Friday, April 2, 2010

The 23rd Psalm

This well-known chapter from the Old Testament comes in many English versions. The familiar words repeated at many funerals are found in the King James Version of 1611:

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Perhaps this psalm, in Hebrew, was spoken at a hastily-arranged burial in Jerusalem on this day in 29 or 30 A.D. on the original Good Friday.

When the English version of Psalm 23 is set to music, some poetic license usually occurs. For example, in 1650 the Scottish Psalter contained these lyrics by William Whittingham, set to the music of Jessie S. Irvine:

The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green; He leadeth me
The quiet waters by.

My soul He doth restore again;
And me to walk doth make
Within the paths of righteousness,
E’en for His own name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through death’s dark vale,
Yet will I fear no ill;
For Thou art with me, and Thy rod
And staff me comfort still.

My table Thou hast furnish-ed
In presence of my foes;
My head Thou dost with oil anoint,
And my cup overflows.

Goodness and mercy all my life
Shall surely follow me;
And in God’s house forevermore
My dwelling place shall be.

Backwards it reads. Like Yoda it sounds.

Three centuries later, in 1969, musician Ralph Carmichael based his song “The New 23rd” on Kenneth Taylor’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Living Bible:

1 Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need!
2,3 He lets me rest in the meadow grass and leads me beside the quiet streams. He restores my failing health. He helps me to do what honors Him the most.
4 Even when walking through the dark valley of death I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me, guarding, guiding all the way.
5 You provide delicious food for me in the presence of my enemies. You have welcomed me as your guest; blessings overflowing!
6 Your goodness and unfailing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterward I will live with you forever in your home.

Eugene Peterson, who published an even more modern version of the Bible called The Message, put it this way:

1-3 God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.

4 Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.

5 You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.

6 Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.

Does “beauty and love” mean the same thing as “goodness and mercy”? Does “chase after me” mean the same thing as “follow me”? Does “for the rest of my life” mean the same thing as “forever”? Nice try, Eugene, but I vote No on all counts. And even though Death Valley and Valley of Death sound like the same thing, the former makes me think of California but the latter doesn’t.

My favorite poetic re-rendering of the 23rd Psalm is Henry W. Baker’s hymn entitled “The King Of Love My Shepherd Is,” which first appeared in the publication Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1868:

The King of love my Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never,
I nothing lack if I am His
And He is mine forever.

Where streams of living water flow
My ransomed soul He leadeth,
And where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With Thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.

Thou spread’st a table in my sight;
Thy unction grace bestoweth;
And O what transport of delight
From Thy pure chalice floweth!

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house forever.

Several beautiful musical compositions have been written for “The King Of Love My Shepherd Is.” My favorite is the tune by Harry Rowe Shelley, but since I was unable to find a suitable video example of it, here is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the first, second, and last stanzas of “The King Of Love My Shepherd Is” to a beautiful Irish tune arranged by Mack Wilberg for two flutes and a harp.

A final word about today from Tony Campolo: “It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming!”


  1. Nothing cuts it, for me, like the KJV and Crimond on this one, Robert.If you haven't read it already, you might enjoy, Weldon Phillip Keller's, 'A Shepherd Looks at Psalm: 23'. x

  2. The Baker/Shelley/Mormon Tabernacle Choir version of "The King of Love My Shepherd Is" is also included in the Episcopal Hymn Book. It's lovely.

    Our congregation observed Maundy Thursday last evening with washing of feet and stripping of the altar. We will have solemn Good Friday services this evening. Tomorrow, the ladies of the Altar and Flower Guilds will "redress" the altar and sanctuary in readiness for the celebration of the Resurrection! Yes! Sunday is coming!!

  3. I sang all the verses in my head as I read them... Shades of my school choir days and Hymns Ancient and Modern ...