Spare the rod and spoil the child. My dad believed in corporal punishment. His words still ring in my ears: “If you ‘get it’ at school, expect to ‘get it’ twice as hard at home.” I believed that he meant it.
That is why I found little comfort in the rod image of Psalm 23. My experience did not lead me to experience any comfort in a rod.
A good shepherd in biblical times and even today cannot be defenseless. The flock is vulnerable, and the flock is pretty defenseless. The good shepherd lovingly cares for the sheep and does so with tools. Those tools include a rod, a staff, and stones.
I have seen few large predators in Israel. That said, the eastern area of the land is the Rift Valley. The Rift Valley corridor runs from Syria to Africa. The Bible mentions predatory animals such as lions and bears. It is quite possible that African predators ventured north at times in history. It is also possible that biblical lions were a smaller cousin of the king of beasts. Those things are unclear.
What we do know is that the shepherd protected the flock from predators. There is a Syrian bear that lives today in the mountains of Syria. Large predatory cats have been seen in the far back country of the En Gedi nature preserve. Hyenas have been observed in the wilderness Makhtesh in the south. I have startled a fox in the Negev (or actually it startled me).
One of our friends was leading a trip not long ago. They were on the bus and observed a man driving a flock down a Bethlehem street and striking the reluctant sheep with a rod. Having learned that a good shepherd used the rod on predators but would never strike a sheep in the flock, they were perplexed. “Is he a bad shepherd?” they asked. The guide replied, “No, that man is the butcher.”
The flock is comforted to know that their shepherd will protect them. They need not fear predators, because their trust is in the shepherd. That is their comfort and our comfort.
Shepherds have a third tool. It is found in abundance in the land. It is the stone.
Good shepherds become skilled stone throwers. The flock is filled with individuals, too, especially the goats! The goats always think they have a better idea. They seek their own paths and wander from the way that the shepherd knows best.
Lovingly, carefully, compassionately the shepherd sharpens his or her stone-throwing skills to fling stones to the left and right of the flock to guide them back onto the straight paths of his choosing.
The Lord is our shepherd. His rod and his staff comfort me. His stone-throwing skills are the best and will guide me to the paths I should go. I am called to lead. I am not only a sheep in his flock, but a shepherd to the flock in my care. I am called to sharpen my skills and use them for his purpose.
Devotionals are written by Jeff Blamer, Vice President of Member Services