The Scottish Metrical Version of the Psalms (1650)
Do we appreciate what a treasure we have in the
Scottish Psalter of 1650? Just as the Authorized Version of the Bible
did not appear in a vacuum but was the perfecting of a textual tradition
revived at the time of the Reformation, so the Scottish Metrical Version
of the Psalms was the ripest fruit of a long and painstaking labour to
produce in the English language an accurate versification of the
church's manual of praise.
Psalm singing has been and is a feature of the Presbyterian and Reformed
Churches. As Reformed Christians we believe that the worship of God is
not left to man's imagination but is regulated by God Himself. This is
what we call the Regulative Principle: God makes known in His Word how
His people are to worship Him. But even those of us who accept this
principle and sing only the Psalms, do we ever stop to think about the
Psalter—the version of the Psalms—which we sing? It is a sad fact that
all too many Reformed Christians today do not. We fail to appreciate the
treasure we hold in our hands, when we worship God, in the form of the
Scottish Metrical Version of the Psalms. This short article is an
attempt to rectify this failure.
1. Historical Background
The Scottish Metrical Version of 1650 (SMV) has a
noble pedigree. It can trace its lineage right back to the Protestant
Reformation and to the very first Psalters of the Reformation. This is
one of the reasons why Presbyterians ought to value their Psalter. This
point is confirmed by the fact that some of the versions in our Psalter
were carried over from the Reformation Psalters.
In 1539 John Calvin printed nineteen Psalms in Strasbourg. This was the
Strasbourg Psalter, the fountain-head from which Reformed Psalmody
flowed forth. It was the Reformer's desire to give the people their
rightful place in worship that the Romish Church had denied them. When
Calvin returned to Geneva he saw to it that the Psalter was completed,
as it was in 1562.
Calvin's Geneva became a refuge for those persecuted for their faith
during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558). One of these was the
Scottish Reformer John Knox, who along with other exiles produced a Book
of Order for use in the English Congregation at Geneva. This included
fifty-one Psalms, this number growing to eighty-seven in the third
edition of the Psalter. This Psalter is known as the Anglo-Genevan
Psalter. The preface to the Psalter makes it clear how it was the
Reformers' concern to translate the Psalms as literally as possible.
Bearing in mind they had some Psalm-versions already to hand, they
In this our Enterprise we did only set God before our
Eyes; and therefore weighed the Words and Sense of the Prophet, rather
considering the Meaning thereof than what any Man had written. And
chiefly being in this Place, where as most perfect and godly Judgement
did assure us, and Exhortations to the same encourage us, we thought it
better to frame the Rhyme to the Hebrew Sense, than binde the Sense to
the English Meeter.
The eighty-seven versions of the third edition of the
Anglo-Genevan Psalter were the basis for the First Scottish Psalter.
Knox brought these Psalms back with him from Geneva and in 1562 the
General Assembly of the Church of Scotland directed that the Psalter
should be completed. The Psalter was completed in 1564, it being the
direct forbear of our present Psalter.
Our present Psalter (SMV, 1650) arose out of the conviction that
although the Psalter of 1564 was a faithful translation of the original,
its variety of metre was too difficult for the common people. As a
consequence of the Second Scottish Reformation it was decided to reform
religion in the three kingdoms, hence the Westminster Assembly of
Divines 1643-1647. The Westminster Assembly produced a new Psalter which
was a revision of one by Francis Rous. But before accepting it the Kirk
subjected it to a thorough examination and revision taking some two
years and four months. The result was our present Psalter, the SMV of
There are three things we may say in appraisal of the
SMV of 1650.
a. Faithfulness to the Original
The most important point about our Psalter is its
faithfulness to the original Scripture. Unlike modern Psalters the SMV
is not a paraphrase, but a translation. This is the case with all the
Reformation Psalters. We have already noted the attitude of Knox and his
associates to the translation of the Psalms. Consciously and
deliberately our Reformed forefathers produced translations of the
Psalms. The fact that they were translations into verse (or metre) does
not mean paraphrase. What it does mean is contraction and dilation of
Hebrew words and phrases. For example, "For he hath not despised nor
abhorred the affliction of the afflicted" was contracted to "For he
despis'd not nor abhorr'd th' afflicted's misery" (Ps. 22:24). The
preservation of the force of the Hebrew is the outstanding feature of
our Psalter and the reason why we should prefer it above all others.
The SMV received the sanction of the civil power in
1650 as well as that of the Church. This sanction, which excluded the
use of any other version in Scotland, was confirmed by the Revolution
Settlement of 1688-90 which re-established Presbyterianism in Scotland.
c. Unity in Doctrine and Worship
The SMV has been a powerful force for liturgical and
doctrinal unity in both Scotland and Ireland where it alone was the
Church's songbook for over two centuries. It is surely no accident that
when the Churches began to produce their own revisions we have seen
"individualism" win the day with the Presbyterian Churches each having
their own Psalter, and worse still in some cases their own collections
of uninspired songs.
What then ought we to do? It is our fervent hope that
if you are a member of a church which still uses the SMV of 1650 you
will have a greater appreciation of the spiritual treasure you hold in
your hands. You may be sure that when you sing praise from it, you sing
the words of God. And you need not be ashamed of its connections. This
is truly a Reformed Psalter. These were the songs of the martyrs, the
songs of our Reformed and Presbyterian forefathers. May God grant that
they will continue to be our songs today.