When the shepherd is afield with his flock in the high country, it is customary for him to carry a minimum of equipment.
The rod is, in fact, an extension of the owner’s right arm. It stands as a symbol of his strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation.
A rod in the shepherd’s hand can be used to examine and count the sheep. Because of their long wool, it is not always easy to detect disease, wounds, or defects in sheep. In caring for his sheep, the good shepherd will from time to time make a careful examination of each individual sheep. As each animal comes through the gate, it is stopped by the shepherd’s outstretched rod. He opens the fleece with the rod; he runs his skillful hands over the body; he feels for any sign of trouble; he examines the sheep with care to see that all is well. It is a comfort to the sheep, for only in this way can its hidden problems be laid bare before the shepherd.
The rod is what he relies on to safeguard both himself and his flock in danger. It is used both as a defence and a deterrent against anything that would attack. The skilled shepherd uses his rod to drive off predators. Often it is used to beat the brush, discouraging snakes and other creatures from disturbing the flock. In extreme cases, such as David recounted to Saul, it can be used to attack the lion and the bear that came to raid his flocks. And it is, furthermore, the instrument he used to discipline and correct any wayward sheep that insisted on wandering away.
The staff is used for guiding sheep. The tip of the long slender stick is laid gently against the animal’s side, and the pressure applied guides the sheep in the way the owner wants it to go. Thus the sheep is reassured of its proper path.
The staff is also used by the shepherd to reach out and catch individual sheep, young or old, and draw them close to himself for intimate examination. The staff is very useful this way for the shy and timid sheep that normally tend to keep at a distance from the shepherd.
Whereas the rod conveys the concept of authority, of power, of discipline, of defense against danger, the word “staff” speaks of all that is longsuffering and kind. Just as the rod of God is emblematic of the Word of God, so the staff of God is symbolic of the Spirit of God.
An excerpt from A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23