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.
A friend reminded me this week how many Christians have bought into the idea that the God of the Old Testament is not the same God of the New Testament. NOT TRUE. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8). He’s the beginning, middle, and end–except He has no beginning or end (Psalm 102:25-27). He’s the Alpha and Omega (Isaiah 44:6; Revelation 22:13). He is the One who was, who is, and who is to come (Revelation 4:8). He is unchanging–as in, He never changes (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17). He is the one constant in the entire universe that we can count on being the same, always and forever (1 Timothy 1:17).
I hope that’s an AMEN, I hear. 😉
Here’s another truth–we can read a list of verses like that and ‘amen’ all day without really believing them. Something deep within us doubts. Maybe because we’ve read passages in the Old Testament that seem incongruent to the Jesus we see in the New. Maybe because we’ve been taught to believe this. Maybe because we doubt that God could be relevant in our present, technologically advanced era.
Whatever the reason we carry this untruth about God, it’s very good for us to name it and explore it–to get to the heart of why we think this way. Because until we see God for who He is–Alpha to Omega–we only know God partially. We only grasp half His story and part of His perfect plan of redemption. And, not knowing God fully means we also can’t trust Him fully.
So, while the vast majority of us can’t relate to God as a shepherd at first glance, we can dig into the cultural context of the Old Testament in order to unpack the imagery and analogies, metaphors and motifs tucked into its words.* As we begin to see the ancient for what it was, God’s purposes will pop for us now. As we start reading the Old through the lens of the New, God’s plans will start connecting–like dots. Or a string of lights.
That’s exactly what will happen for us today. We will connect some dots, causing once-dim bulbs to shine brightly. We will see the Shepherd of the Old Testament is most definitely the Good Shepherd of the New, and He’s not only relevant for us in the twenty-first century–He is present.
Cultural Context: Shepherds
What’s the first thing you picture in your mind when you hear ‘shepherd?’
Me too–the shepherd’s staff. An ever-present icon for the sheep herder, the staff is not just a prop for a Christmas play. It’s not even just a walking-type stick for the older shepherd. It’s actually one of two pieces of equipment a shepherd always has on his person.
The staff plays a major role in three areas of sheep management:
- Drawing sheep together or to the shepherd – as when a shepherd wraps the crook of the staff around a newborn lamb, lifting it gently to her mother; or around the neck of a sheep to draw it to himself (Keller, 120).
- Guiding the sheep – as through a gate or along a difficult path. The shepherd lays the tip of the long stick against the sheep’s side and applies pressure to guide it in the right direction (p.121).
- Rescuing sheep who are in danger. Usually due to their own stubbornness, sheep get stuck in bramble bushes or fall into the sea. The staff can pull wool off the thorns or lift sheep from the waters (p.124).
So, the staff is practical; it’s useful. It also identifies the shepherd as a shepherd and serves as a symbol of the compassion and concern he has for his flock. The staff is a reminder of all that is longsuffering (patience even in troubles) and kind (p.119).
The second piece of equipment for every shepherd is the rod–a thicker, shorter piece of club-like wood that fits perfectly in the shepherd’s hand. Shepherd and author, Phillip Keller, says the ever-present rod serves as an extension of the shepherd’s arm, ready to be thrown defensively at predators with exquisite accuracy and swiftness (p.112).
A secondary way the rod can used is for discipline: “If the shepherd saw a sheep wandering away on its own, or approaching poisonous weeds, or getting too close to danger…the club would go whistling through the air to send the wayward animal scurrying back to the bunch” (p.115).
The third purpose is much more intimate: close inspection of sheep. Ezekiel 20:37 uses the phrase, “pass under my rod,” referencing the way a shepherd constantly counts and searches his sheep–because careful examination reveals hidden problems (p.115).
The rod, then, stands for the shepherd’s strength, power, and authority–always at the ready for whatever his flock may need.
Interestingly, not much has changed in the millennia since David the shepherd. Modern Middle Eastern and African shepherds use the same staff and rod. Even American ranchers carry staffs but have substituted the rod for rifles–but for similar purposes (p.111).
Our unchanging God stands in His eternal realm, unbound by time (Psalm 90:4)–knowing “the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10), knowing all things (Psalm 147:5; 1 John 3:20). So, it is no coincidence or happenstance that God chooses shepherds to be His chosen people (ie: Abraham, Moses, David). Or that He uses shepherding metaphors throughout His Word.
In the Ancient Near East–the days of Abraham, Moses, and David–sheep herding was the way of life. Every single person in Abraham’s family, in Moses’ freed flock, and in David’s nation would have understood the nuances of caring for sheep. So, God’s metaphor of comparing Himself to a shepherd would’ve clicked. The dots of ‘shepherd’ and ‘God’ would have connected, giving the people a clear sense of who Yahweh meant to be for them.
The Israelites would have understood the rod and the staff–their purposes and what they stood for. They would have grasped that God Almighty would be their dogged defender and devoted discipliner. They would have seen themselves as the stubborn, wayward sheep who needed a shepherd to constantly keep them on course.
And because the rod and staff demonstrated a shepherd’s nearness to his flock, the Israelites would have known the comfort of seeing these tools in their Shepherd’s hands–because they meant He was present (Keller, 119).
While we have to put more effort in understanding the deeper meanings of shepherds, staffs, and rods, God’s purposes carry over into our day. In short, the staff is seen as a symbol of the Holy Spirit and the rod as the Word of God.
