The Bare Soul - July 10, 2011
The Good Shepherd

The following is the message text and audio recording of a sermon titled "The Good Shepherd" delivered to the homeless
at the Kansas City Rescue Mission Chapel on July 6, 2011.

The Good Shepherd - July 6, 2011

Psalm 23:4 - Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

Of all the story pictures in the Old Testament scriptures, possibly none evokes tranquility better than the six verses that make up Psalm 23. From the beginning of this Song of David to the end, we are painted a vivid portrait within our mind's-eye regarding this pastoral scene. Sheep led by tranquil waters and resting in lush grass create a peaceful motif for this most quoted scripture of both Testaments. However, some would imply that there is something less peaceful regarding the shepherd's intention in this psalm when discussing verse four. Throughout my church history, I recall various preachers sermonizing about this passage, using this metaphor of God's rod and staff in a less than comforting way. They meant well, I'm sure, when they conjectured a different meaning regarding the shepherd's intent. However, their interpretation comes across as wholly incompatible with the context. We should look carefully at the meaning of the shepherd's rod and staff to determine David's intent in this powerful psalm.

We've probably all seen pictures in books or bibles or religious displays depicting a shepherd with his flock. Common to us is the shepherd's crook, a long staff with a hook at the end. This enabled the shepherd to help guide his or her sheep, using the crook at times to gently "hook" the sheep by the neck and guide it back to the rest of the flock. Probably less known to us is the shepherd's rod. A rod in biblical times could be something as small as a foot-long club that shepherd's wore in their belt, to a four-foot in length weapon that might resemble a walking stick. Usually, one end was more club-like (as shown in the attached picture). While the staff was used specifically for herding the flock, the rod was a weapon or a tool, if you will, to provide safety for the flock. To understand the meaning and the use of the rod is to understand God's heart toward His flock. As mentioned, some preachers would lead us to believe that God would use His rod against His beloved sheep and lambs. Some have stated that shepherds in ancient Palestine would correct a lamb by breaking its leg and carrying it until the break had healed. Therefore, this would prevent the lamb, one day to become a sheep, from ever wandering away again. With full grown sheep, the implication is that the rod would be used to discipline the sheep with heavy blows to prevent it from wandering. In both cases, I believe this does not produce the result of "comfort" as the verse states. Animals are not stupid, neither are humans. Both know the difference of being treated with love that does not foster fear as a result. Can you imagine the trauma created to an animal's psyche by such a blatantly heinous act? There would be an indelible mistrust, no matter how much nurturing occurred after the fact. The same can be said regarding humans. If we knew that God was intentionally "beating us up and breaking our legs" we would always have the wrong sort of fear toward the Great Shepherd.

If, however, the rod was meant for something totally different, then it would cast a harmonious consistency with the rest of the psalm. Suppose that the rod symbolized protection from without, as the shepherd's staff meant protection from within? Imagine for a moment a good shepherd who wielded this one- to four-foot club, would he not meet any animal, robber, or stranger seeking to harm the flock with unbridled ferocity? Can we suppose that David, when bringing his resume' to King Saul regarding his ability to defeat the giant Goliath, didn't use one of these rods to club to death both the bear and the lion? (I Samuel 17:33-35) Artists throughout the millennia have shown this very thing as David clutched the beard of a lion and slew it with this club-like rod. So, how could one imagine that David could be referring to this war club in any other way as a defense for the flock? Just as the shepherd would keep the flock from straying with his staff, so he would keep the outer dangers at bay with his rod of defense. To use the rod for anything else would strike the wrong kind of fear in the hearts of his animals. Every time they saw it, there would be an uncertainty regarding when and where the shepherd would use it next. While the staff would comfort them, knowing that the shepherd would herd them lovingly by keeping them together, so they would also know that the other tool in their keeper's arsenal was to protect them from whatever might assail them.

The transliteration of the word "rod" in Hebrew is shebet, and is found dozens of times in the Old Testament. Critics to the reasoning I suggest might note that shebet is used in child-rearing scriptures such as Proverbs 23:13: Do not hold back discipline from the child. Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die. However, corporal punishment for a rebellious child is one thing -- the intent of a "sheep" to maliciously assert its own predilection is quite another. One acts out of a state of volition, defiantly choosing to disobey. The other is wayward merely out of a sense of misguided instinct. One might choose to deal with a wayward child in one way, and a wayward grown child in quite another. We are told that the father of the Prodigal Son merely let his wayward grown son make his mistakes and then return when he saw the folly of his ways. (Luke 15:11-25) While I am not naive to believe that the shepherd would not be forcefully rough at times to convince a sheep to stay with the flock, I likewise believe that a good shepherd would not inflict unnecessary brutality to convince a sheep of his authority. This, as has already been stated, would be counterproductive and would make the sheep ultimately mistrust and flee from this type of shepherding. (John 10:5)

Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John, the tenth chapter that He is indeed the Good Shepherd. He protects His flock and will not allow any to be snatched from His hand. (John 10:28) David gives us this dynamic portrayal of good shepherding in Psalm 23 whereas Jesus Christ completes the image in John's Gospel. The Lord has shown us through David's typology and through His own testimony that He is to be trusted to keep us from straying and to defend us against those who would seek to devour us. Even if we did stray, He compares Himself with the man in the parable of the wayward sheep. He would seek us out and rejoice when He found us once again. (Luke 15:3-6) Jesus is clear throughout His teachings that punitive discipline is not the order of the day when a lost sheep is found. What is clear is His love for us all and how He rejoices over our return. May we never see God being desirous to punish us through corrective measures that are not in line with His word. Neither the shepherd David nor the Good Shepherd would be complicit to this type of discipline. Know and understand, beloved, that the rod of his love is to protect us from all that would seek to harm us. In Him, we can truly be comforted and rest in His abiding grace!

Great Shepherd of our souls, may we always trust that you will lead us and guide us, first with your staff of life that leads us always in your word. And also by your rod, that protects us from the world and the devil that would seek to devour us. May your word comfort and lead us while the power of Your Name protects us from all evil. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

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