The Rod and the Staff
"Your rod and Your staff they comfort me." Psalm 23:4.
"Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me." Psalm 23:4.
When David spoke these words he was, in anticipation, passing down the 'valley of death,' his spirit poised upon its wing for heaven. It is befitting and profitable to pause amid the engagements and turmoil of this present life, and forecast the hour and the scene when its business and its probation will close- lost amid the realities and solemnities of the life that knows no ending. He is a wise man who meditates frequently and seriously upon his latter end. Common and certain as death is, alas! it is the last event of our history with which we make ourselves familiar! Wiser far the heathen monarch who, amid the pomp and splendor of his court- the wine and the music of the banquet- ever and anon bent his ear to catch the warning of the attendant at his side- "Remember, O king, you are mortal!" Less eccentric, and more real, was the mode by which Joseph of Arimathea sought to familiarize his mind with his certain dissolution. In the excavation of a rock, encircled by the flowers and foliage of his garden, he built a tomb for his body- "a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus." And as, at eventide, he walked in his garden, and gazing upon its beauty and breathing its fragrance, he would pause before his prepared tomb, and recall the impressive 'cry' of the Prophet- "All flesh is grass, and all the goodness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withers, the flower fades." If, in the sublime language of the Burial Service, "in the midst of life we are in death," then should the thought, the imagery, and the preparation of death be ever present with our minds. And we hold that there is nothing inappropriate or incongruous in the idea that, in whatever place or engagement we may be occupied, the prospect of our dissolution should impart a tone to every feeling, a character to every circumstance, and a sanctity to every thought, word, and action of our life. It were no mere fanciful exaggeration of the sentiment were the muffled death knell to blend with the joyous music- the bridal robe to suggest the image of the pale shroud- and the thronged and sumptuous hall, thoughts of the lone and vaulted tomb- for 'in the midst of life'- the most busy, festive, and hilarious- 'we are in death.' We now turn to the Christian's "Rod and Staff," -his guidance and support in that eventful and solemn hour.
"Your rod and your staff." The image is pastoral and exquisitely beautiful. There are few objects more picturesque than that of the shepherd and his crook. The 'rod and the staff' are essential to the office of the shepherd as to the guidance and protection of the flock. The spiritual and practical significance of the symbol will be obvious to every reflective mind. The first is that of designation. The first and primary use of the shepherd's rod is that of marking the sheep, by which they are distinguished from all others, and recognized as his own. This is the meaning of God's word- "I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant." And again, "In the cities of the mountains, in the cities of the valley, shall the flocks pass again under the hands of Him that tells them, says the Lord." And yet once more, "Concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, even of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord." How clear and precious the teaching! Christ's Church is a chosen flock, distinguished and separate from all others by an act of eternal, sovereign, and most free election. Hence our Lord said- "I am the good Shepherd, and know my sheep." If a member of Christ's Fold, you have 'passed under the rod' of electing love, and have upon you His own secret and distinguishing mark that you are His. Deny it not! To that everlasting love- to this election of grace from where it sprang- to your having thus passed under the Shepherd's rod- you owe all that you are as a child of God, and all that you hope for as an heir of glory. Your views of the doctrine of Election may be misty, and your faith in it hesitating; nevertheless, your crude conception and hesitating belief do not negate the doctrine itself, nor release you from the solemn obligation to believe it humbly, to accept it gratefully, and to live it holily. It is a blessed thought, that the unbelief of the believer cannot invalidate any truth of God, or lessen his obligation to receive it, though it may shade the luster and impair the power of that truth in his personal experience, thus robbing him of its blessing, and God of its glory!
While yet upon this subject, however, let me remind you that a divinely revealed doctrine though Election is, and one of the central truths in the mediatorial scheme, yet the question of your personal election of God is not the truth with which your faith has primarily and mainly to deal. Election is nowhere in the Bible placed before you as an essential tenet of your faith, but rather as a doctrine which imparts symmetry and consistency to the entire scheme of divine truth- renders lucid and harmonious doctrines otherwise obscure and dissonant- involves the divine glory- and supplies the believer with one of the most potent and influential motives to personal holiness- "According as He has chosen us in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love."
