Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Comfort Me

I don’t know about anyone else, but this phrase always made me feel uncomfortable. Growing up, I thought of rods and staffs (staves?) the same way I thought of the teacher’s wooden paddle at school– something to be avoided at all costs. They didn’t comfort me one bit; instead, they inspired fear and loathing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24)*,” meant that someone was due for a spanking. Spanking was in fashion when I was young, though my parents used it extremely rarely, and the dreaded teacher’s paddle never touched my tiny terrified tush. A rod, staff, switch, paddle, or hand– all were threats of punishment– sometimes inspiring fear and even resentment.

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And yet, in all my youth, I never stood in fear of my parents. They never beat me, or spanked me without cause, or withheld loving forgiveness and reconciliation. Their discipline, which rested almost exclusively with other methods, was for my benefit– teaching me to respect just authority, recognize the limits of my will, and develop patience, compassion, and responsible behavior.

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God does not hold the rod and staff as instruments of terror. God’s love and wisdom are infinitely greater than the love and wisdom of human parents. And God’s sovereignty and authority are infinitely greater than that of any ruler or earthly power we know. God’s rod and staff are not weapons to be used against us. Instead, they are the symbols of authority and tools of our Good Shepherd. His staff is like the scepter of the King of Kings, or the staff of a warrior. He will gently use the rod to direct our steps or keep us from going off the path. And he will use the staff to protect us from the advances of the enemy. He has the authority to use these tools, and the grace and wisdom to use them for our good.

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During times of trial and confusion, the Shepherd’s authority should bring us enormous comfort. When disease and fear are closing in, when we travel down the valley of the shadow of death, when evil seems to be prowling, stalking, and ready to pounce– we have a Shepherd who has every resource to keep them from devouring us. Circumstances like the current pandemic are not sent by God to terrorize us. In fact, God holds the rod and staff in hand– He has set the limits of COVID-19; He has provided (and will provide) opportunities for us to learn many good lessons and see many astonishing developments– treatments, protocols, cooperative efforts– that will be for our ongoing benefit; for those who do get ill, suffer loss, or even die from COVID-19, He gives grace and peace to those who seek Him. He comforts us in ways that go beyond our natural understanding.

One of my favorite stories is The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. In this saga, the wizard, Gandalf, always carries a staff. It looks harmless enough– a walking stick in the hands of an old man. But when faced with an enemy, or when members of the Fellowship are threatened, Gandalf uses his staff effectively to chase away shadows, defend his friends, and battle the most fearsome of monsters. Gandalf is no threat to the frightened Hobbits, or even to the mad king Theoden. But to the traitorous Saruman and wicked steward, Denethor, he stands in fearless opposition. That doesn’t mean that the Hobbits never face danger or that Gandalf fights all their battles for them. And, because Gandalf is not all-powerful and omniscient, he cannot guarantee their ultimate victory. But his presence is enough to instill hope and comfort wherever he goes.

God will let us see uncertain days– days when things look grim and we don’t see how anything good can come of our circumstances. But one thing is certain–our God is ever-present, and more than able to bring us hope, peace beyond understanding, joy, and comfort along the way– no matter, where; no matter what!

  • Note–If we see the “rod” and “staff” only as instruments of punishment, we are missing the point of this proverb. If we “spare” the rod of authority– never providing discipline and correction or teaching respect and responsibility– that is when we spoil the child. And whatever one’s views about corporal punishment, it should never be used to promote terror or abuse.

From Fiery Furnace to “The Dew of Heaven”

God is all-powerful. He is sovereign over all the universe for all eternity. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Yet, in His majesty, He is merciful; unwilling that any should perish.

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In the book if Daniel, we encountered the familiar story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were thrown into a fiery furnace for failing to bow down to a giant statue commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar. The mighty king of Babylon was an absolute ruler, and failure to obey one of his decrees could result in death. That it did not end in death for the three young men baffled and impressed their king. But it didn’t change him.

