1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter: A Review

Discussion in 'A capella Exclusive Psalmody' started by Logan, Oct 24, 2013.

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  1. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Also known as the 1650 Psalter, the Psalms of David in Metre, and the Scottish Metrical Version (SMV). It is widely available both for free online and for sale in various formats (words-only or with music). Some recommended versions are The Comprehensive Psalter, if it can still be found, or The Scottish Psalmody from the Free Church of Scotland. Also available in the back of one of the words-only books of Sing Psalms is an excellent version. It too is available from FCS.

    How does one write a review about what many consider to be the psalter? The most famous and widely used psalter in English history, sung by Presbyterians (and others) almost exclusively for over two centuries and still possibly the most widely sold psalter today? Opinions on this psalter, much like the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, are largely polarized. Regardless of what I write I am sure to offend someone, nevertheless, I have looked at and used this psalter considerably and would like to offer my take on it.

    There is a good history of psalters and psalm singing to be found in Henry Glass' 1888 book The Story of the Psalters, available on Google Books. David Silversides also has an article and lecture which can be readily found, though it should be noted that he is really opposed to the use of any other psalter.

    The SMV has a rich history of psalm singing that proceeded it, most notably the Sternhold and Hopkins version. This version had several composers, primarily Thomas Sternold and John Hopkins, and was partially under the commission of both Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I. This version was finally completed and published in 1564. The psalter endured long but some of the verses suffered from poor poetry. For example, Hopkins composed the following for inclusion in the psalter---

    And another contributor, William Whittingham, also composed this versification of the Athanasian Creed---

    Clearly, godliness and good poetry do not necessarily go hand in hand. There were many, many versions thereafter that individuals tried to produce and none really met with success. It wasn't until 1643 when the Westminster Assembly was looking at a recent versification by Francis Rous that the story really picks up again. The assembly saw the need for a unified psalter and suggested starting with Rous'. After much revision and discussion, the psalter was approved in 1646, yet this is still not the version we have today. The Scots took the psalter back to Scotland where it again underwent review and scrutiny, was sent out to the churches and was rewritten and revised until less than 10 percent of Rous' original work remained. It was finally published in 1650. The end result was indeed well-worth the labor and time and it is still arguable that the level of accuracy mixed with verse has never been matched. The end result was something which the men who worked on it believed to be "more plaine, smooth and agreeable to the Text than any heretofore."

    In many ways the SMV was the culmination and polishing of the previous psalters. No psalter is perfect but this psalter was examined by some of the godliest and knowledgeable men of the day and surpassed all that preceded it. Men expert in Hebrew who might not necessarily be the best at poetry, but were definitely some of the best biblical scholars labored to make certain it was faithful to the original. I also greatly appreciate that it was sent to review to churches, because it is the congregation that will be using it and it usually is not until it is put into practice that the real strengths and weaknesses become evident. The SMV was the best psalter seen up to that point and was to remain the dominant psalter for at least the next two hundred years, perhaps continuing even today.

    David Silversides gives some examples of where "padding" is actually captures more of the meaning of the original than perhaps is even present in our Bibles. This is true, but there are also places where the padding seems to be just to fill up the meter, but that is a problem with any non-prosaic translation of the psalms.

    One of the biggest features of this psalter is that it is not just a versification, it is a translation into verse---that is, it does not start with the English text, it starts with the Hebrew text. For this reason, some of the language is stilted, but rarely does it depart from the text, but sometimes it does (notable examples are usually in alternate versions of the psalm included perhaps for historical reasons).

    There are a few places where the translation or versification is either unclear or misleading. One famous example is---

    Though I believe this to be unfair since this is by far the worst offender. Another place where it is misleading is where the line breaks over stanzas, such as Psalm 96 and between verses 12 and 13---

    Since musically the tune ends at ``mirth'', to the ear (which cannot hear punctuation), it makes it sound as though "he" is coming before the Lord to judge the earth, which can be confusing. Verses which rely on punctuation to make the meaning clear can be sources for confusion.

    Another place I find strange is Psalm 136, where in the first version each stanza translates the same Hebrew phrase both as "for mercy hath he ever" and "for his grace faileth never". I just wonder why they chose to translate the same word in both the positive and the negative and the only reason I can think of is for variety, but that seems almost like it is an attempt to improve God's word. The second version of Psalm 136 is also a bit more loose. For example, verse 10 is given as---

    Which if it is compared to Scripture, adds quite a bit to what is given in the AV as "To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn."