Salvation recognizes but one Object of faith- the Lord Jesus Christ. You are not called upon to believe that you are one of the Elect; but you are to believe in the Savior, as a sinner saved wholly by God's free grace, only and entirely through the Lord Jesus Christ, the one Name given under heaven whereby we must be saved. Do not be, then, troubled in your mind touching your election; it is one of the secret things of God with which He alone has to do. The revealed thing is, the absolute necessity of faith in Christ, who for your encouragement has declared- "He that believes in me shall be saved." No longer, then, stumble at this stumbling-stone; divine and revealed though it be- but, be anxious and earnest to know that you are called by grace. This great question once fairly settled, you may remain perfectly composed as to your election of God; for, your "calling made sure," you have logically and theologically, "made sure your election of God."
Another use of the shepherd's "Rod" is that of separation. With it he separates the sheep. By passing under the rod, God thereby intimated that His people were especially separated and set apart from all other nations for Himself. Here we have what, to use a logical term, may be called the corollary of election- the certain conclusion to which it conducts us. All the elect of God are the called of God. "Whom He did predestinate, them He also called." With this calling, then, we have first and chiefly to do- the antecedent act- your election- so to speak, transposed; that coming last in your experience which is the first in God's mind. Grasp in faith this the last and lowest link in the mystic chain of your salvation, and it will by-and-by raise you to the first and highest. The people of God, then- the sheep of Christ's flock- are a separated people. They have passed under the separating, consecrating rod of the Shepherd. "He calls His own sheep by name, and leads them out. And when He puts forth His own sheep, He goes before them." Sweet and precious truth! Divine and sovereign grace has taken you out of the world, and set you among those who are
"called to be saints," "the called according to His purpose." "It pleased God," says the apostle, "who called me by His grace, to reveal, His Son in me." Oh, high and holy calling! What are all others- the most imperious and brilliant- in comparison? Oh let the thought never be absent from your mind, that you are called out of, that you should be separate from, this ungodly world- "a holy nation, a peculiar people, a royal priesthood" -separated, set apart from all others to be Christ's especial treasure. My soul! have you heard the call of Christ? Outwardly, again and again, the gospel call has fallen upon your ear; but has the inward and effectual call of the Spirit penetrated the ear of your soul, bidding and constraining you to arise and come to Jesus? Rest not short of this!
The shepherd's "Rod" is equally employed for the guidance of the flock. By a single wave of his "rod," by a gentle touch of his crook, the shepherd of the east was wont skillfully and effectually to lead his flock in the way in which they should go. How clearly our Lord appropriates this. "When He puts forth His own sheep, He goes before them, and the sheep follow Him." As one of Christ's Fold, from the moment you 'passed under the rod,' you became an object of His especial guidance and care. Henceforth, "I will guide you with my eye," is the promise He has made individually yours, and which your faith is to plead. You are passing through an enemy's country- your path often intricate and perplexing- you see not a step before you, and are often called to descend a valley deeply shaded with dark and trying providences. But you have divine and precious promises- "I will bring the blind by a way that they know not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them."
Blessed Shepherd! I am perplexed to know the path of duty! My way is hedged, and I can't see a step before me. Show me now Your way that I may know You. Let Your guiding-rod- the word of Your truth, and the eye of Your providence- indicate the way in which I should walk- Your way. And when that way is made plain, give me grace to walk in it; be it the path of service, the most self-denying; of suffering, the most severe; or of loneliness, the most solitary.
Commit yourself, then, unhesitatingly to the guidance of Christ's rod. He will most assuredly lead you by the best way. He is leading you now in the right path. Clouds and darkness may be round about you; but all is light to Him, in whom is no darkness at all. Around your path the events of Divine providence may be as a complete web, baffling your every effort to unravel; but He 'knows the way that you take,' and will guide you through the labyrinth and the maze, bringing you 'out of a strait place into a broad place, because He delights in you.' Blessed Shepherd! "You shall guide me with Youe counsel; and afterwards receive me to glory."
