A Brief Guide to the 1650 Psalter

Full text of the 1650 Psalter here.

The Psalms of David in Metre, otherwise known as the Scottish Metrical Version (SMV) or 1650 Psalter, is a beautiful translation of the Psalms from the Hebrew into English meter and rhyme so that they can be sung. It’s so simple to use, that all you need to know is one tune to be able to sing every Psalm. However, it has a few quirks that have accrued over the years, some due to natural changes in the English language, some by design. This blog post will explore a few of those and provide examples.

The best way to get to know this Psalter is to use it. After extended use, all those little quirks will become obvious so that you see them coming and adjust accordingly. Remember that many of these quirks exist because the translators were concerned with accurately translating above poetic fluidity or metric fidelity (though they managed to achieve both to an incredible degree). With that in mind, let’s look at a few of them and what to do.

Too Many/Too Few Syllables

Each psalm in the 1650 is translated into common meter. Common meter consists of a stanza of four lines, with each line containing 8 syllables, 6 syllables, 8 syllables, and 6 syllables each (abbreviated to 8.6.8.6.). Every so often, though, a line may have too many or too few syllables. Consider the following example from Psalm 1:3.

He shall be like a tree that grows
near planted by a river,
Which in his season yields his fruit,
and his leaf fadeth never:

Here, rather than a stanza of 8.6.8.6., we have a stanza of 8.7.8.7. This happens rather often throughout the Psalter when an appropriate word with an unstressed final syllable is needed. The entirety of the “common meter” version of Psalm 136 is actually 8.7.8.7. The solution is to sing the extra syllable on the same note as the previous syllable, usually in a quicker rhythm. Try singing the stanza above to the tune “Amazing Grace.” When you reach the words “river” and “never,” sing the whole word on the same note.

What about when there are too few syllables? Often, this is an artifact of language change; some words used to have more syllables than they do now. Take a look at this example from Psalm 3:8.

Salvation doth appertain
unto the Lord alone:
Thy blessing, Lord, for evermore
thy people is upon.

Notice that the first line only has 7 syllables instead of 8. The reason is that “salvation” could also be pronounced “sal-va-ti-on” in 1650 when the psalter was translated. This isn’t the case for every “-tion” or “-cion” or “-sion” word in the psalter, but sometimes it happens that the translation works best when those words are given an extra syllable, rather than finding a one-syllable “filler word” to pad out the line.

However, this is not how they are best sung. Rather than break “-tion” into two syllables, it is preferred to sing the “-va-” syllable over more than one note. Again, try singing this stanza to “Amazing Grace.” The “-va-” syllable in “salvation” will cross the second, third, and fourth notes of the melody, with the “-tion” landing where “grace” would in the original words.

Those are just two examples where sometimes lines will have too many or too few syllables. This is one of the most common quirks in the psalter, but once its recognized, it’s easy to correct. After extended use, I’ve gotten used to counting the syllables in my head before I even sing them, unconsciously so, especially when I see a word ending in “-tion” or “-er” in the line. Again, the best way to get over these hurdles is constant exposure and practice.

Every Syllable is Sung

This is less of a bug than a feature. It is closely connected to the previous quirk. Every syllable on the page is sung, even ones we wouldn’t normally pronounce when speaking. For example, “blessed” is always “bless-ed,” unless it’s written as “bless’d.” Likewise, “prayer” is always “pray-er,” unless written as “pray’r.” The final syllable of any word that ends in “-ed” (with few exceptions) is pronounced: “distress-ed,” “caus-ed,” “string-ed,” etc.

Occasionally, words can be pronounced in multiple ways and will therefore have different numbers of syllables depending on the needs of the translation. “Glorious” is one example. Sometimes it is two syllables: “glor-ious;” other times it is three: “glor-i-ous.” Context will determine when. Some examples. In the first, “glorious” is two syllables to fit the meter. In the second, “glorious” is three.

Behold, the daughter of the King
all glorious is within;
And with embroideries of gold
her garments wrought have been. (Psalm 45:13)
His work most honourable is,
most glorious and pure,
And his untainted righteousness
for ever doth endure. (Psalm 111:3)

Then there’s that pesky word “the.” Occasionally the translators needed it in order to translate accurately (and to make sense in English), but it wouldn’t quite fit the line no matter what they tried. In those cases, the word “the” is abbreviated to “th'” before a word that begins with a vowel. Thus, the following word is pronounced with a “th” at the front. An example.

