Posted by: stpowen | December 6, 2009

Psinging the Psalms

 I recently bought a KJV Bible with the 1653 Scottish Metrical Psalms in it. I did this after I attended a conference at Emmanuel Church, Salisbury, where they only sing the 1653 Psalter.   My thought was that I would use the metrical paslms in my personal devotions, singing them quietly to myself.  I have to say though, that I don’t really like them.  The versification seems very wooden, and frankly, I’d sooner just read the Psalm as it is in my NKJV Bible.  I’ve been reading the biography of Isaac Watts who versified many of the Psalms, but had firm views on how they should be sung. What do you think of these two metrical versions of Psalm 122? First, the Psalm in the AV:-

I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD. 2 Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together:  whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the LORD.  For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.  Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.  For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee.  Because of the house of the LORD our God I will seek thy good.

Here is the 1653 Scottish Metrical version:-

I joy’d when to the house of God ,
Go up, they said to me.
Jerusalem, within thy gates
We soon shall standing be.

Jerus’lem, as a city is
Compactly built together.
Unto that place the tribes go up,
The tribes of God go thither.

To Israel’s testimony there
To God’s name thanks to pay.
For thrones of judgement, e’en the thrones
Of David’s house, there stay.

Pray that Jerusalem may have
Peace and felicity:
Let them that love thee and thy peace
Have still prosperity.

Therefore I wish that peace may still
Within thy walls remain.
And ever may thy palaces
Prosperity retain.

Now, for my friends’ and bethren’s sakes
Peace be in thee, I’ll say
And for the house of God our Lord,
I’ll seek thy good alway.

And here is Watts’ version:-

How pleased and blest was I
To hear the people cry,
‘Come, let us seek our God today!’
Yes, with a cheerful zeal,
We haste to Zion’s hill,
And there our vows and homage pay.

Zion, thrice happy place,
Adorned with wondrous grace,
And walls of strength embrace thee round:
In thee our tribes appear,
To pray and praise and hear
The sacred Gospel’s joyful sound.

There David’s greater Son
Has fixed His royal throne,
He sits for grace and judgement there:
He bids the saint be glad,
He makes the sinner sad,
And humble souls rejoice with fear.

May peace attend thy gate,
And joy within thee wait
To bless the soul of every guest:
The man who seeks thy peace,
And wishes thine increse,
A thousand blessings on him rest.

My tongue repeats her vows,
“Peace to this sacred house!”
For there my friends and kindred dwell.
And, since my glorious God
Makes thee His blest abode,
My soul shall ever love thee well.

Which one would you prefer to sing? Or don’t you like either? Which one is the most literal translation of the Psalm? Which one is better poetry? Do you approve of Watts mentioning the Gospel and Christ? And how about his making Jerusalem into the church?

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Responses

  1. No comment. I have a family to feed and I fear the league of extraordinarily vicious gentlemen…

  2. I believe Isaac Watts did more than just versified the Psalms. Isaac Watts version sounds “nicer”, but it is a less accurate version. I wished the Psalter was more widely used in church services.

    Just my 2 pence…

  3. Hello Jenson,
    You ae certainly correct; Watts tried to ‘Christianize’ the Psalms. Here is a part of the introduction to his ‘Psalms & Hymns.’

    I come therefore to explain my own design, which is to accomodate the book of Psalms to Christian worship and to accomodate this it is necessary to divest David and Asaph of every other character but that of a psalmist and a saint and to make them always speak the common sense and language of a Christian.

    Attempting the work with this view, I have entirely omitted several Psalms and large pieces of many others; and have chosen out of them all, such parts only as might easily and naturally be accomodated to the various occasions of Christian life or at least might afford us some beautiful allusions to Christian affairs…….