The shepherd's "Rod" is for protection. It is a weapon of defense with which the flock are shielded from the prowling beasts of prey. There is not a moment that danger is not near, and not a moment that Christ's Rod is not outstretched in our defense. There is not a being in the vast universe more exposed to assault, nor yet one more divinely and safely kept, than a saint of God. Loved with a love that passes knowledge- redeemed with the precious blood of the Shepherd- and made a temple of God through the Spirit, is it possible that he can ever perish? Listen to the Shepherd's declaration of this truth- "I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, who gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand." Take comfort from this, O my soul! You do often tremble at the prowling beasts of prey, causing the forest to shake with their roar- yet more do you dread the veiled and subtle foe- the sin that dwells in you- ever present, never slumbering, treacherous and strong, and therefore the more dangerous and dreaded, often extorting the cry, "I shall one day perish by my enemy!" Do not be dismayed! Every sheep and lamb of the flock is kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation; and shall be delivered from the mouth of the lion, the paw of the bear, and the fangs of the serpent.
Nor must we overlook the restraining use of Christ's Rod and Staff. The restraints of Christ's grace are not less conspicuous in the believer's experience than the constraints of His love. There is a strong tendency in us to go before the Lord, rather than follow His leading hand. We desire to anticipate His will and antedate His way concerning us, rather than in quietness and confidence wait the movement of His guiding rod. Peter- impulsive and self-reliant, went before the Lord when He asked Jesus to bid him come to Him upon the water. The consequence was, he began to sink; and but for the hand of Christ, the proud waves had whelmed him in their depths. Impetuous and distrustful, we would dictate to God the way by which He should lead, and the means by which He should deliver, and the lessons by which He should instruct, and the discipline by which He should sanctify us. But Jesus, consulting our greatest good, orders otherwise. "When He puts forth His own sheep, He goes before them." Oh blessed restraints of Christ! Restraining our rebellious will- our impetuous spirit- our blind zeal- and our erring judgment- Christ interposes His "rod and His staff," and in a thousand instances keeps us from falling. Significant words of God to David- "I kept you from sinning against Me"! Among your costliest mercies, count the restraints and checks of Christ's "rod and staff." We shall never fully know, until we arrive in heaven, in how many instances and ways we were kept by God- from how many a precipice, and from how many a broken bone, and from how many a fatal mistake, the Lord went before to preserve us. We rebelled, perhaps, at the interference of the "rod"- we murmured at the checks of the "staff"- we felt the sickness sore- the suffering acute- the disappointment bitter- nevertheless, when the mist and the cloud uplifted, revealing the imminent peril to which we had been exposed, we then saw clearly the wisdom and mercy of our God in imposing those divine and salutary restraints, but for which we should blindly and inevitably have wrecked all that was precious to us in this life, and glorious in the life that is to come.
Nor would we omit the employment of the "Rod" as a disciplinary agent in the hands of our Divine Shepherd. This symbol is frequently used as illustrating the afflictive dispensations through which God's people pass. "Hear the rod, and He who has appointed it." The rod of Divine discipline is not less essential to the completeness of our Christian character, and thus our fitness for heaven, than any other use in which the Lord employs it. The reference in God's word to this is striking and instructive. "If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him," says God, "with the ROD of men." Listen to the words of the sorely afflicted patriarch- "Let Him take His ROD away from me, and let not His fear terrify me." How necessary this "Rod" of reproof, judgment, and restraint, by which the Church of God is disciplined! It is fearful to contemplate the result of its absence! Dissever a timely and wholesome exercise of discipline from a church-or a nation- or a school- or a family, and how soon would lawlessness, anarchy, and ruin ensue! And thus, exempt the Church of God- collectively and individually- from the discipline of Christ- let Him extinguish the furnace, and suspend the flail, and lay aside the knife, and what would be the result? The dross would then hide the gold- the chaff would spoil the wheat- the sucker would ruin the vine- and incalculable would be our soul's loss!
