Question #7: Is a Psalter a paraphrase or a translation? When we sing from a Psalter are we really singing the Word of God?

Question #7: Is a Psalter a paraphrase or a translation? When we sing from a Psalter are we really singing the Word of God?


14 thoughts on “Question #7: Is a Psalter a paraphrase or a translation? When we sing from a Psalter are we really singing the Word of God?”

  1. From WW Barr’s response to WT Eva in Are Hymns of Human Composition Divinely Inspired? p15-16 found here.

    “In relation to what he [Dr. Eva] says in reference to versions of the Psalms we cannot but express our astonishment. His position is that because the “measure and rhyme” in metrical versions are human, that therefore the versions are, properly speaking, not the word of God. We do not doubt but that Dr. Eva believes that a faithful translation of the Bible into prose is the word of God. But is not the work of translating human? Is it then the “measure and rhyme” in a translation that changes the word of God, in part, into the word of man? In other words, is it the form of the translation that works this change? Suppose that the poetry of the Bible can be better rendered into poetry in a translation than it can be into prose, what then? Pope, it is said, wrote in verse because he could express himself better and the thoughts of others better in verse than he coul’d in prose. If the form of the translation makes the word of God become, in part, the word of man, what will Dr. Eva do with much of our English Bible as we have it? It is well known that a large part of the Hebrew Scriptures is poetry in form and measure. But it is all translated in our Bibles into prose; the poetic form and measure are lost. Have we therefore lost the word of God, or a part of the word of God, in all these parts of Scripture? Will Dr. Eva read a Psalm in the prose before his congregation on next Sabbath morning, aud tell his people as he does so, “Brethren, this Psalm was given by God in the original Scriptures in poetry. It has been, as you see, translated into prose. In this translation, as it has lost the poetic form which God gave it, and has been given another form by man, it has ceased, so far, to be the word of God, and has become, in this respect, the word of man!” It seems to us that he might with as much justice say this to his people as to say on a page of this paper that the “measure and rhyme” being human, we are not, in singing a metrical version of the Psalms, singing the word of God as he gave it.

    Of course, if Dr. Eva could make good his position on this point, all that he would gain in that case would be to show that we ought to chant the Psalms in the prose. This we believe to be right, but then he might say that we were not singing the Psalms as God gave them because we were not singing them in poetic measures. It is difficult to know what we are to do in these circumstances, unless we are to sing the Psalms only in the original Hebrew. If, however, we shall be required to do this, then it seems to us that we, and all others, must surrender the position that we have taken in relation to any translation of the Scriptures being the word of God, and the lawfulness of using any translation in his worship.”

  2. Responding to the objection “That we have no good metrical translation of the Psalms” the authors of The True Psalmody answer:

    “I. Let those who think we have no good metrical translation of the Psalms improve some of the versions in use, or make a better one. It is surely easier to make a good translation of God’s psalms than to compose songs better than those which He has made. 2. It is better to sing, in divine worship, an imperfect translation of those songs which God has composed, than to sing the best songs which men can make. 3. We have a good metrical translation of the Psalms. There are in the Scottish version of the Psalms, it is true, some blemishes. It contains some uncouth forms of expression, and some words which are now obsolete; and its versification, in many instances, is far from being smooth. But, for the most part, both the phraseology and the versification are very good; and it must be allowed by those who have examined it, that its fidelity to the original Hebrew is not much, if at all, inferior to that of the prose translation of the Psalms in our English Bible.”

  3. John Edgar on the Scottish Psalter translation of the Psalms:

    “The Scottish version of the Psalms is not perfect, nor is the English translation of the Bible; but both are so near perfection, and so interwoven with Christian faith and feeling, that it is a question of the gravest character whether either of them should be changed. Independent of inspiration and the highest sanctions, and of very many tender, holy, and sublime associations the Book of Psalms, in the Scottish version, is incomparably superior to any book of sacred song that the world ever saw. To my own heart it is very dear; to my own ear it is poetic, spiritual, and sublime; and in my own mind, it is associated with the sunniest memories of the sacred past, recalling testimonies to its excellence from those who sing now before the throne, and triumphant quotations from its heavenly pages, as I drew the last curtain round the bed of death.”


