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.