“…thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me…” Psalm 23:4
One of the most popular passages in scripture is the 23rd Psalm. This beloved, comforting passage can be heard at commencements, funerals, and everything in between. Whether it’s the soothing voice of the orator or the deeply moving assurance of David’s words, this narrative love story between a shepherd and the one he leads is one of history’s most well-written prose ever. But far too often, we miss a tremendous lesson that is beautifully hidden in verse four. This verse alone could be a month-long series. But for now, let’s comfort each other with this brief synopsis of the text.
David makes no qualms about death and dying. Far too often, grief for the believer is a contradiction of masking strength for others and fighting the looming darkness of giving up. Yet David faces grief head-on. He says, “I know that I have to walk through valleys. I understand that life is not always hilltops and mountain moments. And sometimes, those valleys will even feel like death. They may even include death. But I will not fear.” There is no larger degradation to the soul than fear. It is a singular emotion that is tailored made for each life. No one experiences fear the same, and no one possesses the same level of fear for any one thing. It is an isolated feeling, which can make a person seem small and alone. David, however, acknowledges fear by explaining to it that he does not have to dwell on what frightens him. He is not alone. In essence, he says, “You came to single me out, fear, but I didn’t come by myself. I am with Someone, Who reminds me of the fact and not the feeling.” We will all face valleys and fears to some degree in our lives. But we MUST remember that we are not alone. He is an ever-present help in the time of trouble!
A shadow is an interesting thing. It looks like something solid. It feels like something in its own substance. But a shadow is NOT an actual, substantial, weighty entity. It is a reflection of the actual thing based on the unexposed side of the thing. A shadow is opposite of the sun and always dependent upon something that has weight to it so that it appears to be real. Can I help you with this? David says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Revelation tells David that he is in a fragment of loss but has not lost anything. A shadow of death can look like death; it can feel like death. There may even be actual transitions from life to immortal that break our hearts. But Paul said, “for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 12:1) Like Paul, David understood that life is much more about living again than it is about simply existing here. The man who understands that is unstoppable. So many times, we walk TO valleys to get stopped in them because we don’t understand that there is life on the other side of them. Keep living through it; because the life that is coming after this (in the natural and spiritual) is SO much more than your present valley.
Finally, David speaks distinctly of his relationship with God as a Shepherd. This poignant depiction of the Father is a lesson in itself. A shepherd is SOLELY responsible for the needs and direction of the sheep. Most times, we see shepherds in the natural walking with what seems like one or two “sticks.” David, having been a shepherd himself, understood what he was talking about when he quipped, “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” There is comfort in staffs, for obvious reasons; a staff lovingly redirects you, beckons you closer, and can even scratch your back when you need it. We love the staff of God. We find so much joy in knowing that God will feed us, clothe us, and provide as He directs us into the greener passages…
But what about the Rod of God? What happens when God has to spank us? What is our reaction when God sets boundaries and disciplines us when we disobey those boundaries? The staff of a shepherd directs, but the rod of a shepherd discerns and disciplines. God DOES say no! God will, in fact, say “not now,” or “you are not ready for that,” or “they will ruin your life,” or “absolutely no, not ever.” When we focus too deeply on the staff, we fail to appreciate the loving power of the rod. This Thanksgiving, and throughout the year, remember to thank God for every “no,” heartbreak, override of your plans, exit from people, and disciplinary action He loved you enough to grant. We grow when we know and appreciate the rod!