Singing the Shepherd Psalm

Part 1 of 3

The following article, along with parts 2 and 3 to be published in later issues, 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. These three articles provide a peek into some of the detailed discussions that take place when considering the pairing of texts and tunes.

John Calvin described Psalm 23 as notable for its tone of thanksgiving and for its lack of prayers for relief from miseries. Unlike worldly people, who are apt to
become self-centered when things are going their way, David here “delights himself in God” and, acknowledging that his present “state of tranquility . . . is owing to the goodness of God,” expresses both trust in God’s continuing providence and the desire to “employ himself in [the] pure worship [of God].” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson). While there is much insight in Calvin’s observations, it is remarkable how little of the familiar and memorable pastoral imagery of the psalm they call to mind.

On the other hand, the best-known English metrical paraphrases of this psalm all take advantage of the enduring power of such images, and it is helpful to consider the various strengths of several of these texts and their associated tunes. In Part 1 of this three-part article we will consider a popular text set to two different tunes; Part 2 will examine a tune that is connected with multiple paraphrases; and Part 3 will feature a text and tune that nearly always appear together in North America.

A Text with Two Tunes

“The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” a text by Sir Henry William Baker (1821-1877), first appeared in the 1868 Appendix prepared for Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), where it was paired with the tune DOMINUS REGIT ME by John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876). As psalm paraphrases go, it is more in the manner of Martin Luther (1483-1546) or Isaac Watts (1674-1748) than that of the Genevan Psalter, because it introduces Christological interpretations that were avoided in Reformed tradition. In many ways, it conflates the shepherd psalm with various “Good Shepherd” passages in the New Testament such John 10:11-18, yet this very mingling of Hebrew and Christian Scriptures may be one source of its strength and appeal. Given the frequency with which Good Shepherd stained-glass windows, stone and wood carvings, paintings, Sunday school lithographs, and other visual representations of that theme have been afforded in churches on both sides of the Atlantic, it is not surprising that this articulate and vivid paraphrase would have gained popularity.

Turning to the text itself, we note immediately that the usual way of naming God (“the Lord”) has been replaced with a nonbiblical yet immediately comprehensible allegorical title, “the King of Love” (see sidebar at right). This unfamiliar opening and the inversion in the first line (“my shepherd is”) prepare the singer for a text that is intentionally—even self-consciously—allusive and aesthetic. This perception of the text is reinforced by the archaic verb forms (“leadeth,” “feedeth”) and the Latinate diction (“verdant,” “celestial”) in the second stanza. The third stanza intensifies the Christological overtones of this paraphrase with allusions not only to the Good Shepherd passage noted earlier but also to Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:4-7; cf. Matthew 18:12-14). The fourth stanza follows the biblical shift from third person to second person, but adds to the images of the shepherd’s rod and staff the suggestion of a processional cross familiar to many nineteen-century Anglican congregations. There is a similar churchy slant in the fifth stanza, where the psalter’s “oil” takes on sacramental tones by being called “unction,” and the usual English translation “cup” becomes a comparably Latinate and ecclesiastical “chalice.” As a result, the reference to God’s “house” in the final line of the sixth stanza does not suggest the Temple in Jerusalem so much as it does the church building in which the hymn is being sung.

Because the compilers of the 1906 English Hymnal were denied permission to use Dykes’s original tune (see sidebar, below), musical editor Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) turned to a folk tune that his former teacher Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) had recently edited for a collection of Irish music (A Complete Collection of Irish Music as noted by George Petri (London, 1902-1905); ST. COLUMBA is no. 1043). The two most notable improvements Vaughan Williams made in the hymn tune known as ST. COLUMBA were the lengthening of the second and fourth lines to extend the Common Meter tune to 8787 in order to accommodate Baker’s text—this being their first appearance together—and the use of a triplet (rather than an eighth and two sixteenths) in the sixth measure.

When DOMINUS REGIT ME and ST. COLUMBA are put side by side, they offer dissimilar but complementary perspectives on Baker’s text. Dykes’s tune is more cerebral and straightforward. Its 4/4 rhythm, limited melisma [use of multiple notes on one syllable], and predominantly even note values give it a strong processional and declarative tone, which is warmed by occasional patches of running sixths between the soprano and tenor voices. The 3/4 Irish melody, on the other hand, reinforces the experiential, affective, and narrative elements of the text and accentuates the iambic stresses of the text. It can also be argued that the more compact hexatonic [six-note] melody conveys greater intensity than the use of the full octave in the other tune. Like theology done “from above” and “from below,” the two tunes provide both a critique and an enhancement of each other.


King of Love

This unusual way of identifying God is one of several reasons for assuming that Baker was basing his paraphrase on the Psalter of the Book of Common Prayer rather than on the King James Version. All psalms in the Prayer Book Psalter are headed with a Latin incipit, which for Psalm 23 is Dominus regit me. The root of the verb regit is rego (to guide or direct), which may have suggested the verb regno (to rule or reign), with its related noun rex (king).

Copyright Issues

Hymnal compilers have long been plagued with copyright issues. In the preface to The English Hymnal with Tunes (London: Oxford University Press, 1906), Vaughan Williams explicitly notes (p. xi) that DOMINUS REGIT ME by John Bacchus Dykes was one of the “beautiful tunes” they could not get permission to include.

Carl P. Daw, Jr. ( is executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and is one of the most respected hymn text writers in North America; his texts are found in most current hymnals. Before his current appointment he served as a parsih priest, professor of English, and university chaplain. His latest published collection of hymns is New Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Hope).


Reformed Worship 96 © June 2010, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.