    But these examples are limited. In general the translation is very accurate and can be relied upon and learned from. In general, the language is very outdated (no one speaks like this today) and much of the grammar is twisted (e.g. "makes me down to lie") but can still be understood if one takes the time.

    There is no music really, but the entire psalter was designed around the meter and each psalm has at least one selection in this meter. This is also called Common or Ballad meter because it was the meter to which popular or common ballads of the day were sung. The translators wanted the common people to be able to sing the psalms readily, to the tunes they already knew.

    This feature of the psalter is in my mind one of its great strengths, and also one of its great weaknesses. It is a strength because you need only learn one tune and can then make use of the entire psalter (note that this is strongly advised against). This can be great for people who know only a few tunes and are unable to learn more.

    It is also a weak feature because it gives something of a sameness to the psalms, the introduction of some CMD tunes can help mitigate this. It also forces the translation into a certain rhythm and one gets the feeling that only having eight and six syllables alternating is what contributed to the feeling that some of the words were shoehorned into the reversed-grammar pattern we see in the psalter---some of the longer meter compositions allow for more accuracy and singability just because there is more leeway with the words. Lastly and possibly most importantly, unless one is very careful the tunes can become confused and misused. It is not appropriate to sing a battle march to Psalm 13 for example, nor a dirge to Psalm 1. This has been dealt with in various ways, including offering suggestions for tunes (as The Scottish Psalmody does) or tying a tune down to a specific page (as The Comprehensive Psalter does. It is still my impression that the variety of CM tunes is limited.

    To me it is also important to have tunes "married" to psalms, as it helps many with memorization also helps to set the mood and tone.

    In my opinion, the benefit of having all the psalms in CM has largely been eclipsed by the amount of tools available to an individual today. We can readily learn new songs from a plethora of recordings and have no need of being tied to just one meter. Nevertheless, this may certainly still be a strong point for some people.

    Has the SMV stood up to the test of time? There are many things to commend it. Many of the commissioners on the Westminster Assembly worked on it and approved it as faithful. Perhaps more importantly to me, it was approved by the entire Scottish Church and was not just the work of a single individual. It has a long and faithful history and has been well-loved by the church.

    The Scottish church was approached around 1880 as part of the United Presbyterian movement to update the psalter and while they acknowledged that the psalter was old, the language was outdated and that it had some defects, yet they also said that it had been ingrained in the minds and hearts of the Scottish people for so long as to be almost a part of their being and they chose not to revise it. Sadly there are very few Scottish psalm-singers left, and perhaps the revised Sing Psalms version was one of psalm-singing's last gasps in Scotland. We can only pray that it will not be.

    So here's where I become controversial and I am sure will stir up many disagreements. I have sung this psalter a lot and love it, but despite all has to offer I cannot recommend its continued use simply because of the language barrier.

    Let me clarify: I cannot personally recommend its use for congregations. I can definitely see using it in a family, for private devotions, for 1650 psalter gatherings, for Reformation Day, or quite a few other events. But for general singing in the congregation, I feel that to continue using it is rather introspective. I say that because if the psalter is used for historical reasons, for continuity reasons, or even for accuracy to the AV reasons, the focus seems to be on the existing members of the congregation, and that's a dangerous place to be. No, I am not advocating being seeker-friendly but I do feel that the only person who will be impressed with the use of the SMV and AV when they visit a congregation are people who are already looking for that, or are perhaps literary majors. The rest will probably think it is some kind of cult or dead church. I interact with my co-workers regularly and invite them over for supper and family worship. I cannot in good conscience hand them a 1650 psalter and say "here, now you have God's word in your own language so you can sing to him. Enjoy." Or my Jewish co-worker, who though we share the psalms, would look at this as completely Scottish and arcane.

    Any objection, any difficulty can be surmounted. Some will say the language is more accurate so we should use it but I honestly think there are modern psalters that one will not suffer or lack anything from using so that claim seems empty to me. If we truly wanted to be accurate we should just go straight to the text. Let's face it, the language is archaic, obsolete, and is not the tongue of the common people. The Scottish commissioners were proud of the fact that their version was more fluid than any preceding it, and readily accessible. If it is not so today, do you think they would have revised it? It can be learned, it can be loved, but again it seems introspective to do so. Perhaps the objection is that there are no suitable alternatives. I disagree but respect that.

