The Fourth Sunday of Easter has traditionally been known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” in reference to the appointment of Psalm 23 for the day as well as the Gospel reading from John 10 in which Jesus proclaims, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The processional hymn this morning, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” comes from Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the Dissenting pastor and poet who sought to “Christianize” the psalms in the “language of the New Testament.” This hymn, however, is a strict paraphrase, as we sing nothing that is not inherent in the psalm:
My Shepherd will supply my need, Jehovah is His Name; In pastures fresh He makes me feed beside the living stream. He brings my wandering spirit back when I forsake His ways, and leads me, for His mercy’s sake, in paths of truth and grace.
Although the verbiage is different from the classic King James text, nothing in the meaning is altered, and Jesus has not expressly been inserted into the psalm. This is not the case with “The King of Love, My Shepherd Is.”
The author of this hymn, Henry Baker (1821-1877), was an Anglican clergyman and occasional hymn writer. His book, Daily Prayers for the Use of Those Who Have to Work Hard, possibly would still be remembered had its title been more pretentious and a little less dour. Nonetheless, Baker was the major editor of that great monument of Victorian hymnody, Hymns Ancient and Modern, the first edition of which was published in 1861. Baker contributed a number of hymns to this great hymnal, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” first appearing in the 1868 edition. Unlike Watts, Baker does not attempt to remain literally faithful to the words of the psalm. Firstly, it can be noted that Baker is much more free with the translation. His opening lines, “The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am His and He is mine forever” contrast with the psalm’s first verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The concepts of “King,” “love,” “goodness” and the use of His/mine are not original to the psalm. The second stanza (“Where streams of living water flow, my ransomed soul He leadeth. And where the verdant pastures grow, with food celestial feedeth”) contrasts with the second and third verses of the psalm in the same manner (“He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul.”) In this case, Baker alludes to the eucharist by “food celestial,” and introduces the concept of the atonement with the phrase “my ransomed soul.” The fourth stanza is even more explicitly Christian, “In death’s dark vale I fear no ill with Thee, dear Lord, beside me, Thy rod and staff my comfort still, Thy cross before to guide me.” Here Baker theologically extracts the wooden cross from the wood of the shepherd’s rod, clearly delineating the connection between the religion of the ancient Hebrews to its fulfillment in Christ’s atonement. The final stanza even address Christ as the “Good Shepherd,” completing the Christianizing of the psalm by blending the theological concepts found in John 10:
And so through all the length of days Thy goodness faileth never: Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise within Thy house forever.
These two expressions of Christ as the Good Shepherd, one conservative and one usurping more liberties, both serve to focus our piety this Sunday on He who protects, guides, and serves recalcitrant and often stubborn human beings.