Psalmody Objections Answered: Paraphrases

psalmody-objections-answered-paraphrasesPsalmody Objections Answered: Paraphrases

By Richard Bacon


One sometimes hears objections to singing only Psalms in public worship. Interestingly, the objectors seldom stop to consider that many of their objections, if they were valid, would speak against singing any Psalms as effectively as singing exclusively Psalms. Perhaps the objectors think their objections have not been answered over the 3000 years during which God’s people have been singing Psalms.

In the past, the objections have taken either a theological or exegetical approach. The same objections have been raised many times and answered as often. Nevertheless it is the task of every generation to withstand the gainsaying of its own generation.

One example of such an objection is: “The Psalms that you Psalm-singers are singing are not really the Psalms. They are merely a paraphrase of the Psalms.”

We will examine, first of all, some of the actual problems of translation, then we will answer the actual or pretended objection. Finally I will propose some questions to those who maintain that before we can sing a Psalm it has to be a wooden-literal translation. In posing these questions, I am not expecting an answer. I cannot answer the questions and I do not believe that they can answer them. But I think in posing these questions, we remove the force of the objection.

First, we must distinguish between the stated objection and the actual problem. There are four distinguishing marks between the objection as stated and the actual problems of translation. Difficulties exist when translating from any language to any other language.


We acknowledge that there are difficulties any time we translate from one language to another. There is often not a one-to-one correspondence for each word. For example, while I do not speak Eskimo, I understand there are 27 different words in the Eskimo tongue for “snow.” That is because it is important to the way Eskimos live to know the difference in the way the snow is coming down, or in the way the snow has been packed on the ground, or the way the snow is available to be used in building an igloo, or various other characteristics. While it is important for them to distinguish between different characteristics of snow, we would just say, “snow” because w do not have 27 separate words to use in translation.

How do we translate those 27 different words for snow? May we add an adjective that is not in the original language? The wooden-literalist would answer, “No, that would be a paraphrase not a translation.” If we must have a wooden-literal translation then we cannot add adjectives. We must always translate word for word. We must always translate “snow” as “ snow,” not considering the fact that the original language made a distinction between 27 different kinds of snow. We make very similar distinctions in the English. We might say “snowfall” and mean one thing; and then say “snowstorm” and mean something different. When we say “snowdrift” we mean something different from a “field of snow.” But in each of those cases, we must add adjectives or make compound words or phrases to make the correct distinctions.

Idiomatic expressions

There is another problem when we translate from one language to another, and that is the problem of idiomatic expressions. Here is an example. Assume I am a young single fellow well acquainted with a particular young lady. In English, if I were to go to her father and say to him, “I want to ask for your daughter’s hand,” what would that mean? Do I want to chop off her hand? Do I want to have her hand in a box? Do I want to hold her hand in my lap? What am I asking? I am asking to marry his daughter. If I were to translate that into a foreign language as “I want to marry your daughter,” is that a paraphrase or is that a translation? That is a difficult question to answer, because I am translating an idiom in one language into another language in which that same idiom might be horrendous.

Many years ago, a group of singers sang a song titled, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” Literally translated that would mean something to the effect of “by me…” or “according to me…” or “in my opinion… are you beautiful.” But it was translated in the song as “I think you’re grand.” “I think you’re grand” is a fine translation of “bei mir bist du schoen,” but it is not a word-for-word translation. More recently in the 60’s, the Beatles, who were from England but spent a good bit of time in Germany, sang a song called, “Gib Mir Deine Hand.” That means literally “give me your hand.” If we were to translate that into English, it would connote, “I want to marry you.” So when the Beatles sang the song in English, they sang “I want to hold your hand” because that conveyed the idea of the German better than “give me your hand.”