    Perhaps your congregation is different but we have on occasion a good many students in ours. We have foreign visitors, and recently one person who had never been to church before. We welcome these kinds of interactions. Introducing psalm singing to brand new Christians is a joy. We are not trying to please them but at the same time we try to make no attempt to please ourselves at their cost. It has been said that this psalter has been blessed so much that we should seriously consider before moving to something else. I would also like to add that with something so vitally important to the lifeblood of the common Christian, putting up artificial barriers is something that should be seriously considered. At least consider bearing with the weaker brother who would find this an unnecessary obstacle.

    So once again, I love this psalter, I use it regularly. I have no problem with the language personally and know my children would not either. But I am also glad that our congregation does not use it in worship and that there are very suitable alternatives which give us God's words accurately and in our own tongue. And if while traveling I come across brothers and sisters who are still using this excellent psalter, I will gladly join them in praising God using it.
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2013
  2. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    By the way, there are many websites out there with tunes that are for various psalters that use the SMV text. It's pretty widely supported, so that's nice.
  3. C. M. Sheffield

    C. M. Sheffield Puritan Board Senior

    Great review! Thank you for the time you've spent putting these reviews on various psalters. I am enjoying them. One tiny correction: Common Meter is not
  4. SinnerSavedByChrist

    SinnerSavedByChrist Puritan Board Freshman

    My personal selfish ego is fidgeting against your statement because I DO have the ability to understand the SMV and I LOVE the NKJV (which lines up with the SMV quite well). But if I would examine my motives, your summary is indeed correct. We need a psalter that is less archaic in language, but ABSOLUTELY ACCURATE like the SMV.

    Amen. And as a young believer, the KJV seemed to be Mt Everest. Even now, I can understand most of the KJV only because I am using the NKJV regularly. Even then I will incur error in my study if I used KJV without an Old-english dictionary of some sorts.

    Perfect analogy.

    I don't think the claim is empty. The SMV is just more accurate. I am quite disappointed with Mr Rowland Ward's compilation of psalms from the URC, Irish, UPC, RPCNA etc. SMV is the most precise.

    Indeed - some advocate chanting. But chanting just doesn't seem like singing and I'm not sure if it's good for memory.

    Once again, I wished the newer translations/revisions were much cleaner and precise. And they keep on SPLITTING THE PSALMS INTO PORTIONS. WHAT DO THEY THINK THEY ARE DOING!!!

    I guess that is the conclusion you have come to while weighing up all the pros and cons. Each will come to their own conclusion. I live in Brisbane Australia where there are only 2 congregations that EVER sing psalms. The Psalms are ENTIRELY forgotten in the hoo-hah of contemporary worship. I've tried to introduce the Psalms to my church over the last 2 months. People have just nodded and said "yea sure we'll do that" and never action on their promise. This absolute contempt for the psalms is quite distressing... and has nearly driven me to the view of Exclusive Psalmody. So for me - I will use the SMV privately and when I do get married, in the family. I doubt any church in my city will even want a sniff of the Psalms, let alone the SMV. :barfy: :(
  5. SinnerSavedByChrist

    SinnerSavedByChrist Puritan Board Freshman

    Oh and I forgot to thank you for your even-handed review. :D I'm always going to be biased!! I just love the SMV with it's AV-like usage. The Psalms are truly best read in AV/NKJV.
  6. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Thanks, I appreciate the feedback and oops! Thank you for pointing out my error, not sure why I put sevens there.

    I think we would do well to define what we mean by "accurate". Are we meaning accurate to the original Hebrew or accurate to a particular version of the Bible? I think one reason a lot of people like the SMV is because it matches very closely to what they read in the KJV (same terminology in general). Most psalters however (including this one), are not metrical arrangements of a particular translation, but rather a metrical translation. And as such there will be differences. Have you examined the Sing Psalms psalter yet? The text is available online and they are entire psalms instead of psalm portions. I've been very impressed so far when I compare to the Hebrew, though it doesn't exactly correspond to any one Bible translation.

