Creature comforts is a common expression in our vocabulary. The term started being used circa the 1650s. In Matthew Henry’s commentary of the whole Bible, he uses this expression (58 times) without any explanation of the term (implying a common understanding of the term). We heard sayings like, I could not live without… fill in the blank. Every person will have their own answer, my phone, coffee, my truck, ice cream, my recliner, or my dog. This small, or big thing might seem like nothing to someone else but to you, it means more than an object or thing that helps your life. The small item makes a big difference in your life. Today’s line in the Psalm speaks of the creature comforts of the sheep of the good shepherd, the rod and staff of the Shepherd. Every trade has tools that are essential to their occupation; the carpenter needs his hammer, the baker needs their whisk, the electrician needs their pilers, and the mechanic their wrench. The shepherd has his voice which leads the sheep, but he has his rod and staff for his sheep as well.
Some of us might have experience looking after livestock and animals. However, even farming today is different from a century ago. This Psalm was written around 1000 BC, so 3000 years ago. In a different culture; one of the greatest differences in horticulture is that farmers/shepherds did not have a fenced-in enclosure or pasture for their animals. They were nomadic shepherds. Today a farmer has 10, 100, and 1000 acres which they cultivate to sustain their livestock, fields for pasturing, hay for winter, and corn for supplementing a diet. However, this is not the case for those who live in an arid desert, especially during the summer months. Today, farmers prepare for winter. In the Middle East, summer is the difficult season. The water dries up, the grass becomes sparse. The shepherd needs to find grass and water for the flock. 3000 years ago, they have no trailers, or vehicles to haul the sheep from one grazing field to the next. They needed to walk, with the whole flock across rugged mountain tops, where predators roam, where sheep wander and get stuck. It is hard enough hiking with three children let alone a herd of sheep. So the shepherd would carry the tools of the trade, who objects. Light enough to not be a burden, but enough to help in these difficult conditions. He would carry a rod and staff. The rod might be better described as a bat or cub. A small weapon that could be used to throw at or even beat any predators that they might encounter. The staff is a more common picture for us as the shepherd’s crook, useful for guiding the sheep as they begin to stray off the path, but also hooking the sheep around the neck if they fall a crack or ditch.
Our image of the shepherd can be very tainted. This is no easy task. Being a shepherd would be one of the most dangerous jobs. We have in mind the picture of the shepherd laying down on green grass with a blade of grass sticking out of his mouth. However, a shepherd is one with great cost and danger. The shepherd often would be by themselves in the desert. The risk of being attacked by some predator was a reality. David explained to Saul in 1 Samuel 17, that he had defeated a lion and a bear while watching his father’s sheep. It was not merely that he was confronted with a lion or bear and made the predator run away. The lion or bear had a lamb in its mouth and David chased it down and slew the beast and saved the lamb (1 Sam 17:34-35). When Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers, his brothers deceived their dad by bringing his rode covered in blood to him. Jacob’s response was quite simple, “A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces” (Gen 37:33). The conclusion is simple, the reality is that Joseph could be attacked by a fierce animal just on a journey to check on his brothers. A shepherd would be confronted with fierce animals that want to eat his sheep. Jesus makes this clear in John 10, the hired hand is confronted with a wolf, and when he sees it coming, he runs in the other direction (John 10:12-13). The shepherd needs a weapon, and he has his rod.
Jesus explains that Satan comes to steal, kill and destroy, he is the thief who tries to steal the sheep. However, Jesus clarifies, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28–29). Just as David defended the life of his sheep, Jesus, the good shepherd, protects his sheep. As we will see we can have great comfort in this. When Jesus sends his disciples out he warns them that he is sending them out as ‘lambs among wolves’ (Luke 10:3). Paul explains to the Ephesian elders as he is departing, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). The predators of the sheep are not physical, but they are the ones who want you to follow a different shepherd. We would call these false teachers. If we see that this is not just a poem making us feel warm and gooey on the inside, but scripture we see that the simple premise of ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ is a theological statement, with implications on how one is to live their life. If we are sheep then we are in great danger, this danger is found in many ways, but all seeking to snatch us from the hands of the shepherd. The danger I think is that when a shepherd sees a wolf in the wild they know that it is a predator. However, wolves are well disguised in the world of the church. Paul says that wolves will come in, and even that some of the members of the church will speak twisted things, drawing disciples away from them. Paul instructed them to teach as he had taught, from the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). We need to be aware that the life of a sheep is one of constant threat, especially when we are not close to the shepherd.
