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Words: Isaac Watts (b. July 17, 1674; d. Nov. 25, 1748)
Music: Resignation, an American Folk Melody, composer unknown
Note: Dr. Watts published these words in 1719. Resignation is the tune I’m most familiar with for his beautiful rendering of Psalm 23. It has been traced back to William Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835), and Freeman Lewis’s Beauties of Harmony (1828). You can hear it sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on YouTube. (There is a tune with that name on the Cyber Hymnal, but it is not the same one.)
There’s no question Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved chapters in all the Scriptures. It’s likely the most read and quoted Bible chapter of all.
Not surprisingly, dozens of hymns have been based upon it. Some are metrical versions of the text, quoting it almost word-for-word, as does The Lord’s My Shepherd, sung to the tune Crimond. Others paraphrase the words of David, such as The King of Love My Shepherd Is, by Henry Baker (1821-1877). Still others are freer meditations on the themes of the psalm, as is He Leadeth Me, by Joseph Gilmore (1834-1918).
My Shepherd Will Supply My Need, by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), falls somewhere between the second and third category, being something of a cross between a paraphrase and a thematic meditation. Watts published a book in 1719 called The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, which contained this version of Psalm 23.
A paraphrase, by definition, restates the original in other words. But the hymn under consideration does that and more. On another occasion, Watts actually wrote what is more precisely a paraphrase of this beautiful psalm. But we’ll give our attention here to his other treatment of the psalm.
The King James Version of the Bible distinguishes between two words translated “Lord” by printing one with all capital letters. The Hebrew word Adonai, is rendered “Lord,” while the Hebrew word usually pronounced Jehovah or Yahweh becomes “LORD.” Both are used of God, the first emphasizing His lordship or rule, the second suggesting His self-existence as the I AM, and the covenant-making God. Watts identifies which is used in Psalm 23:1.
CH-1) My Shepherd will supply my need:
Jehovah is His name;
In pastures fresh He makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back
When I forsake His ways,
And leads me, for His mercy’s sake,
In paths of truth and grace.
Notice that, in the middle of the first stanza, the author injects a new idea: “He brings my wandering spirit back / When I forsake His ways.” That happened to Peter. At the time of Jesus’ trial, he denied, with an oath, that he never even knew the Lord. But later repentant, he was forgiven and restored. While this can certainly happen, it may not be the intent of “He restores my soul” (vs. 3). David may simply mean that the Lord refreshes his life, bringing renewed spiritual vitality in a time of testing.
Another new idea, about the Lord’s “supporting breath,” is introduced in the second stanza, which is based on Psalm 23, verses 4 and 5.
CH-2) When I walk through the shades of death
Thy presence is my stay;
One word of Thy supporting breath
Drives all my fears away.
Thy hand, in sight of all my foes,
Doth still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows,
Thine oil anoints my head.
Perhaps Watts was thinking of the dawn of creation when God “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). Or of the time after His resurrection when the Lord Jesus “breathed on them [the disciples], and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (Jn. 20:22).
Each of those instances was historically unique, but they can be applied to us in principle, in the sense that the Spirit of God can be thought of as Lord’s animating Breath, at work in the life of the believer. Both the Hebrew word (ruwach) and the Greek word (pneuma) can mean either spirit or breath, depending on the context.
Finally, Watts’s lovely parting words are worthy of note. The Bible text reads, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD [i.e. in the presence of Jehovah] forever” (vs. 6). To which Watts adds the thought that he will not be a mere guest, but “like a child at home.”
CH-3) The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.
1) What is your favourite hymn version of Psalm 23?
2) What is the truth in Psalm. 23 that has blessed you most?