    I've ordered Mr Ward's compilation and look forward to seeing it. It does sound like it would have limited use though. I agree that depending on what metric you use, the SMV does seem to be the most accurate. But I wonder if we really suffer by using another psalter? Are we being taught anything not taught in the actual passage? Is anything being omitted? Is meaning or exact phrasing more important? Things I'm still considering.

    I imagine all psalters on a scale with singability on one end and accuracy on the other. I tend to gravitate more toward the accuracy side but the SMV tends to sacrifice too much singability in my mind. Sing Psalms, like the ESV, seems to be a good compromise to me, and we'll see what RPCI's psalter looks like when it arrives.

    Thank you very much for your honesty and kindness toward me regarding this, I really appreciate it. As I said, I have no problem with the use of this psalter, I like it, but I also want to consider new Christians or unbelievers who did not grow up with KJV or care about older-style English. I've had your problem with trying to introduce psalms as well. I was attending my parent's church over the summer a number of years ago and talked to the music minister a few times about this. I merely tried to suggest that we incorporate some psalms and even ordered him a copy he could use, with suggested psalms set to hymn tunes they already used. He said that was nice and that he thought it was a good idea but nothing ever happened. It is almost silly how people are willing to try any kind of song out there in worship, except the ones God has placed in the Bible. It's not just a neglect of the psalms, it's almost an active avoidance! Very strange.
  7. SinnerSavedByChrist

    SinnerSavedByChrist Puritan Board Freshman

    :( I am encouraged to hear that I am not the only person who has struggled to introduce the Divinely authored songs into worship.

    Forgive me for my broad brush statements regarding the inaccuracy of other psalters. Indeed I have not checked out Sing Psalms yet (nor many others in their entirety). Will do so soon!

    Once again, a very wise and informative review!
  8. markkoller

    markkoller Puritan Board Freshman

    Logan, these reviews are very helpful. Thank you for spending the time on them!
  9. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Thank you Mark. I have a couple more I would like to do and then I'll send you the whole file.
  10. JP Wallace

    JP Wallace Puritan Board Sophomore

    I agree very good reports. In keeping with the other commenters here - the neglect of psalm-singing in the Church and in Reformed/reformed churches is terrible and the opposition to the introduction of them frankly bizarre.
  11. markkoller

    markkoller Puritan Board Freshman

    Logan, if you have them individually it would also be helpful in that format. I was hoping to break down a prtion of the EP website to provide resources for individual Psalters. I haven't had the time to do that yet, but hopefully soon.

  12. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Sure, it will be very easy to break them out individually.
  13. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    Going through the 1886 Reformed Presbyterian Covenanter and Witness I stumbled across this very enjoyable paper regarding the Scottish Psalter. I figured I'd share:

