The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary

Translated by Robert Alter

(W.W. Norton, 518 pp., $35)

"Whatever David says in his book pertains to himself, to all Israel, and to all times," declares Midrash Tehillim, the early rabbinic commentary on the Book of Psalms. If the rabbis erred, it was not on the side of exaggeration. It is not just Israel that placed the Book of Psalms, traditionally but falsely ascribed to King David, at the center of its spiritual vocabulary. These one hundred fifty poems had a definite and now somewhat unclear function in the rituals of the Temple in Jerusalem; and after the Temple was destroyed, and liturgy came to do the work of the altar, they migrated to the Jewish prayer service, where they are ubiquitous. To this day, Psalms is the book to which the devout most often turn, in joy and in sorrow.

But it was Christianity, of course, that managed to disseminate the Psalms throughout Europe and the world, on a scale that their authors could never have imagined. In the Middle Ages, the Liturgy of the Hours consisted of eight daily services, each centered on the singing of a psalm, and monks took it upon themselves to recite the entire Latin Psalter every week. With the Reformation, these poems and hymns gained even larger audiences as they were translated into the European vernaculars. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer included the King James Version of the Psalter and provided for the full cycle to be read monthly, as well as assigning appropriate Psalms to each holiday. It is fair to say that as a result, from the sixteenth century through the twentieth, no lyrics were more widely or deeply read in Europe than the Psalms. For a reader of English literature, knowing the King James Psalter is as indispensable as knowing Shakespeare or Mother Goose: it is one of the diapasons of our poetry.

It is not just the sheer familiarity of the Psalms, however, that explains their extraordinary influence. No less than the rabbis, the ministers, and the priests--as well as their ordinary congregants--insisted that the Psalms "pertained to themselves." These Hebrew texts, written by a series of anonymous poets at various times between 1000 and 400 B.C.E., seemed to generations of readers to be the very scripts of their own inner lives. Martin Luther, who translated the Psalter into German and used it as the basis for his hymns, wrote that "this book, though small, deserves to be recommended above all others," since even for the ordinary, theologically unenlightened Christian it offered "some little sweetness of the breath of life, and some small taste of consolation, like the faint fragrance which is found in the air not far from a bed of roses." John Donne echoed the sentiment in a sermon preached at St. Paul's Cathedral in 1625. "The Psalms are the Manna of the Church," he proposed. "As Manna tasted to every man like that that he liked best, so do the Psalms minister instruction, and satisfaction, to every man, in every emergency and occasion."

From their different theological and historical perspectives, all these commentators converged on the idea that the Psalms were uniquely suited for what we would now call appropriation. They could be taken over and used in equally valid ways by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, in Hebrew, Latin, or English: Providence had designed them for that very purpose. But the Christian appropriation of the Psalms was also inevitably a kind of confiscation, and the way Luther or Donne read the poems was partly to misread them. The process is already at work in Donne's phrase "the Manna of the Church," as though the Psalms were Christian texts that only sojourned among the Jews until the true church was ready to receive them. "David," as Donne put it, "was not only a clear Prophet of Christ himself, but a Prophet of every particular Christian."

This assumption was crucial to the way King James's committee of scholars, and subsequent Christian translators, turned the Psalms into English. It guided their decisions about how to render many Hebrew terms: if the Psalms were essentially a Christian text, then it was not just legitimate but imperative to employ the Christian theological vocabulary of sin and soul and salvation. And that vocabulary, which for English readers became the very language of the Psalms, itself sanctioned the belief that the Psalmist thought in Christian concepts. Take Psalm 2, verse 7, which reads, in the King James Version: "I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee." Elsewhere in the Psalm it is clear that the speaker of this line is a king of Israel, and that the divine power he claims is simply the ability to defeat his foes in battle: "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel." Yet the text virtually insists that we take the "Son" to be Jesus Christ: not only is the noun capitalized, so is the pronoun, and the word "begotten" comes straight out of the Nicene Creed ("I believe ... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God").

