My shepherd will supply my need

from Psalm 23


Text: Origins. This metrical paraphrase was first published in Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719 | Fig. 1), without music, one of three renditions of Psalm 23 by Isaac Watts. Watts’ collection went through 15 editions in his lifetime. This text experienced only one minor (but curious) alteration, in the fourth stanza, first line. The first and second editions (1719) say, “Thy hand, in sight of all my foes”; the third edition (1722) says “spight” (Fig. 2); this was reversed to “sight” in the fourth or fifth (1725) edition, then returned to “spight” between the seventh (1729) and tenth (1736) editions. Both versions make sense and have merit, and both have been printed in subsequent hymn collections. 

Text: Analysis. This beloved psalm has been paraphrased many times by many authors, but Watts’ interpretation stands among the most lovely and most tender. In the preface to his Psalms of David, Watts expressed that one of his aims was to inject and inform the Psalms with New Testament theology, as “David would have done, had he lived in the days of Christianity.” In “My shepherd will supply my need,” his inter-testamental touch is more subtle than in some of his other paraphrases. His allusion, for example, to feeding beside a “living stream” evokes the living water that Jesus offered to the woman at the well (John 4:7-15). In the second stanza, the original Psalmist’s “paths of righteousness” (Ps. 23:3) have become a longer journey of wandering and being lead back by truth and grace. Note how Watts equates God’s name (Ps. 23:3) with God’s mercy (st. 2, line 3). 

The sweetest touch is in the final stanza. Whereas the Psalm says we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” Watts has clarified that our stay in that place will not be as a “stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.” This calls to mind the promise of John 1:12, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

For his paraphrase, Watts provided extra notes, with additional New Testament connections, as follows:

The oil or ointment that was used of old to anoint and perfume the head, in the sense and language of the New Testament, must signify the communications of the Holy Spirit, which is called the anointing, 1 John 2:20, 27, as I  have explained it in the long metre, and Psalm 45:7 with John 3:34 approves it.



Fig. 1. Psalms of David Imitated, 1st ed. (1719).

Fig. 2. Psalms of David Imitated, 3rd ed. (1722), “spight”

Tunes. Initially, this text was printed with many different tunes. In John Rippon’s A Selection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes (London, 1792 | Fig. 3), Watts’ hymn was paired with STAMFORD by [Samuel?] Grigg, a wide-ranging, florid tune that first appeared in Rippon’s collection. The melody is in the middle part; the top part is an alto part and was intended to be sung an octave lower than written (this is indicated more clearly in later editions). The designation “Hy 227. I.R.S.” refers to hymn 227 in Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, which is a different common-meter text, “Happy beyond description he,” by John Needham. This common meter double (C.M.D.) tune requires two full stanzas of Watts’ or Needham’s text.

Fig. 3. John Rippon, A Selection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, 1st ed. (London, 1792).

Watts’ text is arguably much better served by the plaintive, pentatonic folk tune RESIGNATION. The anonymous tune was first printed in Freeman Lewis’ The Beauties of Harmony, 5th ed. (1828), where it was called HOPEWELL (Fig. 4), set to “Come, humble sinner in whose breast” by Edmund Jones (1722-1765). In this four-part setting, the melody is in the third part. The presence of the fourth and seventh scale degrees (C, F#) make this a fully diatonic melody, an aspect that changed in later printings. Note also the structure of the piece: the repeat marks (four dots to the left) indicate that the first musical phrase is repeated, then the second phrase is sung; D.C. (da capo) indicates to go back the beginning, ending at FINE, yielding an AABA structure.

Fig. 4. The Beauties of Harmony, 5th ed. (1828).

This tune was first paired with Watts’ text in William Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835 | Fig. 5), where it was given the name RESIGNATION. This is a three-part setting, melody in the middle voice, properly pentatonic. As with the 1828 printing, Walker used shape notes, the four-shape system originally espoused by William Little and William Smith in their Easy Instructor (1801).

Fig. 5: Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1835).

for Hymnology Archive
12 June 2018

Related Resources:

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