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Psalm 23

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Title: Psalm 23  
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Psalm 23

Illustration from "The Sunday at Home", 1880

In the 23rd Psalm (Greek numbering: Psalm 22) in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the writer describes God as his Shepherd. The text, beloved by Jews and Christians alike, is often alluded to in popular media and has been set to music many times.


  • Shepherd theme 1
  • In Jewish tradition 2
  • In Christian tradition 3
    • Metrical versions 3.1
    • Use in funerals 3.2
  • Musical settings 4
    • Liturgical and classical 4.1
    • Songs 4.2
  • Recitation 5
  • Use in popular media 6
    • Other notable uses 6.1
  • Media 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Shepherd theme

Psalm 23 portrays God as a good shepherd, feeding (verse 1) and leading (verse 3) his flock. The "rod and staff" (verse 4) are also the implements of a shepherd. Some commentators see the shepherd imagery pervading the entire psalm. It is known that the shepherd is to know each sheep by name, thus when God is given the analogy of a shepherd, he is not only a protector but also the caretaker. God, as the caretaker, leads the sheep to green pastures (verse 2) and still waters (verse 2) because he knows that each of his sheep must be personally led to be fed. Thus, without its Shepherd, the sheep would die either by a predator or of starvation, since sheep are known for their stupidity.

J. Douglas MacMillan argues that verse 5 ("Thou preparest a table before me") refers to the "old oriental shepherding practice" of using little raised tables to feed sheep.[1] Similarly, "Thou anointest my head with oil" may refer to an ancient form of backliner – the oil is poured on wounds, and repels flies. MacMillan also notes that verse 6 ("Goodness and mercy shall follow me") reminds him of two loyal sheepdogs coming behind the flock.[2]

In Jewish tradition

The first verse of the psalm as well as a long tradition ascribe authorship to King David, said in the Hebrew Scriptures to have been a field shepherd himself as a youth.

Psalm 23 is traditionally sung by Jews in Hebrew at the third Shabbat meal on Saturday afternoon. It is also sung during the Yizkor service. Sephardic and some Hassidic Jews also sing during Friday afternoon services and as part of the Sabbath night and day meals and before marital relations on Friday night. It is read at a cemetery funeral service instead of the traditional prayer during Jewish holidays.

The standard Hebrew text of the Bible used in Judaism is the Masoretic text standardized between the 7th and 10th centuries CE.

In Christian tradition

Psalm 23 is often referred to as the Shepherd's psalm

For Christians the image of God as a shepherd evokes connections not only with David but with Jesus, described as "Good Shepherd" in the Gospel of John. The phrase about "the valley of the shadow of death" is often taken as an allusion to the eternal life given by Jesus.

Orthodox Christians typically include this Psalm in the prayers of preparation for receiving the Eucharist.

The Reformation inspired widespread efforts in western Europe to make biblical texts available in vernacular languages. One of the most popular early English versions was the Geneva Bible (1557). The most widely recognized version of the psalm in English today is undoubtedly the one drawn from the King James Bible (1611).

The psalm is a popular passage for memorization and is often used in sermons.

Metrical versions

Eastman Johnson's 1863 painting "The Lord is My Shepherd".

An early metrical version of the psalm in English was made in 1565 by Philip Sidney, and Isaac Watts.[3]

A metrical version of the psalm is traditionally sung to the hymn tune Crimond, generally attributed to Jessie Seymour Irvine.[5] This version, with its opening words "The Lord's My Shepherd", is probably the best-known amongst English-speaking congregations. Other melodies, such as Brother James' Air or Amazing Grace, are also used. Other tunes sometimes used include Belmont, Evan, Martyrdom, Orlington, and Wiltshire.[6]

Use in funerals

In the 20th century, Psalm 23 became particularly associated with funeral liturgies in the English-speaking world, and films with funeral scenes often depict a graveside recitation of the psalm. Official liturgies of English-speaking churches were slow to adopt this practice, though. The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England has only Psalms 39 and 90 in its order for the burial of the dead, and in the Episcopal Church in the United States, Psalm 23 was not used for funerals until the 1928 revision of the prayer book.

Musical settings

Liturgical and classical



  • 2013: Australian singer songwriter Paul Kelly from the album Poems For Funerals