    …….Where the Psalmist uses sharp invectives against his personal enemies, I have endeavoured to turn the edge of them against our spiritual adversaries, Sin, Satan, Temptation. Where the flights of his faith and love are sublime, I have often sunk the expresions within the reach of an ordinary Christian: where the words imply some particular wants or distresses, joys or blessings, I have used words of greater latitude and comprehension, suited to the general circumstances of men.

    “Where the original runs in the form of prophecy concerning Christ and His salvation, I have given an historical turn to the sense; there is no necessity that we should always sing in the obscure and doubtful style of prediction, when the thngs foretold are brought into the light by a full accomplishment. Where the writers of the N.T. have cited or alluded to any part of the Psalms, I have often indulged the liberty of paraphrase, according to the words of Christ or His apostles.”

    Whether you think this is a good or bad idea, I don’t know. For myself, I think I rather approve. I would not want to be an exclusive Psalm-singer if it meant that I would never sing the Name of the Saviour. Nor would I want to sing those Psalms that inveigh against personal enemies. Watts is right IMHO that we should read them as either the enemies of God, or as our sins and temptations.

    I know that many will disagree with me. what do you think?

  4. Hi Martin,

    I am not a exclusive Psalm-singer myself, but I have a great fondness for the singing of Psalms during my time with the brethren at Orange Street, London.

    I cannot speak for Watts, though I can identify with his sentiment. I had a hard time trying to teach a bible class a lesson on the imprecatory psalms. This is due to the very same reasons that Watts, you and I have trouble relating to certain psalms.

    There is new hymnbook with metrical psalms that you may be aware of –
    http://www.christian-worship.org.uk/index.html

    Sincerely,
    Jenson

  5. Hi Steve;

    Good to see you are still, “living and moving and having your being” in HIM.

    I’m with you on the metrical psalms, and feel nothing improves on God’s original version, which seems logical doesn’t it?

    Read recently again the history surrounding the development of Handel’s Messiah, and of course, it is Jennens near inspired idea to use actual words of scripture for the Oratorio which set it apart above all of Handels other works, some of which are truely grand. If you ever get a chance I hope you read the details of how God moved Handel in writing this work. God is real, and He “manifests Himself” as He promised, to those that “love Him” and “do his commandments.

    May He richly bless you,

    In Him,
    gerry lautner

  6. Hello Gerry,
    Good to hear from you again! I’m glad you found my blog.
    I love the ‘Messiah’ and often listen to it when driving about on my secular business. I think Handel is the greatest of all composers of Christian music, though Mendelsohn comes close with his ‘Creation’ and Elijah.’

  7. “We should only sing what God has inspired.” So why do people sing the uninspired versification of the Psalms. This accuses the Holy Spirit of producing inept doggerel. If they meant what they say they should sing in Hebrew to the tunes that the Holy Spirit inspired (I’m not sure what they are). It also means it is impossible to sing about Jesus by name, to sing about what he did and about New Testament blessings such as the baptism in the Spirit which was unknown in the Old (I know we’re told these things are in the Psalms, but where is there an equivalent to John 3:16 in the Psalms, or about the gift of the Spirit being the common privilege of ALL believers?).

  8. 1. God gave a hymnal, which is still sufficient for that purpose.

    2. There is no command of Scripture to sing the name Jesus, or any uninspired hymn.

    3. In Hebrews 3:7 we read, “Wherefore, as the Holy Ghost saith,” followed by a quotation of Psalm 95 in the Septuagint, not the Hebrew; demonstrating that we are justified in referring to a translation as the (inspired) Word of God.

    4. If some Psalms should not be sung (because of supposedly personal invectives, etc.), then why should they be read?

    5. Watts was an Anti-Trinitarian; and his views concerning the Psalter and its inspiration were little short of blasphemous.

  9. Sean, feel free to sing Old Covenant material. I’m sure there are many things you do which have no command in Scripture to do (I’m just thinking of a long list – I’m sure you can think of your own). If you’re happy to sing the *awful* metrical Psalms translation, that’s fine too, just don’t inflict it on everyone as if to not sing metrical psalms is somehow sub-Christian. Do you believe that the coming of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost have made no difference to how we do things?

    A side question is whether we are ever allowed to sing non-Psalms in private, or at other times outside of public meetings. Those I have asked say it is. But there’s no Scriptural basis for that.

    Do you have evidence of Watts being anti-Trinitarian? He may have badly expressed himself, but from my reading his fault in this regard was trying to over philosophize the Trinity in order to try and stop some becoming full blown unitarians. Without evidence that is slander.

  10. Watt’s versions of the psalms are not versions of the psalms at all, sometimes they bear a passing resemblance, often not. If the same translation philosophy was used for Bible versions I doubt anyone reading this blog would use them. Watt’s “versions” of the psalms are much, much, much looser and deliberately so than The Good News Version, maybe even The Message.

    So use them if you want, but don’t call them psalms. I think to call them psalms is dishonest – just as calling a sermon on John’s Gospel, John’s Gospel would be inaccurate and dishonest.

    I personally believe his who philosophy on this subject is wrong. The psalms are so full of Christ they don’t need to be Christianised.

  11. Hello Mr McDonald,
    Thank you for your post. I reply as follows:-

    1. God gave a hymnal, which is still sufficient for that purpose.

    Certainly God graciously gave us the Psalms, but He also gave us large portions of the rest of the O.T. in verse; may we not sing some of those also? He also gave us songs in the N.T. (Luke 1:46-55, 68-79; 2:29-32). Many commentators believe that Eph 5:14, Phil 2:5-11 and 1Tim 3:16 are quotations by Paul of early Christian songs. The command of Scripture is to sing ‘Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs’ (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). I am not persuaded by the argument that all thre of these categories refer to O.T. Psalms.

    2. There is no command of Scripture to sing the name Jesus, or any uninspired hymn.

    Well, Col 3:17 follows directly on from v16.

    3. In Hebrews 3:7 we read, “Wherefore, as the Holy Ghost saith,” followed by a quotation of Psalm 95 in the Septuagint, not the Hebrew; demonstrating that we are justified in referring to a translation as the (inspired) Word of God.

    Certainly a reasonably good translation is the word of God, but what are you saying? Should we not read Christian books because they are not ‘inspired’? Should ministers no longer give ‘uninspired’ sermons but confine themselves to reading from the Bible?

    4. If some Psalms should not be sung (because of supposedly personal invectives, etc.), then why should they be read?

    It is one thing for the Imprecatory Psalms to be read in church and their meaning explained by the minister or for people to study them privately, and another for them to be sung by the congregation. I would not care to sing Psalm 69 in the Scottish paraphrase, partly because it reduces the word of God to such wretched doggerel-

    ‘All waste and desolate let be
    Their habitation;
    And in their tabernacles all
    Inhabitants be none.’

    but also because I do not think that this is an ideal sentiment for a New Testament congregation to be singing together.

    5. Watts was an Anti-Trinitarian; and his views concerning the Psalter and its inspiration were little short of blasphemous.

    This is a gross libel on Watts. It is true that he got himself into a knot when he entered into the controversy surrounding the Salters’ Hall Synod, but no one who has read his hymns or prose writings could imagine that he was anything but a staunch trinitarian.

    “Almighty God, to Thee
    Be endless honours done;
    The undivided Three
    And the mysterious One.
    Where reason fails with all her powers,
    There faith prevails and love adores.”

  12. Hello J.W.,

    You write:-

    Watt’s (sic) versions of the psalms are not versions of the psalms at all, sometimes they bear a passing resemblance, often not. If the same translation philosophy was used for Bible versions I doubt anyone reading this blog would use them.

    Well, even the 1650 Metrical Psalms are called ‘paraphrases’ and that is what they are. But I think that reading and singing are two different things. When I am reading, whether for study or for devotional purposes, I want to get as close to the original as possible, but when I am singing, I have no time to study the nuances of every word and it is sufficient that the broad ideas of the original can be got across as simply as possible. This is not the case with the 1650 metrical palms as the word order is so mangled in order to get the lines to rhyme.