Yet thou my shield and glory art,
th' uplifter of mine head. (Psalm 3:3)

Again, this gets easier with repeated exposure. You’ll begin to make those sort of split-second decisions subconsciously as you count the line and match it to the tune in your mind as you sing.

Some Psalms Have Two Versions

The goal of the translators of the 1650 was simplicity. They wanted everyone, regardless of their musical ability, to be able to sing the Psalms with grace in the heart (Colossians 3:16). To that end, every Psalm is translated into common meter. However, because there were several psalters in use already at the time of translation/revision, thirteen out of the 150 Psalms have been given two versions, sometimes because the melodies for those versions were so popular, other times because the translation was deemed more accurate. Some of these second versions predate the 1650; others were newly translated to fit the older melodies. The chart below shows which Psalms have two versions and which meters those versions are.

First VersionSecond Version
Psalm 6LMCM
Psalm 25SMCM
Psalm 45CMSM
Psalm 50SMCM
Psalm 67SMCM
Psalm 70SMCM
Psalm 100LMCM
Psalm 102CMLM
Psalm 124CM10.10.10.10.10.
Psalm 136CM6.6.6.6.8.8.
Psalm 143CM6.6.6.6.
Psalm 145CMLM
Psalm 148CM6.6.6.6.8.8.

“CM” is Common Meter (8.6.8.6.); “LM” is Long Meter (8.8.8.8.); “SM” is Short Meter (6.6.8.6.). The other meters listed are not named.

I have not been able to confirm this, but it appears on the surface that the translators put as the first version that which they thought to be more literal/less paraphrastic. This is especially the case for Psalms 124, 136, and 148; the second versions in those odd meters are much more paraphrastic than their common meter counterparts. However, they are still faithful translations, if a bit less literal than we would like. And they have great tunes, too.

Some Liberties Were Taken, But Not Many

One criticism raised against those who sing from metrical versions is that we aren’t actually singing the psalms. Instead, they allege that metrical translations are mere paraphrases, or simply hymns based on the biblical Psalms. Is this accusation true? Not in the slightest.

Whenever I refer to the SMV, I make a point of calling it a “translation.” That is what it is. The men who put it together were fluent in not just Hebrew, but some knew many other languages as well. These were erudite scholars who not only could translate from Hebrew into English with great competency and skill, but they also had an ear for poetry and rhythm. The 1650 SMV is a translation of the Hebrew into English meter and rhyme. It is not as though the translators took an existing English translation and twisted it into a metrical form, adding a word here or deleting a word there.

This means that in the vast majority of instances, any “padding” (that is, words added to the translation to fill the line) has direct warrant from the Hebrew, making the SMV sometimes more accurate than a prose translation such as the KJV. For example, compare the opening of Psalm 46 in the metrical version vs. the KJV.

God is our refuge and our strength,
in straits a present aid;
Therefore although the earth remove,
we will not be afraid:
(Psalm 46:1-2 SMV)
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed,…
(Psalm 46:1-2 KJV)

Notice, first of all, how close the two translations are to one another. The SMV has rearranged a phrase to make the rhyme scheme work, but other than that, the verbiage is very similar, and certainly one can see that both translations mean and say exactly the same thing. However, note that the SMV uses “straits” in place of the KJV’s “trouble.” Straits is not a word that is in common use these days, but it is used a few times in the KJV. You remember in the gospels when Jesus said, “Strait is the gate and narrow is the way,” in contrast to the “wide gate.” So “strait” refers not only to “trouble” or “distress,” but also has a sense of someone or something being squeezed, or hemmed in, or tightly pressed. The Hebrew word in this case also carries that sense. The SMV communicates more of the meaning of the Hebrew in the word “straits” than does the KJV by their use of the word “trouble.”

This is just one example, but there are many more. What about examples of “bad padding”? These are mostly confined to the more paraphrastic second versions, such as this very egregious example in Psalm 136:10.

