A. Sternhold and Hopkins (SH) – the Old Version

The Old Version was produced at the time of the Reformation. It seems to have been (at least in part) a direct translation from Hebrew. The individual psalms were not a joint effort. Some versions indicate who translated which ones. It appeared in stages but was complete by some time in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was the standard version in England for some two centuries. It is simple, robust and earthy in style. It frequently verges on the doggerel, and contains many examples of uncouth phraseology to make words fit the metre. It has nevertheless been seriously argued in the past that it is a better translation than most others, including the prose versions. In the C17 and early C18 it was bound into most peoples’ copies of the Bible or the Prayer Book.

Hebrew is a language very economical in words, and the Old Version is shorter than any other metrical version. In some respects it is individual. For example, most modern scriptural translations are reticent at Psalm 78:67 –  The Good News Bible (1976) reads:

He [i.e. God] drove his enemies back in lasting and shameful defeat.

This is a reference to an episode in 1 Samuel 5 when the Ark of the Covenant fell into the hands of the Philistines. Among the consequences was that the Philistines were afflicted with what are in some versions described as tumours, and others more specifically. The 1662 version catches what appears to be an intentional ambiguity in the Hebrew:-

He smote his enemies in the hinder parts : and put them to perpetual shame.

Hopkins is more explicit.

With em’rods in the hinder parts ~ his enemies he smote:
And put them unto such a shame ~ as should not be forgot.

The quality of the Old Version varies, but so does the quality of some of the Hebrew originals. Changes in language since the C16 mean that some psalms perhaps need alteration to scan in modern speech. Nevertheless, several people have commented how as one compares the various versions, and becomes familiar with them, gradually it is the Old Version that inspires the greatest affection. Many find a sturdy simplicity that later texts have lost.

Sadly, very few Old Version psalms have survived into modern hymn books, apart from the Old Hundredth, ‘All people that on earth do dwell’. It is a pity. A number of the psalms in this collection are sourced from it.

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