For our communion meditation I want to deal with the first parallel thought that emerges from the Psalm 23 chiasm.
But very briefly, a chiasm is a structure where the first and last thought of a paragraph (or in this case, of the entire Psalm) are parallel to each other, and the second thought and second to last thought are parallel. And the same is true of each thought as you work to the center of the Psalm. And because those thoughts are parallel, the second set of parallel thoughts fills out and expand on the first set. But both hang on that hinge of the first part of verse 4 because that is the central theme. I'll just give you one example of what difference that makes as the second set fills out the theology of the first. In the first half God is referred to in the third person — "The Lord is my shepherd... He makes me to lie down... He leads me... He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness." But once you get to the central theme of God's presence removing all fear, God's presence in His life is so vivid that he loses sight of anyone but God and speaks to God in the second person: "for you are with me; Your rod and Your staff... You prepare a table before me... You anoint my head..." The point of that change is that it is impossible to think of God abstractly once you have experienced His presence with you. And there are other ways that the second set of parallels fill out the meaning of the first set.
How God leads us in the paths of righteousness — rod and staff
The last phrase of verse 4 is what we are going to look at today. "Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me" are in parallel with "He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His names' sake." It shows how God leads us in the paths of righteousness: it is by a rod and a staff. The rod was used to chase off wild animals as well as to discipline the sheep, and it was a symbol of governing or ruling. The second instrument, the staff often had a crook in the end and was used to guide, to hold back a sheep that was going somewhere he shouldn't be going, to tug at a sheep and bring it closer to you, or to rescue the sheep when it was in a hole. It was a very versatile tool, and it was the symbol of shepherding.
When sheep were being taken from one pasture to the next, the shepherd would know which sheep tended to lead others off the path, and would tap them gently from time to time to bring them back into the pathway. Otherwise the whole herd could defect. You get one complainer, and before you know it you have a whole bunch of sheep that are going off in that direction even though there is no grass there. There doesn't have to be a good reason; they just do it. Ezekiel describes one sheep butting another sheep, and when that happened, the crook could be used to hold it back, and if it still didn't pay attention, the rod could be used in the other hand to discipline the sheep. But between those two instruments, the shepherd could keep the sheep moving on the path in the direction of the next pasture. And so, when all the purposes of the rod and staff are brought together, you can see that God leads us in the paths of righteousness through discipline, restraint, guidance, and protection.
Why God leads us and needs a rod and staff — we tend to wander
But this assumes that sheep don't tend to beautifully line up like an army and do exactly what a shepherd says without any intervention. In fact, it would be a rather odd flock of sheep that didn't have occasional disorder. And so it is with the church. We shouldn't be surprised when sheep start butting each other and pestering each other. They need a shepherd. We shouldn't be surprised when sheep wander off the path of righteousness. They need a shepherd. We shouldn't be surprised when sheep occasionally need discipline or need rescuing. God designed people to need a shepherd. And with shepherding by elders being out of vogue in home churches as well as in mega churches, it shouldn't surprise us that so many sheep have wandered off the paths of righteousness. There is a reason why the Bible gave the ideal of ten families for each shepherd or each elder. It becomes virtually impossible to adequately shepherd a church when there are too many people under any given shepherd. And statistics show that neither the rod nor the staff are being used in some churches. For example, statistics seem to indicate that the vast majority of churches have never exercised church discipline even once. So the rod is completely missing. And Ezekiel prophesied that this would happen — that shepherds would refuse to see themselves as undershepherds, with the Great Shepherd of the sheep, Jesus, calling all the shots. And I won't deal with all the implications, but let me just highlight one. According to Hebrews 12, where there is no discipline there is no love. And however uncomfortable discipline may be, Hebrews tells us that it produces the peaceable fruits of righteousness.
The result of God's leading with rod and staff — comfort, righteousness
And that's the third point. The first point was How God Leads Us (by rod and staff). The second is why God needs to lead us with rod and staff (we tend wander). And point three deals with the results of that leading by rod and staff. The last phrase of verse 4 deals with the peaceable fruits of the rod and staff. It indicates that David was comforted by God's rod and staff. We can understand how using the rod to protect from wild animals would bring comfort to sheep. And there is a protection from Satanic attack that comes when people are under the protective canopy of covenant membership. But how does discipline bring comfort? After all, it is both rod and staff that bring comfort, right? Well, there are actually a number of ways, but the chief one is that it shows that we belong to God. Hebrews 12 says,
Hebrews 12:6 For whom the LORD loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives."
Hebrews 12:7 If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?
Hebrews 12:8 But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. [That's a scary thought, isn't it? There is no comfort of sonship where there is no discipline. He goes on:]
Hebrews 12:9 Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?
Hebrews 12:10 For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness.
Hebrews 12:11 Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
And that last verse that I just read brings together all the threads we have been looking at. It shows how God's restraint and discipline produce peace. It produces righteousness. And it trains us in habits of staying on the paths of righteousness. Just as insecurity creeps into the heart of a child who is undisciplined, and security undergirds a child who knows that dad will protect, restrain, discipline, and guide, we too gain a sense of security in knowing that God loves us enough to protect, restrain, discipline, and guide us as well.
So as we come to the Lord's Table this morning, let us submit our hearts gladly to God's rod and staff, and to the discipline and oversight of His undershepherds. Let us find comfort that He loves us enough to correct us. And let's ask Him to help us stay in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake. Amen.