The difficulties are present when translating from any language to any other language. This is not a problem that occurs only when we translate Holy Scripture. Translation difficulties exist whether we are translating from French to English, from German to English, from Afrikaans to English or any two languages. Some of you may recall years ago, when President Kennedy was in Berlin, he tried to say that he was a citizen of Berlin, but instead he said that he was a doughnut. You would expect that the word “Berliner” would mean a citizen of Berlin, but in German a “Berliner” is a pastry.

Even though there are difficulties that exist when translating from any language to another, there are some between Hebrew and English that we need to discuss in order to deal properly with this objection. These are grammatical differences. We have been talking up to now about vocabulary and idiomatic expressions, but between Hebrew and English there are also differences in grammar.


There are two tenses in Hebrew – perfect and imperfect – but they do not directly relate to any tense in English. The tenses in Hebrew signify completed or incompleted action. The action might be in the past, or it might be in the future or it might be in the present. There is no real way to translate the Hebrew concept of tense into the English concept of tense except to interpret it. An example of this is waw consecutive. It is very difficult to translate waw consecutive. Waw consecutive is a narrative perfect, but looks like an imperfect. You might hear something similar in colloquial English (for example, “he says,” or “I say,”) where the speaker is putting something in present tense when he really means something that happened in the past. Waw consecutive is somewhat like that. It is a narrative in which the tense is actually reversed and the conjunction waw is added. It looks like an imperfect but the thought expressed is a perfect. A wooden-literal translation of the waw consecutive would be an incorrect translation. We have many tenses in English: past perfect, present perfect, future perfect, past, present, and future tenses. There are a variety of tenses in English but Hebrew does not make those distinctions.

Voices or Conjugations

The constructs, the binyanim, are sometimes referred to as voices or conjugations. Voice is probably the closest thing we have to it in English. In English, we have two main voices: active and passive. The difference between the two is that in active voice the subject acts upon something else, while in passive voice the subject receives the action of the verb. For instance, if I were to say, “John hit the ball,” John is the subject and he hit the ball. John is doing the acting in the active voice. If I were to use the passive voice, I would say, “John was hit by the ball.” I mean that the ball hit John, but John is still the subject of the sentence. Notice that the meaning is entirely different. John is still the subject of the sentence, but in passive voice he receives the action of the verb “hit.”

In Hebrew there are seven voices, conjugations, or binyanim. The word binyan is best translated as “construct.” It gives the idea of building. A binyan is going to “build up” a word; it is a “construct.” We have, for example, not only qal which is simple or light, a straight forward active voice; we also have niphal, which is a passive construction. We also have piel which is an intensification. If I were to translate the piel of the word “hit,” I might say, “smash.” Another example would be if we were using the word “kill.” When we put it inpiel we might translate it “massacred.” Here is the point: these are all the same word with different constructions in Hebrew; but in English, we have to translate it with several different words that carry the new connotation with it. What happened to our wooden-literal translation? It was unable to do the job. In addition to qal, which is the simple or light conjugation, Hebrew also has: niphal, which is a passive or middle voice construct; piel,which is an intensification of the action of the verb; pual, which is a passive piel; hiphil,which is causative or declarative; hophal, which is another passive, usually of hiphil but occasionally of qal; and hithpael, which is reflexive of piel. This is given, not as a short-course in Hebrew grammar, but to demonstrate the impossibility and even undesirability of a word-for-word translation from Hebrew to English.

There are enough dissimilarities between Hebrew and English that a wooden-literal, word-for-word, one-word-equals-one-word, translation is impossible. It cannot be done.

Word Order

Next, we need to mention word order. Word order is much more important in English, and in Hebrew for that matter, than it is in most languages. In most languages word order is not that important because they have oblique case endings which tell us what role the word plays in the sentence. In English we do not use case endings very often, so word order is more important. I am going to use the same words in a sentence, but listen to the difference. It may not make much of a difference to you, but I guarantee it would make a great difference to John. “John hit the ball.” “The ball hit John.” I used precisely the same words in both sentences, but there is a significant difference in meaning because of the order of the words in the sentence.

Poetic Language

Poetic language is almost never intended in a wooden-literal way. It is important to remember that the Psalms are Hebrew poetry. As difficult as the task of the translator is when he translates prose, the difficulty is magnified when he is translating poetry. The Hebrew Psalms comprise both lyric and didactic poetry. Didactically, God gives instruction through the poet and addresses himself to the understanding. Lyrically, he reveals himself through the emotions and aesthetic sense.

The psalmist, in the inspired word, gives a voice to his deepest experiences and emotions of joy and sorrow, hope and fear, expectation and disappointment. As Louis Berkhof said, “While in other parts of Scripture God speaks to man, in the Psalms the relation is reversed, and man speaks to God.”

Just as the experiences of national Israel were both historical and typical, the experience of the psalmist is at once personal and universal. The Psalms have a representative character. They are born of God and of the universal human experience. Truly they speak of Rahab and of Sion, of Moab and Ammon and the bulls of Bashan. But the Psalms make sense of these names so that they become part of our own historical consciousness.

Both writers and singers are members of the church of God and, as such, are conscious of their unity as these songs of the Spirit embody the praise and lamentations of the church in all ages. In the Psalms of David we hear not only David and Asaph and Heman — we hear Christ singing in the midst of the great congregation.

The point we make is this: the Hebrew Psalms are literature and should be translated so as to draw out the pathos of the original tongue. No translator is justified in a wooden-literal translation of poetry from one language to another. Poetry should remain poetry, and where possible it should reflect not just the vocabulary, but the affections of the original as well.

Synonym and Paraphrase

If I were to say, “Don’t cast your pearls before pigs,” that is a very much different from saying, “Don’t let the most precious parts of the Christian religion be trampled upon by unbelievers.” What is the difference? In one case I am using a synonym: pigs for swine. The second is an interpretation; I am imposing an interpretation upon the saying.

Second, here are some questions I would like to see answered by the wooden-literalists.

1. When the New Testament writers quoted the O1d Testament why did they not make a wooden-literal translation?

Psalm 8:5/Hebrews 2:7

The passage in Psalm 8:5 says, “For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.” The word I want to discuss is the word translated here as “angels.” The Hebrew word for angel is “mal’akh” but that is not the word in Psalm 8:5. The word there is “elohim.” The word “elohim” is usually translated “God.” Why is it translated here “thou hast made him a little lower than the angels” when the word that we are translating is “elohim”? There is not a single other instance in all of the Old Testament in which the word “elohim” is translated “angels.” It is translated “God” 2,346 times and “angels” once. Why is it translated “angels” here?

Note Hebrews 2:7 which reads, “Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands.” We translate the word “elohim” in the Old Testament as “angels” because the writer of Hebrews uses it that way. Actually, he is giving authority to a translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. The Septuagint translated “elohim” as “aggeloi,” from which we get the word “angels” in English. The Septuagint translated “elohim” as “aggeloi” and the writer of Hebrews confirmed “aggeloi.” Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying the Septuagint is inspired, but when an inspired author of the New Testament uses a passage from the Septuagint and, therefore, the passage becomes part of the New Testament, the New Testament passage is inspired. Jude quoted a portion of the Book of Enoch, but that does not make the entire Book of Enoch inspired. It does make that portion of the book that he included in Jude inspired. It is not inspired because it in the Book of Enoch, but because it is in the Book of Jude.

We know that we have a correct translation of the word “elohim” as “angels” because we have an inspired interpretation of that word in Hebrews 2:7. If the writer of Hebrews used the word “angels” to translate the Hebrew word “elohim,” was he paraphrasing or not? Would the same objection apply to him that applies to the metrical Psalms?

Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23.

