Hymn of the week: The Lord’s my shepherd

As I am on leave this week, I’m not preaching today. But as it’s ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ (with the Gospel text focus on Jesus as the shepherd of the sheep) I would quite likely choose this familiar (some would say over-familiar) metrical version of the 23rd Psalm.

The popularity of the ‘metrical psalm’ (i.e. a biblical text arranged according to the metre and rhyme of Western European hymnody, which can then be sung by a congregation as a hymn) dates back to the mid-16th Century and the Reformed type of Christianity associated with Zwingli and Calvin. It was Calvin (1509-64) who laid down the principle that congregational hymns should be limited to paraphrases of scripture, on the basis that only the word of God was suitable for worship.

In order to aid congregational worship a number of psalters were produced in vernacular languages. The most influential English psalter was that of Thomas Sternhold, continued after his death in 1549 by John Hopkins, which reached its final and most complete form in 1562. Sternhold and Hopkins’ psalter, known as the ‘Old Version’ dominated English hymnody for two hundred years, despite its sometimes rough and uneven poetry.

The ‘Old Version’ was not the only metrical psalter in English. In 1564 the Church of Scotland produced its own psalter. In subsequent years this was extensively revised. The version of the 23rd Psalm sung today was first included in this form in the Scottish Psalter of 1650 (which despite its name was prepared by a committee of the Westminster Assembly). It drew on lines by William Whittington (1524-79) and Francis Rous (1579-1659).

‘The Lord’s my shepherd’ has been a hugely influential text in Scotland, being one of the first religious verses taught to children at an earth age. John Ker writes:

Everey line of it, every word of it, has been engraven for generations in Scottish hearts, has accompanied them from childhood to age, from their homes to all the seas and lands where they have wandered, and has been to a multitude no man can number the rod and staff of which it speaks, to guide and guard them in dark valleys, and at last through the darkest.’ (Quoted in The New Methodist Hymn-Book Illustrated)

Today it is one of the few hymns familiar to an increasingly secular society, due to its popularity at funerals. Its popularity is surely as much to do with the tune – the gently lilting CRIMOND – as much as the words. It comes as a surprise, then, to discover that this particular association of words and music goes back less than a century. It was popularised by its inclusion at the wedding of our present Queen (then Princess Elizabeth) in 1947 and at the service to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the following year.

In Britain this tune has so completely supplanted others that many organists refer to the hymn simply as ‘Crimond’.

Source: Companion to Hymns and Psalms

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,
Even 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 my comfort still.

My table Thou hast furnishèd
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.

Scottish Psalter (1650)


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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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