    “We have thus far kept before us but one definite proposition—the Psalms of Scripture faithfully rendered, the church’s sufficient and appointed manual of praise, to the exclusion of all uninspired hymns and songs. We have sought to establish and vindicate this proposition, irrespective of every question regarding the merits of a particular version. And here we might leave the entire subject; for we are persuaded, that if our proposition were generally admitted, there would be little controversy in reference to the particular version in which the Psalms should be sung: all would be resolved into the single inquiry—important at the same timeas to the claims of any version, or professed version, to be a true and accurate rendering of the words and sentiments of the inspired Psalmist. This could be quite readily and amicably settled, as it has been settled in other ages, and in other lands, to the entire satisfaction of the church and the people of God.

    It is well known, however, that the controversy on the subject of psalmody has, of later years, been largely complicated with that of the merits of the version usually styled “the Scottish version.” Of this version, the advocates of the use of hymns have—many of them —allowed themselves to speak in terms expressive of everything but respect. They speak of it rather scornfully, as “Rouse,” or as “Rouse’s Psalms.” They criticise, with the utmost severity, its rhythm and its grammar; while, with some exceptions, they do, notwithstanding, admit its fidelity to the original Hebrew. They seem, in a word (we refer still to the many, not to all) to view it as deserving only of the most contemptuous treatment, and assert that it holds its place in the esteem and love of the Psalm-singing churches merely through the power of prejudices imbibed by early education and long usage. Hence, we feel ourselves warranted, if not obliged, to append, as we now propose to do, a few remarks upon this particular version. And,

    1. It cannot, with a due regard to scriptural truth, and a proper reverence for a faithful translation of the Word of God, be styled “Rouse,” or “Rouse’s Psalms,” nor even, in absolute terms, “Rouse’s version.” True, indeed, this version is mainly due to the labours of an eminent scholar and gentleman of that name, a member of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, but was subjected to a careful scrutiny, first in England, in the year 1645. They made amendments. It was then transmitted to Scotland, and again examined and revised with the utmost care. Aiton, in his Life of Alexander Henderson, refers to this version of the Psalms as follows:

    —” The version of the Psalms by Roos (Rouse) was intended not only for the Church of Scotland, but also for that of England, during the general prevalence of Presbyterianism. After all pains in England had been bestowed upon the Psalms, they were sent down to Scotland, in portions, for further consideration. The Church of Scotland appointed John Adamson to revise the first forty Psalms, Thomas Crawford the second forty, John Row the third, and John Nevey the last thirty Psalms. The committee were enjoined not only to observe what needed amendments, but also to set down their own method of correcting. It was recommended to them to make use of the travails {i.e., labours) of Rowallin, Zachary Boyd, or any other on that subject, but especially of the then existing Paraphrase (version) so that whatever could be found better in any of these works might be adopted. The version thus purified by the Scottish committee was sent to all the Presbyteries of the church, who transmitted their observations to the original committee. These reported their labours on the remarks from the Presbyteries to the Commission of the Assembly for Public Affairs. After the Commission had revised the whole, they were sent to the Provincial Synods, and through them again transmitted to the Presbyteries: and after their further consideration, the version, thus fully prepared, was sent up to the General Assembly. The version so prepared was then ” allowed by the authority of the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, and appointed to be sung in congregations and families” (1649): and thus it was finally adopted, superseding, by its acknowledged merits, the versions previously in use both in Scotland and England . Hence, this translation is not absolutely “Rouse’s.” It has received the imprimatur, after amendment, of the most learned assembly, perhaps, ever convened on earth; and of another, the Scottish Assembly, not much inferior.

    Now, we have an English Bible: a translation from the original Hebrew and Greek, made by forty-seven learned men of the English Universities, who divided themselves into six companies for the purpose. They had been called together by King James I. Did we know, as we do not, the name of the particular individual who prepared the first draught of the Book of Proverbs, what would be thought of the spirit of the professing Christian man, who would indulge, habitually, in speaking of the Book of Proverbs, not as the Proverbs of Solomon, but as “Bilson’s Proverbs,” or “Smith’s Proverbs,” or even as “Bilson’s version,” or “Smith’s version.” Would this be tolerated as decent or becoming? We think not. How do a large part of the religious community now, regard the contemptuous flings sometimes made at our English Bible, as ” King James’ Bible?” Luther translated the Bible into the German tongue: what would be thought of the man who would constantly speak with contempt of the German Bible, as if it were not God’s Bible, but “Luther’s?” And yet none of these translations were subjected to such scrutiny of competent authority and learning, as this version, which grave men permit themselves scornfully to speak of in no other terms than “Rouse’s Psalms,” or, at best, “Rouse’s version: “sometimes asking whether Dr Watts had not as good a right to make Psalms as Rouse.

    2. In view of the facts which we have just presented, we are, certainly at liberty to pronounce, very decidedly, the “Scottish version” to be an accurate rendering of the original. We are aware, indeed, that attempts have been made to disparage it even in this respect, but they have signally failed. In fact, it is even less liable to the charge of inaccuracy than our generally faultless English Bible. Where it differs from the prose, competent judges pronounce most frequently in its favour as really the more accurate. Hence,

    3. Between this version and Dr Watts’ “Imitations,” for example, there can be no comparison on the score of fidelity. Dr Watts did not profess to render the Psalms into English verse: his design was, and so declared, to make psalms, taking the Scripture as a kind of basis. Hence, he never called his work a “version;” he says “he imitated” the Psalms of David, “in the Ian. guage of the New Testament.” How he has performed his work, Dr Cooper has thus shown: “He (Dr Watts) expressly says, in his preface, ‘It must be acknowledged that there are a thousand lines in it (the Psalms of David) which were not made for the church in our days to assume as its own.’ Of course they have been? omitted. Where, then, is the imitation of these thousand lines? He further tells us that he ‘has entirely omitted several whole Psalms, and large pieces of many others; where is the imitation of these Psalms? But has he left them out as unfit to be used in the worship of God?’ No had he merely done this, our feelings would have been far less shocked. He has given the whole one hundred and fifty ‘Psalms of David, in metre,’ though several whole Psalms, and large pieces of many others, have been entirely omitted, according to his express declaration. Let us look, for instance, at the 109th Psalm. The original, as we have it in our prose and in our metrical translation, contains thirty-six verses, that of Dr Watts contains six verses, and there is not an idea in the one to be found in the other, unless it be the address in the first line, ‘God of my praise.’ The Psalm, as it comes from God, is taken up with a fearful description of the awful doom of His implacable enemies, and is applied in the New Testament to Judas. The subject of Dr Watts’ imitation—of Dr Watts’ ‘version’ is ‘Love to enemies from the example of Christ.’ Can there possibly be a greater perversion of language than to call this a version of the 109th Psalm? and yet they charge the friends of an inspired psalmody with excluding Dr Watts’ ‘rich and beautiful version of the Psalms from the sanctuary.’ What would he think if the Apocryphal Psalms, in the Septuagint version of the Psalms of David, were published to the world, and used in the worship of God as one of the Psalms of David, and shall he think it ‘strange’ that we are unwilling to admit into the sanctuary, as a version of the Psalms of David, Psalms which, in the language of the pious Romaine, ‘ are so far from the mind of the Spirit, that I am sure if David were to read them, he would not know any one of them to be his?’ How could we regard with feelings of complacency their introduction into the sanctuary, as a version, believing, as we do, with Professor Alexander of Princeton, that they are all ‘intended to be used in public worship’ and believing, also, with the same author, that ‘the arrangement of the Psalms was the work of Ezra, the inspired collector and redacteur of the canon.’ No, we cannot so regard their introduction. We must continue to protest against it, however strange our opposition may appear to the admirers of what they call ‘Dr Watts’ rich and beautiful version of the Psalms.’ ”

  5. From The True Psalmody
    “It were well, indeed, could the fidelity of this [Scottish] version be combined with a more entire exemption from the minor faults which attach to it. But, in the meantime, we would, with myriads of the saints of God, prefer to have the Word of God as the matter of our praise, rather than the most flowing and smooth of mere human utterances.”