To him that Egypt smote
Who did his message scorn;
And in his anger hot
Did kill all their first-born:
For certainly
His mercies dure
Most firm and sure
Eternally.

The KJV has, “To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endureth for ever:”. So the two lines, “Who did his message scorn / And in his anger hot” have been added. (The final four lines have also been filled out quite a bit.) Granted, there is nothing doctrinally wrong here, and the lines have warrant from the account in Exodus; however, this hardly qualifies as translation. Like I said, this is probably the worst offender as far as padding goes.

The Language is Old, But Understandable

Many people have moved away from the KJV to more modern translations because of the language barrier. The KJV is perceived to be extremely ancient, outdated, difficult to read and understand. However, as someone who once thought this, having now spent several months with the KJV, I believe it is no less or more understandable than something like the ESV or NASB. In some cases, the wording is decidedly simpler and more memorable than either of those modern alternatives.

But we’re not here to discuss the KJV. What of the SMV? Linguistically speaking, the SMV is very similar to the KJV. They were produced only a few decades apart and share many similarities. The SMV retains the simplicity of verbiage, cadence of speech, and eloquence that make the KJV’s Psalms so memorable and beautiful. Obviously, those elements express themselves differently in a metrical translation. Nevertheless, the SMV remains faithful, simple, and eminently understandable (with a little effort).

I quote here in full the metrical version of Psalm 23. Read through it. Sing through it also (using “Amazing Grace” or, if you know it, the tune St. Columba). It is a stunningly beautiful piece of poetry in its own right, and as a translation of the Hebrew it excels in accuracy.

The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want.
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green: he leadeth me
the quiet waters by.

My soul he doth restore again;
and me to walk doth make
Within the paths of righteousness,
ev’n for his own name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale,
yet will I fear none ill:
For thou art with me; and thy rod
and staff me comfort still.

My table thou hast furnished
in presence of my foes;
My head thou dost with oil anoint,
and my cup overflows.

Goodness and mercy all my life
shall surely follow me:
And in God’s house for evermore
my dwelling-place shall be.

Pure, simple, unadulterated praise.

Now. Are there examples where the 1650 has become unintelligible? Yes. By far the most egregious example is Psalm 18:25-26.

Thou gracious to the gracious art,
to upright men upright:
Pure to the pure, froward thou kyth'st 
unto the froward wight.

Now what in the world does that mean? The first two lines are understandable: God is gracious to the gracious, and upright to the upright. The next phrase, “pure to the pure,” continuing the pattern, makes sense. But what of “froward thou kyth’st / unto the froward wight”? Let’s do a little translating of our own.

“Froward” means obstinate or stubborn. “Kythe” is an old word that has fallen out of use, meaning to demonstrate, or to show. And finally, “wight” refers to a creature or human being. So the line means, “You show yourself to be stubborn to the stubborn person.”

Whew. Like I said, that’s as bad as it gets. There are a few words here and there that have either changed meaning or fallen out of use. “Sith” means since, “prevent” means anticipate, etc. But with the help of that magical thing called the Internet, those difficult words should become simple.

Perhaps the greatest linguistic criticism leveled at the SMV is its awkward syntax. The word order has sometimes been mangled so as to keep the rhythm. This isn’t so bad, though, once you get used to it. Just a brief example from Psalm 3:3-4.

Yet thou my shield and glory art,
th' uplifter of mine head.
I cry'd, and, from his holy hill,
the Lord me answer made. 

That last line would be represented in prose as “the Lord made answer unto me.” But since that doesn’t quite fit (two extra syllables than needed), and for the sake of rhyme, the word order is moved around while keeping the sense.

Conclusion

Hopefully this has been a helpful introduction to the 1650 Psalter and has enabled you to make full use of its riches. Now go forth and sing!

Ye righteous, in the Lord rejoice;
it comely is and right,
That upright men, with thankful voice,
should praise the Lord of might.

Praise God with harp, and unto him
sing with the psaltery;
Upon a ten-string'd instrument
make ye sweet melody.

A new song to him sing, and play
with loud noise skilfully;
For right is God's word, all his works
are done in verity. 

To judgment and to righteousness
a love he beareth still;
The loving-kindness of the Lord
the earth throughout doth fill. (Psalm 33:1-5)

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