Psalm 23 Series, Part 7

“They Comfort Me”

“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” —Psalm 23:4

A MORE intimate relationship with the divine Shepherd of Israel was expressed by David in the fourth and fifth verses of the Twenty-third Psalm, than is apparent in the opening verses of this beautiful song of praise to the Lord. They are suggestive of David’s unfailing trust in God’s gracious care. Instead of speaking about the Lord, the psalmist speaks to him. In this way, the psalm changes from a testimony to a prayer. At first David was content to observe that the Lord was his Shepherd, who led him beside still waters and caused him to lie down in green pastures. He was a Shepherd, moreover, who was willing and abundantly able to restore his soul, and to lead him in paths of righteousness—yea, even through the valley of the shadow of death—a wonderful Shepherd indeed!

But as David gave expression to the great truths concerning his God, the thought of the Shepherd’s loving care gave him such a sense of nearness that it impelled him to pour out the remainder of his testimony to the Lord, rather than merely to write about him. David continues, “Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Happy are we for whom this psalm was especially written, because we can see in our Good Shepherd’s rod and staff, evidences of the Lord’s special presence with us—his nearness to us. We can go to him with prayers of thanksgiving for the bountiful manner in which he supplies all our needs, even our discipline.

In days gone by, in Oriental lands, a shepherd carried two invaluable pieces of equipment. He used the rod, or crook, to guide the sheep while leading them through narrow and dangerous passes. The staff was used to assist him in driving off wild animals which may have attacked the flock. It was also apparently used by the shepherd as a sort of walking stick, or support.

The Hebrew word translated ‘rod’ is the same one used in the prophecy of Christ’s kingdom, where we read that the Lord will break the nations with a “rod of iron.” (Ps. 2:9) The thought is that of using the rod to keep the sheep in the right way, and to protect them from danger if they are not holding to the path along which the shepherd leads. As the sheep are thus forcibly guided back into the right way—sometimes by hooking the crook of the rod around their necks and gently lifting them back to the path, and sometimes around the hind legs to steer them aright—so the nations will be held in line by an inflexible law, a “rod of iron.”—Rev. 2:27

Transferring the lesson of this symbol to the Christian life, we see in it a loving illustration of the chastenings of the Lord which are a special evidence of the Lord’s love. “Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.” (Heb. 12:6) We are not to think of these corrections as punishments which the Good Shepherd administers because he is angry. Rather they are disciplinary in nature, designed to train or guide the Christian to walk in the right way. And it is because the Lord loves us that he uses such measures to keep us close to him. Indeed, in the symbol, it was essential that the sheep be very close to the shepherd in order for him to use the rod to keep him in the path of safety.

It could not have been very pleasant for a sheep to feel the crook of the shepherd’s rod hooked around its neck. It would be hard, unyielding, and severe, and the sheep would have no choice as to the direction in which it walked. To the onlooker such treatment of the sheep could seem harsh. But when David put himself in the position of the sheep, knowing the viewpoint of the shepherd—having himself served so faithfully as one—he realized that what seemed an unyielding attitude on the part of his God was in reality an evidence of his care. God loved David and so would not permit him to continue in a straying path. The psalmist knew this, and explained, “Before I was afflicted I went astray.”—Ps. 119:67

Yes, sometimes the restraining influences of the Lord come upon us in the form of afflictions. In such experiences we might get the discouraging thought that the Good Shepherd is displeased with us and is administering punishment. In reality, however, behind that “frowning providence” he hides the “smiling face” of his love. The trials come because the Good Shepherd is exercising his loving care over us. These experiences are designed by him to train us to walk more circumspectly day by day.

It is said that when a shepherd in the East is leading his flock through dangerous mountain passes he frequently looks back to his flock, and if he notices one of the sheep going too near the edge of the precipice, he gently draws it toward the other sheep and away from danger by applying the crook to its hind legs. Possibly David had this in mind when he wrote, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighteth in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand.”—Ps. 37:23,24

Although David fell into iniquity on more than one occasion, the Lord did not permit him to be utterly cast down. No doubt David knew of the comforting promise God made concerning him, recorded in II Samuel 7:14,15: “I will be his Father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men. But my mercy shall not depart away from him.” How wonderfully this was fulfilled in the life of David. When he did wrong, God’s chastening rod was not withheld, but it was used in mercy, and with the object of keeping the psalmist in the “paths of righteousness.”