Use in popular media

  • 1951: David and Bathsheba film
  • 1953: A Christian Pastor, Dr. Matthew Collins, played by Lewis Martin, recites the Psalm before being killed by a Martian Fighting machine.
  • 1961: In The Twilight Zone episode "The Obsolete Man", the Psalm is recited by an "obsolete" librarian Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith), while awaiting capital punishment in his apartment, his crimes being the ownership of non-approved literature, and religion itself, which is outlawed by The State. Having been trapped by Wordsworth in the apartment, in defiance of State law, and before a live television audience, Wordsworth's condemnor begs for mercy "in the name of God." Wordsworth obliges: "Yes, Chancellor, in the name of God, I will let you out." As punishment for having invoked the name of God, the Chancellor is himself condemned to death by the State.
  • 1973: At the end of the film The Wicker Man, Howie shouts out Psalm 23, as he is being engulfed in flames.
  • 1980: In the David Lynch film The Elephant Man, Merrick recites Psalm 23, revealing his intelligence.
  • 1983: In the film "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence", the prisoners sing Psalm 23 as Jack Celliers (played by David Bowie) is buried in sand.
  • 1988: Craig Bartlett's clay animation short Arnold Escapes from Church shows how a young boy's imagination might interpret the words of Psalm 23.
  • 1988: In the graphic adventure game Gold Rush!, originally released by Sierra Entertainment, the main character Jerrod Wilson is given a clue about his brother's whereabouts in Psalm 23.
  • 1997: In the film Titanic it is recited while the ship is sinking.
  • 1997: In the film Paradise Road, the WWII story of a group of European women held prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp on Sumatra, the missionary Margaret, played by Pauline Collins, recites the King James version as she dies in the arms of Adrienne Pargiter (played by Glenn Close)
  • 1998: In the film Saving Private Ryan, the sniper Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper) recites the Psalm before shooting someone.
  • 1999: In the film Deep Blue Sea, the character Preacher (played by LL Cool J) recites a slightly modified version of this Psalm while attempting a rather risky plan
  • 2001: In the Spanish horror film Dagon (directed by Stuart Gordon and based on the stories of HP Lovecraft) the old tramp Ezequiel (played by Francisco Rabal) reads the Psalm 23 and the priest of Dagon galls him alive.
  • 2001: Quoted by the September 11 attacks
  • 2002: In the film We Were Soldiers, "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" is referenced multiple times
  • 2004: In the film Van Helsing, the creature of Dr. Frankenstein recites parts of the psalm when brought to the vampires' Masquerade Ball
  • 2005: In the film Jarhead, Jamie Foxx's character recites the verse, but with his twist
  • 2005: In the survival horror video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, the captain of the USS Urania commits suicide after reading the psalm
  • 2006: In the ABC series Lost, in episode 2.10 "The 23rd Psalm" Mr. Eko recites the Psalm when the plane with the drugs and his brother is burning, and in episode 2.12 "Fire + Water", he recites it while baptising Claire and her son Aaron.
  • 2009: In the film Terminator Salvation, verse four is read by a preacher to Marcus Wright, before the latter is executed via lethal injection.
  • 2010: The psalm is used as the titles for the Psalm 23 Mysteries book series started in by Debbie Viguié
  • 2010: In the film The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington's character recites the Psalm
  • 2010: In the film True Grit, Mattie, the narrator, recites part of the psalm
  • 2011: In the series Hell on Wheels in episode seven "Revelations" Cullen Bohannon and Elam Ferguson recite the psalm as a prayer over the dead and as they ride off into the sunset
  • 2011: In the film War Horse, a British soldier recites the beginning of the Psalm whilst crossing no-man's land
  • 2011: In the series Fate/Zero (TV series), Character Kirei Kotomine recites Psalm 23 in the episode 23.

Other notable uses

Verses from Psalm 23 have been used following widely-perceived tragic events: two prominent examples include the recital of the psalm in Todd Beamer's phone call made in Flight 93 during the September 11th attacks and the 9/11 Address to the Nation. It is also used as a club anthem by West Bromwich Albion F.C., with supporters singing it during the match.[13]



  1. ^ J. Douglas MacMillan, The Lord of Shepherd. (Bryntirion: Evangelical Press of Wales, 1988), 78.
  2. ^ MacMillan, 82
  3. ^ a b Psalms Compared: Psalm 23', retrieved 2007-08-05. (no public access!)"'". Smith Creek Music. 2007-01-17. Retrieved 2014-03-12. 
  4. ^ Scottish Psalter and Paraphrases at CCEL
  5. ^ "Crimond". Center for Church Music - Songs & Hymns. Retrieved 2008-10-07. 
  6. ^ [2]
  7. ^ a b "BBC h2g2 Psalm 23". Retrieved 2014-03-12. 
  8. ^ Together with Psalm 43 and Psalm 150 in an a capella setting for mixed chorus written in 1954. Dixon, Joan (1992). George Rochberg: A Bio-Bibliographic Guide to His Life and Works. Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon Press, p. 175.
  9. ^ The Miklós Rózsa Society Website
  10. ^ Blotner, Linda Solow (1983). The Boston Composers Project: A Bibliography of Contemporary Music. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 547.
  11. ^ "Settings of: Psalm 23". ChoralNet. Retrieved 2012-02-25. 
  12. ^ #NOV290116.  
  13. ^ "West Bromwich Albion fans' ovation for singing schoolgirl".  

External links

  • Hebrew text, translation, transliteration, recorded melodies from The Zemirot Database
  • Tehillim – Psalm 23 (Judaica Press) translation with Rashi's commentary.
  • Psalm 23 recited in Hebrew
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