Psalm 23

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Illustration from "The Sunday at Home", 1880

In the 23rd Psalm (Greek numbering: Psalm 22) in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the writer 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.

Shepherd theme[edit]

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. It is known that the shepherd is to know each sheep by name, thus when God is given the analogy of a shepherd, he is not only a protector but also the caretaker. God, as the caretaker, leads the sheep to green pastures (verse 2) and still waters (verse 2) because he knows that each of his sheep must be personally led to be fed. Thus, without its Shepherd, the sheep would die either by a predator or of starvation, since sheep are known for their stupidity.

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.[1] 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.[2]

In Jewish tradition[edit]

The first verse of the psalm as well as a long tradition ascribe authorship to King David, said in the Hebrew Scriptures to have been a field shepherd himself as a youth.

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[citation needed]. Sephardic and some Hassidic Jews also sing during Friday afternoon services[citation needed] and as part of the Sabbath night and day meals and before marital relations on Friday night. It is read at a cemetery funeral service instead of the traditional prayer during Jewish holidays[citation needed].

The standard Hebrew text of the Bible used in Judaism is the Masoretic text standardized between the 7th and 10th centuries CE.

In Christian tradition[edit]

Psalm 23 is often referred to as the Shepherd's psalm

For Christians the image of God as a shepherd evokes connections not only with David but with Jesus, described as "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.

Orthodox Christians typically include this Psalm in the prayers of preparation for receiving the Eucharist.

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.

Metrical versions[edit]

Eastman Johnson's 1863 painting "The Lord is My Shepherd".

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)[3] and a version influenced by Sternholm published in the Scottish Psalter (1650).[4] 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.[3]

A metrical version of the psalm is traditionally sung to the hymn tune Crimond, generally attributed to Jessie Seymour Irvine.[5] 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.[6]

Use in funerals[edit]

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.

Musical settings[edit]

Liturgical and classical[edit]



  • 2013: Australian singer songwriter Paul Kelly from the album Poems For Funerals



  1. ^ J. Douglas MacMillan, The Lord of Shepherd. (Bryntirion: Evangelical Press of Wales, 1988), 78.
  2. ^ MacMillan, 82
  3. ^ a b "'Psalms Compared: Psalm 23', retrieved 2007-08-05. (no public access!)". Smith Creek Music. 2007-01-17. Retrieved 2014-03-12. 
  4. ^ Scottish Psalter and Paraphrases at CCEL
  5. ^ "Crimond". Center for Church Music - Songs & Hymns. Retrieved 2008-10-07. 
  6. ^ [1][dead link]
  7. ^ a b "BBC h2g2 Psalm 23". Retrieved 2014-03-12. 
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ The Miklós Rózsa Society Website[dead link]
  10. ^ Blotner, Linda Solow (1983). The Boston Composers Project: A Bibliography of Contemporary Music. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 547.
  11. ^ "Settings of: Psalm 23". ChoralNet. Retrieved 2012-02-25. 
  12. ^ #NOV290116. Novello & Co Ltd. 

External links[edit]