“The Lord’s my Shepherd” comes from Psalm 23, often called the Shepherd Psalm—the most beloved of all the Psalms. People love it for good reason. It speaks of green pastures and still waters and restored souls. But more than that, it speaks of an all-knowing, all-powerful shepherd who devotes full attention to our care and feeding. It assures us of God’s loving presence in our lives, both now and forevermore.
To understand the origins of this song, we need a brief history of psalm-singing in the English language. The psalms, of course, were written originally in Hebrew. Early English translations were not metrical and did not lend themselves to singing. However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, a number of people focused on creating metrical or singable versions.
“The Lord’s My Shepherd” as a song has its roots in the Reformation, when Luther and Calvin— especially Calvin—emphasized singing psalms. Calvin advised:
“We shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spake…. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if He Himself were singing in us to exalt His glory.”
During the reign of Queen Mary I (1553-1558), large numbers of Protestants fled to Europe to escape persecution. There, under the influence of Luther and Calvin, they began singing psalms. When Mary died and Elizabeth I ascended to the throne, they returned to England, bringing their psalm tunes with them.
In 1562, a collection of metrical psalms was published under the title, One and Fiftie Psalmes of David in Englishe Metre. Some of these had been translated by Thomas Sternhold, who died prior to their publication.
In the 1640s, Francis Rouse (or Rous), an English Puritan, translated all 150 Psalms into metrical English.
In the late 1640s, a group of scholars gathered together for the purpose of developing a faithful, authoritative, metrical translation of the Psalms. The Church of Scotland published their work, The Scottish Psalter of 1650, which became the gold standard for metrical translations of the Psalms. The text derived from The Scottish Psalter is the one most frequently used today for “The Lord’s My Shepherd.”
There are several tunes used with this Psalm. The most popular is “Crimond,” composed by Jessie Seymour Irvine in 1870 or 1871 and named after the village in which she lived.
“Belmont,” composed by William Gardiner (1770-1853) is another tune used with this psalm. “Brother James Air,” composed by James L. Macbeth, is another.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan