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At the Lutheran Men's Retreat last fall Pastor Mark Nierman gave an excellent presentation on hymn singing titled “Waging War Through Song.” It was there that I was reintroduced to a wonderful ancient hymn of the Church, “Shepherd of Tender Youth.” 1

Written around AD 200 by Titus Flavius Clemens, better known as Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215), “Shepherd of Tender Youth” is the oldest of all Christian hymn texts outside of the New Testament. Born of pagan parents in Athens, Clement was converted to Christianity under Pantaeus, the founder of the Catechetical School of Alexandria. Clement later succeeded his father in the faith as the director of the school where he “became known as a distinguished scholar, teacher and preacher of the gospel.” 2 In AD 202, persecution forced Clement to leave Alexandria never to return.

Several tunes have been used with Clement's hymn, but Lutheran Worship and Lutheran Service Book use the tune “Italian Hymn.” This very familiar tune is used with the hymn “Come, Thou Almighty King” for which it was originally composed by Felice de Giardini in 1769. 3 Translated by Henry Martyn Dexter (1821–1890), “Shepherd of Tender Youth” offers praise to Christ as our Lord and King while it asks Him to be our Shepherd and Guide. Written as a hymn of Christian instruction for new young converts, the hymn highlights the Church's responsibility to train its youth diligently in the Lord.

The first stanza echoes the promise of Isaiah 40:11; “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” It also highlights the responsibility of Godly parents who bring their children to Jesus by raising and nurturing them in faith.

Shepherd of tender youth, Guiding in love and truth Through devious ways;
Christ our triumphant King, We come Thy name to sing And here our children bring
To join Thy praise.

The second stanza proclaims Christ, the Word incarnate, as our “holy Lord.” He willingly abased or emptied Himself by giving His life as a ransom payment for the debt of our sin. And in giving His life, He gives us life!

You are the holy Lord, O all subduing Word, Healer of strife.
Yourself You did abase That from sin's deep disgrace You so might save our race
And give us life.

The third stanza praises Christ our High Priest for His enduring gift of love to His people, His feast of love; the Sacrament of the Altar. Therefore, we may approach and come with confidence to His throne of grace, His table, for He has promised grace to help in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14–16).

You are the great High Priest; You have prepared the feast Of holy love;
And in our mortal pain None calls on You in vain; Our plea do not disdain;
Help from above.

The fourth stanza returns to the theme of Christ as our Good Shepherd (John 10:11) and echoes the opening words of Psalm 23. This Shepherd will lead and guide us to lie down in green pastures, beside still waters and in paths of righteousness for His name's sake (Psalm 23:1–3). Grass withers and flowers fade, but the “word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8) and with His enduring word, Christ leads us in His paths of righteousness.

O ever be our guide, Our shepherd, and our pride, Our staff and song.
Jesus, O Christ of God, By Your enduring Word Lead us where You have trod;
Make our faith strong.

The last stanza calls the whole Church, “infants” and “all the throng,” to joyfully sing forever to Christ our King! Clement wrote in a letter to a friend, “We cultivate our fields, praising. We sail the seas humming. Our lives are filled with prayers and praises and Scriptures reading before meals and before bed, and even during the night. By this means, we unite ourselves to the heavenly choir.” #

So now, and till we die, Sound we Your praises high And joyful sing:
Infants and all the throng, Who to the Church belong, Unite to swell the song
To Christ, our king!

This beautiful hymn reminds us that our Shepherd guides us, both young and old, with His enduring Word, strengthens us with His feast of love so that He be our staff and song now and forever. This seems to be an appropriate hymn for us to sing this coming Sunday as three of our Catechumens publicly confess the faith and receive the Rite of Confirmation and first communion.

Christ is Risen!
Pastor Nettleton

  1. Lutheran Service Book (Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 864.
  2. Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 More Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, 1985), 243.
  3. Lutheran Service Book, 905.
  4. Osbeck, 243.

Rev. Shawn Nettleton is Senior Pastor at Saint John’s Lutheran Church. You can reach him in the church office, by email at or at 970-305-2420.