A Psalter for Prayer

Father John Whiteford writes:

I have just gotten my hands on a copy of the new Psalter published by Holy Trinity Monastery: A Psalter for Prayer, edited by David James. The translation is based on the Coverdale Psalter, which is what you would find in an older (traditional) edition of the Book of Common Prayer, but is corrected with the Septuagint.

It also contains a great deal of instructional material and additional prayers found in Slavonic editions of the Psalter, but not in the Boston Psalter or most other editions published in English to date. For example, it has prayers at the end of each kathisma, and it has instructions on how to read the Psalter over the dead, with the prayers that are said according to Slavic practice in conjunction with that.

The quality of the printing is very high: the paper and binding are of similar quality to the Boston Psalter, but the cover looks better, the size is a bit larger, and it has two marker ribbons sewn into the binding. The translation is well done and beautiful, and I would say that it is worth having just for the additional material that it contains, and for those who have wanted an alternative to the Boston Psalter, here it is.

My copy of this translation is from David James’ earlier, self-published edition. While the King James Bible (outside the US, the Authorised Version) is the best known English translation from before the twentieth century, in its day the KJV was eclipsed in popularity by the 1560 Geneva Bible, which was standard for English Puritans. And in its Book of Common Prayer, the Church of England kept Miles Coverdale’s 1540 translation.

Since then — for about a quarter of the history of Christ’s Church — there has been an unbroken tradition of psalmody using Coverdale’s text among English-speaking Christians. What makes Coverdale so enduring is the spare elegance of his language, and the fact that his text is meant primarily to be read or sung aloud. A translation can be accurate but difficult to read or sing with beauty and clarity; Coverdale’s text maintains a pattern of stressed/unstressed syllables and enough vowels and voiced consonants so that it lends itself to singing, either in an eastern or western idiom.

Coverdale’s translation is also distinctive in that it includes content found in the Latin Vulgate but not in the modern Masoretic Text of the Hebrew. The fact that these phrases often reflect the Septuagint text underlying the Vulgate makes this translation problematic for some Protestants but attractive to Orthodox Christians, who read the Septuagint and who often prefer “traditional” language in their services and prayers.

David James has undertaken not only to normalize Coverdale’s text to the Septuagint Psalter as received by the Orthodox Church, but to do so while retaining the character and familiarity of the classic translation (see Psalm 50 below.) This Coverdale fan thinks he has succeeded, as do the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, who have given this edition their blessing.

A Psalter for Prayer
ISBN: 9780884651888
Publisher: Holy Trinity Publications
Order A Psalter for Prayer from Holy Trinity Monastery

Psalm 50

Psalm L. Miserere mei, Deus.

Unto the end, a Psalm of instruction by David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.

Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great mercy, and according to the multitude of Thy compassions blot out my transgression.

Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me.

Against Thee only have I sinned, and done evil before Thee, that Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and prevail when Thou art judged.

For behold, I was conceived in wickedness, and in sins did my mother bear me.

For behold, Thou hast loved truth; the hidden and secret things of Thy wisdom hast Thou revealed unto me.

Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be made clean; Thou shalt wash me, and I shall become whiter than snow.

Thou shalt give joy and gladness to my hearing; the bones that have been humbled will rejoice.

Turn Thy face from my sins, and blot out all my misdeeds.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.

O give me the joy of Thy salvation, and stablish me with Thy governing Spirit.

Then shall I teach Thy ways unto the wicked, and the ungodly shall be converted unto Thee.

Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue shall rejoice in Thy righteousness.

O Lord, Thou shalt open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.

For if Thou hadst desired sacrifice, I would have given it; but Thou delightest not in burnt offerings.

The sacrifice unto God is a contrite spirit; a contrite and humble heart God shall not despise.

O Lord, be favorable in Thy good will unto Zion, and let the walls of Jerusalem be builded up.

Then shalt Thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with oblations and whole-burnt offerings; then shall they offer young bullocks upon Thine altar.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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12 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review. There is a typo: O Lord, Thou shalt open my lipsm and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.

