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How the Psalms Were Prepared for King James

TitleHow the Psalms Were Prepared for King James
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1974
AuthorsSánchez, Margaret Tuttle
Issue Number3
Date PublishedMarch 1974
KeywordsBible Translation; King James Bible; Psalms (Book)

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How the Psalms Were Prepared for King James

By Margaret Tuttle Sánchez

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” [Ps. 23:1] It seems as though these warmly familiar words of the Twenty-third Psalm have always existed in a state of perfection, independent of time and change. So it has been for more than 360 years, ever since the last words of the final text were set to the page. And although a multitude of Bible versions and translations have followed, the King James Version of 1611, sometimes referred to as the Authorized Version, still abides in matchless beauty.

As we read aloud the words of the Psalms we sense from their flowing rhythms and deliberate balance that each word is well chosen. While nearly all of the words had been published in the earlier Bible translations and psalters of the sixteenth century, many choice words lay encumbered by clumsy phrases, not unlike diamonds among loose gravel.

It remained for a group of perceptive, highly trained, and gifted men to sift through this material with painstaking care. They spoke the words aloud and with sensitivity listened to their sounds. After a meticulous process of selecting, discarding, and polishing, the sequence of sounds was arranged euphoniously.

The process of arranging began in 1604, when King James appointed the outstanding scholars of his day to form six committees, two each at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge, to prepare an improved translation of the scriptures. “I could never yet see a Bible well translated in English,” the king lamented. Those assigned to translate the Psalms were all Cambridge men and noted Hebrew scholars.

Edward Lively, chairman, had been King’s professor of Hebrew at Trinity College, Cambridge, for 30 years. John Richardson was a well-known Hebraist. Robert Spalding and Andrew Bing were both professors of Hebrew, the latter, the youngest of the group, being only 30 at the time of this appointment. Thomas Harrison, a Puritan and poet, was adept at both Hebrew and Greek. Laurence Chaderton (or Chatterton), a Puritan convert, had studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Spanish at Cambridge. Francis Dillingham was a controversial young writer and linguist, loyally Anglican. Also in this company was Roger Andrewes (brother of the renowned Dr. Lancelot Andrewes), who was dean of Westminster, and, in effect, general chairman of the overall project.

Under Mr. Lively’s chairmanship, the Old Testament group at Cambridge promptly began their work. This group was to prepare the new text from 1 Chronicles through Ecclesiastes. Of these books, 1 and 2 Chronicles alone constituted some 30 percent of the task, and it is doubtful whether the committee had hardly begun by early May of 1605, when Mr. Lively died. Staggered and delayed in their work by the death of their chairman, the group nevertheless rallied and were able to complete their work in three to six years.

Their translation efforts were guided, in part, this way: “The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible, was to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit.” However, freedom was granted to consult whatever earlier translations might prove useful: “These translations to be used when they agree better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible: viz, Tindale’s, Matthews, Coverdale’s, Whitchurch’s, Geneva.”

Directions to the translators further specified: “Every particular man of each company to take the same chapters, and having translated or amended them severally by himself, where he thinketh good, all to meet together to confer when they have done, and agree for their parts what shall stand.”

Regardless of how much textual analysis was done individually by the various members of the committee, it seems likely that the actual creation of the King James text of the Psalms took place orally, around a table, as the full committee met to select, phrase by phrase, the most felicitous, accurate, and dignified wording possible. That such a method was followed is confirmed by John Selden’s later report in Table Talk:

“The translation in King James’ time took an excellent way. That part of the Bible was given to him who was most excellent in such a tongue … and then they met together, and one read that translation, the rest holding in their hands some Bible, either of the learned tongues, or French, Italian, Spanish, etc. If they found any fault, they spoke; if not, he read on.”

We can readily picture Richardson, Harrison, Spalding, Bing, Chaderton, Dillingham, and Andrewes—and there may well have been more—sitting around a table in such manner. As they faced the Psalms, their task was more than half over; yet the greatest challenge still lay before them. The Psalms would not only represent the longest portion of their revision (slightly longer than the combined 1 and 2 Chronicles), but they were also the most familiar of all scriptures to Englishmen everywhere.

The first Prayer Book had appeared in 1549, and its psalter, essentially that of Coverdale’s text for the Great Bible of 1539, had become an integral part of the worship service of the Church of England. Not even the authorized text of the Bishops’ Bible in 1568 had supplanted it. Coverdale’s Psalter was beloved as few works of literature have ever been. If revision were to succeed at all in this case, the new version would have to be indisputably superior.