He was chastened with the “rod of men.” This might indicate that God used human agencies of one kind or another to keep David from going too far astray. In the case of the Christian, this chastening can be far from pleasant; indeed, as the Apostle Paul pointed out, it is sometimes grievous, “nevertheless afterward,” he adds, “it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”—Heb. 12:11

The shepherd’s staff, as we have noted, was used to help him to protect the sheep from an attacking enemy, and also was used as a support, or a walking stick. The staff of the Good Shepherd comforts us in both respects. Although the enemies of the Christian do not attack in a physical sense, the attacks are against our faith. This is the reason we can resist these enemies only by being “steadfast in the faith.” (I Pet. 5:9) Nor could we successfully resist the Adversary alone, without the help and wisdom given us by the Good Shepherd. It is his staff, not ours, that wards off the attackers.

However, if we are to be protected by the Good Shepherd’s staff it is essential that we remain very close to him. And if we do, we will be protected by it. The attacks of our enemies being along spiritual lines, they are to be warded off, not by carnal weapons, but by the Word of God. In reality, the Word of God is the staff which is provided to sustain and protect us. As the green pastures and still waters in the psalm are symbols of the Word of God, so the staff also pictures the Scriptures. We can rest assured that we will be victorious over all our enemies as long as we use this means which has been provided for our protection—God’s precious Word.

If we think of the staff as the Word of God, it is necessary to depart from the strict interpretation of the symbol in order to appreciate the full value of the lesson. Actually a sheep never takes the staff from the shepherd’s hand and wields it for his own protection, but the Christian does use the Word of God in this way. The Good Shepherd provides the staff for us, but it is essential that we use it to combat our enemies, and to lean upon in our weakness.

We usually think of our enemies as the world, the flesh, and the devil, and we are to use the Word of God in combating all of these. But there are other enemies of the Christian. We are attacked by temptation, by discouragement, by pride, and by weariness. Against any of these, the Word of God is the only sure protection.

When Jesus was attacked by temptations instigated by the Adversary, the Word of God was his defense. “It is written,” was the Master’s reply to every subtle suggestion made to him. So it should be with us. Whether we are tempted to depart from the narrow way, or to believe a false doctrine, or to lay down our cross for just a short while, these enemy thoughts can always be beaten off by a “thus saith the Lord.” This is a staff that never fails!

Is discouragement threatening us? Let us again use the Word: “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,” it assures us. (Heb. 13:5) Upon this blessed promise we can lean, and be assured of strength to sustain us until we reach the end of the way. Again we turn to the Word and find it saying to us, as Moses said of Asher, “As thy days, so shall thy strength be.” (Deut. 33:25) With these and similar promises to reassure us, we can ward off discouragement and take our place among those who are following the Good Shepherd victoriously, faithfully, and safely.

Pride may be lurking near our hearts, seeking an opportunity to strike us down, to lure us away from the paths of righteousness. Again the Word may be used to protect us. In it we are warned not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. (Rom. 12:3) We are also admonished to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. (I Pet. 5:6) “Pride goeth before destruction,” the Word tells us, “and an haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov. 16:18) And again, “Everyone that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord.” (Prov. 16:5) These are only samples of passages which may be, and should be, brought into action when we notice the first symptoms of pride—the first suggestions that perhaps we are superior in various ways to our brethren.

