The Poetry of the King James Bible

On this the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, let us celebrate its power to deepen our faith experience.

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Posted in , Apr 14, 2011

Faith Poetry of the King James Bible

“All flesh is grass.”

That is Isaiah 40:6b in the King James Version of the Bible. The off-rhyme of “flesh” and “grass” is a pleasure in the mouth; it resonates in the ear. We take that word “flesh” personally, for we are made of flesh. But the wonder of this phrase is that it leads us to reflect not only on the fragility of our own flesh, but that of all created mortal beings.

Now here’s the verse in two widely used modern translations, the NRSV: “All people are grass,” and the NIV: “All people are like grass.” The word “people” falls like a thud, and because it’s abstract, we can distance ourselves from “people” in a way that we cannot from the word “flesh.” In the NIV the metaphor is replaced by a simile, diminishing its power to move us.

This one brief example gives you a clue as to why the King James Version is still valued as a literary gem 400 years after it was first published. Much of the King James fits W.H. Auden’s definition of poetry as “memorable speech” and many of its phrases that entered the English language through its pages are still in use:  “labor of love,” “tender mercies,” “the shadow of death,” “thorn in the flesh,” “root of all evil,” “loaves and fishes,” “pearls before swine,” “lilies of the field,” “salt of the earth.”

With its resolutely dignified language and stirring rhythms the King James has influenced generations of English speakers, and inspired writers as diverse as John Bunyan and D.H. Lawrence. The essayist Thomas Macaulay once claimed that without the King James there would be “no Paradise Lost, no Negro Spirituals, no Gettysburg Address.” The King James was the Bible of both Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Whitman borrowed from the cadences of its prophetic narratives for his Leaves of Grass, while Emily Dickinson’s brief poems reflect the terseness and potency of its psalter.

The translators who worked on the King James Version in the 17th century were writing in the language of their time. They wanted a Bible that would be accessible to ordinary people. Modern translators have the same worthwhile goal. But today, in the interest of scholarly accuracy, much literary value has been lost, and a desire for relevance has all too often meant reducing language to its lowest common denominator. What seems to have been forgotten is that people don’t consult a Bible to find the abstract jargon of academic journals, or the kind of verbiage they can hear on television talk shows.

When we turn to the King James, we are given the relief of hearing language that is graceful, that transcends mere utility, language that forces us to think and feel more deeply.

St. Paul says that faith comes through hearing; when we read the King James aloud, we can readily believe it…

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