipline, is a comfort. This is the same man that felt the rod of the Lord’s discipline after his sin with Bathsheba, who broke all of God’s commands in that episode. He lied, he coveted, he stole, he murdered, he blasphemed God, he committed adultery. All of them. But God was faithful to send Nathan and lovingly apply his Rod of discipline, and because of that, we have Psalm 51 to read about David’s cry for forgiveness and repentance.
We don’t have a God who will let us drift into danger without correction. He loves us enough to act. That’s what Hebrews 12 teaches. The faithful, loving Father is the father who disciplines his son, not the father that never corrects his son:
““My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you AS SONS. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us FOR OUR GOOD, that we may share his HOLINESS. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Did you catch what he said about our discipline from the Lord? Hear again some of the benefits of the Lord’s discipline of us:
- It is a sign of his love for us,
- it’s a sign of our adoption,
- its for our good,
- its for our holiness,
- and it bears the fruit of righteousness.
We’re often tempted when going through hard times that God is angry at us, that he’s pouring out his wrath upon us because of something we’ve done. But that’s wrong, and that’s not how David views his shepherd. God’s wrath has been poured out upon Christ at the cross. It’s done, its finished. Christ’s atonement has completely appeased God’s wrath.
And what that means is that if we are under the rod of the Lord as a Christian, we’re under his loving, fatherly, shepherding, rod of correction, and not his rod of judgment. He’s not seeking your destruction; his aim is your good and holiness. He’s not vengeful toward you; his motivation is love , and his goal is our correction. He’s the faithful shepherd that is pushing us away from the poison and the dangers of this world, and leading us back to the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Only with this understanding of the Lord as our shepherd can we proclaim Psalm 119:71: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” Such a profound reality that can only be learned through faith. It’s only when we see what Christ has gone through on the cross, see the wickedness and evil that sin really is, and see the glorious value of personal holiness, that we can really say that the rod of the Lord’s discipline was good for me so that I can stay out of danger, and into the paths of his righteousness.
Being able to agree with the psalmist and say that “it was good that I was afflicted” is one of the most difficult things to say in this life, and it sometimes takes a lifetime to recognize. It takes real godliness to realize that God often uses the rod of hard providences, the rod of hard circumstances to drive you to the end of yourself, and drive you back to him.
Let me give you an example. Most of us probably remember the parable of the prodigal son. In Luke 15 Jesus tells a story about a son who told his father that he wanted his share of the inheritance now. And so he gets it, he runs off into a far country, and squandered his wealth on wild living. And when he had spent all of his money on foolishness, he had to get a job as the guy that fed a farmer’s pigs. He was so hungry, he was tempted to eat the pig slop.
But then Jesus says that the son “came to his senses,” and said to himself that his Father’s servants have better food that this. “I’ll go home to my father and say that I’ve sinned against you, and maybe he will let me be a servant in his house.” And then as he got near to his home, his father ran to him, hugged him, put a robe and ring on him, and threw a big party for him. And Jesus, of course, tells us about the older brother being jealous.
Did I miss anything in the story? Did you notice I left out one detail, a detail that we here are often tempted to leave out because we aren’t shepherds nor farmers.
After the son went to the far country and was squandering his money, Jesus notes in Luke 15:14: “After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.” There was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. When you have little or no money, and a famine comes, then food becomes not only scarce, but expensive. In the story God sent a famine to bring the wayward son to the end of himself in order that he might go running back to his father.
That’s often what God will do to us. He’ll put us in a situation, put us in a trial, put us under the pressure of his rod, so that we’ll quit being stubborn and prideful, quit trying to do it on our own, and come back to him. He’ll use the famines of this life to bring us back to our senses, to turn us from the pig slop of sin, and to turn us back to the Father that stands with open arms, ready to run and hug us, ready to strip us of our rags of self-righteous living and put unto us the robes of His Son’s righteousness, and ready to host us back to his table for a feast.
If you’ve wandered into a far country and soiled yourself in the pig sty of sin, I hope that you’ll turn back to your good shepherd today. And if you are close to your good shepherd, then take great pains to stay near to him. We’re all tempted to wander off, into the far country of sin. Let us not give our good shepherd reason to correct us with his rod of discipline.
There. Enough about the rod for now.
Next, let’s move on to the Lord’s staff. David says that “your rod and your staff they comfort me.” What is a staff? The staff is the long, slender stick that has the big crook on the end, a big hook. It’s the image that we normally associate with the language of a shepherd. If the ROD evokes imagery of authority, power, and dominion, then the shepherd’s STAFF brings to mind comfort, care, protection.
And the staff, significantly, is specifically used for sheep. You don’t use them with horses or pigs or cows. It is designed especially for and adapted to the tending of sheep. And a staff is used for specific tasks.