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The very next story in the book of Daniel is one that is less familiar– it is another curious interjection into a book of (seemingly) disjointed stories. In chapter three, Daniel narrates his friends’ story, in which he is curiously absent. In chapter four, Nebuchadnezzar is the narrator, Daniel is one of the characters, and his three friends are never mentioned. (Because Nebuchadnezzar is narrating, he uses Daniel’s Babylonian name, Belteshazzar.)

The chapter begins almost as a mirror image of chapter 2, except the writing style is very different–more formalized, and written more as a proclamation. (https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%204) Nebuchadnezzar is being troubled by a recurring dream. Once again, he calls in all the astrologers, sorcerers, etc., to interpret the dream. However (whether because Nebuchadnezzar is narrating, or because he has learned a little self-control), this time there are no threats involved, and when the lesser wise men fail, Nebuchadnezzar himself sends for Daniel, confident that Daniel can provide an answer. Nebuchadnezzar actually flatters Daniel as he asks for an interpretation, but Daniel is still cautious. This dream is more disturbing than the first, because it is more personal and immediate. God is warning Nebuchadnezzar directly that his pride has gotten out of control and God is about to step in a pronounce judgment on it. God will teach Nebuchadnezzar about humility by causing him to lose everything, including his mind!

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Daniel carefully gives Nebuchadnezzar the interpretation and the warning from God, and adds his own wish that his king might escape punishment by humbling himself before the Almighty God. But in a year’s time, Nebuchadnezzar forgets. In the very act of praising himself, Nebuchadnezzar hears the voice of God, who drives him away from his kingdom, from society, and from rationality. For seven years, Nebuchadnezzar lives as a beast, eating grass, roaming outdoors, and covered with “the dew of heaven”. At the end of that time, he comes to his senses and is restored to his mighty kingdom a wiser, humbler, and grateful monarch.

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What a contrast between these two rulers! Nebuchadnezzar demanded total loyalty and obedience. When it wasn’t given, the reaction was instant fury and a sentence of death. God is the One who ultimately deserves our total loyalty and obedience. When it isn’t given, the sentence is death (Romans 6:23a). But God, who has the complete authority to pronounce the death sentence, is more interested in deliverance than in destruction. Make no mistake, God will punish Sin; God will destroy those who persist in evil and rebel against Him. But God’s heart is reconciliation and redemption. God did not kill Nebuchadnezzar; He didn’t strike out at him in fury and cast him immediately into the fiery furnace of Hell–though He had the power and authority to do so. God had given Nebuchadnezzar his life, his power and his kingdom. He took it away. And then he restored it. God took away Nebuchadnezzar’s ability to reason– and he restored that too. And while Nebuchadnezzar was living as a brute beast– in the middle of his punishment– he was covered with “the dew of heaven.”

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Curiously, this phrase, “the dew of heaven” is used all the way back in the book of Genesis. It is used by Isaac as he blesses his son Jacob (disguised as Esau). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+27%3A+27-29&version=ESV Even as Jacob was practicing deception that would have dire consequences, God’s blessing was being poured out on him by his father. And centuries later, in his midst of punishment, Nebuchadnezzar was blessed by God, who provided for his needs, and ended up giving back all that had been lost because of Nebuchadnezzar’s pride.

God punishes– He punishes those He loves! He teaches, humbles, and disciplines. But He is not in the business of destruction. He was with Nebuchadnezzar throughout his period of madness and humiliation, ready to restore (and even increase) all that he had lost.

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May we honor this God of grace and mercy– his mercies are greater than his wrath, and his grace is greater than all our sin! Nebuchadnezzar finally learned to praise, worship, honor, and obey the “Most High God.” May we do the same.