“Let us not be weary in well doing,” wrote the apostle, “for in due season we shall reap if we faint not.” (Gal. 6:9) How this text should help us to fight off weariness as we walk in the narrow way! “In due season,” Paul said. How essential that we recognize the Lord’s due time, waiting on him with the recognition that our times are in his hands. “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength … they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”—Isa. 40:31

How wonderfully true it is that the rod and staff are sources of comfort to us. David again wrote, “Remember the word unto thy servant, upon which thou hast caused me to hope. This is my comfort in my affliction; for thy Word hath quickened me.” (Ps. 119:49,50) Yes, it is the Word of the Lord that comforts all the Lord’s people in their times of need. The Word of God is sufficient for all our needs if we apply ourselves to its study and practice. Paul wrote, “All scripture given by inspiration of God is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (II Tim. 3:16,17) What a wonderful rod and staff the Lord has provided! How comforting to realize that all we need to guide, warn, and strengthen us as new creatures, is abundantly supplied in his Word!

The Old Testament, as well as the New, serves to keep the sheep of the Gospel Age in the pathway of righteousness. It is a special source of comfort. Paul wrote, “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.”—Rom. 15:4

Because he was fully aware of the prophecies of the Old Testament, the many reproaches heaped upon Christ Jesus could have been avoided by him, if he had been governed by selfish considerations. But he sought not to please himself. And we have the privilege of sharing in these reproaches of the Christ. If we endure them faithfully, we too will receive a crown of life which fadeth not away.

Every part of the Word of God is a comfort to the Christian. As we look about us in the valley of the shadow of death we would be dismayed and discouraged if we did not have an understanding of why this valley is permitted, and the assurance that in God’s due time its mists of darkness will be dispelled by the healing rays of the rising “Sun of righteousness.” (Mal. 4:2) We see much about us that is unjust in this world, and perhaps we would be tempted to try, in our feeble way, to right these wrongs, if we did not know from the Scriptures that this is not now the plan of God for us.

Instead of wasting our time with moral and social reform efforts which, despite their good intentions, are incapable of solving the world’s evils, the Good Shepherd urges us to remain in the narrow way of sacrifice. By so doing we will be prepared to share with him, by-and-by, the glorious work of actually restoring the world to full perfection of health and life, making available to all the willing and obedient the joys of everlasting life! What comfort it is to realize that this better way is the Lord’s way; therefore, the only right and perfect way!

At times the road of life may seem unduly long and grueling. Many hills present themselves for us to climb, many obstacles to surmount stand in our way, and we long for rest. But the reminder of the Word is that we must be faithful even unto death, to be with him on Mount Zion. This is a glorious hope set before us—a hope which, when we contemplate it, fills our hearts with joy. And it is this joy that urges us to continue on in the way of sacrifice.

The fruition of the Christian’s hope will be realized at the second coming of Christ. The Early Church looked forward to this great event in the plan of God with high anticipation—it was indeed the mainspring of their Christian lives. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about it, saying that the Lord would descend from heaven “with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God.” He then adds, “Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” (I Thess. 4:16-18) Comforting indeed are these words today, more especially, because the shout can be heard, the voice is causing the earth to melt, and the trump is resounding its joyful notes of encouragement throughout the earth! But the world neither sees, nor hears, nor heeds these indications of the new day of his presence. Their eyes are blind; their ears have not been unstopped.

Knowing that Christ is present, we have this added incentive to follow him as our Good Shepherd faithfully even to the end. And in addition to inspiring us to zeal in the doing of the Lord’s will, the knowledge of Present Truth serves to guide us in the way the Lord would have us walk. There is nothing more disconcerting nor discouraging than uncertainty as to what the Lord’s will may be. The Lord’s people would perish if they did not have sufficient knowledge to guide them in the right direction. What could be more comforting than to realize that through Present Truth the Lord is guiding us, during this wonderful time in which we are living, with the rod and staff of his Word.

It is indeed a wonderful time in which we are living! It is also an evil day—a day when the enemies of God and of the truth are attacking the Lord’s sheep from every direction. We surely need the protection of his rod and staff, because only those who are protected by the truth of the Lord’s Word will be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil. As we hear our Good Shepherd’s voice, however, our hearts leap for joy when we realize the great privilege offered to us of following him, who once, as the Lamb of God, laid down his life for us and for the whole world.

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