Translating the Psalms

Every Wednesday in St James, Slaithwaite, after sharing food and drink, we gather to study the Bible. One of the things we’ve learned is that the Bible speaks to each of us differently. We each have different questions and find different words and sentences jump out at us. As we share that with each other our understanding is broadened and our knowledge of the love of God grows.

One of our Readers, Carol, has been working on her understanding of the books of the Bible. She has a project to translate each chapter of each book into a single sentence: trying to capture the essence of what she understands when reading the Bible. Carol has given me permission to share this with you… this week; The Psalms

Carol writes…

I really struggled with the decision as to how to divide up the psalms. After investigating various different groupings, I realised that if I made it too hard to do I’d probably end up abandoning the whole project. The easy approach looks like this:

Basically, when I fill a page in my notebook, I’ll blog it.

Psalms 1-21

I thought that I would agonise over trying to condense a whole psalm into a sentence, but as they often carry a single strong theme it wasn’t too hard to find a sentence – finding an interesting sentence was a bit trickier though. Which is not to say that the Psalms aren’t interesting, but it could easily be like when some pop artists sample a really good hook line from a classic song and then repeat it and repeat it until it loses everything that made it a catchy line in the first place. I wanted to try and capture something of the meaning of each psalm without losing its feeling. Sometimes it was easy, other times I felt that I hadn’t quite got it.

I read the bible (almost) daily as part of morning prayer, which means I’ll get through the psalms more than once before I’m finished with the rest of the bible, so it’ll be interesting to see how my interpretations change over time. Oh – and if you are eagle eyed you will notice slight differences between my handwritten notes in the picture above and what’s typed out below. This is where my own sentence made no sense to me as I transcribed it, and so I went back to the psalm and altered my words a bit for clarity.

So, here are my interpreted (and slightly edited) sentences for Psalms 1 to 21:

  1. Happy people are fruitful, but the wicked are dust
  2. A ranty rant at ranty rulers
  3. Please God, shatter the teeth of the wicked!
  4. I will lie down and sleep in peace
  5. Hear my groaning prayers
  6. Don’t punish me Lord, hear me
  7. Lord, you should be angry about what’s happening to me
  8. God – why do you care about humans?
  9. God is… a safe place
  10. The wicked ambush the helpless
  11. When the very bottom of things fall out…
  12. People praise slick-talking lips and depravity
  13. How long will you forget about me God?
  14. Fools say there is no God
  15. The one who does what’s right lives with God
  16. I have a lovely home
  17. Enemies like lions waiting to pounce
  18. God, you light my lamp
  19. The Lord’s words are perfect, may mine be acceptable
  20. Some trust horses, we trust God
  21. The Lord is powerful and crushes enemies

If it were the track list from an album I’d definitely want to listen to it! I feel it captures many of the things I love about the Psalms; catchy imagery, everyday problems, human absurdity and, above all that, the goodness and patience of God.

‘Track’ 2 reads like an unfortunate comedy track (a bit like the inclusion of The Laughing Gnome on a David Bowie Greatest Hits album I nearly bought a while back). The vengeful and violent wishes expressed in 3 are a frequently recurring theme in many Psalms, which I find a bit stomach churning, so I tend to downplay this aspect in my interpretations. 4 is a classic hit that I just couldn’t add to and didn’t want to subtract from. I think 20 is my favourite so far; I could have substituted ‘strength’ or ‘power’ for ‘horses’, which would have more accurately and logically described what the horses represent in the psalm, but I think it would have lost something important.

Also, I love horses

Psalms 22-42

The second section of psalms still felt a bit like an album track list, but it had a few tricky titles, and I had to go back re-read and re-write some of my sentences at the editing stage:

  1. God does not despise the suffering
  2. God is my shepherd
  3. God is king of all
  4. I seek the way of God, for the Lord’s paths are good
  5. I walk with integrity
  6. I am sure I will see the goodness of the Lord
  7. Pay back the wicked and save me
  8. The Lord’s voice breaks Cedar trees
  9. God bought me back from the pit
  10. The Lord is my fortress
  11. Confessing to God will keep you safe
  12. Strength and power will not save – hope in the Lord
  13. The Lord saves the righteous and the suffering
  14. Don’t let the haters wink at my demise
  15. The wicked are stuck on wrong paths, but God’s love reaches further
  16. Delight in the Lord and ultimately you will win in life
  17. I’m totally broken down and afraid, I will wait for the Lord
  18. Lord – give me a break!
  19. The Lord saved me, I told of God’s deeds, now I need rescuing again
  20. I’m not worthy, but save me anyway Lord
  21. Though I am brought low, I will thank God

Lots of different images for God in this selection – king, shepherd, fortress – the images swing between strength and care. I enjoyed the repeating theme of God’s paths in 25, 26 and 36.

There’s a real familiarity in the way the psalmists swing between the highs and lows of their spiritual life, patterns I’ve seen in my own spiritual journals. One week God is amazing, the next I’m completely crushed and can’t find God at all, then something good happens and I’m back at the top of the rollercoaster again – the fickleness of humans is so well described in scripture, as is the steadiness of God.

Psalm 43-118 (blah blah blah)

I’m finding myself getting a little tired of the Psalms… so many of them feel very similar when you read them through day after day in their printed order. The mood seems to switch between ‘the king is great!’ (which I don’t believe) and ‘it’s not fair!’ (tedious and whiney) and ‘God help us squish our enemies’ (bloodthirsty and whiney). So I’m going to power through a big chunk at once in this post, and perhaps, further on I’ll begin to find more that I want to say about them again. They are divided into groups according to each page from my notebook:

  1. I don’t want to be sad and oppressed, so I will come to God and renew my hope
  2. You saved our ancestors Lord, but now you’ve retreated and left us to suffer
  3. A woman is encouraged to offer herself to the king
  4. God is a place of safety
  5. Praise God, who is king of all
  6. God is like a mighty fortified city on a mountain top
  7. Wealth will not save you from death
  8. God pronounces judgement on the wicked
  9. Rescue me from sin and make me pure again
  10. When the rich and powerful are taken out, I will remain because unlike them I’m rooted in God
  11. Evildoers and God reject us will come to a bad end
  12. God has heard me and saved me
  13. The wicked persons racket is devastating!
  14. I am constantly trampled but I trust God, because I am God’s and God is mine
  15. Trapped by enemies, I found refuge in God and so I will sing
  16. The righteous will triumph over the wicked because of their God
  17. My enemies prowl around me all night, like growling dogs, but I know God is my stronghold against them
  18. We are losing this battle because we have lost God – come back and rally us again God!
  19. God, hear me and save me and I will honour you
  20. God is my only salvation
  21. I seek God and I praise God and it feels good

The psalm I found most intriguing in this section was 55. Attributed to David, it seems as if it’s describing either a major panic attack or a huge tantrum following betrayal by a friend. The language used by the CEB translation here is quite demanding and childish “Pay attention! Answer me!” (verse 2) which I strangely enjoyed. I feel this kind of ‘honest’ language, that we turn to in times of great perturbation, is an appropriate way to speak to God when we feel that way. By comparison the same verse in NRSV reads “Attend to me, and answer me; I am troubled in my complaint”, which really doesn’t convey the same energy and feels artificial.

  1. The wicked scheme from hidden places, but they cannot hide from God
  2. The abundance of the earth is a song of praise
  3. The whole earth and God’s people praise God and our witnesses for God
  4. God blesses the whole earth, let all people thank God
  5. A great big battle hymn of God’s triumphs
  6. I’m already having a hard time, but my enemies still won’t back off – punish them God, wipe them out!
  7. God be quick to deliver me from these mockers who laugh in my face
  8. All of my life God has rescued and guided me, all of my life I will sing God’s praise
  9. A last prayer from David; that the king of Israel will rule like God, with mercy and and generosity
  10. I used to envy the wealthy scoffers living comfortable lives, but then I realise that without God they are doomed
  11. Our enemies have overwhelmed us, only God can save us
  12. God will bring down the wicked when the time is right
  13. All shall know that God is a terrifying warrior
  14. Meditations from a sleepless night
  15. An epic ballad of how how God saved a stubborn rebellious people
  16. We are helpless in the power of other nations, only God can save
  17. God of power, shine your face on us as you did before
  18. God songs a song of celebration and lament for Israel
  19. A cry for justice
  20. A plea for God to smite the enemies of Israel
  21. Even small birds can find a place in God’s house, I long to be in that wonderful place

Nothing really jumped out at me from this section, there were some good images but nothing that I hadn’t already come across many times in previous Psalms.