But the "Rod" of Christ's discipline has a voice. "Hear the rod, and Him who has appointed it." It is the voice of a Father, whose love for us is not a blind, unwise affection, but infinitely holy and intelligent. It is the voice of a Savior bidding us not shrink from the pruning, but accept its severing as designed but to promote our fruitfulness. "He opens mine ear to discipline." And when the ear bends humbly and submissively to the Divine voice in this discipline of sorrow, then it may be said that, like Aaron's, it "brought forth buds, and bloomed with blossoms." Sanctified affliction- hallowed grief- is no bare and barren rod of God. There is power and vitality in it: it quickens the divine life- awakens the spirit of prayer- strengthens and purifies faith- enthrones Christ supremely upon the heart- and though 'at present not joyous, but grievous, yet afterward it yields the fruits of righteousness unto those who are exercised thereby.' And thus it is, when the Heavenly Husbandman prunes the branch, and the Divine Refiner purifies the gold, that the one brings forth more fruit, and the other reflects the more perfect likeness; and He that prunes and He that refines receives all the glory.
"Your rod and your staff they comfort me." Divine discipline and divine comfort are synonymous terms. The Lord tries the righteous, that He might comfort them. He wounds to heal- creates a channel for His divine consolations often through the furrows and fissures of a broken heart. Jesus told His disciples that He was about to leave them- and sorrow filled their heart. But at the first burst of grief He hastens to apply the balm- "Let not your heart be troubled: you believe in God, believe also in Me"- thus creating a way for His richest consolations through the channel of their bitterest sorrow. In what other school do we learn that the Lord is full of compassion- that Christ is touched with the feeling of our infirmities- that His strength is perfected in weakness, and His grace all-sufficient for us- but in the school in which He Himself, though a Son, learned the great lesson of 'obedience' to the will and behest of His Father? Oh yes, the "Rod and the Staff" are channels of divine "comfort" which flow to us through no other. Bow humbly and submissively to the "Rod" of God's correction- grasp believingly and firmly the "Staff" of Christ's truth- and, in the multitude of your thoughts within you, His comforts will delight your soul. The cross may be heavy- the furnace fiery- the knife sharp- the rod crushing- but all the richer and sweeter will be the "strong consolation" flowing into your soul from the "God of all comfort."
Oh shrink not from the burden your Father lays upon your shoulder, however weighty- turn not your eye from the cross your Savior bids you carry, however sore- for here often are found the richest pastures and the stillest waters of the soul. Bearing this cross to the brink of Jordan, you shall then exchange it for the crown- and, looking unto Jesus, you shall pass triumphantly over its swellings, and all the minstrels of heaven will celebrate your coming! Lord! if such the fruit of the "Rod"- and such the support of the "Staff"- and such the blessing of the "Cross"- do with Your servant as seems good in Your sight!
"Heavier the cross, the nearer heaven;
No cross without, no God within;
Death, judgment from the heart, are driven
Amid the world's false glare and din.
O happy he with all his loss,
Whom God has set beneath the cross!
"Heavier the cross, the better Christian;
This is the touchstone God applies.
How many a garden would be wasting,
Unwet by showers from weeping eyes!
The gold by fire is purified;
The Christian is by trouble tried.
"Heavier the cross, the stronger faith;
The loaded palm strikes deeper root;
The vine juice sweetly issues
When men have pressed the clustered fruit;
And courage grows where dangers come,
Like pearls beneath the salt sea foam.
"Heavier the, cross, the heartier prayer;
The bruised herbs most fragrant are.
If sky and wind were always fair,
The sailor would not watch the star;
And David's Psalms had never been sung
If grief his heart had never wrung.
"Heavier the cross, the more aspiring;
From valleys we climb to mountain crest;
The pilgrim of the desert tiring,
Longs for the Canaan of his rest.
The dove has here no rest in sight,
And to the ark she wings her flight.
"Heavier the cross, the easier dying;
Death is a friendlier face to see;
To life's decay one bids defying,
From life's distress one then is free.
The cross sublimely lifts our faith,
To Him who triumphed over death.
"Crucified One! the cross I carry,
The longer, may it dearer be;
And lest I faint while here I tarry,
Implant such a heart in me,
That faith, hope, love, may flourish there,
Until for the cross, my crown I wear."
(From the German of Smolk)