On the other hand, the Geneva Bible of 1560, prepared in Switzerland by Whittingham, Gilby, and Sampson, all Englishmen exiled during the Catholic reign of Mary Tudor, had outrun in popularity all other versions in English. This version was Shakespeare’s choice, and its wording, too, was widely known and cherished.

With such considerations in mind, let us attempt to recreate the scene as one of these scholars takes up his copy of the Bishops’ Bible and begins to read from the Twenty-third Psalm:

“God is my shepherd. …” “Wait!” There is a chorus of exclamation. There is no question of going back to the Latin Vulgate, Dominus regit me, meaning that the Lord rules or governs me. All present agree that “shepherd” is the correct meaning. But to begin by saying “God” is too abrupt. The rhythm is awkward. There is no melody to the line. Moreover, the Hebrew word is Jehovah that here and elsewhere Coverdale has translated as the LORD, using capital letters. And besides, the Book of Common Prayer and the Geneva Bible both agree that there is a superior wording: “The Lord is my shepherd.”

The reader continues: “Therefore I can lack nothing.” This is better than the inversion in the Prayer Book, “Therefore can I lack nothing,” but it does not equal the simplicity and power of the Geneva version, “I shall not want.” This is it, a line with dignity and beauty of movement: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Again, the Bishops’ version is read: “He will cause me to repose my self in pasture full of grass.” The Prayer Book (Great Bible) version states, instead, “He shall feed me in a green pasture.” But why the future tense? Coverdale originally used the present tense, “He feedeth me.” The Geneva text agrees on this point and contributes a valuable alternative: “He maketh me to rest in green pasture.” “He maketh me”—how effectively the rhythm is enhanced by the alliteration. “To what?” “Repose myself” and “rest” both suggest the same thing. But how else could it be said, if the Lord were a shepherd and I were a sheep?

“He maketh me to lie down”—here the committee has had inspiration. The words are not in any of the English texts before them, but they agree to adopt them. “He maketh me to lie down in green pasture.” “Why not green pastures?” a new voice asks. Perhaps one of the group has glanced at an English paraphrase of the psalter, the one Anthony Gilby published in 1580, translating from the Latin the paraphrase of the psalter prepared by the Frenchman Theodore Beze (known as Beza in England).

Gilby was one of the translators of the Geneva Bible and his reputation is sound as that of Beza. “Green pastures” suddenly sounds universal. Coupled with the use of the present tense, the line takes on immediacy and significance for each follower of the Good Shepherd. It is accepted.

“And he will lead me unto calm waters.” The future tense has already been vetoed. Geneva, Coverdale, and Gilby all say, “And leadeth me.” Someone makes an astute observation: there is more balance and dignity if the “he” of the Bishops’ version is retained but all the “ands” are dropped. “He leadeth me”—it is a good beginning. There is a choice of prepositions: “to”? “unto”? “by”? “forth”? “beside”? “Beside” is chosen. Shall it be “calm waters,” “the pleasant rivers of waters,” “a fresh water,” “the waters of comfort”? The Geneva version triumphs again with the quiet beauty and appropriateness of “the still waters.” “Green pastures” and “still waters” now balance perfectly:

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.”

The line surpasses those of all earlier texts; it bears the stamp of excellence so characteristic of the King James version.

The Bishops’ Bible continues: “He will convert my soul; he will bring me forth into the paths of righteousness for his name [name’s] sake.” This version closely parallels the tense and wording of the Great Bible: “He shall convert my soul, and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” It is the Latin Vulgate that said, Animam meam convertit, suggesting the word convert, so frequently used in English translations.

The Hebrew word yeshubeb also suggests a turning and can be translated “he turns back.”1 Coverdale says, “He quickeneth,” but Geneva, still unerringly retaining Coverdale’s present tense, changes the word to restoreth, as does Gilby. For the latter part of this verse, there is substantial agreement among texts. Except for the repeated he that the committee chose again in place of and, however, the Geneva version can be said to supply the entire line: “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

The reader resumes: “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 be the things that do comfort me.” All are listening attentively, and this sounds superb, until the awkward phrase “be the things that.” “Yea though I walk” sounds better than the words “though I should walk,” used by Coverdale and Geneva. All are willing to accept “thy rod and thy staff” in place of Coverdale’s “thy staff and thy sheephook.”