Just as the actual shepherd’s staff had three main functions, so too can we see the Holy Spirit’s roles:
- The Spirit draws believers together–in fellowship and unity in Christ (Acts 4:32; Ephesians 4:1-6). And He draws us closer to Christ (John 17:20-23).
- The Spirit guides us, leading us into all truth (John 16:13). “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21). The Spirit enables us to sense our Good Shepherd’s presence and plans.
- The Spirit rescues us from troubles–often of our own making–through His teaching and advocating (John 14:26). By His freeing power (2 Corinthians 3:17), He lifts us out of pits and poverty of spirit.
The Greek word for Holy Spirit, paraklétos, carries with it layers of meaning–advocate, intercessor, and helper–but also, comforter. Like a shepherd, our Comforter gently leads and guides us through life. And His presence in us brings the greatest comfort of all.
And, just as the shepherd’s rod serves as a weapon of defense, discipline, and close examination, so does the Word of God work in our lives. Scripture is the very extension of God’s mind and will (Isaiah 55:11). Its power and truths defend us from the enemy’s attacks (Ephesians 6:17). Its authority bows to no one and nothing (Isaiah 40:8; Luke 16:17), and in God’s generosity, He has extended the Word’s authority to us through Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:17-19; 1 Thessalonians 2:13).
The Word of God keeps us from confusion and from wandering to our own man-made paths (Psalm 119:105). The Word comes swiftly to mind–to convict and nudge us back toward our Shepherd (2 Timothy 3:16; 4:2). And by His Word, God searches us, going below the surface to expose things that need to be made right (Keller, 116; Psalm 139:23-24).
So, when David exclaims that God’s rod and staff comfort him (Psalm 23:4), we can connect the dots.
The rod, God’s Word, comforts us with its truths.
The staff, God’s Spirit, comforts us with His presence.
Whatever valley you find yourself in, know that God’s Word equips and sustains you, and His presence goes with you. He’s here to guide you. And to give you comfort.
Go string those lights! All around your house and throughout your heart. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is your God, too. The Shepherd of old seeks to lead you in all the ways you need today. Look to his rod and staff to give you comfort and to build your trust that the Ancient of Days is the Good Shepherd, the One in whose presence we dwell.
Father God, our minds cannot fathom how You can be everywhere at once–east to west, past to present to future, here and there. We struggle to grasp how You can be unchanging and how your plans have been set since the beginning of time. How incredible that You are omnipresent. AND, You are with us. Always. Forever. It’s such a humbling truth, and one we deeply desire to believe and live out. You are with us. Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, thank You for being the Word made flesh who not only walked the earth but embodies the written Word. As the Word, You guide us in truth, teach us in power, and uncover deeper realities within us that need to be rooted out and made new. Thank You for all the ways you defend and discipline us. The more we know You, the more we trust that the work You want to do in us is always for our good and for your glory. Holy Spirit, how incredible to think that You dwell in us, helping us and interceding for us. We have an entirely new appreciation for You as Comforter. We ask that You would help us receive the comfort the Father has for us through your presence in us. In Jesus’ name, amen.
(inspired by: Matthew 24:27, Hebrews 13:8, Revelation 4:8, James 1:17, Zechariah 2:11, John 1:1-4, Psalm 32:8, Hebrews 4:12, Psalm 9:9, 1 John 5:18, Romans 8:28, Romans 8:26, John 14:26–KJV, John 14:26)
- Rhythms: Daily receiving the love and grace and direction from Christ in us is a rhythm–one that we must step into regularly instead of parking ourselves in ruts or stubborn pride. Our Good Shepherd brings Himself to us through His Word and His Spirit, so let’s step into rhythm with Him, in these.
- We’re still memorizing Psalm 23 as a major rhythm for this season. Add to what we memorized last week: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Now we’ll have verses 1-4 put to heart. And at the ready–just like a rod or staff.
- Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
- *Elizabeth Woodson taught at the Bible study I was in last year, and she’s fabulous. Now I get nuggets of her wisdom via Instagram (@missjazzyliz). Here’s one of those tidbits that TOTALLY fits today’s topic: “The Bible was written FOR us, not TO us, which means we need to consider the meaning for the original audience before we try to figure out what Scripture means to us.” Hello! For us. Not to us. (insert mind-blown emoji)
- Chris Tomlin’s song, “Impossible Things” is on our playlist. And it captures so much of this series, and specifically this post. Here are a few of its lyrics. Enjoy:
You lift the heavy burden
And even now, You are lifting me
There is no healer
Like the Lord our Maker
There is no equal to the King of Kings
Our God is with us, we will fear no evil
‘Cause You do impossible things
- So many sources have influenced this series–even when I don’t directly quote them within my posts. Aimee Walker’s mini-study on Psalm 23 for Devoted Collective is one of those. Here’s an incredible quote that helped me connect the dots!
“God gives us the gift of His presence, of all that He is, in the valley, but He particularly wants us to experience these specific aspects of His character: His power and authority over our circumstances and His comfort for our troubled hearts. And He has left us with tangible reminders of both His rod and His staff that we might not forget these attributes.”
- I have been soooo excited to share the details from this particular chapter from Phillip Keller’s book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, because of all the facts about rods and staffs. And, how they can be interpreted as the Spirit and Word–just incredible!
- We’re a flock. We’re a fellowship of believers. We’re a community. Know that you are not alone. You’ll walk these paths with Christ at your side and your sisters hemmed around you.
- As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
- I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.
Featured Photo by Keenan Davidson on Unsplash