The Lord is my shepherd… (Psalm 23)

Learning German hymns by heart is way easier than memorizing Psalms – and not only because we´re stuck with Luther´s translation for good reasons and don´t have the endless choices of English speakers.  Psalms have irregular meters, don´t rhyme and follow less obvious patterns than the traditional German hymns. Their parallelisms are fascinating, but somewhat more complicated.

The one exception on our confirmation list was Psalm 23. Now that was pretty easy to memorize due to its impressive imagery. Perhaps also because we sang various versions at church and in school even. Probably it was also due to my father reading this at our family birthday devotions. For the grown-ups he added Psalm 103 as well. We continue that tradition and although we don´t have 11 or 13 readings per year, depending whether You count the grandmothers or not, there´s still 6 birthdays in our little part of the family.  

Later on in life, I found other more learnable Psalms too – and some just got stuck through habit and regular use – be it those we use during our confessional before (51; 130; 139) and after (34 and/or 103) the absolution, or be it those, which are prescribed as preaching texts in the church lectionary – like Psalm 107 – which was my task as novice in the Homiletics Seminar with Professor Manfred Seitz in Erlangen.

It´s fascinating that Dr. Martin Luther used the longest Psalm 119 as schooling tool for pastors and theologians. I assume, that besides obvious theological and material reasons, it may also be based on his pastoral concern as teacher of the church, that servants of the Word should not circumvent this huge block, but plough through it – thoroughly and consistently and without tiring – as they go about reading, praying in their lives afflicted by temptations of the devil, the world and their own sinful selves – day and night – just as patiently as cow chewing the cud – ruminating on its profound content in law, rules, precepts, statutes, commands, regulations, instructions, prescriptions etc.  

Tomorrow is the 2nd Sunday after Easter: “Misericordias Domini” – according to the German Lectionary. That´s traditionally been our “Good Shepherd´s Sunday” and good reason to have Psalm 23 as Introit. Obviously, the Eastern Orthodox churches follow a different calendar for many centuries already, but also our American brothers in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod count this festive season differently – and also assign different themes to the various Sundays. That falls under the rich diversity of the holy Church – and is really not in serious dispute even if some would feel strongly about this. It´s not much more than a scheduling issue – adiaphora really. Nobody sees an issue of confession addressed here.

I´m happy to post Psalm 23 here – and in the language of the “New English Translation” (NET) – even if Martin Luther´s translation resonates in my mind, heart and soul. One thing I do regret a bit is, that during my student days, when I was learning the basics of the biblical languages & Latin, we were not encouraged more to learn passages by heart. With all the translations around – and the many different vernaculars and dialects even – it would have been a serious benefit to learn the biblical text off by heart. I remember that Karl Bornhäuser thought it was a basic requirement for New Testament scholars to at least know the gospel of St. Matthew and St. Paul´s letter to the Romans in the Koine original for starters – and we did get some distance with that epistle during the summer holidays of the final year at the University of Pretoria, when this was part of our “self-study”. Still, there should have been lots more Hebrew to add to this. Well, that´s probably why we wish for a long and productive life. After all, times of shutdown like now are well suited for this – even if my memory is not as reliable as before.

The Lord is my shepherd,
I lack nothing.
He takes me to lush pastures,
he leads me to refreshing water.
He restores my strength.
He leads me down the right paths
for the sake of his reputation.
Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff reassure me.
You prepare a feast before me
in plain sight of my enemies.
You refresh my head with oil;
my cup is completely full.
Surely your goodness and faithfulness will pursue me all my days,
and I will live in the Lord’s house for the rest of my life.

Psalm 23 written by King David and translated into “New English”

Here´s a version of the English Hymn, which sings so wonderfully:

1 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.

2 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.

3 Yea, though I walk through death’s dark vale,
yet will I fear none ill,
for thou art with me; and thy rod
and staff me comfort still.

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

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

We Germans sing it in the words of Wolfgang Meuslin and with the melody of Johann Walter (1524), but have it in our ears from the Cantata for this Sunday: BWV 112.

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Eastertide, Gedankensplitter, Hymns, Old Latin School in Wittenberg, You comfort me + and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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