Isaiah 7:14 reads, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

There is a controversy concerning the translation of the phrase “a virgin shall conceive.” The Hebrew for Isaiah 7:14 does not say what the English says. The Hebrew uses the word“ha-’almah” which is translated “a virgin.” First of all, this passage does not use the indefinite article “a,” but the definite article “the.” Also, the word “ha-’almah” does not necessarily indicate virginity. It simply indicates a maiden. But “virgin’ works, and the reason it works is because the Septuagint at that point translates the word “ha‑‘almah” with the Greek word for “virgin.” Take note that in Isaiah 7:14 the definite article “the” was left out, but in the Hebrew it is there. It is not simply “`almah,” but rather, “ha-’almah” which means “the Virgin.”

We also need to discuss the tenses in this phrase as well. The verb “conceive” in our English translation is in the future tense. In fact, there is not even a verb present in the Hebrew. What we have in the Hebrew is the word “harah,” which means “with child.” The idea is that she is already with child — not she will be with child someday, but that she is with child. In the next phrase of the passage we find the future tense in the word “yoledeth” which means “she shall give birth.”

Compare this with Matthew 1:23 which reads, “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”

Notice how Matthew interprets the verse in Isaiah. We translate Isaiah “a” virgin rather than “the” virgin, and we translate it “shall be with child” or “shall conceive” rather than “is with child” because we have an inspired interpretation of that verse in the New Testament.

The point is this: did Matthew take a wooden-literal approach to translating Isaiah chapter 7? Not at all. He almost never takes a wooden-literal approach. For instance, where in the Old Testament do you find the verse that Matthew quotes as saying, “He shall be a Nazarene?” There is no verse in the Old Testament that says that. The place I believe he is quoting is Isaiah speaking of the Messiah as the “branch.” The word for “branch” in Hebrew is “netzer” so it seems as though Matthew is almost making a play on words. That is about as broad of a translation as you can get — to make a play on words.

2. How would the objectors handle the dissimilarities between English and Hebrew?

We have already discussed some of the problems associated with the dissimilarities between English and Hebrew. I would like the wooden-literalist to explain how he would translate some of these things. If he insists that we must have a word-for-word translation before we can sing the Psalms as the Word of God, then how would he translate some of these things? How would he make a distinction between “hiphil” and “qal” without using words like “cause” or “make?”

The only completely satisfactory solution with that in view would be to learn Hebrew and sing the Psalms in Hebrew. But then, if we impose that upon our singing, do we not have to impose it upon our reading? If we are going to say that we are “reading” the Word of God, when we are really reading a translation, do we not have the same problem? It seems to me that we do. The King James or any other modem translation is going to have the kinds of difficulties that we spoke of before in the dissimilarities between Hebrew and modern English, particularly in the fact that we do not have seven conjugations or voices in English. While we can carry the idea into English, we cannot do it with a single word.

3. Would chanting of any translation be acceptable?

A third question I would like to have answered by the wooden-literalist is that if we could find an acceptable translation would it be appropriate to chant it? Would that solve his problem and answer his objection? I realize we are asking this of someone who is not here, but I do not think an acceptable translation would answer his objection. I think he would simply fall back to another objection. I do not think the real objection is with the translation. I think the real objection is that some folks do not like being restricted to singing only Psalms. The Psalms speak about Christ taking dominion over the nations; the Psalms speak about the gospel going to all the world; the Psalms speak about the world becoming the kingdom of our Christ; the Psalms consistently throughout make a hard and fast distinction between the godly who are those who obey God’s Law and the ungodly who are those who ignore God’s Law. I think at that point we are getting down to some real reasons why some people do not want to sing the Psalms. Modern hymns are by us, to us, about us. The Psalms regard us with judgment over our heads and say that God will deal with us either in mercy and grace or in judgment. That is not acceptable to the modern mind. That which makes the gospel unacceptable to the modern mind is that which makes the singing of the Psalms unacceptable to the modern mind.

