Understanding Psalm 23: What Do the Staff and Rod Actually Mean?

Understanding Psalm 23: What Do the Staff and Rod Actually Mean? by Steppes of Faith

"For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me." Psalm 23:4

“For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4

From Scripture’s verbal retellings to being written in Aramaic, then Hebrew, then Greek, then every other language on earth, somewhere along the way the meanings of certain words have been lost in translation. It makes sense. It’s like playing telephone for over 2,000 years ̶ somehow something is going to be misinterpreted by us twenty-first-century readers.

Another problem is that much of the terminology was written for an audience that’s long gone. As an example, many of Jesus’ parables are commonly misunderstood today simply because we’re not familiar with the vocabulary of His time. Those who heard Jesus speak back then understood Him completely. But for us, not so much.

Another example of confusing terminology in the Bible is Psalm 23. In verse four, the psalmist writes about the Lord’s staff and rod. He claims they are a comfort to him, and he’s right. Here’s how.

The Staff

The staff the psalmist (very likely King David) refers to can have several meanings depending on how it’s used. In Old Testament times, the staff could be a scepter, walking stick, crutch, or some kind of support or prop. For Psalm 23, the staff is two different things.

A Staff Gives Rest. Psalm 23 starts right off with equating the Lord with a shepherd (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”). So, we know immediately we’re talking about shepherding tools. A shepherd might use a staff as something to lean on in case the ground is not dry or safe for sitting or for support when he needed rest during long shifts tending the sheep.

For us today, the staff serves as a symbol that we too can find rest when we lean on the Lord. When we lean into Him, He’ll lean into us. He is both the shepherd and the staff supplying all the rest we need when we lean on Him.

The Staff is Our Rescue. God also uses His staff to rescue us from difficult or dangerous situations. In the field, a shepherd would use the curly end of the staff to pull a sheep out of thick brush or to lift it if it happened to fall or was injured. God rescues us the same way. Any time we experience trouble (and He told us we would have them), He promises to be right there to save you from the evil one and lead you to safety.

The Staff is a Guide. The staff was also used to guide sheep across open fields and along rocky hillsides. It was a handy tool for making sure they stay on track. Though the shepherd might need to leave the 99 to find the one, he would much rather keep the flock together.

The Lord’s staff still guides us today in every area of our lives. Look back a few lines in Psalm 23 to verses two and three which say, “He leads me beside the still waters…He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” The staff leads us to places where we can find peace and restoration amid the chaos in our lives, both day-to-day and in the long seasons. The staff also leads us on the paths where we should be so we can make better choices for ourselves and our families.

Our decision-making abilities and Christ-like behaviors are all dependent on God’s staff. Without it, we would never find rest, feel peace, or know if we’re heading in the right direction.

The Shepherd's staff gives us perfect rest and guidance.

The Rod

The rod is perhaps one of the most misinterpreted words in the entire Bible. It is often used by many parents to justify their use of spanking. That’s a topic for another time, but let me point out that is not what God meant by “rod.” It is not a tool for correction or discipline, it’s a tool of protection and a symbol of love.

The Rod is Our Protection. The rod was used to defend the sheep against predators. Since sheep aren’t very smart, it was up to the shepherd to adequately defend his flock, so a nice hard rod made for a solid weapon against any enemies. In this way, the rod is a symbol of God’s protection. He goes before you to defend you from your enemies.

As a Symbol of Love. Another purpose for the rod is one I didn’t expect. I will warn you that I can’t prove what I learned is true, but it makes good sense to me, so I’m passing it on to you. Apparently, most shepherds used their rods as a means of counting their sheep.

In Leviticus 27:32, a rod was used by the priests to count the tithe. Shepherds used this same methodology to count their flock. The shepherd would hold out the rod and have all the sheep pass under it one at a time, counting each animal as it passed. Keeping count was extremely important since they were traveling the countryside so extensively. If you’ve every chaperoned a school field trip, you know what I mean. It’s super important to make sure you have an accurate head count at all times, or else madness ensues.

What does counting mean for believers? It means God lovingly acknowledges us, He counts us as His own, as a part of His family when we pass under His rod. He offers us assurance of His continual presence, protection, and attention when we follow Him wherever He leads us. So, passing under His rod is not a method of discipline or correction but rather a source of great comfort and faithful love.

