In the 23rd Psalm (Greek numbering: Psalm 22) in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the writer (David) describes God as his Shepherd. The text, beloved by Jews and Christians alike, is often alluded to in popular media and has been set to music many times.
Psalm 23 portrays God as a good shepherd, feeding (verse 1) and leading (verse 3) his flock. The "rod and staff" (verse 4) are also the implements of a shepherd. Some commentators see the shepherd imagery pervading the entire psalm.
J. Douglas MacMillan argues that verse 5 ("Thou preparest a table before me") refers to the "old oriental shepherding practice" of using little raised tables to feed sheep. Similarly, "Thou anointest my head with oil" may refer to an ancient form of backliner – the oil is poured on wounds, and repels flies. MacMillan also notes that verse 6 ("Goodness and mercy shall follow me") reminds him of two loyal sheepdogs coming behind the flock.
In Jewish tradition
Psalm 23 is traditionally sung by Jews in Hebrew at the third Shabbat meal on Saturday afternoon. It is also sung during the Yizkor service. Sephardic and some Hassidic Jews also sing during Friday afternoon services and as part of the Sabbath night and day meals. It is read at a cemetery funeral service instead of the traditional prayer during Jewish holidays.
In Christian tradition
For Christians the image of God as a shepherd evokes connections not only with David but with Jesus, described as "the Good Shepherd" in the Gospel of John. The phrase about "the valley of the shadow of death" is often taken as an allusion to the eternal life given by Jesus.
The Reformation inspired widespread efforts in western Europe to make biblical texts available in vernacular languages. One of the most popular early English versions was the Geneva Bible (1557). The most widely recognized version of the psalm in English today is undoubtedly the one drawn from the King James Bible (1611).
The psalm is a popular passage for memorization and is often used in sermons.
An early metrical version of the psalm in English was made in 1565 by Thomas Sternhold. Other metrical versions to emerge from the Protestant Reformation include those from The Bay Psalm Book (1640) and a version influenced by Sternholm published in the Scottish Psalter (1650). The latter version is still encountered, with modernized spelling, in many Protestant hymns. Other notable metrical versions include those by George Herbert, Philip Sidney, and Isaac Watts.
A metrical version of the psalm is traditionally sung to the hymn tune Crimond, generally attributed to Jessie Seymour Irvine. This version, with its opening words "The Lord's My Shepherd", is probably the best-known amongst English-speaking congregations. Other melodies, such as Brother James' Air or Amazing Grace, are also used. Other tunes sometimes used include Belmont, Evan, Martyrdom, Orlington, and Wiltshire.
Use in funerals
In the 20th century, Psalm 23 became particularly associated with funeral liturgies in the English-speaking world, and films with funeral scenes often depict a graveside recitation of the psalm. Official liturgies of English-speaking churches were slow to adopt this practice, though. The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England has only Psalms 39 and 90 in its order for the burial of the dead, and in the Episcopal Church in the United States, Psalm 23 was not used for funerals until the 1928 revision of the prayer book.
Liturgical and classical
- Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata No.112 Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt, BWV 112
- James Leith Macbeth Bain – hymn tune Brother James' Air
- Lennox Berkeley Op. 91, No. 1 (1975)
- Leonard Bernstein – Chichester Psalms (Hebrew, in Part 2, together with Psalm 2)
- Anton Bruckner – Psalm 22 Der Herr regieret mich WAB 34 (circa 1852)
- Paul Creston – Psalm XXIII (1945)
- Herbert Howells – Hymnus Paradisi
- Jessie Seymour Irvine – hymn tune Crimond
- Albert Hay Malotte
- Clément Marot (Latin)
- George Rochberg
- Miklós Rózsa
- John Rutter – Requiem
- Franz Schubert – version by Moses Mendelssohn (German)
- Randall Thompson
- Ralph Vaughan Williams
- Charles Villiers Stanford – "The Lord is my Shepherd" (1886)
- Alexander Zemlinsky Op. 14, (1910) for chorus and orchestra
- 1958: Duke Ellington – "Part VI" from Black, Brown and Beige with Mahalia Jackson
- 1972: Dave Cousins – "Lay Down" from the album Bursting at the Seams
- 1977: Dennis Brown – "Here I Come" from the album Wolf & Leopards
- 1977: Peter Tosh – "Jah Guide" from the album Equal Rights
- 1977: Pink Floyd – "Sheep" from the album Animals
- 1978: Patti Smith Group – "Privilege (Set Me Free)" from the album Easter
- 1980: The Grateful Dead – "Alabama Getaway" from the album Go to Heaven
- 1981: Venom– "Welcome To Hell" from the album Welcome To Hell
- 1982: Keith Green – "The Lord is My Shepherd" from the album Songs for the Shepherd
- 1983: Marillion – "Forgotten Sons" from the album Script for a Jester's Tear
- 1988: U2 – "Love Rescue Me" from the album Rattle and Hum
- 1990: Bobby McFerrin – "The 23rd Psalm" from the album Medicine Music
- 1993: Christian Death – Psalm (Maggot's Lair) from album Path of Sorrows
- 1994: Howard Goodall – theme to The Vicar of Dibley, later covered by Katherine Jenkins and The Choirboys
- 1995: Coolio feat. L.V. – "Gangsta's Paradise"
- 1995: Tupac Shakur – "So Many Tears" from the album Me Against The World
- 1996: Cissy Houston, (Whitney Houston's mother) – "The Lord is My Shepherd" from the The Preacher's Wife: Original Soundtrack Album
- 1997: Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G.) – "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)" from the album Life After Death
- 1998: Colin Mawby – recording with Charlotte Church
- 1999: E Nomine – "Psalm 23" from the album Das Testament
- 1999: Jonathan Elias – "Forgiveness" from the album The Prayer Cycle