Things That Make You Wonder…(Daniel, Chapter 3)

The Biblical book of Daniel can be difficult to read. It contains stories, but they don’t seem to tie together. And sprinkled among the stories are visions, dreams, and prophecies. In chapter two, King Nebuchadnezzar threatens all the wise men of Babylon in his fear over a disturbing dream. (https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/17/daniel-prayer-under-pressure/ and https://pursuingprayer.blog/2019/07/19/daniel-prayer-under-pressure-part-2/) At the end of the chapter, Nebuchadnezzar falls prostrate in awe of the God of Daniel, and rewards Daniel with a high position. He even rewards Daniel’s friends who prayed for him.

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None of this context seems to carry over into the next chapter. If Nebuchadnezzar listened to Daniel’s interpretation; if he was in awe of the God of Daniel (the God of Israel– the God of Jacob), he forgot it all. The events of chapter three may have happened months or even years after the earlier episode; they may even have happened before(!)– we don’t know. But chapter three feels almost like a wholly disconnected story. Another thing that makes this story perplexing is the absence of the central character of Daniel. His name never appears in the story, and his friends are only given by their Babylonian names (unlike in chapter 2, where both the Hebrew and Babylonian names are given).

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The story in Daniel chapter 3 is a familiar one to many children. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+3&version=MSG) Nebuchadnezzar orders an enormous statue to be built in Babylon. When it is complete, he orders all the administrators of his kingdom– minor rulers, judges, treasurers, advisers–to come to the dedication, where they are to fall prostrate and pay homage to the statue as soon as they hear the music that has been commissioned for the event. This is not a suggestion, it is an order, and anyone who fails to do this will be thrown into a fiery furnace.

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Suddenly, there is a group of troublemakers (some translations call them astrologers or fortune tellers, others list them as Chaldeans–a people whose empire predated the Babylonian dynasties and whose culture and religion had produced great scholars and sorcerers). These men come forward with a single purpose– to denounce the Jews. Oddly, they only mention three names– Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They don’t mention Daniel, nor do they mention any of the other Jewish captives who were in service to the king as administrators. Not only are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego accused of disobeying the king’s order, they are described as being disrespectful and contemptuous of the king (and the ancient gods of Babylon and Chaldea).

Much is made about the amazing things that happen next–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are called before the king, who gives them a chance to answer the charges and he offers to give them another chance to bow down before the great image. When the three men refuse, Nebuchadnezzar is furious and orders the fire to be made seven times hotter. Men are killed in the process of stoking the flames, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown in, and begin walking around unfazed. Not only so, but Nebuchadnezzar is astounded to see a fourth figure walking with them, and looking like “a son of the gods.” He calls the three men out, and everyone is astonished to note that they are completely unharmed. Their clothes and hair are not singed or scorched, they are not hot, and they don’t smell of fire.

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Just as in the previous story, Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction is emotional and immediate. He gives praise to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and makes orders that will protect them from future harassment. But there are some interesting undertones in this story that I think we ought to consider, and things we can learn about prayer in the process.

  • We called Daniel’s dilemma in Chapter two “Prayer under Pressure”. The pressure was not just on Daniel, though he stepped up to face the king. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego prayed with Daniel–when they stood apart with him during their training– when they took a stand to follow the God of Israel in a land of ancient and powerful ‘gods’, they did so knowing that there would be pressure, powerful enemies, and potential persecution. God asks us to be faithful to him, regardless of our circumstances. Nebuchadnezzar had promoted Daniel and his friends to positions of power and privilege. They were grateful to the king, and loyal and devoted to serving him– except when that service called them to dishonor God. Many of us today face the pressure of honoring rulers or leaders who do not acknowledge or serve God; leaders who are corrupt or seem unworthy of our honor. We are to serve faithfully and show respect for their authority unless we are asked to disobey God’s laws or to disown or dishonor God. HE makes rulers to rise and fall. As we will see, Nebuchadnezzar’s power is far more precarious than it looks.
  • Following God will always bring confrontation and bring false accusations. Jealousy, guilt, envy, greed, anger, and malice will come to those who prosper under any circumstances. How much more to those who prosper at the hand of God? Those who have not schemed, stolen, or crushed others, and yet have been elevated to power, wealth, or honor– such people baffle and frustrate those who are grasping and clawing their way “to the top.” Those who deal in lies and stealth cannot accept truth and integrity. They will seek to twist others’ words, deeds, and reputations– sully names, destroy legacies, start rumors, invent grievances. We can let these little “fires” distract us from the “fiery furnace.” We can spend so much time defending ourselves, retaliating with our own rumors and grievances, or seeking revenge, that we become no better than our enemies. I know this from shameful personal experience. We can destroy ourselves in the struggle to justify ourselves. God doesn’t listen to rumors! God ignores false accusations, because He KNOWS the heart of every person. No matter how hot the “fire” gets, God is with us. He may not put the fire out. He may allow it to get seven times hotter, but He will be with us. If we are trusting Him, we will still have to walk around in the flames, but He will see to it that (ultimately) we are not singed or scorched!
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  • Frequently that attacks we face (see above) are not about us at all. They are about people in rebellion against the God we serve. The men who spoke against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have had a personal grudge, but the Bible story points out a bigger plot. Daniel’s friends may have “felt the heat”, but the fire was not burning just for them. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were recent captives from a conquered nation who rose very quickly to power by openly serving their “foreign” God. The Babylonians (and the Chaldeans before them) had risen to power through violence, intrigue, and reliance on sorcery, sacrifice, and ancient rituals that were abhorrent to the God of Israel. He had allowed them to do so to be the agents of punishment against His own rebellious people. But the power of the Babylonian empire was not of their own making, nor was it greater than God’s power to deliver the remnant of His faithful servants. Many times, we are oppressed by others whose anger and viciousness hide their rebellion against God. They fear those who serve Him, because they fear His justice and His wrath. They hate those who serve Him, because they hate Him. When we pray for deliverance from their schemes and violence, we need to know that God hates injustice; He hurts with us as we suffer; but He wants two things for our tormentors and bullies– 1) to see God’s example of faithfulness in our lives, so they have no excuse for their rejection; and 2) to give them an opportunity to repent and receive mercy. He also wants to do two things for us–1) to refine us and show us how faithful He is; and 2) to use our struggle to encourage and embolden others. Very few people would have noticed that three men out of several thousand disobeyed the king’s command. But because of the opposition they faced, and their total commitment to follow God in the face of it, crowds witnessed their vindication and God’s salvation.
  • Notice that Nebuchadnezzar, while he acknowledges that God has saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, does not tear down the statue, humble himself to serve their God, or abandon his arrogance. Twice, God has shown His awesome power to this proud and powerful ruler; twice Nebuchadnezzar has been impressed, even awed– but he hasn’t been changed. Yet!
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  • Where is Daniel? We don’t know. He may have been sent to one of the distant provinces and wasn’t in attendance for the dedication ceremony. He may have had a moment of weakness and joined the others in bowing down to the statue! All we know is that he is absent from one of the great miracles of his day. (He’ll have his own scary confrontation with a different king later in life.) This baffles me, but it also gives me hope. If Daniel DID bow down and worship the statue while his friends were faithful, God obviously forgave him and used him in a mighty way for the rest of his life. If he missed this fiery trial, perhaps God’s mercy was in it. God does not ask all of us to suffer the same trials, or have the same triumphs. God’s plan for each of us is unique. He doesn’t ask all of us to be “spiritual superstars.” He DOES ask each of us to be faithful for the fiery trials that come our way– whether fiery furnaces of persecution, or wildfires of hectic distractions and temptations, or the sudden flames of disaster or tragedy.
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Today, as we pray, let us remember to thank God that, even when trials and fires come into our lives, He knows why. He knows how hot they will get. He knows how long we will be in the flames. And He is right there with us, so that we, too, may walk around, unbound and unharmed by the fires meant to destroy us.

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