I received a number of requests to post online what I presented at church last Sunday (April 21). The following is the result of some work I did on collecting and comparing various translations of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
Psalm 23 (King James Version)
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.
Psalm 23 is undoubtedly the most popular chapter in all of the Bible. It’s a favorite to read at funerals, and it does contain a lot about eternal life, so that’s appropriate. But when you look at it more closely, you see that it’s really more about living than dying; specifically, what kind of life we lead, and what quality of life we have; and that based on what we learn about ourselves and about God through this Psalm.
As you can imagine, because of its popularity there have been hundreds of translations and paraphrases of the Shepherd’s Psalm in English. In church we usually read from the NRSV. The best known version in English, the King James Version, appears above. But the oldest English version that’s part of a complete translation is from 1384 by the English reformer John Wycliffe, written in middle English, which is almost unreadable nowadays. But what you can understand includes enjoyable phrases like: “Thou hast made fat mine head with oil.” Clearly they were still working the bugs out of the English language, since Wycliffe wasn’t using words like “anoint” yet.
That’s the oldest. Probably the most amusing I encountered was a hip-hop translation from the early 2000s, which includes phrases like: “The Lord is all that . . . He allows me to chill. He keeps me from being heated and allows me to breathe easy.” And “Even though I walk through the hood of death, I don’t back down for you have my back.” (From the “The Hip Hop Prayer Book” adapted by Ryan Kearse)
Whether using slang or traditional language, one thing that all people have agreed on is that this psalm is all about calm and serenity in life, about lessening the sense of anxiety and fear that so often takes over people’s lives. This comes across most clearly in the words of a Psalm that is circling on the internet, which uses the structure of Psalm 23 to present its very antithesis. Here it is:
The clock is my dictator, I shall not rest.
It makes me lie down only when exhausted.
It leads me into deep depression. It hounds my soul.
It leads me in circles of frenzy, for activities’ sake.
Even though I run frantically from task to task,
I will never get it all done, For my ideal is with me
Deadlines and my need for approval, they drive me.
They demand performance from me, beyond the limits of my schedule.
They anoint my head with migraines.
My in-basket overflows.
Surely fatigue and time pressures shall follow me All the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the bonds of frustration forever.
Nicely done, and sadly it sounds all too familiar. It certainly works as a good description of where a lot of people lives are at, or at least the direction that modern life is constantly driving us toward.
But I also discovered as the exact opposite of this version, one which addresses the same issues of stress and the need for balance in life, but from a faith perspective. This is one that usually goes on the internet by the name of the “Japanese version of Psalm 23.” Here it is:
The Lord is my pace setter, I shall not rush.
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with images of stillness which restore my serenity.
He leads me in ways of efficiency through calmness of mind, and his guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day, I will not fret, for his presence is here.
His timelessness, His all-importance will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity, by anointing my mind with his oils of tranquility.
My cup of joyous energy overflows; surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours.
For I shall walk in the pace of my Lord, and dwell in His house forever.
Both of these, of course, represent a complete rewriting of the psalm to address a particular issue in modern life. But there are plenty of versions out there that stay close to the original, and provide us with some great new insights because of the wording they use. In the following I will share some readings of each verse of the psalm as different people have translated them, to see what we might learn.
We start with verse 1. The original Hebrew of Psalm 23 begins with these words: “Adonai ro’i.” This means literally, “Lord! My shepherd.” The word “is” is usually understood in Hebrew to be there without writing it, so that’s why most translate this as “The Lord is my shepherd.” But some do try to preserve the original feel, such as a translation called The Message which says simply: “GOD, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.”
Some translations try also to explain the shepherd metaphor itself, like a translation called the Basic English Bible, which begins with the words: “The Lord takes care of us as his sheep.”
Then you have an ancient Catholic translation from 1610 called the Rheims-Douay (based on the Latin Vulgate), which totally interprets the meaning by translating the “Lord is my Shepherd” as “The Lord ruleth me.” I suppose that is part of what shepherd means, but it gets too far the original metaphor, which is why that was both the first and the last time we saw that in an English language Bible translation.
There are some nice wordings for vs. 2 & 3, such as The Message’s: “You’ve bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from.” Or Contemporary English Version’s (CEV): “You let me rest in fields of green grass. You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life.”
