Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
We’re thinking about the famous psalm, Psalm 23. The Psalms Now version is different – it says: “When I feel empty and alone, He (that’s the Good Shepherd) fills the aching vacuum with His power.”
The Good Shepherd helps us see the inner wounds—we all have them.
The author of the Psalm was David. God helped David face his sin, get his heart right with his God and with others. David had struggled with his own failings—he had committed adultery and arranged the death of a woman’s husband. He knew what guilt was like. He had been through feelings of worthlessness.
This Psalm (Psalm 23) tells me God will provide all I need in this life. David knew this, and he has been through the tough times. He comes to this point in his life and says, “God is all that matters”. It is the eternal, immeasurable, indescribable, spiritual—God stuff that really counts:
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:3-4 – NASB)
Make a difference in this world
Do you know that God made you to make a difference in this world—you have a constructive role in this world. Our task is to be faithful to what is before us and what we can do. He guides us in that role, and everything else that happens each day. Do you know his guidance in your life? Remember Philippians 4:19 (Amplified Bible): ”And my God will liberally supply (fill to the full) your every need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
- Can you identify a unique purpose God has given you? If you had unlimited resources and energy, what specific needs would you most like to meet?
- Allow time this week to fill a purpose that only you can do. This could be praying for others or sharing a word of encouragement with a friend or work colleague.
- Take each day in God’s strength—maybe there are difficult mountains for you to climb.
Malcolm Muggeridge, the great British journalist, once said when he looked back over his long and eventful life, he had to conclude that the most difficult and painful experiences of his life were the most valuable. Does this resonate with you?
- How have your trials been valuable to your overall wellbeing? Are you going through a difficult trial at the moment? Reflect on this. Each day give thanks to God for his provision and protection of your life.
- Remember to make these affirmations each morning:
I am safe
I will be brave
I am not alone
God is with me
God promises to stay with me
If God is with me, I do not need to be afraid anymore.
The rod and staff (in verse 4) symbolise protection and comfort. They are not enemies—rather a great source of comfort. You are like a champion athlete with the best coach. God is getting you ready for something greater. Every experience in life is not wasted. God will use it for good:
- What bad things have happened to you? Have you tended to place blame or have you just accepted them?
- What is God, my loving Shepherd, showing me about myself?
- Today where is He taking me that I have not been before?
Learn from a traditional shepherd
Phillip Keller was a shepherd who wrote a book on the 23rd Psalm. It’s called, appropriately enough, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Keller grew up in the British colonies of East Africa. There he got to know real shepherds who practised their craft with much the same technology as the shepherds in the Bible. He tells how each one carried both a long, slender stick, and a rough, knobby club. Each shepherd boy, the first time he ventured out to help his father tend the flock, would go into the bush and cut sticks out of which to fashion these two implements. The ‘rod’ is the thick, knobby club. Phillip Keller tells how he watched shepherd boys learning how to use their newly created rods:
After he completes it, the shepherd boy spends hours practicing with this club, learning how to throw it with amazing speed and accuracy. It becomes his main weapon of defence for both himself and his sheep.
I used to watch the native lads having competitions to see who could throw his rod with the greatest accuracy across the greatest distance. The effectiveness of these crude clubs in the hands of skilled shepherds was a thrill to watch. The rod was, in fact, an extension of the owner’s right arm. It stood as a symbol of his strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation. The rod was what he relied on to safeguard both himself and his flock in danger. And it was, furthermore, the instrument he used to discipline and correct any wayward sheep that insisted on wandering away. [W. Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Zondervan, 1970, pp. 112-113.]
Keller goes on to tell how, on one occasion, he came to appreciate how useful a shepherd’s rod could be. He was out on a photographic expedition in Kenya, accompanied by a young shepherd of the Masai people. Standing on a hill, looking down on a herd of elephants below, they decided to push a small boulder down the slope, to try to startle the elephants, to get them to move for the picture:
As we heaved and pushed against the great rock, a cobra, coiled beneath it, suddenly came into view ready to strike. In a split second the alert shepherd boy lashed out with his club, killing the snake on the spot. The weapon had never left his hand even when we worked on the rock.
‘Your rod… comforts me.’ In that instant I saw the meaning of this phrase in a new light. It was the rod ever ready in the shepherd’s hand that had saved the day for us. [P 118]
The shepherd’s rod is about more than simply protection. With respect to the sheep, it’s also an instrument of discipline. They can get into all kinds of trouble, contentedly working their way from one tuft of grass to the next, oblivious to dangers that lurk close at hand. From time to time, the biblical shepherd must brandish his rod, or sometimes even throw it at a sheep, in order to keep the animal from wandering over the edge of a cliff, or munching a clump of poisonous weeds.
The other item in the shepherd’s hands is a staff. This is long and slender, rather than short and thick. The classic shepherd’s staff has a crook at one end, useful for reaching around the body of a little lamb to pull it to safety. In Keller’s words:
The staff is essentially a symbol of the concern, the compassion that a shepherd has for his charges. No other word can better describe its function on behalf of the flock than that it is for their comfort. Whereas the rod conveys the concept of authority, of power, of discipline, of defence against danger, the word ‘staff’ speaks of all that is long-suffering and kind. [P 119]
So, there we have it: the rod and the staff. One is an instrument of discipline; the other, an instrument of comfort.
Use both the staff and the rod
Most of us like the idea of the staff better than the rod, the comfort better than the discipline. Yet, the truth is, part of the life of discipleship is submitting to God’s discipline, as well as receiving the Lord’s comfort. The words ‘disciple’ and ‘discipline’ are intimately related. A disciple is, literally, one who follows the discipline.
We need both the shepherd’s rod and the shepherd’s staff in our lives of faith. We need to be reminded that being a Christian involves more than simply coming to a warm and friendly church and revelling in God’s love. It also involves going out and bringing that love to others—even in places where people are hurting or fearful or even angry. Sometimes this requires personal risk or that we have to sacrifice things of value to us—like our money—for a greater good. Sometimes it even means taking up a cross.
A reporter once asked Ben Hogan, one of the greatest golfers of all time, how he happened to coolly hit so many spectacular shots on the golf course, in moments of great pressure:
“I guess I’m just lucky,” replied Hogan.
“But, Mr Hogan”, the reporter objected, “you practise more than any golfer who ever lived.”
“Well,” Hogan admitted, with a smile, “the more I practise, the luckier I get.”
Such is the benefit of good discipline—and it’s just as true in the spiritual life as it is on the golf course.
How do you feel about Hebrews 12:6: “The Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “You and I must be willing to pay that cost—the cost of obedience to God’s discipline—if we wish to receive the rewards of abundant life, both now and in the life to come.”