Rod and Staff


Psalm 23:4 New International Version (NIV)
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

My grandmother had me memorize the 23rd Psalm as a child for the incentive of a dollar, so it holds a special place in my heart. This week though, something struck me when reading this, specifically about the rod and staff being of comfort. It inspired me to delve in a bit more.

This Psalm is likely written by David and the first 4 verses use the metaphor of a shepherd for God, an occupation David would have been very familiar with.

Verse 4 starts with “Yea though” or “Even though”, notice it’s not “If”. By using the Hebrew word gam the writer acknowledges this isn’t a hypothetical, it will happen. A Shepherd knows that to get to the next pasture, a journey must be taken, and going through a valley would be a must.

The valley mentioned in the NIV is “darkest valley” in the KJV it’s “Valley of the Shadow of Death”.  The actual Hebrew word is tsalmaveth taken from the two words tsel meaning shadow and maveth meaning death. Interesting that this word can be found often in Job.

In Job 16:16 it references dark shadows ringing his eyes after crying and in Job 24:17 it references fear, as the word is translated into terrors of darkness.  This  may not be a specific place, but we can understand what kind of a valley this was; the darkest emotional place we can imagine – either in terror or in sadness. Think, as black and as bleak as possible.

When in this time, David says to fear no evil.  The word evil here is ra and is translated as evil, distress, misery, injury or calamity.  Despite being in the darkest valley possible, he doesn’t fear calamity or injury, which could certainly befall a sheep in this situation.

Why? Simple. The Shepherd is there. There is someone else to take responsibility, to take control. This alone should bring comfort, but David specifically mentions two shepherding tools that bring comfort as well; the rod and staff.

The rod, Hebrew word shebet, was a club, rod, or scepter.  It was a shorter than the staff and bulky, used mostly to protect sheep by clubbing predators. The staff, Hebrew word misheneth, was a walking stick, long and skinny and often with a little curve on one end. The staff would not have been used as a weapon, as it was too flimsy, but was used for correction, to gently guide a sheep back to the herd or to rescue a sheep from an entanglement.

It makes sense that in our darkest places we can find comfort knowing someone greater than us is there, protecting us from danger and guiding us to safety  The more subtle point is that the guidance the staff provides, can at times feel confining or restrictive as the hook gently pulls us from a certain path. Some may even say the staff provides discipline.

Interestingly, in psychology they have found that parents that have delineated good boundaries, structure and discipline actually foster less anxiety and more feelings of security than families that have little structure of discipline.

I think David knew this truth thousands of years ago; in times of crisis, we ultimately need all three. We need a greater authority to take charge and be in control, we need to know we are protected, and we need to know we will be guided, even if by correction and gentle discipline.

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