The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses

By William L. Holladay | Go to book overview

Epilogue
How the
Twenty-third Psalm
Became an American Secular Icon

Chapter 1 of this work is a short consideration of Psalm 23, and there I mentioned Garrison Keillor’s sketch in which Psalm 23 was linked with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” as the three alternative recitations appropriate for the Memorial Day observances at Lake Wobegon. It is clear that the Twenty-third Psalm holds a unique position in American popular culture, and it is a matter of curiosity how it gained that position.

The first thing to say is that it is always the King James Version that is used in the recitation of the psalm. It is therefore through Protestant Americans, and through the Protestant imprint on American secular culture, that the psalm has become unique; there has been no corresponding preoccupation with this psalm among Roman Catholics. A Catholic friend tells me that in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was a pupil in the public schools in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, school prayer consisted simply of a recitation by all the pupils, in every classroom, every day, of the Twenty-third Psalm, led in each school by the loudspeaker. He said the Catholic kids found it hard to understand what was going on.

I begin with a point I made in Chapter 1: that Psalm 23 was reinforced in the New Testament by the words in John 10, in which Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. This identification led, in turn, to the popularity of depictions of Jesus the Good Shepherd in Christian art, beginning with the catacombs in Rome. The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is therefore a possession of the whole church, leading, for example, to the German evening hymn Hirte deiner Schafe (Shepherd of your sheep) of Johann Crüger (1653).

The importance of the psalm was both reflected and reinforced in the Englishspeaking world by two publications in the seventeenth century. One is the Scottish metrical paraphrase “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want” (1650), which has been enormously popular (see chapter 11). The other is the occurrence of the phrase “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” the location of an episode in Part 1 of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678): as Christian walks through the Valley, he recites, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no

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