Sunday, April 13, 2008

Beside the Living Stream

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is also known as Good Shepherd Sunday in some traditions. Readings include the Twenty-Third Psalm and other references to Christ as Shepherd. There are plenty of appropriate anthems and hymns that follow this theme. You could have all five (or four, or three?) of the hymns in your worship service be different paraphrases of Psalm 23, all in different musical styles. I'll choose just one for today, an English text from the eighteenth century joined with an American Southern Harmony tune from the nineteenth.

My Shepherd, you supply my need,
Redeemer is your name;
In pastures fresh you make me feed
Beside the living stream.
You bring my wand'ring spirit back
When I forsake your ways;
And lead me, for your mercy's sake,
In paths of truth and grace.

When I walk through the shades of death
Your presence is my stay,
One word of your supporting breath
Drives all my fears away.
Your hand, in sight of all my foes,
Will still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows,
Your oil anoints my head.

The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may God's 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.

Isaac Watts, 1719; alt.
Southern Harmony, 1855

It's actually a little odd to use a psalm paraphrase by Isaac Watts, as Watts believed that hymns shouldn't be exclusively drawn from the psalms and from Scripture, as they had been in the Calvinist tradition. When he expressed this opinion to his father, he was challenged to write something better.

So he did.

Now, not all of his approximately 750 hymns (
697 listed at are better than the earlier psalm paraphrases, but just about any hymnal index you examine will still contain a good number of his texts, more than 200 years later. The good stuff endures.
As I said, there are plenty of other good hymns and anthems for today. A less appropriate musical selection would be Handel's All we like sheep from Messiah, which does not actually refer to Christ as Shepherd but concludes with "And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." Have not Lent's long shadows departed? But that's what we're singing today. Guess it seemed like a good idea last summer when the music for the year was being chosen.


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