This rod is not a toy, but a weapon uses to show the shepherd’s power and protection over his sheep. Christ has given his church this weapon to be used, the word is the weapon that we fight off those seeking to steal Christ’s sheep. Notice Paul speaks of the wolves coming and they twist words, to steal disciples. He commended them to God and the word of his grace (Acts 20:32). How then does Christ use his word to protect his flock? The danger is not that there are wolves and coyotes, but that they are close to the sheep. The image given in Acts 20 is that of those who are deceiving the sheep to steal the sheep. To put it another way, Jesus said the world will persecute us because he was persecuted, but we should not let the world into the church. So Christ gave the keys of the kingdom to under-shepherds (1 Pet 5:2). We see that in the church sin started to creep in, so they needed to drive the fake sheep away.
The rod is to be used on predators, but the staff is to be used on the sheep. The rod was never used on the sheep. The good shepherd may correct the sheep with his staff but never beat the sheep with the rod. Just as a father disciplines his child out of love, so too does God discipline his children whom he loves. The author of Hebrews explains that the loving father does not discipline his child with the goal of happiness because discipline is painful and not pleasant. The goal of discipline is holiness (Heb 12:7-11). Alister Begg says, “Discipline is a privilege because it is evidence of our sonship.” The shepherd does not beat his sheep into submission but lovingly directs them to the path when they begin to stray. We have a false idea in modern evangelicalism that comes straight from the world, love is acceptance of who I am. Ultimately these creep into our theology because we do not fully grasp the sin within our hearts, and how deep sin permeates within all that we do. If we downplay sin then we do not have as far to grow as a believer. However, the believer knows that correction is a part of their growth in grace. Simply discipline is discipleship. Discipleship speaks to putting Christ at the head of Christ as king seeking to place your life under the rule of Christ which includes the rule of Christ through the Church. A little leaven leavens the whole lump (Gal 5:9). This is true in our hearts but also as the body of Christ.
We never reach perfection on this side of heaven so there is always a need for repentance. You might even say that discipline comes in various levels, on the broadest level it comes through the Word. All scripture is for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). Even sitting under preaching is a way that the Lord uses his staff to guide his children. However, more specifically the role becomes more direct. God uses his leaders in the church to correct those who are wandering. Now, the leaders of a church have two roles that are ministerial and declarative. To be ministerial means to be used as an agent or an instrument. Christ is the chief shepherd, but he left his church with leaders who are his instruments. Peter puts it this way in 1 Peter 5:2-4,
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:1–4)
Christ has appointed elders to shepherd his flock. Now that does not mean they can interpret how they are to shepherd the flock. They have a job description; shepherd the flock, but not with the rod (not domineering) but as examples. So, you might say how God uses his rod on his sheep today, through the Word but also ministers of the word, elders. Who are his agents or instruments? However, as agents or instruments, they do not get to make their own rules or even set boundaries. It is ministerial (instruments) and declarative. Through discipline, they are merely stating what the Bible teaches to be true. They admonish, rebuke, suspend, depose or excommunicate. What that means is that they only declare what is to be true from the person’s profession and actions. Just in the same way when the elders interview someone for church membership they are seeking to hear an authentic profession of faith, they are declaring what they claim to be true according to scripture. However, through their declaration they are not saving a person, merely declaring what they know is true. Same with discipline, the person who professed to be a Christian is no longer walking in a Christ-like manner (even though been shown in the word).
They comfort us
Many aspects of this Psalm leave me pondering if we truly understand what this Psalm says. David says, the rod and staff of the Good shepherd comfort the believer. The author of Hebrews says discipline is not pleasant. How can we find comfort in the staff that guides and corrects us? I think we understand that the rod brings us comfort and that our enemies are defeated. However, the staff which is to be used on the sheep does not seem like comfort to me. Even the small correction when I am exposed to my sin through reading the word, or when a brother or sister in Christ points my sin to me. The comfort is that we once were enemies deserving of the rod but now are sheep who are sanctified through the staff. Christ the good shepherd came to die that we might live. Christ came to take the punishment of the rod on the cross so that we might be called children of God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the question, “How doth Christ execute the office of a king? Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling, and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.” The believer finds great comfort in the rod and staff, one shows Christ’s victory over sin and Satan and the staff shows us his victory in our life. We die to sin and live to Christ. It is with this understanding David continues to write that even surrounded by his enemies the Lord prepares a table for him. The sheep of the good shepherd love his protection from predators outside but also the sin from within that makes them wander.
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994).
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism: With Scripture Proofs, 3rd edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).