The translators' work of Christianizing the Psalms was not always so blatant. In Psalm 23, possibly the best known of all the King James versions, the third verse begins, "He restoreth my soul." Inevitably the phrase makes us think of resurrection, and it retroactively turns the Psalmist's imagery of "green pastures" and "still waters" into metaphors for heaven. By the time we reach the end of the poem--"and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever"--it is impossible to read "for ever" as meaning anything but "eternally," in the time-without-end of the redeemed soul.


One of the tasks that Robert Alter undertakes in his extraordinary new translation of the Psalms is to undo this Christian orientation. As he writes in his introduction, he has deliberately set out to evacuate the covert theological assumptions of the Authorized Version: "the pointed absence of 'soul' and 'salvation,'" as Alter notes, are only the most obvious signs of this program. It extends even to capitalization, as can be seen in Alter's version of Psalm 2. Where the King James Version has "Thou art my Son," leaving no doubt that the second person belongs to the Second Person of the Trinity, Alter has "You are My son," restricting the honorific capital to the speaker, God. Again, in Psalm 23, in place of "He restoreth my soul," Alter's version reads "My life He brings back": "the Hebrew nefesh," Alter explains of the noun at issue, "does not mean 'soul' but 'life breath' or 'life.'" In the same poem, Alter's Psalmist concludes by asking to live in the house of the Lord not "for ever" but "for many long days"--the true meaning of the Hebrew l'orech yamim. "The viewpoint of the poem," his note explains, "is in and of the here and now and is in no way eschatological."

The combined effect of these changes is to remove the Psalms from the Christian drama of sin and redemption, and to situate them firmly in this world. This does not mean that Alter's Psalms automatically become a more Jewish text--a point worth emphasizing, because the equation of Christianity with the transcendent and Judaism with the immanent is an old and frequently unpleasant trope of Christian apologetics. In his obnoxious and sanctimonious book Reflections on the Psalms, for instance, C.S. Lewis opined that the Psalmist's constant appeal for God's judgment against his enemies is "very characteristically Jewish": "the Christian pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff. The one hopes for acquittal, or rather for pardon; the other hopes for a resounding triumph with heavy damages."

It is good to have an English version of the Psalms that is liberated from this sort of interpretation. For the fact is that Alter's systematic return to the original Hebrew text leaves his Psalms estranged from the ethical language of both Judaism and Christianity. "We are all accustomed to think of Psalms, justifiably, as a religious book," he writes, "but its religious character is not the same as that of the Christian and Jewish traditions that variously evolved over the centuries after the Bible." Instead of looking forward to their "fulfillment" in some messianic antitype, Alter's Psalms look backward--to the warrior culture that produced them, obsessed with honor, shame, and revenge; and even to the polytheistic Canaanite mythology that lurked in the background of Israelite religion. Psalm 95 declares: "For a great god is the Lord,/and great king over all the gods"; and in Psalm 104 we find God making war on the Ocean, as Baal did on the sea-god Yam in Canaanite myth:

over mountains the waters stood.

From Your blast they fled,

from the sound of your thunder

they scattered.

They went up the mountains, went

down the valleys,

to the place that You founded

for them.

A border You fixed so they could not

cross,

so they could not come back to

cover the earth.


But polytheism is only a trace element in Alter's Psalms. More disconcerting, because more fundamental, is the ethical ambiguity of their monotheism. The Psalmist appears in several guises over the course of these one hundred fifty poems: as the awed observer of the Creation ("The heavens tell God's glory,/and His handiwork sky declares"); as the chronicler of Jewish history ("I found David my servant,/with My holy oil anointed him"); as the ecstatic celebrant of God's attributes ("Greatness and grandeur before Him,/strength and splendor in His sanctuary"). But he is most frequently to be found approaching God as a supplicant, requesting divine help against the enemies that surround him.

The ground of his prayer, almost always, is justice. He deserves God's help because he is righteous and pious, while his enemies are the reverse. Thus Psalm 73:

They mock and speak with malice,

from on high they speak out

oppression.

They put their mouth up to the heavens,

and their tongue goes over the

earth.

Thus the people turn back to them,

and they lap up their words.

And they say, "How could God know,

and is there knowledge with the

Most High?"

Look, such are the wicked....

In this way, the Psalmist merges ethics and faith until they become a single entity: if to believe in God is to believe in a good God, then to do evil is implicitly to deny God. "The scoundrel has said in his heart,/There is no God, '" as Alter renders the famous beginning of Psalm 14.

