Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4
Keller likens the rod to the Word of God, authoritative and challenging, and the staff to the Spirit of God, comforting and strengthening. With this image in mind, we find the function of a shepherd's staff to be versatile and gentle. Because of its integral crook, it may be used to lift newborn lambs nearer to their mothers, to extricate sheep from entanglements or difficulty (whether or not of their own making) or simply as a means of maintaining contact. Thus, a shepherd may be seen walking alongside a tired or nervous sheep, his staff keeping it close to him, so offering evidence of his reassuring presence and protective care. The crook is unique to shepherds; swineherds and cowherds do not use one. Its whole design and purpose are directed towards the needs of sheep. Unlike the rod, the staff is never for long range use and to know its comfort, sheep must be within the shepherd's reach. So the Holy Spirit is described as the Comforter -- one brought alongside to help (Jn 14:16 AV).
David mentions the rod and staff in the context of the valley, and it is in their valleys that some of our patients (or colleagues) may first call upon God, be it in anger or panic. For some, the rod is clearly of their own making, as with those suffering from drug overdoses, including nicotine and alcohol. Even so, they may question his control of his compassion, either denying his existence altogether or the possibility of his care. There is a further risk that they will be treated as second class citizens by their official caregivers because their ills are self-induced. Yet the crisis may indeed be his rod, selecting them out and giving to an undershepherd the chance to draw them close to himself. Stern warning may be needful, but a loving word or deed accompanying professional advice may make all the difference to their lives. Sometimes we ourselves are impelled to cry out in despair or rage as to why God has permitted some tragedy, such as death in childbirth. The rod and staff remind us again that he is Lord and Shepherd. Even though we cannot always understand his ways, authority blended with concern are inseparable aspects of his character. If we care, he cares far more and can even bring great good from great tragedy.
Isaiah, in adjacent verses says 'His arm shall rule ... He shall gather the lambs with his arm and carry them in his bosom' (Is 40:10-11 AV). The same arm that hurls the club at the wolf may stop any of us in our tracks. It also lifts up and cradles the weaklings. His rod exposes but his staff transposes. They both assure us that the Comforter is close.
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.
H W Baker
Further reading: Jn 14:16-20, 26-27. Jn 6:37.