Posted by: rcottrill | March 20, 2011

A New Language

My son and his wife are serving the Lord as missionaries in Mexico. This has required learning Spanish, in order to communicate with the people there, and share the gospel. It hasn’t been easy. But the discipline and effort required have extended their ministry and enriched their lives in wonderful ways.

I thought about that this morning, with regard to the “old-fashioned” hymns so many of us hold dear. No, they are not usually couched in contemporary language–nor could they be. The vernacular changes so rapidly, these days, it’s almost impossible to keep up. It used to be a “crash” was a loud noise. Then it became sleeping overnight in someone’s “pad.” Today, the first thing many would think of is a disastrous computer malfunction.

But suppose, just for a moment, that we think of the language of our English hymns as another language entirely. It isn’t, of course. Even the words of Watts and Wesley, from two or three centuries ago, usually are within reach of the average reader today, their sometimes quaint expressions notwithstanding. But, just suppose. Is there not value in the discipline of learning the language of our hymns?

For about three hundred years, the King James Version of the Bible was the standard in all Protestant churches and homes. Then, a trickle of modern versions began to appear–a trickle that has turned into a deluge. (I must have about fifty in my library at the moment.) I have nothing against modern versions per se, as long as they accurately reflect the original languages of the Bible. But we all know there are both advantages and disadvantages to this literary explosion.

In any Sunday morning service, half a dozen different Bible versions may be represented. So how can the congregation act like the commendable Bereans (Acts 17:11), and test the exposition of the Word of God from the pulpit? What they have in front of them may look quite different. This circumstance also limits the unison or responsive reading of the Scriptures. And it makes it more difficult for a Sunday School teacher to assign memory verses that all can recite together, later.

There is another problem, too. Yes, I’m happy that a modern version says, “My heart was grieved” (NIV) instead of “I was pricked in my reins” (Ps. 73:21, KJV). But the elegant and exalted cadences of the 1611 translation, in passage after passage, are gone. It seems to me we have lost a great deal by allowing each generation to become less and less familiar with the language of great literature, the KJV included. Do they still teach Dickens, and Austen, and Shakespeare in schools today? I must admit I’ve lost touch, since we have no school age children at home.

If we’re unable to read with pleasure the masters of the language from times gone by, we’re impoverished as a result. If we’re thrown by phrases from the Bible that our great hymn writers used, then our spiritual wealth is diminished too. Perhaps we need to discipline ourselves to look up those words that are unfamiliar. Learning a “new” language will pay big dividends in our knowledge of the ways of God, and in the deepening of our spiritual lives.

There is hardly a novelist of note who does not make some allusion to a Scripture passage, or quote from it–usually using the King James Version. The works of Shakespeare are liberally sprinkled with Bible quotations. Naturally, given their subject, our hymn writers do this constantly. So, are we able to check the source in the Word of God, when Isaac Watts writes the following?

Blest is the man who shuns the place
Where sinners love to meet;
Who fears to tread their wicked ways,
And hates the scoffer’s seat.

That should immediately bring Psalm 1:1 to mind. But it may not if you think of The Message as your regular Bible. There we find, “How well God must like you–you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon, you don’t slink along Dead-End Road, you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.” That may gratify those who want to be contemporary, but is it truly the Word of God? No! It is an inaccurate and misleading rendering of the original.

To conclude, I exhort you not to abandon the hymn book, just because it doesn’t reflect the street language of the moment. Commit yourself to learning the meaning of those words that are unfamiliar. One way to do this, is to read through the hymn book in your daily devotions. (And look up words you’re uncertain of–maybe even jot a definition in the margin of your hymn book.) Immerse yourself in the language that is foreign to you, until you’re conversant with it. The effort will greatly bless you in the end.


  1. Hi, Robert,

    I have to say this:

    The year 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. The Ohio State University (from which I earned my Ph.D., from which my wife earned her B.A., and where she now works) is holding a celebration this May of 400 years of the KJV and its impact on the English language. I invite you and all your readers to come to contact the OSU English Department and plan to come this May and participate in the seminars and discussions about the KJV Bible.

