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.
A century and a half later Isaac Watts observed that when we hear the Word read, God speaks to us; when we sing a Psalm,
we 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.
Perhaps 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 Great Bible, 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.
A 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.
No 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:
Literal Paraphrases (those which adhere closely to the prose version)
Free Paraphrases (more “liberal” adaptations of the Old Testament texts)
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.
Literal Paraphrases
Literal 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:
My Shepherd is the living Lord, nothing therefore I need;
In pastures fair with waters calm He set me for to feed.
Henry 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,
In grassy folds, he down doth make me lie;
He 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”:
The God of love my Shepherd is, and He that doth me feed:
While He is mine and I am His, what can I want or need?
He 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 Hebrew:
The Lord to me a Shepherd is, want therefore shall not I,
He in the folds of tender grass doth cause me down to lie.
To waters calm me gently leads, restore my soul doth He;
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:
The Lord Himself, the Mighty Lord, vouchsafes to be my guide;
The Shepherd by whose constant care my wants are all supplied.
In tender grass He makes me feed, and gently there repose;
Then leads me to green shades, and where refreshing water flows.
Free Paraphrases
Tate was 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.
In 1631, 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,
In Him therefore all needful things I find;
Corporal comforts, aliment external
Spiritual dainties, manna, food supernal
In fields he folds me, full of tender grass,
Where silver streams do smoothly, sweetly pass.
Similar in style is the paraphrase by Miles Smyth, secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, done in 1664:
God by whose Providence we live, whose care secures our rest,
My Shepherd is, no ill can touch, nor want my soul infest.
He makes luxuriant flowry meads serve me for food and ease;
And leads me where the cooling streams my thirsty heat appease.
Among the 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,
That God, who nothing made in vain,
Who nothing that He made did ere disdain;
The Mighty God my Shepherd is,
He is my Shepherd, I His sheep,
Both He is mine, and I am His;
About His flock, He constant watch does keep;
When God provides, poor man can nothing need,
And He, who bears young ravens cry, His sheep will feed.
James Merrick, a noted English poet of the 18th century, authored both a paraphrase (1765) 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:
Lo, my Shepherd’s hand divine! Want shall never more be mine,
In a pasture fair and large He shall feed his happy charge,
And my couch with tend’rest care midst the springing grass prepare.
When I faint with summer’s heat He shall lead my weary feet
To the streams that still and slow through the verdant meadow flow.
Evangelical Paraphrases
The third 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.
John 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:
My Shepherd is the living Lord; now shall my wants be well supplied;
His providence and holy word become my safety and my guide.
In pastures where salvation grows He makes me feed, he makes me rest;
There living water gently flows, and all the food divinely blest.
The use 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:
The Shepherd Christ from heaven arrived, my flesh and spirit feeds;
I shall not therefore be deprived of all my nature needs.
As sloped against the glistening beam the velvet verdure swells,
He keeps and leads me by the stream where consolation dwells.
Charles 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:
Jesus the Good Shepherd is, Jesus died the sheep to save;
He is mine and I am His; all I want in Him I have:
Life and health and rest and food, all the plenitude of God.
Jesus loves and guards His own, me in verdant pastures feeds,
Makes me quietly lie down, by the streams of comfort leads;
Following Him where’er He goes, silent joy my heart o’erflows.
The 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.
Ever 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.”