  1. Don’t give up on us God – the crops are doing well and the people are close to salvation
  2. A pleading prayer for rescue
  3. God is the source of life and knows all peoples
  4. Cry to God constantly there is nothing else I can do
  5. God’s covenant with David is shaky
  6. A prayer to an angry god
  7. Sheltering close to God will save you
  8. The Lord is eternal and righteous, evildoers seem to flourish but their destruction is inevitable
  9. God is majestic and powerful
  10. I trust that God will destroy the wicked and save the faithful
  11. The people praise God, bow down and worship, but are they listening?
  12. Let the whole world and all peoples praise God because God is bringing justice soon
  13. All the righteous should give thanks because God is mighty and above all objects of worship
  14. The whole world roars it’s praise to God who has triumphed and is coming to bring justice
  15. God establish justice for those who called for it
  16. Celebrate, because God is good
  17. David promises to walk with integrity and to root out evil from the city
  18. You Lord are forever, look on your groaning people
  19. Bless bless bless – let everything bless the Lord!
  20. A celebration of God’s wonderful creation
  21. A retelling of Exodus connecting Abraham and Moses in a single story as God’s chosen people

Psalm 105 marks the end of my bout of ‘psalm-fatigue’. On the next page of my notebook extra notes, questions and symbols begin to reappear as my brain engages once again with this book of songs and poems. It’s a good reminder for me that there are seasons for things. Every aspect and expression of my Christian faith has seasons of energy and enthusiasm as well as seasons of doubt, anger, boredom, frustration and all kinds of other emotions that aren’t always easy to categorize.

  1. A recounting of the Exodus story from the Reed sea to the promised land, emphasizing the failings of the people
  2. Consider God’s faithful love; he saved those who were lost, imprisoned, foolish and trapped by their desperate circumstances
  3. I will get out my instruments, sing to God, and hope for victory in this battle
  4. A prayer that God will save me from my accusers and won’t let them prosper
  5. Praise for all the ways king David seems favoured by God
  6. A song of praise to God’s righteousness
  7. Righteousness lasts but wickedness fades
  8. Praise God, who does unexpected things
  9. When God acts the whole earth responds
  10. Idols are mindless, and those who worship them become like them
  11. God gives so much to me, in return I will be God’s servant
  12. Praise God (short but sweet)
  13. God is good and eternally faithful, God has saved me – thanks!

Some lovely Psalms in this section; 107 reads like a folk song celebrating a succession of close shaves with death and salvation by God. Much emphasis on God’s faithfulness, the only one I found a bit ‘meh’ was the exuberant praise of David 110 which seemed somewhat sycophantic.

Some of my experiences of the life of faith have taught me that the kind of ‘dry’ period I experienced while reading through the Psalms is often unexpectedly fruitful. I can remember a period of nearly two years where going to church services felt excruciating because I was experiencing frequent anger and frustration in my spiritual life – going to church felt so pointless. Somehow I found the strength and encouragement to keep going week by week, until eventually the feelings began to change. When I emerged from the end of that time my faith felt stronger, and I noticed that my understanding of God had changed, and seemed somehow bigger – more expansive and inclusive.

Psalm 119

The longest psalm is written from the perspective of someone wanting to be saved, and clearly feeling they deserve to be saved because they’ve kept God’s Law, and I’m afraid I can’t say I found it particularly compelling or interesting on first reading.

119:1-25. A praise of God’s commands which I strive to keep
119:26-40. A plea that I will understand God’s commands better
119:41-56. I am completely committed to the instruction God has given me
119:57-72. I didn’t always follow God’s way, but now I’ve learnt to do so
119:73-88. I’m trying to follow God’s ways, in spite of other people oppressing me – save me from them Lord!
119:89-112. “Your word is a lamp before my feet and a light for my journey”
119:113-128. I don’t want to be destroyed like the wicked are, so I stick to your ways
119:129-144. Your laws are wonderful and I want to understand them better
119:145-160. I have kept your laws, so make my life good again
119:161-176. Lord find me and save me, because I really do keep your commandments

On the plus side there are lots of references to God’s paths in this one; the nicest of them from verse 105 which I’ve left unchanged from the CEB translation. Other than that I didn’t feel I ‘got’ much from psalm 119 – now why might that be? Could it have something to do with the Christian lens I view The Law through?

Christianity incorporates Jewish scripture (the Torah, some history, some prophetic writings and some poetry) but focuses more heavily on the stories and teachings of Jesus, his first disciples and the apostle Paul, found in what we call the New Testament. Although the New Testament writings were also written mostly by practicing Jews and refer a lot to Jewish practice and teaching, Christians tend not to think of them as being inherently Jewish. Even the names used to differentiate the two sets of writing – ‘New’ as opposed to ‘Old’ Testament – speaks volumes about Christian attitude towards Jewish scripture. The way that the New Testament writers frequently express criticism of the Jewish leaders’ interpretation of religious law, along with the way that this emphasis has been interpreted by the church historically, can lead Christians to a negative bias about The Law and about Judaism generally.

