A Joyful Noise:
English Metrical Psalms as Bible Versions
by Michael Morgan
(Bible Editions & Versions – Jan/Mar 2001)
Metrical Psalmody! The name
itself conjures up images, like cold-steel, seventeenth-century
engravings, of staid
Reformed congregations with
tiny leather-bound volumes in their hands hopelessly trying to
sing in tune, while dour ministers
in stark Geneva collars glare
from the raised pulpit before them. Yet nothing could be further
from the true picture, for
the singing of Psalms, along
with Bible reading and reasoned preaching, gave the Reformation
the foundation and energy
it needed to succeed. Indeed,
it was chief among John Calvin’s tenets that “the Word” was
central to our lives and to
our worship: the spoken Word
(the appointed lessons from the Law, the Prophets, the Epistles,
and the Gospels read
and expounded by the clergy),
and the sung Word (the Psalms intoned by the people). According
to Calvin, only that Word
given to us by God in the Bible
— with allowance for translation, interpretation, paraphrase,
and versification — was worthy
to be returned to God in
praise. Sola Scriptura
—the Word alone —
said it all.
century and a half later Isaac Watts observed that when we hear
the Word read, God speaks to us; when we sing a Psalm,
speak to God. So it is that through the Psalms we are inspired
to enter into a dialogue with God, hearing those ancient
expressions of joy and sorrow and judgment and praise and making
them our own petitions.
no other book of the Bible has been translated or paraphrased
more often than the Psalter. Every Bible translation carries
with it a version of the Psalms, and many New Testaments have a
Psalter appended also. There have been numerous independent
prose translations of the Psalms throughout the entire history
of the Bible: whether whole or partial, new versions imbedded in
commentaries, paraphrases in modern language and inclusive
language and dialect. In the arena of metrical Psalms, nearly a
century ago John Julian, in his Dictionary of Hymnology,
itemized some 400 versions of the Psalms in English alone!
The nature of a metrical Psalm
automatically puts it into the category of a “paraphrase” rather
than a “translation” — not a literal, word-for-word transfer
from one language to another but rather a figurative,
meaning-for-meaning interpretation, whether from one language to
another, or within the same language. Many poets who have
attempted versions of the Psalms never knew Hebrew or Greek or
Latin, and by necessity worked from the accepted prose versions
of their time. The beautiful translation of Coverdale from The
and carried over into the
Book of Common Prayer,
doubtless was the
basis for many early metrical versions. The Geneva Bible,
with its scholarly
annotations deeply rooted in Calvin’s theology, inspired the
Scottish paraphrases. And, with few exceptions, one can
speculate that every English poet who has attempted a version of
the Psalter since 1611 had a copy of the King James Bible
close at hand.
Herein lies the dilemma — and
the fascination — with metrical Psalms. There is an old Italian
proverb, Tradutore tratitore
(the translator is a
traitor), and nowhere is this more evident than in the numerous
versions of the Psalms. Frequently a paraphrase is so free that
almost any sense of the original is lost. The language of the
paraphrase, in keeping with the literary taste of the day, may
be so florid or obscure that it is hard to imagine the original
coming from the lips of a shepherd boy on the plains of Israel.
But if, as Watts observed, the metrical Psalms represent our
speaking to God, then that language should be our own words, and
readers should be free to seek those versions which echo their
sentiments in the most familiar terms.
second issue to be considered is that most metrical Psalters
have not been the product of Bible scholars, or even the best
poets, but of clergy, church musicians, and lay people who were
writing for their own devotional exercise, or for the spiritual
edification of their own small circle of friends and
parishioners. Their sincerity was frequently not matched by
their scholarship or poetic abilities. Oscar Wilde once noted
that there appeared to be a direct relationship between piety
and poor rhyme! While it is easy to find amusement in the choice
of vocabulary or the structure of the verse, the sheer
dedication of these writers, who may have spent years immersed
in Scripture to complete their task, cannot be challenged.
Biblical scholar would turn to a metrical paraphrase as a
critical text, but that does not diminish the popular appeal
these versions have held for generations of believers. Metrical
Psalms can be classified into three primary categories:
Paraphrases (those which adhere closely to the prose version)
Paraphrases (more “liberal” adaptations of the Old Testament
Evangelical Paraphrases (those which “Christianize” the Psalms)
Using that most familiar Psalm, the 23rd, as a basis
for comparison, the distinctions between these three categories
will become obvious.
paraphrases in the history of psalmody abound, depending on the
limits of expression and poetic license the reader is willing to
allow, and still consider the verse to be “literal.” A literal
paraphrase is one that may substitute any number of synonyms for
expressions, but refrains from introducing any elements not
present in the prose version. For example, “green pastures” may
be variously rendered as “pleasant meadows,” “verdant
hillsides,” “balmy meads,” or even “fertile oases,” and still be
considered a literal paraphrase. The image is being conveyed in
different terms, but it remains basically the same image.
Take, for example, the setting
by Thomas Sternhold, a servant in the court of Edward VI, in his
The Whole Book of Psalms Collected into English Meter,
completed in 1562.
This literal version, a product of the direct influence of the
Genevan church and popularly known as the “Old Version,” is
exactly what Calvin had envisioned:
Shepherd is the living Lord, nothing therefore I need;
pastures fair with waters calm He set me for to feed.
Ainsworth, minister to the English congregation in the
Netherlands, published in 1612 his metrical version of the
Psalms, which was brought to the New World by the Pilgrims.
Though it does employ the analogy of God as Shepherd, it is
nonetheless a literal paraphrase:
Jehovah feedeth me, I shall not lack,
grassy folds, he down doth make me lie;
gently leads me quiet waters by.
That most sublime of the
“metaphysical poets,” George Herbert, even in his more elaborate
poetic style, gives us in The Temple
(1633) a setting of
Psalm 23 that, like his other works, is “full of piety and
breathes the spirit of true devotion”:
God of love my Shepherd is, and He that doth me feed:
He is mine and I am His, what can I want or need?
leads me to the tender grass, where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently pass; in both I have the best.
The early New England colonists
were a singing people; they sang freely in their worship
services, but only from the book of Psalms. To meet the
requirements for their Psalm versions, which were more strict
than those of the “Old Version,” several church leaders, among
them John Eliot and John Cotton, published the Bay Psalm Book
in 1640. In their
preface the authors confess they had no thought of making
poetry, but rather were devoted to producing an English Psalter
which gave a faithful account of every letter and accent of the
Lord to me a Shepherd is, want therefore shall not I,
the folds of tender grass doth cause me down to lie.
waters calm me gently leads, restore my soul doth He;
doth in paths of righteousness, for His name’s sake lead me.
Poet-Laureate Nahum Tate and his colleague, Nicholas Brady,
sought to correct the criticisms of the “Old Version” — namely,
its ruggedness of phrase and archaic syntax — with their “New
Version” in 1696. Their version surely fell on the ears of the
English Church more musically:
Lord Himself, the Mighty Lord, vouchsafes to be my guide;
Shepherd by whose constant care my wants are all supplied.
tender grass He makes me feed, and gently there repose;
leads me to green shades, and where refreshing water flows.
unique among the versifiers of the Psalms. Other notable poets
(Milton, Herbert, Crashaw, et al) generally addressed only a few
of the Psalms and then went on to less confining endeavors. Most
paraphrases came from the devoted efforts of clergy, church
musicians, and faithful parishioners. And it is in the free
paraphrases of many of them that the spirit of the Psalms,
cloaked in florid language and imagery, comes into full bloom.
John Vicars published a collection of selected Psalms that can
be considered a bridge between the literal and the free
interpretations. All of the elements of the prose version are
included, but they are generously blessed with poetic license:
Israel’s great Shepherd is my Shepherd kind,
Him therefore all needful things I find;
Corporal comforts, aliment external
Spiritual dainties, manna, food supernal
fields he folds me, full of tender grass,
silver streams do smoothly, sweetly pass.
in style is the paraphrase by Miles Smyth, secretary to the
Archbishop of Canterbury, done in 1664:
by whose Providence we live, whose care secures our rest,
Shepherd is, no ill can touch, nor want my soul infest.
makes luxuriant flowry meads serve me for food and ease;
leads me where the cooling streams my thirsty heat appease.
more inspired free paraphrases of the Psalms is the version done
by Samuel Woodford, a clergyman in the Church of England, in
1667. The reader can instantly appreciate the sharp contrast
between his liberal rendition and the more literal versions:
The Mighty God, who all things does sustain,
God, who nothing made in vain,
nothing that He made did ere disdain;
Mighty God my Shepherd is,
my Shepherd, I His sheep,
He is mine, and I am His;
His flock, He constant watch does keep;
God provides, poor man can nothing need,
He, who bears young ravens cry, His sheep will feed.
James Merrick, a noted English
poet of the 18th century, authored both a paraphrase
and a commentary on the Psalms.
It is doubtful that his versification, once described by a
contemporary as “too sublime to be sung by mortals,” is music to
our modern ears:
my Shepherd’s hand divine! Want shall never more be mine,
pasture fair and large He shall feed his happy charge,
my couch with tend’rest care midst the springing grass prepare.
I faint with summer’s heat He shall lead my weary feet
the streams that still and slow through the verdant meadow flow.
category of metrical Psalms, which we have called “evangelical
paraphrases,” incorporates allusions from the New Testament,
particularly the Gospels, in an attempt to make them more
suitable for use in Christian worship. But in so doing, they
lose some of their “Jewishness.” There are certainly images in
the Psalms that we as Christians interpret as Messianic, as
viewed from this side of the Cross. This may not be the way a
Jewish scholar would interpret them, however.
Patrick, whose Psalm paraphrases (1678) served as a model for
Isaac Watts’ version (1719), believed that many portions of the
Psalms — and some Psalms in their entirety — were unfit for
Christian worship. He felt that they dealt too intimately with
Jewish life and tradition, or espoused certain emotions and
actions (such as vengeance and wrath), which should not be a
part of the Christian experience.
Perhaps the 23rd Psalm is not the best example to use
for evangelistic paraphrases, because Christ is so identified as
the “Good Shepherd” that it is virtually impossible for
Christians to read the text and not think of Christ in that
role. Although Isaac Watts’ evangelistic interpretations are
considerably more evident in some of his other Psalms, it is
obvious that he had this image of Christ in mind when he penned
his version of the 23rd Psalm:
Shepherd is the living Lord; now shall my wants be well
providence and holy word become my safety and my guide.
pastures where salvation grows He makes me feed, he makes me
living water gently flows, and all the food divinely blest.
of the word “salvation” here reminds us of the sacrifice of
Christ, and the reader can envision “the food divinely blest” as
an allusion to the Eucharist.
Christopher Smart, a contemporary of Merrick, spent much of his
life in mental hospitals. He had the unfortunate habit of
dropping to his knees anywhere, anytime, and praying out loud!
Whether such piety warranted his commitment is questionable, and
during his lifetime Smart never won the critical acclaim that
Merrick enjoyed. Smart’s Psalms reflect his Gospel faith:
Shepherd Christ from heaven arrived, my flesh and spirit feeds;
shall not therefore be deprived of all my nature needs.
sloped against the glistening beam the velvet verdure swells,
keeps and leads me by the stream where consolation dwells.
Wesley, perhaps the most prolific of English hymn writers, never
composed a complete metrical Psalter. However, scattered
throughout the many collections of hymns that appeared during
his lifetime are versions of most of the Psalms, all with the
indelible imprint of the Gospel:
the Good Shepherd is, Jesus died the sheep to save;
mine and I am His; all I want in Him I have:
and health and rest and food, all the plenitude of God.
loves and guards His own, me in verdant pastures feeds,
me quietly lie down, by the streams of comfort leads;
Him where’er He goes, silent joy my heart o’erflows.
Psalms have always enjoyed a special place in the minds and
hearts of those who worship God, for in them we find expression
for every human condition and emotion. And they provide for us
what feels to be a personal dialogue with God. Whether we sing
praises or seek mercy, the Psalms can be a vehicle for our
prayers. No matter whether we turn to the Old Testament for
history and tradition or to the New Testament for the story of
salvation, the Book of Psalms can speak to us and through us.
since the Reformation gave us the Bible in our own language, the
history of the Bible and the Psalter in English have been
inextricably connected. The Psalms are canonically part of the
Bible, but they reach out to us in a very different way from the
rest of the Books. They speak not so much to our minds for
intellect, or to our consciences for instruction, but to our
hearts for compassion, contrition, thanksgiving, and praise.
Collecting various versions of the Psalms — whether they appear
in translations of the Bible, or as independent prose versions,
new translations embedded in commentaries, or the many poetic
paraphrases — is a wonderfully rewarding adjunct to Bible
collecting. Nowhere else in the evolution of the English Bible
do we find such fresh expression of those translators and
writers who have sought to “sing new songs to the Lord.”