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Singing the Shepherd Psalm

Part 2 of 3 Articles on Psalm 23

The following article, though not typical for Reformed Worship, is well worth spending some time on. Pastors, musicians, and worship planners alike can benefit from considering the pairing of text and tune and the challenges that arise from a plethora of choices. In addition, several denominations are in the process of developing new hymnbooks for congregational song. This series of articles provide a peek into some of the detailed discussions that take place when considering the pairing of texts and tunes.

—JB

A Tune for Three Texts

If it is useful to consider how one text is set to two tunes (see RW 96, p. 33), it can be no less enlightening to look at how one tune can be used for three different paraphrases of Psalm 23. That tune is Crimond, a Scottish psalm tune first printed in 1872 with the George Washington Doane (1799-1859) text “Thou Art the Way” [RitL 274; TH 154; H82 457]. It appeared in the 1929 Scottish Psalter as a tune available for use with any Common Meter paraphrase. From 1936 onwards the Glasgow Orpheus Choir made frequent use of Crimond with the text of Psalm 23 from the 1650 Scottish Psalter; this pairing gained widespread use after being featured on two prominent post-World War II royal occasions in Great Britain: the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip at Westminster Abbey in 1947 and the silver wedding anniversary of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1948.

Although there was confusion for some time about the composer of this psalm tune, it is now generally understood that the melody was created by Jessie Seymour Irvine (1836-1887) and that the original harmonization was provided by David Grant (1833-1893) [PsH 23; WR 86], though the tune often appears now with the T. C. L. Pritchard (1885-1960) harmonization from the 1929 Scottish Psalter [RitL 89; PH 170]. Erik Routley notes that this psalm tune is unusual among Scottish psalm tunes for two reasons: it is the only one known to have been written by a woman, and it is the only one that makes use of the musical device of “sequence” [immediately repeating a musical figure at an incremental pitch], which it does in the second to third line. (See Erik Routley, The Music of Christian Hymns, Chicago: GIA Publications, 1981, p. 85).

Text 1: The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want

The text originally associated with Crimond is the anonymous Psalm 23 paraphrase that appears in the 1650 Scottish Psalter. Millar Patrick has demonstrated how it draws on lines and phrases from seven earlier psalters, making it a significant distillation of an evolving tradition. (See Millar Patrick, Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody, London: Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 103.) This 1650 text appears in many hymnals, either with the Crimond tune [RitL 89; PH 170; TH 87; UMH 136] or with the later Brother James’ Air [PsH 161].

Much of the appeal of this text comes from its confident opening line, phrased in normal word order and using conversational contractions: “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want.” This hearty naturalness does not continue, however; even the first stanza lapses into the inversions that characterize much of text. It is rescued from tediousness by rhyming only the second and fourth lines, and its closeness to the familiar biblical text lends it an aura of antiquity and authority. These qualities are especially evident in the final stanza, which brings the text to a satisfying affirmative ending.

The Lord’s my shepherd; I’ll not want.
He makes me down to lie
in pastures green; he leadeth me
the quiet waters by.


My soul he doth restore again,
and me to walk doth make
within the paths of righteousness,
e’en for his own name’s sake.


Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,
yet will I fear no ill;
for thou art with me, and thy rod
and staff me comfort still.


My table thou has furnished
in presence of my foes;
my head thou dost with oil anoint,
and my cup overflows.


Goodness and mercy all my life
shall surely follow me;
and in God’s house forevermore
my dwelling place shall be.


