You are currently viewing Why My Shepherd Carries a Rod

Why My Shepherd Carries a Rod

If you see a woman in green or blue scrubs with a stethoscope around her neck, you know who she is and what she does.

If a man comes into your house to fix something and he’s got a hammer, a saw, a chisel, and a measuring tape on his tool belt hanging around his waist, then you know he’s not there to repair your laptop. Who he is and what he does are evident from what he holds.

Psalm 23 teaches us who the Lord Jesus is and what he does by what he holds. He’s heavily armed. This is the further beautiful amplification of why we need not fear the darkest of valleys: “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (v. 4).

Rugged Shepherd

In the 19th century, J. L. Porter met shepherds in the northern Transjordan region, the same part of the world that led King David to write Psalm 23. The times have changed, of course, but the ruggedness required to shepherd in that place has remained the same. Here’s Porter’s description:

The shepherds themselves had none of that peaceful and placid aspect which is generally associated with pastoral life and habits. They looked like warriors marching to the battlefield—a long gun slung from the shoulder, a dagger and heavy pistols in the belt, a light battle-axe or iron-headed club in the hand. Such were the equipments; and their fierce flashing eyes and scowling countenances showed but too plainly that they were prepared to use their weapons at any moment.

We’re so used to the gentleness of Psalm 23 that we may never have felt the steel encased in the velvet. Dale Ralph Davis says,

Jesus Christ, our Shepherd, is no emaciated weakling. Our Shepherd is a warrior, as shepherds had to be. No one can snatch his sheep out of his hand (John 10:28). The muscles of his arm are flexed to defend his flock; he doesn’t carry a club for nothing. He is obviously enough for whatever the valley throws at us.

Spurgeon says the shepherd’s rod and staff lead David to praise him for “the ensigns of [his] sovereignty and of [his] gracious care.” Richard Briggs suggests that “the rod and the staff are the visible symbols of God’s invisible presence, in turn suggestive of the shepherd in the valley as the visible symbol of God’s presence.”

Rod as Weapon

Let’s consider the sufficiency of the Lord Jesus displayed in his rod and see how it comforts his sheep.

Our shepherd is heavily armed. This is why we need not fear the darkest of valleys.

Kenneth Bailey notes the word translated “rod” has a semantic range that can include “rod,” “scepter,” and “weapon,” and so a “rod” isn’t the same thing as a walking stick:

Rather, it is the shepherd’s primary offensive weapon for protecting the flock from enemies, be they wild animals or human thieves. The instrument itself is about two and a half feet long with a mace-like end into which the heavy pieces of iron are often embedded. It becomes a formidable weapon.

This is why texts like Psalm 2:9 speak of the Lord’s anointed one smiting the nations with “a rod of iron” (see also Rev. 2:27; 12:5). The reference is likely to a wooden item but with iron embedded into it to ensure maximum effectiveness in the hand of the one who wields it.

David’s own account of his shepherding must surely be referring to an item like a rod as he presents himself to Saul as a combatant able to face mighty Goliath: “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him” (1 Sam. 17:34–35).

Rod as Safety Device

At the same time, Bailey makes a good case that the shepherd’s rod wasn’t only used for fighting. He draws attention to Leviticus 27:32, where (despite the ESV’s rendering of the word as “staff”) the shepherd’s rod is in view as a counting device for his flock. The idea is that as the sheep reenter the fold at each day’s end, the rod is held up across the entrance and the sheep are counted in as they pass beneath it. (Today we’d use a digital sign-up form or a scannable QR code for check-in to the premises.)

This is the shepherd’s way of personally checking his sheep are all present and accounted for. Bailey writes, “Thus the sheep (in the flock of God) can note the shepherd’s rod and remember that it is an ‘alarm system’ used to assure everyone’s safety. If any sheep is lost, the shepherd will be alerted during the ‘evening count.’”

This is a beautiful picture, for the implement of warfare is now turned to a different use. The protection here lies not in an instrument of aggression but in a symbol of loving possession. The rod in the shepherd’s hand performs both these roles; so what’s the comfort for us here in the valley?

The rod helps us to know, as John Goldingay says, that having the Lord “with” us “is not merely a feeling. It doesn’t signify mere presence but also action. . . . This presence expresses itself by aggressive action to defeat enemies and thus protect the one to whom Yhwh is committed.”

Numbered, Led, Protected, and Comforted

Defeating enemies and protecting sheep: both are present in the shepherding work of the Lord Jesus for us. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28). Such language implies, of course, that some will attempt to snatch, that there are forces out there who seek to do sheep harm, and yet we’re encased in the shepherd’s strong hand, which is in turn grasped in the Father’s strong hand (v. 29).

Defeating enemies and protecting sheep: both are present in the shepherding work of the Lord Jesus for us.

This ready willingness to protect his sheep follows from the fact that Jesus knows exactly who belongs to him. He “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (vv. 3–4).

Numbered by Jesus, we’re led by Jesus; led by Jesus, we’re protected by Jesus; and protected by Jesus, we’re comforted by Jesus.

Some of us reading these lines feel weak. The circumstances of life have pressed us down, and we feel broken. This shepherd, God’s servant, will not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick (Matt. 12:20, citing Isa. 42:3); he is tender to all our brokenness. But this same Jesus “will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isa. 42:3; Matt. 12:20).

So let the rod in Jesus’s hand also put strength into your failing heart; for, remember, he’s leading you through the valley, and on the other side is the house of the Lord where we’ll dwell forever. We should always remember how the Bible ends: on the other side of it all, the Lamb wins. The Lamb wins because he’s also a Lion. We should never mistake the tenderness of our shepherd for weakness or his care for us for carelessness about all that threatens us.


Leave a Reply