By the way, saying “You refresh my life” instead of “restoreth my soul” reflects an important word in the original Hebrew, the word ‘nephesh’. It is frequently translated as soul, but it means much more. Your nephesh is your life, your strength – physically and spiritually, your mind, your sense of self. A translation called theAmplified Bible reflects this by saying: “He refreshes and restores my life / my self.”
Continuing on, the second half of verse 3 has: “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” That one has always seemed a little murky to me. What is this “for his name’s sake?” The CEV makes it a little clearer with: “You are true to your name” instead of “for his name’s sake.” And Today’s English Version (TEV) has: “He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised.” This works because in the scripture the concept of God’s name is very powerful and carries within it the characteristic of God’s faithfulness to the promise. By attaching God’s name to the promise, we are assured of being led in right paths.
In verse 4 we encounter the “valley of the shadow of death.” I have always liked this vivid wording, but there are some other nice variants of this. A good internet paraphrase has: “Even though I stumble through the valley of deep darkness, I shall fear no evil, for my Shepherd is with me.” (http://www.scribd.com/doc/66772526/Paraphrases-of-Psalm-23) The word ‘stumble’ is helpful, because that’s exactly what we experience when we are in those dark places in life. And one of my favorite wordings for this verse is from the CEV: “I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid. You are with me.”
The 2nd part of verse 4 returns to the shepherd’s language with things like rod and staff, which of course is something that tends to be obscure to us. The basic idea is that the shepherd’s tools provide security for the sheep— the rod to ward off enemies; and the hooked staff to direct the sheep by tapping them or even pulling them back. And so The Message has: “Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.” And the Amplified gets the most explicit with: “Your rod [to protect] and Your staff [to guide], they comfort me.”
Verse 5 talks of oil, food, and drink, all in the presence of enemies—the idea being of abundant provision, even in the middle of hostility and danger. CEV does a good job with this: “You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch. You honor me as your guest.” Some paraphrases highlight specific points in the verse, such as the effect of the oil: “My Shepherd anoints my head with healing oil at eve’s light, soothing the wounds of my daily sojourn in the fields.” And from the same paraphrase: “My cup overflows, and this abundance I am able to share with others.” This paraphrase is clearly an interpretation, but it highlights well one of the reasons God gives us much, so that we can be generous. I’ll share one more translation for this verse. The ancient Rheims-Douay translation I already mentioned has what for us today is a humorous take on the overflowing cup. It says: “My chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly is it!”
Finally, ‘goodness and mercy all of my days’ is the subject of verse 6. And there are some nice versions of this. Like The Message’s“Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.” Or a hymn written in 1633 by George Herbert:
“Surely, your sweet and wondrous love/ Shall measure all my days,/
And, as it never shall remove,/ So neither shall my praise.”
I also like TEV’s: “I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life; and your house will be my home as long as I live.”
I’ll finish up by noting what an amazingly effective thing this Psalm is. In looking up these translations I came across comments from literary critics who have little or no connection to religion or faith, but were touched by it and felt that this is among the most powerful poetry ever written. The evidence of its power is the fact that we can derive so many helpful ideas from the Psalm, even though it uses a metaphor that has virtually nothing to do with our lives. After all, very few people in the US today are shepherds or ever will be. And yet it sure works well for putting you in a better frame of mind.
And I want to say something about the effect of the Psalm in the context of recent events. With the tragedy we witnessed this past week in Boston during the bombing and its aftermath, how truly we need the hope and calm of these verses:
-to know God’s provision is there even in the presence of our enemies,
-to know that even beyond this life we may dwell in the Lord’s house forever.
I close by sharing the version I came across which was probably my favorite, Moffatt’s translation of the 23rd Psalm from 1926:
“The Eternal shepherds me, I lack for nothing; he makes me lie in meadows green, he leads me to refreshing streams, he revives life in me. He guides me by true paths, as he himself is true. My road may run through a glen of doom, but I fear no harm, for thou art beside me; thy club, thy staff – they give me courage. Thou art my host, spreading a feast for me, while my foes have to look on! Thou has poured oil upon my head, my cup is brimming over; yes, and all through my life Goodness and Kindness wait on me, the Eternal’s guest within his household evermore.”
A convenient source for many of these translations all in one place can be found at: