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Poem #1: Psalm 23 by David, King of Israel, c.1000BC

Posted by Sherry on 4/5/2010 in General, Poetry Project, Projects |

“God is the perfect poet.”~Robert Browning

The oldest poem on the favorites hit parade is an appropriate fit for this day after Resurrection Day and the week after Passover. Psalm 23 only got three listings as a favorite poem, but I think that’s because many people don’t think of the psalms as poems. They are poetry, though, and poetry that has lasted through the ages, through translation, and through application to the lives of many, many people.

The traditional, King James Version goes:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

For the familiar KJV poetic version, half credit must go to the 47 scholars who met, beginning in 1604, to translate the Bible into English. In particular, the First Cambridge Company translated from 1 Chronicles to the Song of Solomon, and was made up of the following scholars and clergy: Edward Lively, John Richardson, Lawrence Chaderton, Francis Dillingham, Roger Andrewes, Thomas Harrison, Robert Spaulding, Andrew Bing. They in turn relied on the work of earlier translators such as William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale.

Thus, the psalms became one of the few examples in the English language of “poetry by committee,” and if you believe, as I do, that all Scripture is God-breathed, then the psalms and other poetry in Scripture are the only poems we have that can boast God himself as Author and Finisher.
Here’s a beautiful musical version of this psalm as performed by the late Keith Green, still my favorite CCM artist:

I grew up a child of the ’70’s, and the version of Psalm 23 that got my attention came from The Living Bible, a Biblical paraphrase by Kenneth Taylor:

Because the LORD is my Shepherd, I have everything I need!
He lets me rest in the meadow grass and leads me beside the quiet streams. He restores my failing health. He helps me do what honors him the most.
Even when walking through the dark valley of death I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me, guarding, guiding all the way.
You provide delicious food for me in the presence of my enemies. You have welcomed me as your guest; blessings overflow!
Your goodness and unfailing kindness shall be with me all of my life, and afterwards I will live with you forever in your home.

The images in the psalm of a bed, a table, a journey, and a final rest at home are universal and comforting in any language. Psalm 23 is traditionally sung by Jews in Hebrew at the third Shabbat meal on Saturday afternoon.

Eugene Peterson’s The Message, takes the psalm into contemporary English usage and phraseology, and Phillip Keller’s classic book explicates the psalm form the point of view of a real shepherd:

God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.

The Message by Eugene Peterson.

A metrical version of the psalm is often paired with the hymn tune Crimond, which is usually attributed to Jessie Seymour Irvine. The singers here are a boy’s choir called Libera:

The Lord is My Shepherd: An Anthology.
Listen to Psalm 23 in Hebrew.
Psalm 23 resources, including Spurgeon’s exposition of the psalm.
Psalm 23 commentary and sermon aids
Safe in the Shepherd’s Arms by Max Lucado.
The 23rd Psalm, illustrated by Michael Hague.
Psalm 23, illustrated by Tim Ladwig. Urban, African American setting.
Hebrew poetry explained.
Song: The King of Love My Shepherd Is.
Hymn: The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want.

6 Comments

  • Barbara H. says:

    Though I knew the Psalms were poetry, I didn’t think of them at all in regard to the top 100 poems, but they surely qualify, and this one is probably the most well-known and well-loved.

  • Thanks for sharing one of the oldest poems with us, and I think you are right that many people do not think of psalms as poems

  • No, I wouldn’t have thought of this as poetry but yes, I can see (now) that it is.

    I’m not a poetry lover at all. At least, I certainly would not classify myself as such. But I AM interested in your project and seeing what pops up around here for the next little while.

  • Beth says:

    So glad this made it. It was on my list (and the oldest poem on my list!). And this is a lovely post with some truly wonderful links. Thanks especially for the link to Keith Green.

    The Psalms are some of my favorite poems/hymns ever. So grateful to be able to soak myself in them on a regular basis, via Bible and Prayer Book.

  • Renee says:

    I’m #1!!!! Oh, well technically I guess my poem is the bottom of the list, right? But it is the first one posted (so I’ll take my #1’s where I can find them.) Since I never heard Keith Green sing Byron or Wordsworth, that’s something too 🙂

    Can’t wait to see tomorrow’s post.

    Blessings,
    Renee

  • Huh, I didn’t think of them for my list either, but because they weren’t originally composed in English, not because I don’t think of them as poetry. They are, and they’re such strong poetry that their power survives in translation, which is pretty impressive when you think about it.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the list!

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