At least the Lord is my shepherd

by Michael O’Connor

Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd” is among everyone’s favorites. It appeals to us with its sense of quiet confidence and serene trust: “I shall lack nothing.” It usually appears in the liturgy to affirm the continuity between the pastoral care of the divine shepherd and the ministry of the church—at a funeral, on the feast of a saintly pastor, or at the ordination of a priest. Most musical settings convey a sense of tranquillity, serenity, trust, and peace; a lilting, moderato, 6/8 time works very nicely.

But that’s not the whole story. Earlier this week, I was struck by the way the Roman Lectionary paired this psalm with a reading from Ezekiel excoriating false shepherds. The fidelity of the divine shepherd is proclaimed over against the failings of the appointed human shepherds—their treachery, greed, violence, negligence, and callousness. Recited through gritted teeth, the psalm is now a testament to conflict, disappointment, and reckoning: the sheep walk in the valley of darkness, abandoned by those who should have walked with them; the Lord has laid a banquet for the sheep in the sight of their treacherous enemies, the abusive shepherds and their enabling superiors who should have cared for them but did the opposite. The reassurances are tentative: The Lord’s rod and staff offer no uncomplicated comfort; and the fear of evil cannot be so easily dispelled.

I don’t know of a musical setting that fosters this darker, faltering reading of the psalm. Such a setting might help us pray through these days.

Michael O’Connor is Associate Professor in the Teaching Stream, Christianity and Culture at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.



  1. In my experience, such as it is, this layer of meaning is most typically conveyed by an emphasis on The LORD or on IS in the phrase. Rather than on MY or on SHEPHERD.

  2. Shepherd me O God by Haugen is pretty dark. That might work if you like something like that. It was played for the psalm at my mother’s funeral on Bright Thursday this year–I never would have had it if I had known that the organist was going to use it, or was given an option, or asked what I wanted for a psalm.

  3. Ezekiel words ring true today in light of the on going sex abuse cover up by the Church. we have corrupt priests and bishops that need to be fired. For too long the “blind obedience” mentality of medieval and imperial Catholicism seem to impede people to speak out against any abuse or sins by the “good father”. The vast majority of our clergy/religious are good, faithful, dedicated men & women. It must be them, along with the faithful laity, that must speak out and demand institutional change in our Church to “clean house”, beg for forgiveness and begin the healing/restoration of victims. A true shepherd cares for his flock. We need good shepherds who imitate the Good Shepherd. I speak as a victim of abuse also whose own bishop disowned me. There is tremendous hurt out there. My Savior never failed me……He alone is my Good Shepherd.

  4. While it is not quite a setting of Ps 23, which is the subject of the post at hand, I can’t help but recall John Foley’s excellent piece, Redeemer Lord of many years back, whose refrain (“My shepherd is the Lord, there is nothing I shall need/Fresh and green are the pastures where He’ll lead”) moves from minor throughout, to major at the final refrain…one of the few pieces of which I am aware that really seeks to capture the spirit of human anguish.

  5. Today we tend to think of “shepherd” as referring to religious leaders. Back then there was not the separation of religious organisation and political organisation, and shepherd in this context referred to the political leaders as much as, if not more than, the religious leaders, as is the context of Ezekiel 34. Perhaps you may be able to think of instances where our political leaders today could be considered the targets of the reading!

  6. While I find the Marty Haugen Shepherd me O God full of hope, I am sorry John that it confronted you at your mother’s funeral.

    If I am in a moment of despair, the Gelineau 23rd Psalm brings consolation. If it is sung well. It moves me to the point where I will sit in my own prayer and not even sing the refrain.

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