Three poems by King David, “the Sweet Psalmist of Israel”:

1. Psalm 8

2. Psalm 19

3. Psalm 27

4. Psalm 139

5. Psalm 23 – with a literary critique by Geoff Page



Psalm 8

Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is thy name in all the earth!

Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted
    by the mouth of babes and infants,
thou hast founded a bulwark because of thy foes,
    to still the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
    the moon and the stars which thou hast established;
what is man that thou art mindful of him,
    and the son of man that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God,
    and dost crown him with glory and honour.
Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;
    thou hast put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the sea.

Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is thy name in all the earth!

David, King of Israel

          (translation from the Hebrew —
          The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, 1946, 1952 & 1971)



Psalm 19

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their measuring line goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

David, King of Israel

          (translation from the Hebrew —
          The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 2001)



Psalm 27

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me,
    uttering slanders against me,
my adversaries and foes,
    they shall stumble and fall.

Though a host encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
    yet I will be confident.

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
    and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent,
    he will set me high upon a rock.

And now my head shall be lifted up
    above my enemies round about me;
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
    be gracious to me and answer me!
Thou hast said, “Seek ye my face.”
    My heart says to thee,
“Thy face, Lord, do I seek.”
    Hide not thy face from me.

Turn not thy servant away in anger,
    thou who hast been my help.
Cast me not off, forsake me not,
    O God of my salvation!
For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
    but the Lord will take me up.

Teach me thy way, O Lord;
    and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.
Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
    for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they breathe out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living!
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    yea, wait for the Lord!

David, King of Israel

          (translation from the Hebrew —
          The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, 1946, 1952 & 1971)



Psalm 139

O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there were none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.
Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

David, King of Israel

          (translation from the Hebrew —
          The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 2001)



Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

David, King of Israel

          (translation from the Hebrew —
          The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 2001)




from the King James’ Bible, 1611

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he
     leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of
     righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow
     of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
     thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of
     mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil;
     my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days
     of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.




from the Scottish Psalter, 1650

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 no 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.


A Literary Critique of “Psalm 23” by Geoff Page

Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian poet and short story writer, once drew our attention to the undeniable fact that God’s literary tastes are unknown. To judge from the King James’ version of the Bible, however, one would have to assume that He’s rather fond of free verse, parallelism and some good old Middle Eastern imagery, for a start.

In the almost four hundred years since it was first published, the 1611 Bible has been a crucial influence on English poetic imagery, tone, syntax, political oratory and, more recently, poetic metre. From a purely literary point of view, there are many ‘good bits’ in the 1611 Bible: the 23rd psalm is surely one of them.

It seems that the original Hebrew of the psalms, with its extensive use of parallelism and its relatively rough metre, was just waiting to be translated into English free verse. The Jewish poets (King David, supposedly, in the case of Psalm 23) liked to split their sentences with a caesura and then, in the second half, use one of three devices: a similar image, an antithetical image or a complementary image. The scholars (and poets!) of 1611 took to this strategy very readily and came up with the free verse which so influenced Walt Whitman in the mid 19th century and (with a few notable exceptions) most American poetry ever since.

In the first stanza of the 1611 version we see both the caesura strategy and the implied connection between the two halves. Because the Lord is my shepherd therefore I shall not want. We note, too, the psalm’s main rhythmic element that helps make it so memorable — there are two major stresses on each side of the caesura. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. We notice too, in passing, that there are only two syllables stopping it from being the pure iambic line “The Lord’s my shepherd; I’ll not want”. Free verse is not always as “free” as it looks.

In stanza two, which is much looser rhythmically, we note the parallel between the “green pastures” and the “still waters”, demonstrating that things are going well for both shepherds and fishermen — two key sources of protein, one might say. In stanza three the argument of the psalm develops further: God is a balm for the troubled soul and he is a guide, an idea further developed in the fourth stanza when the poet is led (with a bit of help from God’s “rod” and “staff”) through “the valley of the shadow of death”.

It’s worth thinking, also, about why this phrase is so resonant. The poet could simply have said “the valley of death” (“Death Valley”, as they used to say in the westerns) but he wants to emphasise how in life we live always in the “shadow” of death and, by implication, how the uplands surrounding that “valley” seem so inaccessible to us.

In the penultimate stanza we get down to some implied haggling. God, in exchange for fidelity, will help the poet defy his enemies with a full table (despite their best efforts to have it otherwise). Note, too, that the presence of enemies is taken for granted. This is the Old Testament, after all.

The last stanza summarises the poet’s hopes: he hopes he will (generally) be the recipient of good treatment from others and be treated leniently by those he, perhaps inadvertently, may have offended. At the end of all this he will “dwell in the house of the Lord for ever”. It’s remarkable how much ground is covered in just six verses. His working life, his political life, his moral life and his final destination are all alluded to, if not fully spelt out.

It’s interesting that the 1611 version was written while Shakespeare was still alive. Certainly, the Scottish Psalter version (1650) was written while Milton and Marvell were extant but to my taste, if not God’s, it seems somewhat inferior as poetry.

At first glance, all might seem well. It’s written in the time-honoured, ever-reliable ballad stanza (four stresses, three stresses etc with abcb rhyme scheme) and the content doesn’t seem significantly further away from the Hebrew than its 1611 predecessor. It’s even something of a triumph of metrical ingenuity (one suspects the anonymous poet’s heirs could even rewrite the phone book in this form) but that’s as far as it goes.

As a hymn, with its catchy 3/4 rhythm and lilting melody, the Scottish Psalter version can just pass muster but as poetry, particularly when seen from a modern viewpoint, it seems irremediably contorted. Not a stanza goes by without some serious inversion of syntax. “He makes me down to lie” instead of ‘he makes me lie down’ is just one example. “Pastures green” is probably the most irritating but “me to walk doth make” runs a close second. One can’t help preferring the sheer straightforwardness of the free verse alternative.

So, too, with the imagery. “Death’s dark vale” seems a very poor relation to “the valley of the shadow of death”. “Vale” was a poeticism, even in 1650. A “valley” is what we still have. Similarly the iambics of “in death’s dark vale” seem plodding compared to the sonorous, quasi-anapaestic feeling of “the valley of the shadow of death”.

Other infelicities include the ‘èd’ the hymn singers have to put on the end of “furnished” and the missing ‘the’ in the line that follows. Will a poet who so mangles English syntax have “goodness and mercy” following him all the days of his life? It seems rather more than he deserves.

By contrasting these two versions (both from the same century) we can discover why there is always something of an uproar when the Bible is ‘revised’ to improve its ‘accuracy’. To those more concerned with literary merit than with metaphysics it is very difficult to improve on the great free verse poems of 1611 — even if they were written by a committee.


This essay by Geoff Page is from his book 80 Great Poems from Chaucer to Now (University of New South Wales Press, 2006) and is reproduced on by kind permission of the author.




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