What do the terms “rod” and “staff” mean in the 23rd Psalm?
The 23rd Psalm was written by King David. This Psalm is part of a trilogy. Psalm 22 is called a Messianic Psalm. It speaks of Jesus suffering and death (Ps. 22:1). In the 23rd Psalm, Jesus is the Good Shepherd or as David says, “My shepherd” (Ps. 23:1) and in Psalm 24, Jesus is the “King of Glory” (Ps. 24:10). The 22nd Psalm reviews the past, the 23rd is the present and the 24th looks to the future. Now that is the order in which God ministers to us. Jesus died first so that we would have a Savior for our sins. We discover that He is our Savior, Lord, and Good Shepherd, and then some day we will reign with our King of Glory. The 23rd Psalm is special to Christians because it paints a picture of our relationship with Him. If we are not Christians, He is not our shepherd.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (NIV) Psalm 23
I Shall Not Want. As a boy I had memorized the 23rd Psalm, but I did not pay attention to the words. I did not understand the Psalm because I thought the first verse said that I shall not want Jesus. I thought the phrase “I shall not want” was talking about the shepherd. I did not realize it was talking about me. The Psalm was talking about the Good Shepherd of the sheep meeting my daily needs. The Psalm is a reminder to us that He cares for us – His sheep. The Psalm is a picture of a loving shepherd in the field of life caring for his sheep. Jesus is the Shepherd and we are His sheep.
Paths of Righteousness. The Psalm says that God cares and provides for us in the field of life (Matt. 6:25-34). He provides for our physical bodies by providing us with food – “pastures” – and water – “quiet waters.” He also desires that we are growing in holiness by guiding us along the paths that sheep need to travel – “paths of righteousness” (Heb. 4:14-16). If we as sheep stray from the path of righteousness into sin, He comes after us. What would a shepherd do to a lamb that kept leaving the path and walking away? A good shepherd would break its leg and then splint it so that the lamb would stay with Him and not run off. The shepherd forced it to stay with Him (Heb. 12:4-17). Today, we would call it discipline for sin. The picture is vivid. Leaving the shepherd’s side is a serious mistake. Jesus wants us following Him.
Thy Comfort. During times of struggle and danger, Jesus is also there to comfort us with His rod and staff. The meaning of the Hebrew word for “rod,” SEBET, and “staff,” MISHENA, are very special. The Hebrew word SEBET has the idea of a “stick.” It originally referred to a part of a tree. In the Old Testament the “stick” was used to count sheep (Lev. 27:32). It was also used to protect the sheep from other animals. In the book of Proverbs the stick is used for discipline (Prov. 13:24). SEBET has a sense of authority. The Hebrew word MISHENA has the idea of “something to lean on,” “trust,” “support,” or “staff.” Together, the two words paint a picture of a strong, protective shepherd whom we can trust. One who not only cares for us but who will protect us. Sheep are stupid animals compared to other creatures. If we are following the shepherd and danger, trouble, and the threat of death come in the form of life’s foxes and bears, He is there with His rod and staff. He protects us with His rod and we can trust the leading of His staff. Do you feel like crying out, “baa, baa, baa?” He is listening!
Our Rest. The Psalm transitions to a picture of living with the Shepherd. It is a picture of provision, care and eternal security. It is one of living with the Good Shepherd now and forever. Anointing the head with oil before a meal was an eastern custom. It served as a means of “freshening-up.” The spiritual feast starts in this life. He ministers to us by “bathing” us with His Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We receive the Shepherd’s blessings in this life and continue living with Him forever after this earthly life.
Charles Spurgeon adds,
While I am here I will be a child at home with my God; the whole world shall be His house to me; and when I ascend into the upper chamber I shall not change my company, nor even change the house; I shall only go to dwell in the upper story of the house of the Lord forever.