Recently, I picked up an anthology of poetic translations of the Psalms named “The Poets’ Book of Psalms” as compiled, edited, and introduced by Laurance Wieder. I have an affinity for collecting alternative translations of the Psalms. I have enjoyed Robert Alter’s “The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary” for several years now. I was recently introduced by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat to “Psalms in a translation for praying” by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
In the newest part of my collection of alternative translations to my tried and true New Revised Standard Version (the Wieder collection) there is a poetic translation of Psalm 150. Psalm 150 is part of the Revised Common Lectionary reading for today. John Davies, who lived from 1569 – 1626 CE translated this particular version of the Psalm. Here, from across the centuries, is John Davies poetic translation of Psalm 150:
“To him with trumpets and with flutes,
With cornets, clarions, and with lutes,
With harps, with organs, and with shawms,
With holy anthems and with psalms,
With voice of angels and of men,
Sing Alleluia: amen, amen.”
Some basic background on Sir. John Davies can be found here. To summarize, Sir. Davies was more than an Irish poet. Sir Davies was an attorney with a somewhat motley career which included being one of the most respected attorneys of the Emerald Isle and also being disbarred at different points. He has a very interesting political career both in Ireland and in England.
Regardless, in my corner of creation, Sir Davies’ poems are what most catch my attention a few centuries after their original publication. His work, while understandable, draws attention to various areas which a modern translation might miss.
I enjoy this poetic understanding of Psalm 150 as a result of the way it draws attention to a timeless truth which I have come to understand in my own path through life. Let me point out the instruments used in the praise of God in this poem. God is praised with cornets, clarions, lutes, harps, organs, and shawms. I must say that I hear organs in worship on a regular basis due to where I serve and I do enjoy the harp when it is played well, but I do not hear much music on the radio played on cornets, clarions, or lutes. Upon first reading the translation, I did not even know what shawms might be, but after a quick google search, I did learn that it was a flute-like instrument. Shawms are not very popular on the radio these days.
The timeless truth these strange things point out is that the praise of God is greater than any instrument. There are no guitars, drum kits, d’jembes, or any of the instruments you might find in most modern praise bands. Still, in Sir Davies’ day, people praised the Lord with their own happy music. Holy anthems and psalms of Sir Davies’ day might be different from from any radio singles or YouTube praise chorus that might be produced today, but it seems that both types, although separated by centuries and cultures, praised the Lord.
Praise of God is greater than the instruments we use. When praise comes from the heart, it can be shared through a piano, a snare drum, an organ, some shawms, a bass guitar, a lute, a lyre, a harpsichord, a shofar, a bodhran, or a cowbell. I am thankful that this timeless truth is pointed out through paying attention to a very old poem from an Irish attorney.