  6. From Robert Stewart of the Evangelical Repository 1880,

    “First, that if “no translation of any Psalm or Book of Scripture is inspired,” in any proper sense of the term, then it is wrong to call our English Bible inspired, or to give it such titles as Holy Bible, Sacred Scriptures, or Word of God. And yet, if we mistake not, the writer himself so designates it in the article before us. Certainly such language has often been used without the least suspicion of impropriety, ever since we had a version of God’s word. Almost every sermon that has been preached, and every book illustrating the Bible that has been written, would need to be remodeled to secure its accordance with the peculiar theory of this word-critic.

    Secondly, We have Scripture authority for just such a use of language as that which the writer condemns. In quoting from the Old Testament, New Testament writers never give the original Hebrew; and yet they have no scruples about prefixing to a Greek translation such expressions as, “It is written,” “The Scripture saith,” “Esaias saith,” “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet,” “So hath the Lord commanded us,” He saith,” “He spake after this manner,” “God said,” “Who didst speak through the mouth of thy servant David,” etc. This is the uniform practice of Matthew, Luke, John, Peter, James, and of Christ himself. Nor did they hesitate to employ such language even when the Septuagint, from which they usually quoted, departed somewhat from the original text, and presented what we now call a free translation. Indeed the book of Psalms itself, about which is our special controversy, seems to be particularly designated as the word of Christ, although reference is had primarily, we suppose, not to the original Hebrew, but to the prevalent Greek version of the day.

    Nor again is any one misled by such a use of terms. As “G. W.” says, “all that is meant by an inspired psalmody in English is a faithful translation of the inspired Psalms as opposed to a mere imitation or loose paraphrase, or such a perversion as Dr. Watts gives of the one hundred and ninth Psalm.” It is not meant that such a version gives the exact words written by inspired penmen, but that it presents a faithful reproduction of the thought and the order of thought which they were directed to record—such a reproduction as is adapted to the race and the end for which it is designed. Everybody understands this. It is folly to assert anything else; it is worse than folly to throw dust in men’s eyes by its denial, and thus pander to the cravings of prejudice.

    Nor again does this admission, to any extent, weaken our argument in favor of Scripture psalmody, as “M. N. R.” seems to think, or at least wants others to think. You might as well talk of our duty to search the English Scriptures and follow them as God’s word, to the exclusion of every human substitute, being lessened or multiplied by the fact that they are not the original Greek and Hebrew text, as to deny our obligation to use exclusively a faithful translation of the book of Psalms in God’s praise, simply because it is a translation, and not the original text. God commands all—even the unlearned—to study his word. For this purpose he has sanctioned translations of Scripture into the vernacular tongue. So he has also commanded us to sing Psalms; and the change of these into a language and a form suitable for the end in view, is nothing more than a simple compliance with his will. Those who use such a version are obeying the divine command. They have an inspired psalmody. ”

    full article is here

  7. What about the Church of Scotland calling them paraphrases instead of translations? If “paraphrase” meant “translation” is there any proof of this (though there seems proof to the contrary in that the American Puritans used the word “translation” instead of “paraphrase” when speaking of their salter and in that somebody related to the Church of Scotland tried to versify the Song of Solomon in paraphrase)? Also, while I do understand that it isn’t wise to compare one English translation with another while ignoring the Hebrew, it does seem odd how some of the songs in the Scottish Psalter are not considered paraphrases. For example, one of the versions of Psalm 136: 5 reads

    “5 Which God omnipotent,/By might and wisdom high,/The heav’n and firmament/Did frame, as we may see:/For certainly/His mercies dure/Most firm and sure/Eternally.”

    This seems to be a rather generous pulling from the text and so at a glance seems like a paraphrase rather than a translation (even though the prefaces to the Psalter says otherwise). (The other version in the Psalter simply reads: “5 Who by his wisdom made heav’ns high:/for mercy hath he ever.”

  8. I don’t really like referring to the Psalter as a paraphrase, honestly. The goal is to have an accurate translation, though the accuracy is sometimes questionable in certain Psalters. No Psalter is a perfect rendering of the original text, just as the KJV or any other translation is not always perfect. I think if we give in and use the word “paraphrase” we are giving ammunition to the critics of EP. Our goal should be to make better “translations”.

    If certain groups choose to speak about paraphrases, I suppose that is their decision but I think it is unwise. Of course, if a version is truly a paraphrase we should call it what it is. I also am not always happy with certain translations of the Psalter, but I view it the same way as I do with my KJV. I recognize that a certain decision was made regarding the meaning of the word that probably has changed over time or it really wasn’t a good decision in the first place.

