The Lord is my shepherd : why so many versions

Psalm 22/23 : lots of different shepherds

We’ve just had Psalm 22/23, aka The Lord is my shepherd, as a Sunday psalm. It comes up quite a lot, and whenever it does, I sort through all the versions and occasionally get the chance and the time to write a new one, but there are several versions already, and I was thinking about why.

Different words

The first reason is that each country group has its own version of the words.  The Bishops’ Conference in each country group has jurisdiction over its own lectionary, and they do change the words quite a lot, especially when it’s a particularly frequent or loved psalm, and 22/23 is both.  And it’s surprising how even quite a small change in the words can make a big change to the music.  My aim always is to get as close to the spoken emphasis as possible, so the stress pattern is crucial: ‘I shall not want’ compared to ‘I’ll not want’, and even more so ‘there is nothing I shall want’. OZ and the UK and Ireland, and CAN  have the same verse words (not always, but usually), but different Responses; and if the Response falls into 3/4 while the verse is in 4/4, obviously you have to change the whole thing.

Different verse length and shape

The psalm itself is irregular, with two verses of six lines and two of four.  We have less tolerance of this in our verse rules than in Hebrew prosody, so we tend to regularise it; sometimes down to five verses of four lines each (this is what happens in the hymn versions, and in the Scottish metrical psalms), but obviously that means you have to move things around.  Sometimes the words in the Missal have been sorted into verses of the same length, sometimes not; sometimes I can extend a line by adding in quavers, sometimes not.  Sometimes the Missal version just leaves a bit out.  The CAN All Souls version of The Lord is my shepherd leaves out the lines about the dark valley, but I would have thought that for that feast and for funerals, that’s one of the elements that you would really want to have in!

So many beautiful versions already

Because of its simplicity and the power of the image, it’s a psalm that seems to invite people to try to make it their own, and I have a book of nothing but versions of the words, some successful, some less so (although you never know what will suddenly strike you as what you need to hear).  My book of musical versions, on the other hand, is only in my head, ranging from the Crimond and Br James’ Air that we sang at school, to the Gelineau and the Schubert with lots in between. I don’t have the luxury of being able to repeat words (listen to some of the old Mass versions some time and imagine what they would be like if Mozart or Byrd had been limited to a straight run, as church musicians now are), but what I have to set is a group of lines of (very) varying length in a way that the congregation will feel comfortable with, sing along to, and not feel takes too long. There’s a beautiful set of tunes for the Psalms by Tallis,  but his approach is like the Scottish metrical psalms, and the words are not repeated but seriously paraphrased.

A good ‘first’ psalm

This must be one of the first psalms that anyone learns.  Like The Magic Flute for Mozart and Midsummer Night’s Dream for Shakespeare, it’s immediately accessible and enjoyable at  a very young age, and from there, you can go on to understand more and more (I’m trying to avoid the expression ‘gateway drug’, but that’s the idea).

The shepherd image for Jesus

The fascinating thought for me is that when Jesus first learned it, as a little Jewish boy, he would of course have had the mental image of God as the shepherd, whereas we Christians, programmed by so many pictures and storybooks, never imagine the shepherd as God, but always Jesus himself.  And when he says to the disciples, ‘I am the good shepherd,’  he is making a very specific claim.  When we sing ‘the Lord is a warrior, the Lord is his name’, we mean God the Father; but ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ means, for us, only Christ.  I think this is why we need the incarnation: it is so much easier to imagine Jesus as the person with the smell of sheep about him.  I have to make a real effort to think of God that way, but for Jesus (who after all knows him far better than we do) and for the psalmist (in this case we are fairly sure that it’s David), it is entirely natural.  In the dark valley, or anywhere else, that is a comforting thought.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Trying to understand the Scriptures : Emmaus

Events unroll very quickly in the last few chapters of the Gospels.  The Sunday readings are going backwards slightly, as the Emmaus story happens about a week before Jesus’ reappearance in the upper room and his discussion with Thomas, but it’s worth looking closely at this story.

Two men journeying to a village called Emmaus

We have two unnamed disciples (we learn later that one is called Cleopas, but he’s not someone we have come across before), heading out of Jerusalem. They are talking sadly about recent events.  It’s so easy to imagine this conversation, just going round and round in miserable circles, the sort of conversation you can’t seem to stop having after someone has died, especially if it has been traumatic.

Encounter with a stranger

Jesus, unrecognised, draws near and falls into step with them, and asks an open question: what are they talking about?  They are so startled that they stop walking and just stand there looking sad. Then they ask him how come he doesn’t know what the whole city has been buzzing with the last few days, and they give him a pretty good summary of events (including the women’s testimony, still being discounted). Then Jesus says,’O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe,’ but he must have said it very gently, because there are two of them and they don’t just push him over and walk off, they listen as he explains to them how it was foretold ‘in all the scriptures’.

Explaining the Scriptures

And here I have a confession to make. For years I thought this meant that he showed them, using something like the blue RSV New Testament that we used in RE classes at school, how it all made sense, and I was very envious of anyone who had the main character of the story there to explain it all. Then ‘the scales fell from my eyes’, and I realised that the New Testament had not been written at this point, not any of it.  Anyway, people didn’t walk around in those days carrying handy one-volume Bibles. Maybe this is totally obvious to everyone else, but it wasn’t to me. Jesus explains the relevant bits of the Scriptures to them, and he does it by talking about the passages which they are all familiar with (and much of it will have been out of the Psalms).  And it will all have been Old Testament.

Messiah libretto from the same Scriptures

The comparable experience for us is listening to Handel’s Messiah, I think.  It is exactly what Handel’s librettist did, but of course he also had the New Testament to choose from. Charles Jennens took different bits out of (both parts of) our sacred Scriptures, and put them together to shed light on the story of Jesus.  We Catholics tend not to be as well-versed in the OT as our Protestant friends, so we often don’t know where the bits come from, but their relevance is shocking and immediate.  They are so poignantly relevant  (‘All they that see him laugh him to scorn’‘He was despised’,Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows) that we assume that it is Jesus they were written about.  Of course, they were; but not directly, not while it was going on, although that is how it feels, like a live commentary on the Passion.  Any decent score of Messiah will give you the references, and Wikipedia helpfully also lists them.  What is striking is how much is out of only two books: Isaiah, and the Psalms.

Recognition at the breaking of the bread

To finish the story: they all reach the inn together and go in to have supper (after a seven-mile walk), and they recognise him ‘in the breaking of the bread’.  Then he vanishes.  Why did they not recognise him before?  There are various possible factors: they are part of a very loose group and may not have known him too well by sight, since they aren’t in the inner circle;  they are too tired and sad to be paying very much attention; they aren’t expecting him;  he must look totally different from the last time they saw him, if they were in Jerusalem until today; he chooses not to be recognised  — but none of these reasons is at all significant.  The point is that eventually they realise; and then, although the day is now even farther spent than it was when they used that as an excuse to keep him with them, they get up and walk all the way back to tell the apostles.

Enough witnesses, and a more informed group

Their testimony is added to that of others, the weight of evidence is growing and everyone begins to feel that it is true and they can perhaps let themselves believe it.  Then the Lord appears again and lets everyone touch him (this may or not be the same event as when Thomas meets the Lord), and now ‘they still disbelieved for joy’, but everything has changed and life is transformed.  The Lord explains the Scriptures all over again, and he actually refers specifically to the psalms (Luke 24, v44), which pleases me very much.  Just as we use the Psalms as a rich source of prayers and solace, so did he.  You are never the first person to find a psalm illuminating, apt, or comforting; and one of the people who has done so before you is Jesus himself.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email