Some translations are better than others. We admit that. The translation we have in the Authorized King James Version is not a perfect translation. If we are going to speak about the actual words that God spoke, or that the prophet spoke or that the apostle spoke, then we examine the Hebrew and Greek. But when I stand in the pulpit and say to you, “Hear the very words of God” and then read to you in English, is that a lie? No. It is a faithful translation of the words of God suitable for reading. The King James, as much as I prefer it and would not change to another translation for reading, is not really suitable for singing — not as we sing in English. It could very well be suitable for chanting. If any of the wooden-literalists wants to begin chanting, we would have no complaint. If that will get them into the Psalms, and lead them to singing the Psalms rather than their modern ditties, then I say, by all means, let’s chant the Psalms. But I do not believe that is their real objection. I do not believe that is thereal force of their objection.

4. What will answer the objection?

I would like to ask, finally, if an acceptable translation were made, would the objectors find that acceptable? More often than not when this objection is raised, if you ask for examples of what they are talking about they are silent.

Look at verse one of Psalm 99, “The LORD reigneth; let the people tremble; he sitteth between the cherubims; let the earth be moved.” In Hebrew there are eight words. There are 17 words in the English. So we have eight Hebrew words being translated into 17 English words. Is it a paraphrase or a translation? Do we have a good translation? Yes, these 17 words translate well the eight words in the Hebrew.

Look at Psalm 99 in the metrical Psalter. It says “Th’etemal LORD doth reign as king” instead of “The LORD reigneth.” What is the Hebrew that is being translated? The verb is “malakh” so “reigneth” seems better than “as King.” The metrical version, however, is a more precise translation. If we could translate the actual idea of the Hebrew verb, we would have to make the word “king” into a verb. But “the LORD kings” is not only awkward, it is poor English. A much better translation would be “The Lord reigns as king,” or “The Lord reigns as a king” and that is how the 1650 Psalter reads.

More translation work went into the 1650 Psalter than went into the Psalms that you read in the Authorized King James Version. More translation work went into the preparation of the 1650 Psalter than went into preparation of the King James Version of the Bible. Does that make it a better translation? Again, the purpose of the 1650 Psalter translation is not to be suitable for reading. It is to be suitable for singing. It has a different purpose. If my purpose were simply to let you know what the word is in Hebrew, I might have hyphenated words, i.e., “cause-to-be-known,” rather than “teach.” That is what I might do if I were going to make a wooden-literal translation. But would that be suitable for reading? No. Would it be suitable for singing? No. So I have to look at what my translation purpose is. As they worked on the Psalter from the fall of 1643 the Westminster Assembly did not just accept it; they made numerous modifications. This translation is not simply a paraphrase of the English to make it rhyme. In fact, some times it does not fit very well at all. Why? Because there is not really an English word that does fit well, so sometimes we end up with too many syllables, sometimes too few. One of the translators’ considerations, and a valid one, was not to offend the ears of the people.

Summary: the Force of the Objection

So we are back to the question of the logical force of the objection. If the objection has force with respect to the singing of the Psalms it has the same force with respect to the reading of the Scripture. What is that force? It is an admission that our translations are not as perfect as we would like. We should always be ready to submit our translations to further revision. The Authorized Version of the Bible has not been revised since 1769. Even it could use some work: there are a number of archaic words.

Here is what the objectors are seemingly trying to say. “You folks are not really singing the words of God. You are just singing the words of man as they understand the words of God to be. And that is the same thing we are doing. When we sing John Wesley or Fanny Crosby or Isaac Watts, we are just singing their interpretation of the word of God. That is all we are doing and that is all you folks are doing when you sing a paraphrase.”

But the objection breaks down. Even if I were reading the New International Version of the Bible, you would still recognize it as a poor translation of the Word of God. But if I were to stand in the pulpit and read Matthew Henry’s commentary on the same passage, no one would understand that to mean that I was reading the Word of God. That is the difference between singing Isaac Watts and singing even the poorest translation of the Psalms.


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