First, the staff is used for Drawing the sheep together. Drawing the sheep together. Phillip Keller again explains that a shepherd will use the staff to lift a newborn lamb back to its mother if it gets separated. He doesn’t want to risk the smell of his hands causing the mother to reject the baby, so he uses his staff, rather than his hands.
Similarly, the staff is used by the shepherd to draw a sheep close to himself for examination. If he needs to take a look at a hurting sheep, or examine the wool before shearing, or tend to a wound, he will use the staff to draw to himself an otherwise timid and fearful little sheep.
Second, the staff is used by a shepherd in guiding his sheep. Guiding his sheep. Unlike his rod, which is used for correction, the staff is used in the gentle guiding of his sheep. He doesn’t beat them with the staff, rather the shepherd will place the staff against the side or the neck of the animal, and apply gentle but firm pressure, which steers the sheep to where it ought to go. A shepherd will in this way gently guide his sheep on the right path.
Third, the staff is used by a shepherd in saving his sheep. A shepherd uses his staff in rescuing a sheep from trouble. Sheep are stubborn creatures, and can often get themselves stuck in comical, sometimes dangerous, situations. Some will climb out onto rocky ledges to greedily get that last little bit of green grass, only to find themselves stuck out on the ledge, unable to turn around without falling, unable to get back to safety, and in need of rescue. A shepherd might use his staff to lift the small sheep back to a place of safety.
Or, a sheep might get stuck in the thorny bramble bushes, and as it fights to free itself, it only gets it’s wool more and more tangled in the thicket. Only the right tool for the job, a staff, in the hands of a skillful shepherd, can save the sheep from such a mess.
Shepherds use their staffs for drawing, guiding, and saving their sheep.
And a comforting reality for us to see is that our Good Shepherd uses his staff in similarly ways. In fact, each of these roles (drawing, guiding, and saving) are attributed to God’s Holy Spirit in scripture. We could say that the Holy Spirit’s role is analogous to the use of a staff in the hands of a skillful shepherd.
First, our good shepherd uses the Holy Spirit to draw his sheep. The Holy Spirit is the means that God uses to convict his people of their sin, to draw them back to himself, and to give them a new heart of faith. Listen to how our confession summarizes this work of the Holy Spirit:
- He calls us out of our natural state of sin and death to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ.
- He enlightens our minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God.
- He takes away our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh.4
- He renews our wills and by his almighty power turns us to good and effectually DRAWS us to Jesus Christ.
God uses his word in the hands of the Holy Spirit to draw his sheep back to himself.
Second, the Holy Spirit guides God’s people. In John 16:13, Jesus promises us that “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will GUIDE YOU into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” When we hear the Holy Spirit speak, we hear our Good shepherd speak. And the Spirit speaks most clearly, in fact infallibly, through His Inspired word. Our good shepherd uses his word to guide us into all truth, to point us into the direction of green pastures and paths of righteousness, to comfort us when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, to steer us from the dangers of sin and of the world. God’s spirit guides us by his word.
Third, just like a shepherd uses his staff to save his sheep, so too does our good shepherd send his Holy Spirit to saves us. We were naturally on our own, stuck in the briars of sin, unable to save ourselves. But, like a skillful shepherd with his staff, God has sent his holy spirit to do what we could never do. He’s applied the fruit of Christ’s redemptive work, untangling us from the world, freeing us from the power of sin, rescuing us from the sentence of death, and sealing us for a coming redemption.
Titus 3:4-5 “4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, [how did he do this?] not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”
Our good shepherd has saved us, by washing and renewing us. He restores my soul, David proclaims in this psalm, and God does this through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.
Like a skillful shepherd with a staff perfectly suited for his task, our good shepherd uses His very own Holy Spirit to draw us to himself, to guide us, and to rescue us.
If you have not tasted of this work of God, then I urge you today to hear of the work of our good shepherd, know that he is ready to receive you, to wash you, to free you from the grip of sin and death, and to guide you in the paths of righteousness. Don’t wait another day, come to him by faith and believe, lest you taste of his rod of judgement to come.
And if you have him as your shepherd, then be comforted today by his word and through his Holy Spirit, who is in you, who guides you, who has washed you and renewed you, and who has restored you into our good Shepherd’s flock.
Benediction: Hebrews 13:20-21: Now dmay the God of peace ewho brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, fthe great shepherd of the sheep, by gthe blood of the eternal covenant, hequip you with everything good that you may do his will, iworking in us2 that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, jto whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
 Adapted from Thomas Watson, “The Comforting Rod,” https://www.gracegems.org/Watson/comforting_rod.htm
 Points adapted from Keller, “A Shepherd’s look at the 23rd Psalm,” 86ff.