—Psalm 23; vers. Scottish Psalter, 1650

Text 2: The Lord My God My Shepherd Is

Perhaps because of the associations of the Crimond tune with Psalm 23, it has been chosen for two more recent paraphrases of this beloved psalm. The earlier of these was written by the distinguished Episcopal priest and poet Francis Bland Tucker (1895-1984) (see p. 42). It dates from early 1953, when he was confronting major chest surgery to remove a large tumor in his left lung. In the interval of rest before the mandated surgery, he wrote a series of letters to the congregation he served at Christ Church in Savannah, Georgia, dealing with the life and death issues facing him. To the second letter (dated March 8, 1953) he appended “The Lord my God my shepherd is” [H82 663] as an expression of his faith that “neither death nor life, . . . nor things present, nor things to come . . . shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39, KJV). In the original printing, the emotional center of the poem, “the valley of death’s shade,” was made evident by the italicized word “here” in line 3 of the third stanza. Shortly thereafter, Tucker returned to Atlanta for surgery, but an X-ray of his chest showed what the doctors called “a dramatic and remarkable change” in the tumor. It had shrunk so much that surgery was no longer needed; all that was prescribed was further rest and treatment. (This information is summarized from Raymond Glover’s account in The Hymnal 1982 Companion, New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1990-1994, vol. 3B, p. 1211.)

While knowledge of this biographical material undoubtedly adds poignancy to the use of this paraphrase, there are also literary qualities that reinforce its suitability for being sung to Crimond. In particular, the half-line rhymes in each third line (“in pastures green, by streams serene”) accentuate the sequential patterning of the tune, a quality not found in the other texts. This is a telling bit of poetic skill, because it has the effect of slowing down the reading or singing of the third line, creating a moment of reflection before moving into the tone of affirmation that characterizes each stanza’s final line.

The Lord my God my shepherd is;
how could I want or need?
In pastures green by streams serene,
he safely doth me lead.


To wholeness he restores my soul
and doth in mercy bless,
and helps me take for his Name’s sake
the paths of righteousness.


Yea, even when I must pass through
the valley of death’s shade,
I will not fear, for thou art here,
to comfort and to aid.


Thou has in grace my table spread
secure in all alarms,
and filled my cup, and borne me up
in everlasting arms.


Then surely I can trust thy love
for all the days to come,
that I may tell thy praise, and dwell
forever in thy home.


—Psalm 23, vers. F. Bland Tucker

Tune 3: The Lord My Shepherd Rules My Life

The more recent twentieth-century paraphrase set to Crimond, “The Lord My Shepherd Rules My Life” [PsH 23; SFL 201] was written in 1977 by an Anglican clergyman, Christopher Idle (b. 1938), but was not published until 1982. In its original publication it concluded with a Trinitarian doxology as a sixth stanza. (For background and commentary on this text, see Christopher Idle, Light upon the River: Hymn Texts, London: St. Matthias Press/Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1998, p. 227.)

The author initially proposed two alternative first lines, the discarded one being “The Lord my shepherd knows my name” (reflecting John 10:3). But the Jubilate publishing group with whom he was working preferred the present one, partly because it reflects the Latin incipit Dominus regit me that appears with Psalm 23 in the Book of Common Prayer. Except for the last line of the first stanza, this paraphrase differs from the others considered here in its remarkable avoidance of inversion. This evidence of the poet’s skill adds considerable conviction and immediacy to the paraphrase. Rather than seeking to echo familiar phrases, this version offers a fresh retelling of the same narrative and thereby brightens and invigorates a familiar spiritual landscape.

The Lord, my shepherd, rules my life
and gives me all I need;
he leads me by refreshing streams;
in pastures green I feed.


The Lord revives my failing strength,
he makes my joy complete;
and in right paths, for his name’s sake,
he guides my faltering feet.


Though in a valley dark as death,
no evil makes me fear;
your shepherd’s staff protects my way,
for you are with me there.


While all my enemies look on,
you spread a royal feast;
you fill my cup, anoint my head,
and treat me as your guest.


Your goodness and your gracious love
pursue me all my days;
your house, O Lord, shall be my home
your name, my endless praise.


—Psalm 23, vers. Christopher M. Idle—
© 1982 The Jubilate Group
(Admin. Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188).
All rights reserved. Used by permission.


The challenge to hymnal editors and worship planners is deciding which of these three quality texts to include in a hymnal or sing on a given Sunday.