In His Gentle Hands

When we read all of Psalm 23, we instantly get the gist of it even if we don’t understand the first-century vocabulary. The entire Psalm illustrates God’s unrelenting love for us and how He shows us that love.

Verse four, in particular, should stand out to us. Knowing more about the shepherd’s tools and how they are used should give us great hope and encouragement no matter what our circumstances may be.

The staff and the rod are a part of the same tool, both working together in God’s gentle hands to remind us of His everlasting faithfulness and love. As children of God, we can take a deep breath knowing He is always with us, always protecting us, always guiding us, and always offering us a place of peace and rest.

The Shepherd takes care of His sheep. We are safe and comforted by His staff and rod.


Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning more about Psalm 23 and what it all means, Study Light offers commentary from a variety of pastors and ministers about any verse in the Bible. They also have some good study tools including dictionaries, maps, language studies (in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic), reading plans, and devotions. Here’s the link to their commentary on Psalm 23 (not an affiliate link), but I encourage you to poke around and see what else they offer to deepen your understanding of the Bible.

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27 Replies to “Understanding Psalm 23: What Do the Staff and Rod Actually Mean?”

  1. I expected to read comments that though must be true, but with love and compassion so we do not hurt or break our readers. It’s my first time visiting but was surprised by some of the comments which seem callous and without empathy. Some comments seem judgmental instead of inspiring and healing the spirit and soul. It is said, ” TRUTH without Love Is brutality; LOVE without TRUTH is HYPOCRISY, Speak the TRUTH in LOVE even when it hurts.”
    Let’s bring more loving and inspiring posts.
    Stay blessed.
    Retired Reverend Minister (Pastor – J. Chaettle- USA/Ghana.

  2. I must here respectfully disagree with your view of the rod in Psalm 23. You here use extrabiblical examples of what, in your opinion, this rod is, but the Bible is quite clear to the contrary. Are parents not shepherds to their children? You are correct in that Jesus’ hearers most certainly would have understood his teachings, and they would have understood Him through the Lord’s teaching from the Old Testament, where the Lord Himself instructed parents in raising up their children in the way they should go. They certainly would have been familiar with Proverbs 23:13-14, which admonishes,

    “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.
    Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shall deliver his soul from hell.”

    Here, as in a multitude of instances, the rod is depicted as an instrument of loving correction in that it’s use is what saves a soul from hell. In the New Testament, the Lord’s chastisement of His children is spoken of many times.
    Paul says in 1Cor. 11:32,
    “But when ye are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.”, and Jesus states in Rev.3:19, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore and repent.”
    Hebrews 12v5-11 also covers this subject in depth, and where it is stated in vs 6-8, “For whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneneth, and scourgeth (beat with a rod?) every son whom He receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons, for what son is he whom the Father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then ye are bastards, and not sons.”

    Once again it is made clear that the correcting rod of the Good Shepherd is an integral and necessary element in the salvation of all souls.

    • The purpose of the article was not to address whether a rod was an instrument of discipline, which it can be. The focus here was on another way God uses it. Psalm 23 is a beautiful illustration of God’s love and protection as we walk through valleys and should not necessarily be construed to mean outright chastisement. How else can the psalmist say, “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” Who is comforted by chastisement? God’s rod can discipline us, yes, but in Psalm 23, we see how He also uses it to offer us His loving protection from our enemies and show us the way to victory.

      • I was exposed to Pastoral interpretation of this symbolic purpose of the rod in Psalm 23. In general it represents the word of God which offers protection, correction, comfort, guidance, strength, peace ,and support. It was made out of wood coverted into pappas and those scrolls which the Old Testament was written on. I am far from the scholar and not a pastor,but I’m really shocked that no one has inferred this in all these explanations!

  3. Rod of God is to perceive what God perceives
    Seeing things the way God sees
    Acknowledging God for who he is

  4. The rod and the staff is the same as the crook and the flail, or in the most simple equation> the tennis racket and the ball. All ruled by the holder thereof. King Tut ruled Egypt with the crook and the flail and not a word was spoken. The shepard ruled his flock with the rod and the staff without a word. The tennis champion ruled the ball gripped with one hand held high pointing it to its destination and ruled it with his racket, Lesson: ” You are Rulers of Your Destination.

