Psalm 23:4b

Your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
I don't know about you, but "rod and staff" don't strike me as comforting.  When I am afraid or in need of comfort, what I want is  someone by my side who knows how to accurately shoot a rifle, a place to hide, and a big pile of chocolate. The psalmist prefers a rod and staff.....
Since these two items don't appear on my top 10 list of comfort-providers, the problem could lie in my not understanding what they are and how they are used (ya think???).   A rod and a staff were the instruments of choice for primitive shepherds.  The reference to these two items would have struck a very familiar cord with the earliest audience of this psalm.  Modern readers need a little bit of explanation to understand. Let's explore that...
The "rod" was the primary means of protection for the shepherd and his flock. It was a long, sturdy stick that the shepherd had selected and crafted to fit him perfectly.  One source that I consulted says "the rod, in fact, was an extension of the owner's own right arm.  It stood as a symbol of his strength, his power, and his authority in any serious situation." With the rod, the shepherd could club would-be predators to death.  We can recall from Bible stories how David the shepherd-boy killed ferocious animals to protect his sheep.  His rod would have been his ally.  Interesting to note that "rod" is a slang term applied in modern times to the pistols carried by cowboys!

Other than protection, the rod could be used for discipline.  I learned, though, that the primary disciplinary use was not to club the wayward sheep.  Instead, "if the shepherd saw a sheep wandering away from its own, or approaching poisonous weeds, or getting too close to danger of one sort or another, the club would go whistling through the air to send the wayward animal scurrying back to the bunch."

One final mention of how the rod was used by the shepherd was to count and examine the sheep.  The rod would be held out and laid onto each sheep, one by one.  This gave the shepherd the chance not only to account for each sheep but also to carefully examine them for disease, defects, or wounds.  A conscientious shepherd would use the rod to open the fleece with his rod, scrutinizing the condition of the skin, looking for parasites or open wounds. 

Protection from predators, sounding an alarm of danger, providing close inspection for detecting problems -- in these ways, the rod would indeed be a source of comfort to a sheep.

What about the staff?  Perhaps no other piece of equipment identifies one as a shepherd more than a staff. That long, slender stick with the crook on one end.  Think of all the Christmas pagaents - the shepherds had to have a staff so we would know they were shepherds!  A shepherd's staff is designed and shaped especially for the needs of sheep, not for cattle or horses or other animals.

Here's how a shepherd utilizes his staff...
1.  To reach out and "catch" individual sheep and draw them close to himself for examination.  Little lambs or timid sheep often keep their distance from the shepherd but he can use his staff to pull them in close.
2.  To guide sheep, such as through a gate or along a difficult path.  The shepherd doesn't use it to beat the sheep but rather to gently pressure it into the direction it needs to go.
3.  To rescue sheep.  Sometimes sheep get themselves into places where only a staff can reach. The shepherd can manipulate his staff into crevices, amidst entanglements, along precipices or even into water so as to rescue the sheep and set it back on safe ground.
4.  To draw sheep into intimate relationships with another.  If a newborn lamb becomes parted from its mother, the shepherd uses the staff to bring them together rather than putting the scent of his hands on the little lamb and risk rejection by the mother.
While the rod is an instrument primarily of protection, the staff is mostly an instrument of compassion and care.
Now I can understand why the writer of Psalm 23 proclaims that the "rod and staff" of the Good Shepherd are a source of comfort.  We are protected by the strength and power of the Lord.  He guards us against the Enemy of our souls and provides us with His Word as our weapon against this Defeated One.  Likewise, through His Word He warns us of dangerous thoughts, habits, actions so as to prevent our falling into harm's way.  And, finally, He exhorts us to use His living and active Word to examine our hearts and lives...His Word which is sharper than any two edged sword and is able to pierce even to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, discerning the very thoughts and intentions of our heart. Comfort, yes, in being protected by enemies without...and within.
We are comforted, too, by the compassion of His staff.  Sometimes His Word acts like a staff, pulling us close to the Shepherd so He can examine our hearts and ways for things that would hurt us.  Other times we need His Word to guide us, to gentle press us when we are headed in the wrong direction and then show us which way we should go. And many many times, His Word is a source of comfort to help us reconcile relationships, healing our wounds, and restoring us to fellowship with one another and with Him.

Like David, I can surely say, "Thank you, Lord; Your rod and staff, they comfort me."  Amen