– Text Background –
Although the 23rd Psalm is by far one of the most recognizable and adored portions from the Holy Scripture, it is peculiar that this lovely rendition of the beloved text was sung almost exclusively by the Church of Scotland for a tercentenary.
The impression has been given (though noting “et al.”) that the hymn was built solely upon the efforts of Francis Rous, the provost of Eton College (1641). In reality, he is only one of several who offered to its construction. Essentially, the hymn is a collection of lines taken from individual original renditions by the likes of William Whittingham, brother-in-law to John Calvin; Zachary Boyd, pastor of Barony Church in Glascow; William Mure, a poet and commander of the Aryshire regiment under Oliver Cromwell; and unique additions offered by unnamed members of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, the committee that took responsibility for the collecting, sorting, and selecting of original versions, finally standardizing the hymn in The Psalms of David in Meeter (1650) as the preferred version “for uniformity in this part of the worship of God.”
It is not until much later that this Presbyterian staple finally finds its place among other branches of Christianity, namely The Methodist Hymnal (1876). Years pass and it is eventually brought to the pages of The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) and The Anglican Hymn Book (1965). The hymn, as it is given in the LSB, is nearly identical to that of the version provided by the 1650 Assembly.
-Text Discussion –
The poetry of the hymn does not stray far from the poetry given by the Holy Spirit through King David, and that is its charm. We are reminded that Psalm 23 is quite often the “first religious verse learnt at a mother’s knee, and often the last repeated before entering ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’” To hear Psalm 23 in song is to take the familiar hand of the Shepherd, to find comfort in His presence, and to stroll with Him in the verdant pastures, through and past the darkness of this life into eternal life.
As King David considered himself a lamb in the tender care of his Shepherd, with the opening of stanza one so also do we take our place among the flock. The sacramental character of the text becomes visible as we here see the meadows of the mountain heights of Israel rolling with plush paddock, and the Lord, the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), leading us to the superior grazing land He provides, where He causes His flock to lie down to feed and be restored (Ezekiel 34:11-15).
With stanza two, the tension of paradise lost because of mankind’s fall into sin (Genesis 2:8-17) is present, but it is joyfully eclipsed by the absolution, recreation, and restoration earned by the sacrifice of the Shepherd (2 Corinthians 5:21) and given in the feeding. It is thus for those who bear the Holy Name. The sheep are righteous, marked as Holy by the placing of His name (Psalm 25:11; Isaiah 43:7; Deuteronomy 12:15; 18:1-5; 28:10; Numbers 6:27, Revelation 7:3, 9-17). The image of Baptism is here being furthered even as it was primed in stanza one when speaking of the quiet waters flowing.
Stanza three now introduces the peace of God into the context of this world’s suffering, reminding the reader that the valley (or vale) is enshrouded by another veil, which is death (Isaiah 25:7, 8). Death, however, holds no dominion over this Shepherd (Psalm 27:1-3) and He proves His steadfast footing (Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 4:15, 16; Isaiah 43:1-3a) and unfailing support (2 Corinthians 4:7-10) where we would by our own strength stumble and fall (Romans 7:18; 1 Peter 2:25).
Stanza four continues toward the abundance of God’s gifts given to those He now calls friends (John 15:15) as they recline at His table (Matthew 8:11) while at the same time displaying the feast rejected by and now forbidden to unbelievers, the enemies of God (Matthew 8:12). And with such a banquet comes the anointing of oil, a gladness (Psalm 45:7; 92:10, 11) and superabundance (Psalm 31:19) of eternal salvation overflowing in our chalice (Luke 6:38) because the Shepherd suffered the cup (Psalm 16:5; Matthew 26:39, 42) in our place; the benefits of this “cup” now being made available to the believer (Psalm 116: 13-19) in the good grazing land of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:23-26).
The eschatological character of stanza four is certainly not incomplete. We see that the believer receives “right now” what is still in this life considered “not yet.” Stanza five puts the finishing touches on the beautiful portrait by presenting the Lord’s faithfulness throughout our earthly journey (Psalm 25:6) with His purpose (1 Timothy 2:4) that we would be gathered before His throne for eternity (Matthew 25:31-34, 46b; John 14:2, 3; Revelation 7:17).
Rev. Christopher I. Thoma +
Aufdemberge, 376-77; Bradley, Hymns, 412-14; Julian, 1154, 1592; Stulken-LBW, 479-80.
Psalms of David In Meeter. By Authority of the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, Edinburgh: Evan Tyler, Printer to the King, 1650, 12.