The Great Bible (Prayer Book) version agrees exactly with the Bishops’ Bible regarding the word staff and then slices away the words, “be the things that do comfort me,” to conclude simply, “comfort me.” But is that enough? Rhythmically, it is almost too abrupt. Again the Geneva Bible contributes the perfect balance; “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Both the Latin and the Hebrew texts confirm this reading; the pronoun belongs there.

The Bishops’ Bible goes on, in future tense: “Thou wilt prepare a table before me in the presence of mine adversaries.” This is a smooth and effective reading compared with that of the Great Bible: “Thou shalt prepare a table before me against them that trouble me.” But here, quite literally, Coverdale in 1539 has followed the wording of the Latin Vulgate: adversus eos qui tribulant me. His 1535 version is better. Here we find the present tense, and the word preparest, instead of the expression “dost prepare,” used in the Geneva version.

But it is the Bishops’ Bible that furnishes the indispensable phrase, “in the presence of,” which has a rhythmic movement superior to “in the sight of” and is far better than the term against. But adversaries does not seem to be the right word. Coverdale says instead, “mine enemies,” and so, too, does Gilby, and this is accepted.

The reader continues: “Thou hast anointed my head with oil, and my cup shall be brim full.” All the others say “dost anoint” or “hast anointed,” so again Coverdale supplies the effective present tense: anointest. The expression “brim full” is delightful and possibly acceptable, were it not for the more excellent alternative in the Geneva text: “my cup runneth over.” The goodness of the Lord is limited if the cup is filled only to the brim; his graciousness actually exceeds our capacity to receive. This interpretation is not suggested in the Latin Vulgate or in the other English translations, and here the Geneva translators have made an outstanding contribution to the final text of the King James version of the Twenty-third Psalm. Nor is its meaning the only excellence of this clause, for in the very sound of the words, the stressed syllables of runneth and over suggest the full cup, while the cup’s overflowing is suggested by the unstressed syllables that follow.

Pieced together as it may be, there is a fine sweep and harmony in the verse as it now stands: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” The “and,” which in every other version precedes “my cup,” is here omitted by decision of the committee, and the result is a considerable increase in forcefulness as the statements decrease in length.

Coming to the final verse, the reader of the Bishops’ Bible resumes his text: “Truly felicity and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of God for a long time.” Everyone agrees on the words, “shall follow me all the days of my life,” for there has never been any confusion about the meaning of the Latin subsequetur me omnibus diebus vitae meae.

Again, the word Jehovah occurs in the Hebrew, and this will be given as the LORD, rather than as God, in the chosen text. But shall we say, “Truly felicity and mercy?” “Doubtless kindness, and mercy”? “But thy loving kindness and mercy”? Or shall we choose to plead, “Oh let thy loving kindness and mercy follow me”? At this crucial point, the scholar who looks at Gilby’s paraphrase sees the words: “And surely thy goodness and mercy shall follow me.” This is it! Let us not say “Truly” or “Doubtless,” but let us say “Surely,” for what the Lord does is certain and sure.

We can omit “and” and “thy,” but not “surely” and not “goodness” and “mercy.” So here, Gilby’s text has made an unmistakable contribution to the shaping of the Twenty-third Psalm. All agree that “I will dwell” is preferable to “I shall remain,” which is given in the Geneva version. Now what shall we do about the concluding words, so grandly expressed in the Latin in longitudinem dierum? The Hebrew means much the same: “unto the stretched-out days,” as one translator interprets it.2 “For a long time” sounds very weak in comparison, and so does Geneva’s expression “a long season.” Here we return to the wording of the Great Bible.

The beloved Prayer Book version begins with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and it ends: “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Appropriately, then, the King James text does likewise.

In this manner, the committees of scholars unerringly conserved all that was gracious and dignified and beautiful from the cherished versions of the past. Moreover, what was done with the Psalms was accomplished in general with the entire King James version of the Bible.

Sound in substance as other versions of the Psalms may have been, the King James text does indeed seem to shine more brightly.

Sister Sanchez recently moved to Texas, after teaching English at Brigham Young University for nine years. She serves as music director in Braeburn Ward, Houston Stake.


  1. Marion M. Hull, Two Thousand Hours in the Psalms (Chicago: John A. Dickson Publishing Co., 1934), p. 74. This is an interlinear transliterated Hebrew text with English gloss (primarily King James) and commentary.
  2. Ibid.