    So use them if you want, but don’t call them psalms.

    I would not do so; they are renderings or versifications of the Psalms, but so are the 1650 versions. Others are ‘based on’ a Psalm, but are not necessarily any the worse for that.

    I personally believe [Watts’] whole philosophy on this subject is wrong. The psalms are so full of Christ they don’t need to be Christianised.

    I think Watts may have gone a little too far in his scheme on occasions, but the result is always excellent poetry which is a joy and pleasure to sing. Nor have I ever felt that there was something in a Watts hymn that I couldn’t sing because it was theologically unsound. There are also other fine Psalm renderings by more modern composers which I personally prefer to the 1650 paraphrases.

  13. Don’t get me wrong I’m not arguing for the Scottish Psalter I much prefer the more modern psalters which I think are much better translations.

    With regard to translation philosophy I think it is permissible to render poetry into the receptor language in poetic form i.e. put them into meter, this will of necessity change the word order. As much as possible the line order should not be changed though this will be necessary sometimes though it should be avoided.

    I would not refer to metrical psalms as paraphrases but “poetic translations” or that should be the aim of those editing them. I would describe paraphrases as prose translated into poetry (all this of course in the biblical sphere of this discussion) which is what historically we see in Church Hymnals which include Psalms AND Paraphrases (other portions of Scripture versified).

    See here for useful information on this subject.
    http://exclusivepsalmody.com/2010/10/25/question-7-is-a-psalter-a-paraphrase-or-a-translation-when-we-sing-from-a-psalter-are-we-really-singing-the-word-of-god/

    Neither am I against Watts or his productions, but only against calling them psalms, or including them in hymnbooks as psalms.

    I agree with your comments regarding the beauty of the Watts’ productions, and indeed that nothing he produced was heterodox, but his “psalms” are not the Psalms and I think Watts would agree with me on that, see his Introduction (widely available on line).

    BTW I’m an not an exclusive psalm singer 🙂

  14. Regarding singing the imprecatory psalms I highly reccomend the reading of O. Palmer Robertson’s “The Christi of the Covenants pages 97-103 where he discusses Genesis 3:15,16 and how it harmonises with the rest of redemptive history, toward the end of that section he writes,

    “How is a Christian to view the imprecatory Psalms of the Old Testament, in which the psalmist calls down curses on his enemies? If the principle is recognized that salvation from God comes only through the destruction of his enemies, the Christian may join the psalmist in his solemn prayer. Indeed. he may not presume to identify finally those among men who are the seed of Satan. Yet he may pray with the sorrowful certainty that Satan’s seed lives among men, and that God’s purposes shall be realized only through the destruction of these “vessels of wrath fitted for destruction” which God has “endured with much longsuffering” (Rom 9:22).

    I have no real problem singing Psalm 69 in that framework as in essence it is the same as to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. In other words the psalm is to be sung in the context of its biblical theological context.

    Regarding the doggerel of Psalm 69 and perhaps it faithfulness I provide an alternative.

    Psalms 69:24, 25 “24 Pour out Your indignation upon them, And let Your wrathful anger take hold of them. 25 Let their dwelling place be desolate; Let no one live in their tents.”

    That’s the NKJV…and from the RPCI Psalter

    Your indignation pour on them;
    seize them in anger strong,
    and may their homes be desolate,
    and none their tents among.

    That appears to me reasonable poetry and a faithful translation.

  15. I’m very surprised that there is a church using the 1653 Psalter (I wasn’t even aware there was a 1653 version). Just a quick heads-up cause I thought perhaps this was a typo and 1662 was intended – that being the classic version used by the Church of Scotland (originally anyway) and still by the FP and FCC of Scotland. It’s also the version printed in the back of some TBS bibles.


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