|"The Lord is my Shepherd"|
Illustration from The Sunday at Home, 1880
|Written||around 1000 BCE|
|Text||attributed to King David|
Psalm 23 is the 23rd psalm of the Book of Psalms, generally known in English by its first verse, in the King James Version, "The Lord is my Shepherd". The Book of Psalms is the third section of the Hebrew Bible, and a book of the Christian Old Testament. In the Greek Septuagint version of the Bible, and in its Latin translation in the Vulgate, this psalm is Psalm 22 in a slightly different numbering system. In Latin, it is known by the incipit, "Dominus reget me"
Like all psalms, Psalm 23 was used in worship by the ancient Hebrews. The writer describes God as his shepherd, in the role of protector and provider. The psalm is read, recited and sung by Jews and Christians. It has been called the best-known of the psalms for its universal theme of trust in God.
Following is the Hebrew text of Psalm 23:
|1||מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִ֑ד יְהֹוָ֥ה רֹ֜עִ֗י לֹ֣א אֶחְסָֽר|
|2||בִּנְא֣וֹת דֶּ֖שֶׁא יַרְבִּיצֵ֑נִי עַל־מֵ֖י מְנֻח֣וֹת יְנַֽהֲלֵֽנִי|
|3||נַפְשִׁ֥י יְשׁוֹבֵ֑ב יַנְחֵ֥נִי בְמַעְגְּלֵי־צֶ֜֗דֶק לְמַ֣עַן שְׁמֽוֹ|
|4||גַּ֚ם כִּֽי־אֵלֵ֨ךְ בְּגֵ֪יא צַלְמָ֡וֶת לֹא־אִ֘ירָ֚א רָ֗ע כִּי־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּדִ֑י שִׁבְטְךָ֥ וּ֜מִשְׁעַנְתֶּ֗ךָ הֵ֣מָּה יְנַֽחֲמֻֽנִי|
|5||תַּֽ֘עֲרֹ֤ךְ לְפָנַ֨י | שֻׁלְחָ֗ן נֶ֥גֶד צֹֽרְרָ֑י דִּשַּׁ֖נְתָּ בַשֶּׁ֥מֶן רֹ֜אשִׁ֗י כּוֹסִ֥י רְוָיָֽה|
|6||אַ֚ךְ ט֣וֹב וָחֶ֣סֶד יִ֖רְדְּפוּנִי כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֑י וְשַׁבְתִּ֖י בְּבֵית־יְ֜הֹוָ֗ה לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים|
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.
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.
In the twentieth 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.
The theme of God as a shepherd was common in ancient Israel and Mesopotamia. For example, King Hammurabi, in the conclusion to his famous legal code, wrote: "I am the shepherd who brings well-being and abundant prosperity; my rule is just.... so that the strong might not oppress the weak, and that even the orphan and the widow might be treated with justice." This imagery and language was well known to the community that created the Psalm, and was easily imported into its worship.
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 helplessness without their shepherd.
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.
John Ellinwood argues that in verses 4 and 5 King David acknowledges God's protection in expeditions and in battles. "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies" refers to the sober raucous dinner before major battles. These were raucous in order to demoralize hostiles camped within earshot, and (only) the king ate from a table. "Thou anointest my head with oil" because tomorrow this ceremony might be impossible. After each victory there was no longer a need for sobriety, so "my cup runneth over." The king's lyricist wisely shortened these military verses for balance. Also in Psalm 18 David mentions God's protection in battle. .
The first verse of the Psalm ascribes authorship to King David, said in the Hebrew Scriptures to have been a field shepherd himself as a youth. However, some scholars do not believe that David could have written any of the Psalms.
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