    Second, while the KJV is NOT the most accurate translation of the Bible available to us today, it is one of the prettiest — if not THE most beautiful — in literary terms, and it is far more accurate and beautiful than The Message.

    Third, the Bible says (in KJV English) “Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” (Deut 6:5). It seems to me that those who don’t want to learn the language of hymns but are satisfied with the intellectual and theological pablum (if it can be called that) of modern “praise and worship music” should examine themselves and see if they are falling short of the Scriptural exhortation of Deuteronomy 6:5 and of its counterpart in the New Testament, Mark 12:30.

    • Thanks for your observations, Robert. I must admit that the significance of the year passed me by, until you mentioned it. What an enriching heritage we have in the English language, because of the work of those faithful, godly men, 400 years ago. Though I’ve used the New King James for over 20 years now, I did my early memorizing in the older version. And my mother memorized the entire book of Psalms, and many other passages too. Even into her 90’s, she was able to recite any psalm you asked for.

      For many of our great hymn writers it was the same. They drew from memory, as they wrote, and their songs are filled with quotations from, and allusions to, passages of God’s Word. Some, such as Frances Havergal, had mastered Hebrew and Greek, as well. In the music of our services, I’m certainly not suggesting we reject anything that isn’t at least a century old. But neither do I want to see churches restricting their congregations to songs from the last decade (or less!). They will be greatly impoverished as a result. God bless.

  2. Well now here’s a problem that I’ve run into, regarding this very issue.

    My husband and I attend different Christian churches. Because I have special needs kids, I can’t alway go, but he usually does, so our 9 year-old daughter, Katie, goes with him.

    At church, every week, they give Katie a memory verse. And they reward with candy if said verse is memorized, so she usually does memorize the verse.

    This is the problem: the verse they give her to memorize is from a watered-down version of the Bible.

    For example, her last memory verse was a variation of 1 Peter 3:15 ….”be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you…”

    At first, I could hardly make out the verse, because it had been watered down so. Her assigned verse ended up sounding something like, “If some asks you, be ready to give an answer about your hope.” So I asked her, “Katie, tell me about your hope!” And she said, “Whaaat?”
    My point being: the baby version of the scriptures was too vague to mean anything to anyone, including her. Indeed, it was hard for her to memorize something so vague. There was nothing to hang on to.

    Also, how many times have you been in a situation, and have had a scripture verse or phrase float through your head?
    Eliminating peculiar words and phrases could make it harder to identify what the Spirit is trying to communicate.

    I agree that learning the crooks and turns of the phrases in the Bible is worth the effort. There’s a lot to be gained by studying the King James Bible and the old hymns.

    • H-m-m… Yes, I do hear what you’re saying. Personally, I have no objection to a more modern version, providing it accurately reflects what the original said. But does it? That’s the question. This year, the venerable King James Version is 400 years old. English has changed a lot in four centuries. I think the New King James strikes a good balance between modernizing the language, and keeping the elegant sentence structure of its predecessor. The New American Standard Bible is a very literal version too. The New International Version paraphrases a bit, but it is usually quite accurate, and it’s the easiest of the three to understand.

      The NIV of First Peter 3:15 says: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” That seems to say it well.

      There can be other complications, however. When I was teaching at a Bible college, I used to assign memory work to be written out at the next class. I listed three or four versions that I thought were acceptable, and gave students a choice. But even that turned out to be tricky. I marked several mistakes in one effort. But the student showed me from her own Bible that she was right. Turns out that particular version re-published, and changed some of what they had before! (My oh my!)

      I wonder if the church in question would allow you to choose the Bible version in which your child memorizes. They should give some flexibility on that. But whether or not you have that option, you’re doing the right thing asking your daughter questions about the meaning of the verses. Just realize that, even then, she won’t understand it all. But you are building for the future here. You need to take advantage of those years when the memory is sharpest, and get as much Scripture stored in her mind as possible. Years later, the verses will be recalled, and the Lord can give more understanding then.


%d bloggers like this: