Psalms are prayers from the Old Testament of the Bible. There are rather a lot of them - 150 in all - sandwiched between the books of Job and Proverbs. They are particularly associated with King David so are essentially common to both the Christian and Jewish faiths.
Psalm 23 is well-known for two reasons: its use in several common liturgies (including the funeral service), and its setting to music as a hymn or anthem.
The King James Version of the bible has Psalm 23 as follows:
1. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4. 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.
5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6. 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.
And here is a transliteration of the original Hebrew:
|Adonai ro-i, lo ehsar.||The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.|
|Bin'ot deshe yarbitseini,||He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,|
|Al mei m'nuhot y'nahaleini,||He leadeth me beside the still waters,|
|Naf'shi y'shovev,||He restoreth my soul,|
|Yan'heini b'ma'aglei tsedek,||He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness,|
|L'ma'an sh'mo.||For His name's sake.|
|Gam ki eilech||Yea, though I walk|
|B'gei tsalmavet,||Through the valley of the shadow of death,|
|Lo ira ra,||I will fear no evil,|
|Ki Atah imadi.||For Thou art with me.|
|Shiv't'cha umishan'techa||Thy rod and Thy staff|
|Hemah y'nahamuni.||They comfort me.|
|Ta'aroch l'fanai shulchan||Thou preparest a table before me|
|Neged tsor'rai||In the presence of mine enemies,|
|Dishanta vashemen roshi||Thou anointest my head with oil,|
|Cosi r'vayah.||My cup runneth over.|
|Ach tov vahesed||Surely goodness and mercy|
|Yird'funi kol y'mei hayai||Shall follow me all the days of my life,|
|V'shav'ti b'veit Adonai||And I will dwell in the house of the Lord|
Most of the meaning is fairly evident, especially when viewed in conjunction with the history of the nation of Israel and Christ's teaching in the New Testament - the Israelites were shepherds and were familiar with the concept of the good shepherd who provides for his charges and watches over them. There is still, however, room for detailed interpretation (without which Biblical scholars would, after all, be out of a job). Shepherds are actually very important in the teaching of both Old and New testaments. It was a responsible job: the shepherd provides for his flock (which represents wealth and often the means of survival for the family), watches over them and protects them. Witness the arrival of shepherds in Bethlehem for the Nativity.
The phrase about the 'valley of the shadow of death' is taken these days as an allusion to eternal life, although this interpretation is based on a New Testament teaching - the Hebrew tradition did not have the Christian concepts of death and resurrection. Anointing with oil was a ritual greeting for an honoured guest. The rod and staff would refer to the shepherd's crook (which lives on in the crozier carried by bishops), which are used to ward off wolves, rescue sheep, beat a path and herd the sheep. To prepare a table in the presence of enemies refers to the way in which when beset by troubles, God will nourish us and give us strength and sustenance; it is also a reminder not to neglect the inner self when occupied by the affairs of the world.
The cup which overflows is a reference to abundance. Cup, in Biblical terms at least, almost invariably refers to wine (which had both sacred and profane significance), but some suggest that here it is a cup which is filled from a flowing spring until it overflows. Given the significance of the Israelites' period of exile in the desert, this would be easily understood as a metaphor for the way God's love flows into us without end - which is reinforced by the final verses, which tell us that we will dwell forever in the house of the Lord.
There are several musical settings of Psalm 23, the best known of which are Crimond and Brother James' Air (Marosa). Most of these, and both those named, are based on the translation in the Scottish Psalter of 1650. There is also a setting in the original Hebrew included in Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms of 1965. And needless to say John Rutter has had a go as well.
Crimond, composed around 1870 by Jessie Seymour Irvine (1836-1887), is named after a town in Scotland, where Irvine was a daughter of a local dignitary. The tune first appeared in 'The Northern Psalter' where it was credited to David Grant; later, it was learned that Grant had only arranged the tune.
Brother James is the name by which James Leith Macbeth Bain, composer of the second tune, is remembered. He is also a member of the Barefoot League, and his writings in praise of barefoot hiking were included in the 1914 Vintage Book of Walking.
The phrasing of Psalm 23 presents some difficulty when converting into a standard hymnal metre (in this case Common Metre), with the result that choirs everywhere have been exhorted for over a hundred years against the evils of the 'shepherdile' (rhymes with 'crocodile'). To see why this is so, here is the wording of the first verse as set in Crimond:
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.
The singer is expecting the phrases to run with the lines, but look at the King James version above and you will see that the phrases are actually:
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.
Congregations, of course, rarely appreciate such subtleties and generally blast on regardless.
This kind of arrangement, where phrases run over the ends of lines in the hymn book and the breaks between phrases are inconsistent between verses, is actually fairly common - but many people fail to notice it until, as the saying goes, it is pointed out to them.
Since Psalm 23 as set out in the Scottish Psalter is in Common Metre it can in theory be sung to any tune in that metre - eight beats followed by six beats, then eight and six again. Suitable tunes would include Tallis' 'Ordinal', 'Amazing Grace', Jeremiah Clark's 'St Magnus' and others. Most music copies of hymn books have a metrical index, it's quite illuminating sometimes to look through this.
The singing of psalms has developed along with liturgical singing. In the beginning, the tunes were taught orally (and indeed aurally), and as musical notation was developed they were written down. Plainchant (or plainsong or square) notation is still used on occasion for the singing of psalms, as it suits their irregular verse structure. Plainchant does not represent note values, but uses a notation in the text called 'pointing', which tells the singer when to change notes. Some service books omit the pointing, which makes it almost impossible to sing the psalms. A pointless exercise, if you'll pardon the pun.
Psalm 23 with pointing would look like this:
1 The LORD ´ is my ´ shepherd : therefore ´ can I ´ lack ´ nothing.
2 He shall feed me in a ´ green ´ pasture : and lead me forth be´side the ´ waters of ´ comfort.
3 He shall con´vert my ´ soul : and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness ´ for his ´ name's ´ sake.
4 Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will ´ fear no ´ evil : for thou are with me, thy ´ rod and thy ´ staff ´ comfort me.
5 Thou shalt prepare a table before me, against ´ them that ´ trouble me : thou hast anointed my head with oil ´ and my ´ cup shall be ´ full.
6 But thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me, all the ´ days of my ´ life : and I will dwell in the ´ house of the ´ LORD for ´ ever.
There is a good description of how the chant notation works in the entry on Gregorian Chant, a name by which plainchant is often known.
Note that the phrasing is even less regular than before, but this is not important because in plainchant the rhythm is set by the words not by the music. This is how Psalm 23 would be represented in a traditional psalter; the other form would be found in a metrical psalter.
Purpose of the Psalm
The Psalms were originally a set of prayers. In the early Jewish tradition priests would pray the psalms daily, a practice which was carried forward into the Christian monastic tradition. They still appear in most Christian offices, but are now more commonly used for meditation and Psalm 23 is particularly good for this, as it is both meditative in tone and comforting in nature. For this reason also it is included in the Anglican funeral service, and Crimond is one of the most chosen hymns for funerals (another being 'Abide With Me', the two together being known as 'C&A' by the irreverent).