This old hymn has been on my mind for a couple of days now. Where did it come from and why? I hadn’t heard it recently, but the more I thought about it the more I just loved the words and wanted to share them with you.
The words are are based on a Welsh version of Psalm 23, a psalm familiar to many people as “The Lord is my shepherd”. It was written by Henry Baker in 1868, so some of the language is a bit strange to our eyes and ears. In particular a number of verbs end with “eth” but the version quoted below replaces these with a simple “s” so that, for example, “faileth”, which comes in the second line of the YouTube recording above, becomes “fails me” (the “me” added so that the line still scans).
But enough of the history and language – on to the words!
The King of love my shepherd is,
Whose goodness fails me never;
I nothing lack if I am his,
And he is mine forever.
The first thing that strikes me is that the King is loving and, laying aside His majesty He becomes a shepherd. My shepherd! We may romanticise the job, but I think it’s a hard, rough life with smelly sheep who do not make it any easier! But his goodness is never-ending and means that, as long as I’m His sheep, I’ll have everything I really need.
Like the apostle Paul, one of His more famous sheep, I may have to learn to be without, to be hungry, to suffer, even to learn to sing at midnight in prison, but still have everything that’s really important.
“I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.”
Being one of the King’s sheep does not make for an easy life. Here’s Paul again:
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed… Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus…Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.
We may not “live under constant danger of death” but we may very well be perplexed! But like Paul we can be renewed every day and look beyond our present circumstances as our King and Saviour leads and feeds us.
Where streams of living water flow,
My Saviour gently leads me,
And where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feeds me.
Of course, we don’t get it right all the time and often we see a nice patch of grass somewhere He is not leading us and make a detour to investigate. And some of those detours get us really lost! Maybe it’s a job or a relationship or an addiction, but whatever it is He comes looking for us. But see, He doesn’t come to hunt us down like some kind of cosmic policeman, to punish us for straying. No, He comes “in love” and carries us back home!
Confused and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love he sought me
And on his shoulder gently laid
And home, rejoicing, brought me.
Jesus also told a story about this:
Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!
So Jesus told them this story: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!
We are indeed foolish to stray away from the love of the Shepherd, but He will bring us back. And when He does, there’s no retribution, no telling off, there’s rejoicing! (If you think that’s only for sheep, read the story of the lost son later in the same chapter of Luke’s gospel.)
In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With you, dear Lord, beside me,
Your rod and staff my comfort still,
Your cross before to guide me.
You spread a table in my sight,
A banquet here bestowing;
Your oil of welcome, my delight;
My cup is overflowing!
The hymn – and the psalm – ends with our life’s end. Even when death approaches, there is nothing to fear, for the King of love is still with us. But now He is beckoning us home. In the Middle East, the shepherd walks ahead of his flock, he leads them as the second verse says, and now I imagine Him looking back over His shoulder and saying, “Come on, we’re nearly there!” That’s how He comforts us when death approaches for, to paraphrase Paul again, “Death has lost its sting!”
But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret…
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We sometimes speak as though Death personified comes for us at the end of our lives. We talk of the “Grim Reaper”. But for the King’s sheep, Death does not come. Death has no more power over us. It is Jesus who leads us into the full reality of His Kingdom. The Kingdom that has for so long been “now-and-not-yet” will finally be “now”!
And so through all the length of days
Your goodness fails me never.
Good Shepherd, may I sing your praise
Within your house forever!