  5. I don’t believe COVID is from the Lord either. Of course not. But He does sometimes allow bad things to happen in order to test our faith. Think of Job and the apostle Paul. Perfect examples. And for those who struggle against the enemy’s attack, He will step in to help His children. He is always the good Shepherd. He does not ever give us His rod and staff, however. Those are spiritual tools, but they are not actual tools. Psalm 23 only uses them to illustrate the attributes of God and His love for us. Remember the rod and staff were used to count the sheep and to protect them. They are tools for the shepherd, not the sheep. The sheep must trust the shepherd to protect the flock and to lead them to places of safety. If the sheep were able to use the tools, they would have no need for a shepherd.

  6. I agree with Joy. CV-19 is not from God. He is sovereign and doesn’t have to use evil like this virus or cancer or anything evil to draw us to Him. He is our Great Shepherd and gives us His rod and staff to assist us in our earth journey.
    This was a beautiful and informative commentary. To God be the glory.

  7. I don’t believe for one minute that CV 19 is from the Lord but I do know that He turns circumstances of life around for those who are His, called according to his purposes. Brokenness is a precious place to be but we usually arrive there through painful situations often beyond our control. I’m just so grateful that He is the faithful shepherd who carries us and shapes us in His love.
    Thanks for the great insights about Psalm 23.

  8. Perhaps, COVID is God’s way of breaking our legs and keeping up wrapped around his loving arms… God can use difficult moments like these to keep us close to him …God is good!!!

  9. Thank you for your insightful essay. After reading it, I concluded the following: The rod is used to protect us from danger and to keep track of us. The staff guards our walk, provides firmness and steadiness as we rest upon it, and helps us attempt to keep our loved ones together. This is what Christ does for all of us. In essence, He is the rod and staff Himself who comforts us and as long as He is with us there is no need to fear the evil that surrounds us. His rod and staff will forever symbolically represent hope, comfort, accountability, peace, protection, and above all, His divine unconditional love for all of us! Thank you for sharing and may God truly bless you.

    • Hi My name is Yalynn Money I’m a 34 yr old female I’m from Atlanta but moved to NC due to a horrific amount of physical, emotional, mental abuse I endured throughout two multiple pregnancies back in 2010. I was incarcerated 2014 and released 2014. I knew of God but wasn’t committed wholeheartedly until May 1, 2021. I have always read my word, called, professed, proclaimed, but satan has been coming for and after me ever since and honestly my whole life. I was reading Psalms 91 when I said Lord what does Father mean when he states “Your rod and your staff they comfort me.”? So I googled and Father not only gave me confirmation, for some reason out of all the comments I read. Your comment brought me solitude, a sense of calmness and tears of joy because it was confirmation of what I’m facing today in my life. This comment brought me to tears. Your words gave me hope, peace and understanding and I prayed and asked our Heavenly Father to grant me peace, understanding but most importantly confirmation of the enemy attacks from choosing Yahweh instead of the evil way. My name is Yalynn Money. Please keep me in your prayer’s.
      satan has stolen everything from me my four bedroom home, two sets of twins I lost after going to prison, I haven’t seen my son’s Deshon and Jevon since 2017. I haven’t seen my daughter’s Heaven and Beautiful since 2017 I was incarcerated 2014 was released 2019 God has Blessed me in many ways than one but because I strive, hunger and thirst for righteousness satan has been after me like a theif in the night. He has been hunting me, torturing and trying to rob me once again. So I pray without ceasing. I get lazy reading the word because the enemy makes if so hard to stay awake when I do and puts evil negative thoughts that God doesn’t hear me, just give up. the enemy plants so many negative, wicked things in my mind and I pray and pray he lets up then comes through wit an army to attack me like never before. I’ve lost weight, stressed out, anxiety through the roof because of the enemy but I rebuke all the enemy attacks in Jesus name but he won’t budge or leave me alone. I need serious prayer because what I’m going through and facing my prayer alone only helps for a little while. he’s attacked my family to where I didn’t even recognize them. So I prayed long and I ask that you pray for me please and thank you!
      I ask you pray against debt, dysfunction in my life. I choose, crave and thirst and hunger for peace. I ask you to please pray against poverty, henderence, any demonic spirit, stronghold or bondage of depression, loneliness, anxiety, unforgiving ness, stubborness, homelessness, poverty, sadness, disobedience, anger, hostility, bitterness, lies, deceit, resentment, manipulation.
      I ask that you pray for peace, wisdom, wealth, success, a home, a new car to work, increase in finances, a good job, joy that only our Father can provide, peace of mind, my health, I have cysts in my ovaries and a lodged Mirena lodged in my uterus. Please pray for me that Father God will open doors for me to see my children again. I miss my babies. My son’s are 14 and my daughter’s are 11 both twins. I choose to walk by faith not by sight. Please pray that our Father gives me strength against the enemy because the more I’m obedient, the more I respect and treat others with kindness the more nightmares, torments and attacks come from evil. I have been working then out of work and homeless for a year and my last roommate tried to rape me. I have been beaten and broken down by men so much that I just stay close to Jesus. I been in and out of relationships so much by deception from men. The beginning of 2021 I started fresh, changed my number and cut everyone off but Jesus. I started traveling sleeping in my car. Met a man that was the closest thing to perfect, he left me because he said I was ungrateful and selfish. He was correct but all my past relationships said the same as well. I pray for Father God to allow me to be patient and to Bless me with my Husband a Godly King one day. I may have been through much and still do I know though that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and my Heavenly Father will never leave me not forsake me. I was supposed to do 25 yrs in prison and God allowed me to do 5. The ways of this world I pray for mercy and for mercy for myself. My email is money yalynn708@gmail.com
      I’m all about Love, Peace and Unity today Thursday June 23,
      2021. I pray for hope and I pray everyone who may read this pray for me as well because the enemy knows I have a calling on my life and because of that he continues to try to rob, steal, kill and destroy and take everything and everyone I love from me.
      Thank you for reading. God Bless and peace, love, joy, prosperity and happiness always. God Bless America in Jesus Mighty Righteous Name. Amen! Please keep me in your prayers❤