Yet this equation of faith with goodness, which gives the Psalms their ethical sublimity, can also be read in the other direction. For if God is called upon to punish evildoers not just because they do evil, but primarily because they disbelieve in Him, then God's motives are not exactly disinterested. Doing justice becomes a way of defending God's honor, rather than a categorical imperative; and so the ideal of justice is ironized even as it is affirmed. This logic explains why the Psalmist can sometimes sound almost like Iago, insinuating that God owes it to himself to destroy his enemies--who also happen to be the speaker's enemies. "Until when, O God, will the foe insult,/the enemy revile Your name forever?" he asks in Psalm 74; "Arise, God, O plead Your cause./ Remember the insult to You by the base all day long." Such passages continue the tradition, begun by Moses, of appealing to God's lesser self, to His unworthy interest in His own reputation.

It makes sense for the Psalmist to believe that God would respond to this sort of inveigling, because his values are those of a warrior culture, in which nothing is worse than public humiliation. Like Achilles--with whom the earliest kings of Israel were perhaps contemporary--the Psalmist believes that the acme of suffering is to see your enemies gloat over you. "In this I shall know You desire me --/ that my enemy not trumpet his conquest of me," " he tells God in Psalm 41. Again, in Psalm 25, he begs, "Guard my life and save me./Let me be not shamed, for I shelter in You."

By the same token, the sweetest pleasure is to glory in the defeat of one's enemy. Nothing in the Psalms is more disturbing, to a contemporary reader, than the undisguised glee that the poet takes in the physical suffering of his foes, both personal and national. It is not just that he pleads with God, "Pay them back for their acts,/and for the evil of their schemings." Again like the author of the Iliad, the Psalmist delights in graphic images of revenge: "break the arm of the wicked," "the teeth of the wicked You smash," "That your foot may wade in blood,/the tongues of your dogs lick the enemies." Nowhere is Alter's commitment to concrete and literal translation more revelatory. The most disturbing example comes at the end of Psalm 137, whose affecting opening lines--"By Babylon's streams,/there we sat, oh we wept,/when we recalled Zion"--are quoted much more often than its last lines: "Daughter of Babylon the despoiler,/happy who pays you back in kind,/for what you did to us./Happy who seizes and smashes/your infants against the rock."

There is no denying that this violent strain is one of the reasons the Psalms have been so readily adoptable by all different kinds of believers. Self-righteousness and vengefulness are some of the most seductive emotions, and the Psalms are poems that not only memorably express them but positively authorize them. It is no wonder that they have appealed in particular to masters of theological hatred such as Luther and Milton, each of whom belonged to a beleaguered Christian sect. In Milton's translation of Psalm 5, the Psalmist's cause becomes the Puritan cause: "All workers of iniquity/Thou hat'st; and them unblest/Thou wilt destroy that speak a lie;/The bloody and guileful man God doth detest./But I will in thy mercies dear/Thy numerous mercies go/Into thy house."


If this were the only voice of the Psalms, their appeal would be strong but narrow, when in fact it is strong and broad. That is because "the Psalmist," traditionally identified with King David, is a fiction. There is not just one mind at work in the Psalms, there are several, and this allows the book to compass many modes of spiritual experience. That is why the Psalms can continue to speak to readers who no longer believe in their Davidic authorship or in their divine inspiration, or indeed in the biblical God. Past ages looked to these poems for expressions of their own reverence or awe or embattled righteousness, and found them. Today we may look to the Psalms for expressions of our own doubt and fear and homesickness for God, and also find them.

Indeed, the rhetorical logic of the poems requires that they confront God's distance as well as his nearness. The Psalmist's supplications, his constant demands for "rescue" (the word by which Alter nicely translates yeshuah, in preference to the King James Version's tendentious "salvation"), are necessary only because his suffering was allowed to happen in the first place, by a God who is always initially absent. The most moving Psalms are those in which this tension is heightened to the point of despair, such as the well-known Psalm 42:

As a deer yearns for streams of water,

so I yearn for You, O God.

My whole being thirsts for God,

for the living God.

When shall I come and see

the presence of God?

It is because the Psalms make room for the experience of abjection and devastation that they continue to be appropriated by poets who find the only evidence of God's existence in the sensation of his absence. Paul Celan has as much right to title a poem "Psalm" as Milton did, since Celan's doubt is as true to the spirit of Psalms as Milton's certainty: "No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,/no one incants our dust./No one./Blessed art thou, No One."


At the same time, Alter's version reminds us that reading the Psalms as poetry can never be the same experience as reading them as Scripture. Surprisingly, perhaps, the difference is most obvious not in the language of Alter's Psalms, but in their music, which breaks just as radically with the expectations bred in English readers by the Authorized Version. The verse of the King James Psalms, while instantly recognizable, is not actually verse at all, but a highly rhythmic prose. As in the Hebrew, most lines are composed of two versets, which balance each other semantically and syntactically. But the English version does not attempt to match the rhythms of the Hebrew, and each line is permitted to stretch to as many syllables as needed to capture the sense. The resulting rhythm--as regular as systole and diastole, yet as leisurely as rocking from foot to foot--is the perfect English vehicle for the Psalms' message of reassurance. In almost every line, the first verset seems to advance a proposition that the second verset confirms. "Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident," says Psalm 27; and simply saying the words aloud seems to instill that confidence.

More than anything else, it is this primal rhythm of affirmation that makes the Psalms psalm-like to an English reader. (Whitman's genius was to realize that such a rhythm could be equally effective in making his heresies sound scriptural.) The best proof of this is the way all other attempts to put the Psalms into English verse seem deficient when placed side by side with the King James Version. This is not to say that they are bad poetry. In the seventeenth century, some of the best English poets were Christian devotional poets, and their Psalms can display all the wit and grace we associate with the golden age of English lyric. Thomas Carew usually figures in the anthologies as a minor Metaphysical poet, but his version of Psalm 91 shows how the Metaphysical idiom, with its unadorned syntax, quick leaps of imagery, and unlikely epithets, can provide an excellent vehicle for the Psalmist's message:

Make the great God thy fort, and dwell

In him by faith, and do not care

(So shaded) for the power of hell

Or for the cunning fowler's snare

Or poison of the infected air....


The winged plague that flies by night,

The murdering sword that kills by day,

Shall not thy peaceful sleeps affright

Though on thy right and left hand they

A thousand and ten thousand slay.

This is a good poem, but it does not feel like a Psalm. The reason is that the very artfulness of the poem--the easy rhymes, the striking adjectives, all the ways Carew leaves his own mark and the mark of his school on it--detracts from the assured, impersonal music of the Psalms as we know them from the Authorized Version:

I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge

and my fortress: my God; in him

will I trust.

Surely he shall deliver thee from the

snare of the fowler, and from the

noisome pestilence....

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror

by night; nor for the arrow that

flieth by day;

Nor for the pestilence that walketh in

darkness; nor for the destruction

that wasteth at noonday.

A thousand shall fall at thy side, and

ten thousand at thy right hand;

but it shall not come nigh thee.

When the King James Version says that the godly man is invincible, it sounds like a promise; but when Carew says it, it sounds like a conceit. That is why the rhythm of the King James Version is so ideally suited to the Psalms as Scripture: its music is as affirmative as its message. It constitutes a convincing reply to the question asked in Psalm 137: "How can we sing a song of the Lord/on foreign soil?" Indeed, the King James Psalms deserve to be thought of as more than just renderings of the Hebrew Psalms. They are translations in the sense Walter Benjamin meant when he wrote that every work has "an intention ... which no single language can attain by itself," which only translation into another language can bring to light. Benjamin's conception, which sounds merely fanciful when applied to secular literature, is perfectly suited to Scripture, which is in fact its true ground and inspiration. Only a divine author can have a meaning so vast that all languages are needed to convey it. If the Psalms are a holy book, then the King James translation is canonical in more than a metaphorical sense: by creating the experience of the Psalms in English, it became itself a kind of Holy Writ. Not just its language and its music, but its historical role--its influence during the centuries when the Bible was a quickening element in English culture--endows it with an authority that no other English translation can match.


Alter's translation challenges the authority of the King James Psalter by showing that the Psalms can come into English in a different form, and a more accurate one. He does this, above all, by taking aim at the central element in the canonical power of the King James Version: its rhythm. Rather than accept that this rhythm defines the psalm-like for the English reader, Alter derides it, in his introduction, as "the beauty of a proto-Whitmanesque line of poetry rather than of biblical poetry." His own "preoccupation with rhythm" means that he wants to make an English version that hews as closely as possible to the sound of the Hebrew, "emulating its rhythms wherever feasible."

Yet this ambition, reasonable as it appears, soon runs up against the reality that the sound values of one language are never convertible into those of another language. A French alexandrine cannot be converted into an English line of twelve syllables and still retain the classical symmetry and balance of the original; a six-foot line, in English, sounds like doggerel, and tends to decompose. Iambic pentameter has fewer beats and syllables than the alexandrine, but in effect it is the true English equivalent. And the sound values of Hebrew and English are, of course, still more incommensurable. Hebrew is a highly inflected language, which indicates case, tense, and number through suffixes and prefixes. As a result, a given line of Hebrew almost always uses fewer words and fewer syllables than its English equivalent.

In his introduction, Alter gives the famous example of Psalm 23, verse 4, which the King James Version renders, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." This uses seventeen words and twenty syllables of English to translate eight words and eleven syllables of Hebrew. To Alter, this expansion is a distortion, and the quality for which he most strives in his Psalms is concision. His version of the same verse reads: "Though I walk in the vale of death's shadow, I fear no harm"--thirteen words and fourteen syllables, just about splitting the difference between the Hebrew and the Authorized Version.

Yet it is questionable whether this compression makes Alter's English sound more like Hebrew. The whole point of the Hebrew, after all, is that it is not compressed--it takes exactly as many syllables as it needs and no fewer. It does not move faster; it moves at its own pace. If Alter's English seems to take fewer syllables than it needs, the result is sometimes an impression of terseness that is foreign to the Hebrew, without sounding more graceful or natural in English. Thus "vale" is a shorter word than "valley," but also a more anachronistic and literary one. "Death's shadow" is shorter than "the valley of the shadow of death," but also harder to say. Alter's line also demonstrates his tendency to fall into a dactylic pattern--a meter that in English sounds percussive and hurried-up, in a way that is not necessarily reflective of the original Hebrew.


Yet if Alter's Psalms are not as beautiful as the King James Version, they do not have to be. His goal is not really to replace the texts we know but to estrange them--to remind us that the English Psalter conceals the Hebrew one as well as reveals it. For this purpose, Alter's extensive notes--which take up half or more of every page--are as important as his translation. Rather than gloss over the cruxes and the ambiguities in the Hebrew text, Alter exposes them, at times even allowing his own English to mirror the incoherence of the original. We never forget, with Alter's Psalms, that the text we are reading is the work of human hands--not Holy Writ, but something at once less and more than that, great poetry.

There is just one exception to Alter's estranging and secularizing program, and it is a highly suggestive one. Like all previous translators, he refuses to translate the name of God as "Yahweh," the very imprecise English equivalent of the way the Hebrew might be pronounced. Instead he substitutes "the Lord," the equivalent of the Hebrew euphemism Adonai. In this Alter defers to the ancient Jewish ban on speaking God's name aloud, but also to the expectations of the English reader. The name Yahweh, he writes in his introduction, "might run the risk of sounding as though it belonged in the Journal of Biblical Literature, not in a poem." Yet this is silently to admit what Alter's translation sets out to deny--that the Psalms cannot, should not, be translated with the same detachment that we would bring to any other ancient text. After all, no translator would think of observing Canaanite or Egyptian taboos when turning those religions' documents into English.

If even Alter feels compelled to call God "the Lord," it is not out of piety, but out of a sense that this honorific is a last remaining sign of our culture's intimate and reverent relationship with the Bible. Yahweh is the strange-sounding name of an ancient Middle Eastern deity, like Baal or Ishtar; but the Lord is the name of God. Not until God is no longer the Lord will it be possible to have a perfectly scholarly translation of the Psalms. But on that day we may no longer need the Psalms, or understand them.

Adam Kirsch's new book, The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, will be published by Norton this January.

By Adam Kirsch