Psalmody Objections Answered: Meter


From the Preface to the Bay Psalm Book (1640).

As for the scruple that some take at the translation of the Book of Psalms into metre, because David’s psalms were sung in his own words without metre, we answer:

First, there are many verses together in several psalms of David which run in rhythms (as those that know Hebrew and as Buxtorf shows1) which shows at least the lawfulness of singing psalms in English rhythms.

Secondly, the psalms are penned in such verses as are suitable to the poetry of the Hebrew language, and not in the common style of such other books of the Old Testament as are not poetical; now no Protestant doubts but that all the books of scripture should by God’s ordinance be extant in the mother tongue of each nation, that they may be understood of all, hence the psalms are to be translated into our English tongue; and in it our English tongue we are to sing them, then as all our English songs (according to the course of our English poetry) do run in metre, so ought David’s psalms to be translated into metre, that so we may sing the Lord’s songs, as in our English tongue so in such verses as are familiar to an English ear which are commonly metrical: and as it can be no just offense to any good conscience to sing David’s Hebrew songs in English words, so neither to sing his poetical verses in English poetical metre: men might as well stumble at singing the Hebrew psalms in our English tunes (and not in the Hebrew tunes) as at singing them in English metre, (which are our verses) and not in such verses as are generally used by David according to the poetry of the Hebrew language: but the truth is, as the Lord has hid from us the Hebrew tunes, lest we should think ourselves bound to imitate them; so also the course and frame (for the most part) of their Hebrew poetry, that we might not think ourselves bound to imitate that, but that every nation without scruple might follow as the grave sort of tunes of their own country songs, so the graver sort of verses of their own country poetry.

Neither let any think, that for the metre sake we have taken liberty or poetical license to depart from the true and proper sense of David’s words in the Hebrew verses, no; but it has been one part of our religious care and faithful endeavour, to keep close to the original text.

[1] Johannes Buxtorf, Thesaurus Grammaticus Linguae Sanctae Hebraeae, p. 629.

Likewise, Josephus states that the Psalms were “of several sorts of metre; some of those which he made were trimeters, and some were pentameters.”

“3. And now David being freed from wars and dangers, and enjoying for the future a profound peace, composed songs and hymns to God [“ᾠδὰς εἰς τὸν θεὸν καὶ ὕμνους”] of several sorts of metre; some of those which he made were trimeters, and some were pentameters.” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 7, Chapter 12, Section 3).

John Brown of Haddington also observed:

“That the Hebrew originals are composed in a metrical form hath been almost universally agreed: but the laws and measures of the poetry have not yet been clearly ascertained. It is not even reasonable to insist, they should correspond with those of the Greeks or Romans, and other nations of the West, whose idioms and manner of language are so remarkably different. It is certain, they as little agree with those of the dull and insipid rhymes composed by the Jewish Rabbins. Some of the Psalms, no doubt for the more easy retention thereof in the memory, are composed of verses or sentences beginning according to the order of the Hebrew alphabet.” (Psalms of David in Metre, Preface, p. vi).

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2 thoughts on “Psalmody Objections Answered: Meter

  1. “Objection: But if we sing David’s psalms, let us sing them in David’s tunes, and not in such metre as men have devised.

    “This reasoning will prove as well that we shall not read David’s psalms; for may not a man as well say, why should we read them in any language but that wherein they were written? And so farewell singing and reading psalms too, and if you say but as much of all the other parts of scripture, farewell all preaching of gifted men, for they will have never a text nor Bible left them. But if we think ourselves bound to read the psalms in our own tongue, why may we not as well sing them in our own tunes? If you say there is a necessity of reading, I grant it, and say, there is a necessity of singing them also; there being as express precepts in scripture for the one, as for the other. When any man shall give us good reason against reading in our own tongue, we will give over singing psalms in our own tunes; till then, we believe there is the like necessity of the one and the other, or else we are come to a good pass indeed, that we must neither sing nor say. My answer then is in a word this, that there being a necessity of singing as well as of reading, we may do the one in our own tunes, as well as the other in our own tongue.”

    — Thomas Ford, Singing of Psalms: The Duty of Christians Under the New Testament (1653), pp. 29-31.


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