Despite the rather reductionistic takes from some of my atheist brethren, the Bible contains some rich and beautiful texts. One of them is Psalm 23, a song with which most people are familiar, at least in the Christian West. Though attributed to David, Israel’s most famous monarch, we don’t really know who composed it. Nor do we know how it would have originally been sung. Thus, any attempt to render it musically is interpretive. And that’s okay.
Before I share my three favorite musical renditions of Psalm 23, let me say something about the sheep/shepherd imagery it employs. Some of my fellow atheists are fond of pointing to imagery like that of v. 1 – “The LORD is my shepherd” – and saying things like, “See you’re just sheep to them. Stupid sheep! That’s how your Sky Daddy views you!” The criticism, though stinging, misses the point of sheep/shepherd imagery. Take that first verse, for example. After saying that Yahweh is his shepherd, the psalmist follows it up with what can only be an explanation of what that entails: “I shall not want,” i.e., “I will never lack for anything.” Because sheep represented the livelihood of the shepherd, they were forced to take care of them. They had to be fed which required grass and, therefore “green pastures” (v. 2). They needed to drink safely and therefore needed “still waters” (or, “waters of rest”). Because sheep have few means of defense, they were susceptible to predators, and so they needed the comfort and protection of the shepherd’s rod and staff (v. 4). The end of the psalm, vv. 5-6, of course changes the theme but the image of a god who comforts and protects remains. So safe is the psalmist that even with his enemies close at hand to see, Yahweh has prepared a feast for him (v. 5). Best of all, he will get to enjoy the deity’s presence his whole life through the temple, “the house of the LORD” (v. 6). The whole point of the psalm is that the god of Israel is this ancient author’s caretaker.
As a teen and even in my early 20s, I had little appreciation for this psalm. More often than not, I heard it read at funerals and so it took on some fairly negative baggage. But as I got older, I came to appreciate the language of the song more. The psalm isn’t about death at all but about a full and rich life. And while I no longer believe Yahweh exists, I can appreciate the psalmist’s words and what he must have felt while writing them. Now, onto my three favorite renditions of this psalm!
First up is one with which some of my British readers may be familiar. Written by Howard Goodall, this rendition served as the opening to the BBC comedy The Vicar of Dibley. This was a show I watched a lot because my mother loved (and still loves) British comedies. (Her favorite by far was Good Neighbors, or as it appeared in Britain, The Good Life.) If you’ve not watched The Vicar of Dibley, you probably should as it is arguably one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. And who doesn’t love Dawn French? This particular rendition is by the Smith Ensemble that was recorded well after the series aired. One of the things I love about it is the violin that opens the piece and punctuates throughout.
Next is a version of the song that first appeared on the album Glory Revealed II back in 2009, a time when I was an evangelical Christian working in youth ministry. The song is sung by Trevor Morgan, a worship pastor in California, and Geoff Moore, the one-time lead singer of the band “Geoff Moore and the Distance.” This album was constantly playing in my 2000 Chevy Cavalier and this song became a repeat hit. It’s kind of folksy, complete with a fiddle that shows up throughout. The chorus that is repeated a few times is v. 4 and it emphasizes the theme of comfort prevalent in the psalm.
The final version is one in Hebrew and performed by the band MIQEDEM, a word that means “from the east.” I only recently stumbled across this version of it, but I’ve become obsessed. The harmonies are beautiful and the music itself is arresting. And halfway through the song, the tone of the song shifts as they sing v. 4. The tempo picks up and the percussion really begins to take on a life of its own. It’s just a great rendition.
The Bible can be terrible but there are parts that are equally as beautiful. And texts like Psalm 23, especially when put to music, come through as shining examples of the genius of these ancient authors. There’s a reason their words still resonate with us today.