In recent years Christians in some churches along with Jewish scholars have begun the difficult work of exposing and confronting prejudice towards Judaism, and most modern theologians are much more careful about how they handle interpretation of The Law. But still, the question remains, how do Christians (and by this I mean every Christian, not just those with theological training) appropriately treat The Law when their own understanding of God’s grace does not require strict adherence to every aspect of it?

Becoming aware of your own personal bias and prejudice is hard, but I have found it to be of significant importance for spiritual growth. A book changed my attitude towards The Law was AJ Jacobs ‘A Year Of Living Biblically’. It’s an autobiographical and comic account of an experiential journalist’s attempt to live strictly by The Law for a year. AJ described himself as nominally Jewish but mostly agnostic at the start of the experience, but seemed to undergo a spiritual change during the course of it. The book made me begin to understand that The Law was and is transformative.

Returning to Psalm 119, I am struck by the boldness of the author. He is not just politely requesting that God hear him, he is demanding it! He’s in effect saying “God, we have a deal – a covenant – and I’ve kept my side, so you have to keep yours. Now get on with it or tell me why. What gives him such boldness? It can only be his confidence in The Law, which has been affirmed and remembered in the history stories of his people and handed on to him. And actually that is the whole point of this psalm.

Psalms 120-150

The ‘home straight’ in my first read through of the Psalms.

  1. I found myself among warlike people and cried out to God to rescue me
  2. When I look for help God is there
  3. A prayer for Jerusalem
  4. We wait and watch for God to free us
  5. A short reminder that God saved Israel from Egypt
  6. God and God’s people are as sure as the mountains
  7. May the Lord soothe our tears and make us fruitful like we used to be
  8. Work is pointless, unless for God, and children are a gift
  9. Those who walk God’s ways will be blessed
  10. May the wicked who hurt me be brought to shame
  11. If God kept track of our sins we would have no hope, but the Lord is faithful in redemptive love
  12. I am quiet as a well fed child as I wait for the Lord
  13. A prayer that God will remember the promise to anoint those of David’s line
  14. Families in harmony are a blessing from God
  15. All who serve God bless God, and are blessed in return
  16. A song of praise for God, recognising all the Lord has done for Israel
  17. A song of thanks for creation and for the rescue of Israel
  18. A lament for the loss of Jerusalem and a call for vengeance on Babylon

I didn’t make many notes for this section, except to observe that psalm 136 had a lovely repeating chorus about God’s love lasting forever, which I could imagine being sung responsorially in a great congregation. Also that without the language made familiar in the disco song ‘By The Rivers Of Babylon’ released in 1978 by Boney M, psalm 137 seemed to communicate sorrow and rage more clearly. It made me wonder whether the Psalms sometimes lose something by being made into songs. Some Psalms were clearly written as songs, but many read more like poems or even raps which I feel could be better mediums for communicating the more challenging emotions like anger. But I doubt we’ll be rapping angry psalms in church any time soon, even if that were possible the ‘cursing psalms and verses are generally left of the lectionaries for main Sunday church services.

  1. Thank you God for being with me
  2. God you know me in every way, lead me on
  3. Lord rescue the righteous and let the wicked be trapped by their own snares
  4. Hear my prayer and protect me
  5. I’m yelling out to God because no one else can save me
  6. Help me quickly Lord, for I’m fading away
  7. God made me a fighter; now I ask for victory, so that we can live in peace and plenty
  8. God is great and good, the whole world proclaims it, and so will I
  9. Don’t trust humans, trust God
  10. Everything happens according to God’s will
  11. Every single thing ever made should praise the Lord
  12. Let the people praise God and avenge their enemies
  13. Praise God as loudly as you can!

Lots of short praise psalms as we coast towards the end, which made for a nice upbeat finish. When reading the very familiar psalms (like 139) I found that the CEB translation gave a fresh voice to them, although in a few places the colloquialisms made me cringe a bit.

/end… originally published here


  1. How wonderfully given thank you so much for all your hard work and insight.
    Several sentences rang out to me… from psalms 9…23/24….63…100….113….138
    147…. and inparticularly 65 & 71..
    121 & 150 …I know shall be reading and looking more into these. Thank you

Comments are closed.