  10. Another thing that shepherds would use a rod for is if they had a little sheep that kept running astray, out of the protection of the fold and out of the protection of the shepherd, then the shepherd would take the rod and break the leg of the sheep and put that little sheep around his neck. The shepherd would carry the sheep around on his neck everywhere until it’s leg was healed and in that time, the little sheep would become so familiar with the shepherd’s voice, smell, ect that the little sheep would be the one that would stick closest to that familiar scent and voice from there on out. For years and years, these were just verses that I memorized in school until I started to understand what they meant when I lost my daughter. My pastor was talking about the rod and staff and mentioned a book, The Psalm23 Shepherd or something like that (I can’t remember now) and I just sat there with tears as I listened to what a shepherd uses the rod and staff for, especially what I just explained above. My Heavenly Father loves me SO MUCH that he painfully broke my leg so that I would stop running away from Him…He carried me for months as I healed and now I am so familiar with His voice…I feel so comfortable near Him that I never ever want to leave Him again

    • Praise the Lord! I’m so happy for you, Melissa. I had heard of that particular truth about the shepherd breaking the lamb’s leg after he left the 99. I’m so thankful he did the same thing to me after my divorce (now gloriously remarried). I’m so sorry about your daughter. God has a way of getting our attention, doesn’t He? There’s a great song that says His grace is chasing us and He never stops chasing. That’s how much He loves us. He relentlessly pursues us. If it takes breaking us to get us to stop, then I am forever thankful. He does carry us through the healing, as you say. And He continues to be faithful through every situation. Your comment is so beautiful, Melissa. Thank you for sharing your testimony. I’m so glad you stopped by. God bless you, my sister.

      • God does not bring us through divorce and remarriage. My wife left four years ago and I’m standing for our marriage. God hates divorce.

        • If you read the various translations God does not hate divorce specially in the realm of abuse, desertion adultery. Abuse is physical and emotional. He hates what it does to the individuals heart involved, the children and the friends etc. Some say it is a mistranslation I say it is not. God does hate divorce but not for the reasons we think. God is actionable Love not necessarily feeling. I recommend looking at Gretchen Baskerville’s book on a life saving divorce. Don’t take my response as shaming your understanding. I state is someone who survived an abusive marriage and is now recovering. I believed as you did and stayed for far too long. God does not want that.

    • That comment is so powerful and I’m in tears right now, thanks for posting!!

    • Thank you Melissa for the revelation
      Its true the Lord uses the rod to correct us because sometimes we tend to go far from him so he stops us by breaking the leg that we should be restored back to the flock.
      God is indeed agood Shepard

  11. Thank you for this I have been struggling for awhile and my husband and I were given this psalm as a prophetic word and told to research it I have been thinking abt it and so your comments are timely JW