    Some parts of the Scottish translation could be improved but it’s still my favorite.

    I would be interested to see some of the sources you have given on the use of “paraphrase” vs. “translation”. That sounds like a good addition to the discussion and worth our time to consider. I am not really familiar with the Church of Scotland’s usage now that you mention it.

  9. I’m not that familiar with them either, actually. I only know of what I read in various places, and I have only just started taking an interest in the Scottish Psalter and history. In one of your “against EP” books, Thomas Dickson Baird in “An Inquiry…” quotes the Church of Scotland calling the version of the Psalms a “paraphrase of the Psalms.” I can’t copy and paste, but he quotes them on p.123, 127, and 133 (and discusses them within those pages). He also claims that human compositions were sung during Church history, but that is to be expected since he’s against EP. Actually, he kind of makes things confusing (as expected) by claiming the contrary to every EP statement (e.g., he claims religion is better where Watts’s hymns are used while it doesn’t where “Rouse’s Psalms” are used to which the EPer claims the contrary; he claims that the Waldenses, Albigenses, etc. were not EP while some EPers do).

    For the claims of Ralph Erskine versifying the Song of Solomon and calling it a paraphrase see p.33 of William Annan’s “A vindication of the ‘Letters on Psalmody'” where Annan uses it as evidence to show that the Church of Scotland really did mean paraphrase when it said “paraphrase.” See also pages 63, 68, 116, 136, 134-135, and 138 where he discusses various aspects of this. And see the Preface to the 1640 Bay Psalter where the term “translation” is used instead of “paraphrase” which seems to further corroborate the idea that “paraphrase” meant “paraphrase” in our modern sense of the term (also, the above advocates for human compositions see translating into meter as an innovation because in the Bay Psalter Preface it is defended a bit). While the argument the above two authors use aren’t Scriptural arguments, it is one of the better arguments I’ve seen accusing EP of being an innovation.

    Also, while browsing the Puritanboard, I seem to recall that the Westminster Assembly had something to do with a project of a hymn book?

    On a side note, after reading/skimming through all these old 19th century books, I find it interesting the way these people aruged: they completely destroyed one another’s character and credibility and asserted the complete contrary of the author they were arguing against–almost without exception! I finally understand what exactly is meant by the “old Worship wars”–which nowadays is usually nothing more sophisticated than older people in a congregation opposing rock bands as the church leadership struggles to find a solution to make everyone happy–all without any theology to fall back upon!

  10. After some more research, here’s something I found on the term “Paraphrase”:
    ““But surlie now, in anno 1650, we have, through the rich blessing of God upon the long travails of many faithful and painful brethren, expert in the Hebrew and poesie, the most exact, near, and smooth paraphrase [i.e. metrical version, not loose rendering as the term now implies] of the psalms (a part of the intended uniformitie) that ever the Christian world did afford.” (John Row)”
    From here:

    If true, that certainly explains why the Preface seems to contradict the assertion that the Psalter was a paraphrase in the modern sense of the word. At any rate, the above gives something more specific to look into now.

  11. I ran across this today in an article History of the Authorized metrical version of the Psalms

    “Of John Hopkins, who was united with him in this useful work, and who was one of the minor poets of that age, little is known. He versified fifty-eight Psalms; and the remaining forty-one Psalms were, as intimated by Dr. M’Crie paraphrased* by the English Protestants who had fled to Genevan during the time of Queen Mary.

    *The word paraphrase was then used as synonymous with versify.”

  12. Found this recently in the Preface to the Bay Psalter:

    “If the verses, therefore, are not always as smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect, let them consider that God’s altar does not need our polish (Ex. 20). We have chosen to respect a plain translation rather than smooth our verses with the sweetness of paraphrase: and thus we have honored conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into the English language and David’s poetry into English meter: that so we may sing in Zion the Lord’s songs of praise according to His own will; until He take us from hence, and wipe away all our tears, and bid us enter into our Master’s joy to sing eternal Hallelujahs.”

    What an elegant defense of remaining faithful to the text of Scripture instead of to the appeal of man’s sinful desire.

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