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      • I have prayed the Psalter a year but now ater reading instuctions for meatfare and cheesefare i cannot figure out the katisma? is it 113,107 and 136,137.? It speaks of the great halleleuia…i presume i can understand that. can you help? thank you and GOD bless.

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        • Hi William,

          The Psalter is divided into twenty kathismata. Normally at the matins service we read two kathismata each morning, but during Lent we read three. Today is a Tuesday, so at matins we read kathisma 10 through 12 (Psalms 70-90). Ps 136 (By the waters of Babylon) is sung at Sunday matins during the weeks leading up to Lent.

          During matins we ordinarily sing a hymn called “God is the Lord” (a few verses from Ps. 117:26-27) immediately before singing the first kathisma. But on weekdays during Lenten matins, this hymn is replaced by singing Alleluia with appointed verses.

          Matins is a complex service :-) it’s best experienced by immersion. If you’re using the Psalter at home in your prayer rule, then you might want to simply read according to the same plan you use outside of Lent – that’ll let you concentrate on the scripture and not so much on the changing list of readings from a particular church service :-)

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  2. I have a draft copy of David James’ work, which he was kind enough to give me. I like it very much. I proposed its use here in place of the Holy Transfiguration translation, but our Superior wants to replace that with a “modern” English version. Finding a decent one that reads/sings well, and is in keeping with the Septuagint is nigh on impossible.

    Nonetheless, I may ask a blessing to purchase a copy of the Holy Trinity edition as a personal reference (since, in private prayer, I use the Coverdale translation — unmatched by anyone else, ever).

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    • During my time at Holy Cross, I had a discussion one day about modern, i.e., street English vs. traditional liturgical English with Fr. Calivas during which he advocated the use of modern English. I finally told him that I would make a deal with him: I would use modern English in Liturgy when he began using modern Greek. His one-word response? “Κακός!”

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  3. I believe you are missing a verse above. My copy has

    Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
    Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
    O give me the joy of Thy salvation …

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  4. I was brought up on the KJV (to say nothing about a waystation with the traditional Book of Common Prayer) at a time and in a denomination where even the RSV was suspect, so I’m familiar with its style and diction.

    However, there are large number of Orthodox ini the USA for whom English is a second language, and many of those are not very fluent.

    Therefore, is it not the charitable thing to do NOT to throw linguistic stumbling blocks at each other’s feet, and compromise on a more modern idiom, similar to the New King James Bible?

    Again, the closest we have to an official English Orthodox Bible is the Orthodox Study Bible, which uses contemporary English.

    Metropolitan Kallistos ware said that if he had to do it all over again, he would have done his Lenten Triodion and Festal Menaion in contemporary English.

    Finally, “traditional liturgical English” is more than funny verb endings and obsolete pronouns. Unless you can use it with all the grace of the KJV and classical BCP, DON’T. I’ve seen barbaric attempts with such gems as “Thou sees”, “Thou knows”, and even helpless attempts at using “Ye” as the singular.

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    • If somebody writes a translation that’s reasonably accurate, suitable for chanting, and uses a dignified modern idiom, and if our hierarchs bless it, then I’ll be the first to deploy it at church :-)

      In the mean time, I use what I’ve got a blessing to use. Even though this version has the Metropolitan’s blessing, we’re not switching to it at church any time soon – change for change’s sake isn’t an Orthodox value – but I’m using it in my personal prayer rule and enjoying it there.

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  5. I have just had a bit of correspondence with David James and with Nicholas Chapman who is the managing director of Holy Trinity Publications. The tell me that the Psalter for Prayer will soon be available in e-format (Kindle, Nook, EPub) and available through all the major e-book retailers. Nicholas did not yet have a firm date for release – but look for it on Amazon and B&N (and wherever else you shop).

    I plan to pick it up for my Nook as soon as it is available to use for my own prayers.

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    • Good news, thanks! I have his earlier, self-published edition of the Psalter alone on my Kindle now.

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