- 1999: Ky-mani Marley – "Lord is My Shepherd" from the album The Journey
- 2000: Marilyn Manson – "In The Shadow Of The Valley Of Death" from the album Holy Wood
- 2001: Dan Nichols – "Psalm 23" from the album Be Strong
- 2003: Lucinda Williams – "Atonement" from the album World Without Tears
- 2004: Kanye West – "Jesus Walks" from the album The College Dropout
- 2004: Megadeth – "Shadow of Deth" from the album The System Has Failed
- 2004: OverClocked Remix – "Beneath the Surface (Aquatic Ambiance)" from Kong in Concert
- 2007: Group 1 Crew – "Forgive Me" from the album Group 1 Crew
- 2008: Jon Foreman – "The House of God, Forever" from the EP, Summer
- 2008: The Offspring – "Hammerhead" from the album Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace
- 2009: India.Arie, MC Lyte – "Psalms 23" from the album Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics
- 2010: Nas & Damian Marley – "Strong Will Continue" from the album Distant Relatives
- 2011: Hollywood Undead – "Hear Me Now" from the album American Tragedy
- 2011: Swift Manouver – "Melancholy" from the album "Beast Is At It's Best"
- 2013: The Black Dahlia Murder - "In Hell Is Where She Waits for Me" from the album Everblack
- 2013: Jay-Z - "Holy Grail" from the album Magna Carta Holy Grail
- 2013: Australian singer songwriter Paul Kelly from the album Poems For Funerals
Use in popular media
- 1951: David and Bathsheba film
- 1973: At the end of the film The Wicker Man, Howie shouts out Psalm 23, as he is being engulfed in flames
- 1980: In the David Lynch film The Elephant Man, Merrick recites Psalm 23, revealing his intelligence
- 1983: In the film "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence", the prisoners sing Psalm 23 as Jack Celliers (played by David Bowie) is buried in sand
- 1988: Craig Bartlett's clay animation short Arnold Escapes from Church shows how a young boy's imagination might interpret the words of Psalm 23
- 1988: In the graphic adventure game Gold Rush!, originally released by Sierra Entertainment, the main character Jerrod Wilson is given a clue about his brother's whereabouts in the bible verse Psalm 23
- 1997: In the film Titanic it is recited while the ship is sinking
- 1997: In the film Paradise Road, the WWII story of a group of European women held prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp on Sumatra, the missionary Margaret, played by Pauline Collins, recites the King James version as she dies in the arms of Adrienne Pargiter (played by Glenn Close)
- 1999: In the film Deep Blue Sea, the character Preacher (played by LL Cool J) recites a slightly modified version of this Psalm while attempting a rather risky plan
- 2001: In the Spanish horror film Dagon (directed by Stuart Gordon and based on the stories of HP Lovecraft) the old tramp Ezequiel (played by Francisco Rabal) reads the Psalm 23 and the priest of Dagon galls him alive
- 2002: In the film We Were Soldiers, "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" is referenced multiple times
- 2004: In the film Van Helsing, the creature of Dr. Frankenstein recites parts of the psalm when brought to the vampires' Masquerade Ball
- 2005: In the film Jarhead, Jamie Foxx's character recites the verse, but with his twist
- 2005: In the survival horror video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, the captain of the USS Urania commits suicide after reading the psalm
- 2006: In the ABC series Lost, in episode 2.10 "The 23rd psalm" Mr. Eko recites the psalm when the plane with the drugs and his brother is burning, and in episode 2.12 "Fire + Water", he recites it while baptizing Claire and her son Aaron
- 2009: In the film Terminator: Salvation, verse four is read by a preacher to Marcus Wright, before the latter is executed via lethal injection
- 2010: The psalm is used as the titles for the Psalm 23 Mysteries book series started in by Debbie Viguié
- 2010: In the film The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington's character recites the Psalm
- 2010: In the film True Grit, Mattie, the narrator, recites part of the psalm
- 2011: In the series Hell on Wheels in episode seven "Revelations" Cullen Bohannon and Elam Ferguson recite the psalm as a prayer over the dead and as they ride off into the sunset
- 2011: In the film War Horse, a British soldier recites the beginning of the Psalm whilst crossing no-man's land
Other notable uses
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Verses from Psalm 23 have been used following widely-perceived tragic events: three prominent examples include the recital of the psalm in Todd Beamer's phone call made in Flight 93 during the September 11th attacks, the 9/11 Address to the Nation and Whitney Houston's funeral.
- J. Douglas MacMillan, The Lord of Shepherd. (Bryntirion: Evangelical Press of Wales, 1988), 78.
- MacMillan, 82
- Smith Creek Music: 'Psalms Compared: Psalm 23', retrieved 2007-08-05. (no public access!)
- Scottish Psalter and Paraphrases at CCEL
- "Crimond". Center for Church Music - Songs & Hymns. Retrieved 2008-10-07.
-  Cyberhymnal
- BBC h2g2 Psalm 23
- Together with Psalm 43 and Psalm 150 in an a capella setting for mixed chorus written in 1954. Dixon, Joan (1992). George Rochberg: A Bio-Bibliographic Guide to His Life and Works. Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon Press, p. 175.
- The Miklós Rózsa Society Website
- Blotner, Linda Solow (1983). The Boston Composers Project: A Bibliography of Contemporary Music. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 547.
- "Settings of: Psalm 23". ChoralNet. Retrieved 2012-02-25.
- . Novello & Co Ltd. #NOV290116. Missing or empty
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- Hebrew text, translation, transliteration, recorded melodies from The Zemirot Database
- Tehillim - Psalm 23 (Judaica Press) translation with Rashi's commentary.
- Psalm 23 recited in Hebrew