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January 30, 2009

Nathan Kirkpatrick: Psalm 119

In October 2008, I was at a meeting in Nashville for directors of the Course of Study program from around the nation. During these biannual meetings, we always meet with representatives from the United Methodist Publishing House. This year, these representatives were extolling the virtues of their new Wesley Study Bible (edited by Will Willimon and Joel Green). As they were talking about this new resource, they made a point of saying that they are using the text of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) as the biblical translation, but then they noted quickly that the Publishing House is assembling a team of scholars to begin work on a new translation of the Bible.

It seems that the NRSV, the 1989 translation that has become somewhat standard for academic purposes within Protestant circles, is simply too difficult for most American readers to understand. According to what we heard in Nashville, it is written on a seventh grade reading level, and they receive countless requests each year for an “easier” translation for use within congregations. So, this new translation has as its goal a third grade reading level.

Obviously, this new “easier” translation raises old but significant questions about the nature of the Scriptures and the community that reads them. While countless others will be willing to wrestle with those questions theologically and ecclesiologically (if that’s a word), I wonder about how we experience different translations – how we hear a word directed to us through – and in spite of – the translation we read.

To help illustrate this point, I wonder what word you hear for you in the verse below today. Does the word directed to your heart differ translation to translation? Does the nuance of each translation help or hinder your hearing of a word?


Today’s Psalm of the Day – Psalm 119.54:

Your statutes have been my songs wherever I make my home. (NRSV)

Your decrees are the theme of my song
wherever I lodge. (NIV)

Your statutes are my songs
In the house of my pilgrimage. (NASB)

I set your instructions to music
and sing them as I walk this pilgrim way. (The Message)

Your decrees have been the theme of my songs
wherever I have lived. (New Living)

Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage. (KJV)

No matter where I am, your teachings fill me with songs. (Cont. English Version)

I sing about your demands
wherever I live. (New Century Version)

Nathan Kirkpatrick is a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.



I find I like the Peterson. It gets the sense of pilgrimage that the KJV brings, and yet does so in very simple language.


I am a Peterson fan as well. Scripture should be sensed - not just read. I get the feeling of forward motion from Peterson. Praying this Psalm as he translates it invites me to "perform" scripture in the best sense of that word.


i must be on a 7th grade reading level because i like the standard NRSV translation.

NRSV and Peterson

I just turned in my manuscript for a book of meditations on the Psalms using the NRSV. I really like the NRSV and find it accurate and clear. But to be honest, it's a bit clunky and cold for devotional purposes! In my two previous books I used The Message and found it worked beautifully in expressing the meaning and emotion of the psalms. When I first read the Message years ago, I was put off by it. It felt a little too overboard with the vernacular. But the more I read and used it, the more I found myself drawn into it. I think it's a brilliant work.


I'd put the Book of Common Prayer in as a high water mark for English translations of the psalms and poetry in general (the canticles are superb).

Too Late and too catholic...

I've really been enjoying the New Jerusalem lately for prayer..."Your judgements are my song where I live in exile."

I am ever so grateful for

I am ever so grateful for those countless ones who have done the hard work of interpretation of original texts to help scripture come alive for us. It is a bit frightful, however, if we feel that we must make biblical text "suit" our situation in order to make it more understandable. I am amazed that we are looking to a third-grade reading level for the NRSV. Saddened.

A different view

Thanks to Nathan for this contribution. As a pastor of a Hispanic congregation, I deal with translations in almost everything I do. I found it interesting that both of my favorite Spanish translations (Dios Habla Hoy and Reina Valera Revision 95) end this verse with " . . . in the home where I am a foreigner." It does put a different twist on the idea of the verse.
As to the reading level, this is an issue with which we are going to have to come to grips. As a public schoolteacher, I have seen the reading level of my students steadily decrease over the years. And, in serving my Spanish-speaking parishioners, I have had to realize that many of these folks have only a first or second grade reading level. This is why I use the Dios Habla Hoy version (the equivalent of Good News for Modern Man). The Scriptures must be available to all -- and reading level is a significant barrier at times.

Could it be that a parallel

Could it be that a parallel Bible would be at least doubling the likelihood of pleasing readers? As a pastor, I have found the NRSV is less used within rural congregations in my experience than others. Appeal to the widest range of readers is vital. KJV suits the Psalms well. I hope the Wesley Bible will become available in other versions for our elementary readers.

I prefer the RSV language

I prefer the RSV language personally, but I do like the study notes and comments of the Wesley Study Bible.

3rd grade realing level bible for adults?

If we are having trouble understanding the bible maybe we need to have better sermons, church study groups, and personal reading habits. Well that is my first reaction. Yes, I do know that they are people who struggle understanding the scripture with good reasons. And the Message does make a better devotional bible than some of the others. However, as a pastor in worship and in serious bible studies I use NRSV, RSV or NIV and we search for meaning to the parts that might be obscure or hard to understand. Sometimes I add what I know and sometimes I listen to what others know or feel. I often try to help bring the words to life. I feel that I have the responsibility to have a sermon and a lesson that both a child and a academic can find something they understand and can relate to.
I have always told my children that if something is important you should give it your best efforts. Can I not also suggest this to the people I share the Christian life with?


If the original Scripture was the inspired word of God, is He still at work? Lnaguage is a living body that changes otherwise we would still have Aramaic and Greek readings. Archaic words and phrases need to be updated. Find a version or versions that appeals to you and apply it to your life.

Remembering the Holy Spirt

I personally enjoy the NRSV and appreciate the variety of translations available to us for study.
I believe the Holy Spirit provides us an experience of "holy wisdom" as we search the scriptures and remember that in the reading we experience the mystery of the means of grace.
As Christian brothers and sisters we must listen to the needs of others, making sure all persons have an opportunity to comprehend the story of God. Having said that, let us remember the Holy Spirit is perpetually at work within us and guiding us always.


I am using Nathan's "spot" to comment on another article. I searched everywhere to find how to respond - but to no avail!
The article is "Centered by Prayer" by Kimberly Winston (Feb. 3, 2009)
I want to say that Jim Wallis' son expressed exactly what I often feel during prayer. He struggled with the complexity of the issue, and because it was bigger than what he could wrap his head`around, he gently placed the request into the hands of God. How precious - and how true to the fact that we need to do the same. He also asked God to help him be the agent of change, and that is also something that we need to learn from. I thank God for his sweet insight. Oh, how we can learn so much from the children!

To shun being astray...

A good verse for leaders who are open to suggestions for the betterment of his community and an inspiration of sort to shun being astray.

psalm 119:54

I always like the Revised English Bible. Ps 119:54 - Your statutes arethe theme of my song throughout my earthly life.
By the way, the problem with the NRSV is not its reading level, but its graceless, wooden style and its incomprehensible, bad translation decisions.

Psalm 119:54

My preference in general has been the NRSV. One Sunday we read from Peterson's The Message and you should have seen the eyes look up and the attentive expressions on the faces of the worshipers! Something in the translation connected.

One of the challenges I see

One of the challenges I see are actually reaching out and letting the public know about your initiatives. I came to know this by visiting your blog.

Ps 119.54

I'm an RSV reader, but I really appreciate the Jerusalem Bible (and even the NJB)on the psalms.The issue of popular literacy levels is continually problematic, and at the center of real sadness, for me.

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