    The metrical version of the Psalms of David, which claims to be
    more smooth, plain and agreeable to the text than any published, has
    been in use throughout Scotland for two centuries. Few, perhaps, of
    the multitudes who have read them, or been in the habit of singing
    them, here, or in the old country, have the curiosity to inquire when
    and by whom, the metrical version was made. If they did inquire
    they would find that church historians give little or no information on
    the subject. Perhaps, then, a short notice of the history of the Psalms
    may be acceptable, and may be read at least as literary gossip by those
    who take no deeper interest in the matter.
    The oldest version of the Psalms in English metre, is that of Sternhold
    and Hopkins. Thomas Sternhold was groom of the robes to
    Henry VIII. and Edward VI. He was a man of great strictness of
    life, and being scandalized at the wicked ditties sung by the courtiers
    he versified fifty-one of the Psalms, and had them set to music, flattering
    himself that the courtiers would sing them instead of their loose
    and wanton sonnets; but it is not probable that any of them did so.
    Sternhold's fifty-one Psalms were published in 1556, and in 1563 John
    Hopkins, a minister in Suffolk, with the assistance, evidently, of several
    other pens, finished what Sternhold had begun, and published a version
    of the whole Psalms. This version gradually got into use throughout
    the Church of England, and continued to be used, until displaced by
    the present received version of that church, subsequent to 1696.
    The version of Sternhold and Hopkins was reprinted in Scotland,
    under the auspices of the General Assembly, for the use of the Church
    of Scotland, very soon after its appearance, but with considerable
    variations. Different versions of as many as forty-one Psalms were
    substituted. The version of the Psalms thus gotten up, continued to
    be used in Scotland till the introduction of the present version in 1650.
    In 1631 what is called King James' version of the Psalms was published.
    The device on the title-page represents King David on one
    side, holding a harp, and King James on the other, holding a book.
    The title is the " Psalms of King David. Translated by King James."
    The real history of the so-called King James' version is that it was
    written by Sir William Alexander, of Menstrie, afterwards Earl of
    Stirling, and a poet of no small reputation in his own day. The
    " royal'' version found little favor in the eyes of the Scottish church.
    It was republished in 1636, very much altered, however, in consequence,
    no doubt, of the opposition which had been offered to it. This revised
    version was attached to the notorious " Service Book'' of 1637. A
    patent of exclusive privilege to print it for thirty-one years had been
    granted to the real author^ the Earl of Stirling. But Jenny Geddes
    threw her stool in St. Giles' Kirk, and the king was balked in his plans,
    and the Earl of his profit. < Though the British Solomon condescended
    to father this version, little more can be said in1 praise of it, than that
    the best of it was not bad.
    In 1643 appeared a version of the Psalms by Francis Rous. At this
    period, as is well known, an attempt was being made to bring about a
    uniformity in the doctrine, discipline, and form of church government
    and worship of England and Scotland. A new version of the Psalms
    was designed as a part of the uniformity. Rous' version of 1643 is
    interesting on this account, that after undergoing much revision and
    elaboration, it was ultimately adopted in Scotland, and is the version
    which is still sung there.
    Rous' version was republished in 1646. In the interval, since its
    first publication, it had undergone repeated revisals, and it was not
    until it had been critically examined by the General Assembly, and reported
    on by the various Presbyteries, that the version, as it now
    stands, was adopted and sanctioned by the General Assembly in 1649,
    and by the Committee of Estates early in 1650. On the 15th day of
    May, in that year, it was, for the first time, used publicly in Glasgow,
    and so continues until this day.
    Many and zealous attempts have been made to displace it,
    but all with signal ill success. Committees of Assembly have
    labored over the attempt in vain. The lounger at book-stalls frequently
    sees still-bom looking volumes, being versions of the Psalms in
    metre, and commonly bearing " to be printed for the author "—too
    plain a sign of caution in the trade, and of extenuation of muse to the
    luckless poet. Time after time have these attempts been renewed, but
    no rival has yet been found to supplant the venerable version of 1650.
    There is no other way of accounting for the firmness with which
    this version has held its place than because it is worthy of
    it. The stiffness of Scottish prejudices is pretty considerable, but
    there is no doubt that, had a really better version, or one that had succeeded
    in marrying the solid merits of the old psalter to the graces of
    modern verse, even been tabled, it would have been recognized and accepted.
    True, there are plenty of uncouth rhymes—rugged, tuneless
    rhymes—and obsolete expressions to be found in the present version.
    But, on the other hand, what good taste does not admire its severe and
    manly simplicity, notwithstanding these insignificant defects. It would
    be easy to outdo the present version in smoothness of numbers, in refinement
    and elegance of expression ; but its affecting simplicity and
    likeness to the original, in which its value lies, would be overlaid and
    In addition to its intrinsic merits, the present version of the Psalms
    has a value to Scottish Christians which no other could have. The
    version has been sung by their martyrs ; its melody has been swept in
    plaintive JEolian wail on moorland breezes, in days when it makes the
    " canniest " of them all poetical to think upon. Their fathers for generations
    have lifted up their souls to the praises of God in it. They
    learned it by heart at their mother's knee ; it is mingled with their religious
    literature ; its expressions lie readiest to them when they seek
    to utter their spiritual feelings and experiences. No ; a new version of
    the Scottish Psalms, with all the elegance of modern finish, could never
    be what the present version is to the people of Scotland. Entrenched
    among all these endearing associations, the present version will, in all
    probability, continue to be used until it shall be antiquated by the
    changes which the English language will undergo in the course of two
    or three centuries. The Scottish pastors of that distant day will, no
    doubt, undertake the task so well performed in other days. Till then,
    let no promising young man hope for fame as the author of a new and improved version.
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