God's word in the King's English

Why is the King James Bible still so revered? Photo: King James Version, 1611

FLOWER MOUND, Texas, August 28, 2012 — The translators of the King James Version in 1611 embraced a new dawn of literary revival. Not only did they seek textual fidelity, but they constructed sentences conducive to reading and memorizing. Sensing the original languages were written in the literary style of their age, the translators sought to mirror the nuances of the original languages giving the world an equally compelling masterpiece.

King James instructed William Barlow to formulate the rules that would govern their translation work. There were no rules to govern literary style, only their sense of the style of the age. And, yet the King James Bible translated into a book very suitable for public reading.

The plethora of vernacular translations published in the first half of the sixteenth century testifies to the increased level of spiritual awareness. Most versions were revisions of Tyndale’s New Testament and the work of Miles Coverdale. Biblical scholarship flourished, but the freshness of the English language stagnated. C.S. Lewis remarks, “All the authors were like elderly men.” Period prose had grown drab.

Standing tall among the most revered translators stood Lancelot Andrews, (1555-1626), sermon writer extraordinaire (“an angel in the pulpit”).  Appointed director of the First Westminster Company of translators responsible for Genesis through 2 Kings, Andrews’s preaching brought an awaking to spiritual truth abandoned in many areas of the kingdom. Among his notable accomplishments was his memorable sermon at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.

One of the defining principles of the KJV translators is voiced in the Preface: “We have not tied ourselves to a uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words.” Andrews was a master of saying the same thing in a variety of ways. The efficiency of his prose and well-argued themes introduced the audience to a distinctly creative poetic quality. His phrases are balanced and the cadence smooth as he presents Scripture in a new and dramatic way. His lyricism and rhythm in standard prose is the signature feature we recognize in the King James translation. 

By 1611 the influence of the major literary voices of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Donne (1572-1631), and Ben Jonson (1572-1637) of the late sixteenth century were being heard. Empty, dull, and stilted language gave way to a lively expression in both prose and poetry. The new rhythmic cadence bore fruit in the King James Bible, which gave bursting expression to the literary revival. The Bible, composed of different styles of communication, was well suited for a new, exciting literary voice. Andrews’s literary attentiveness heightened the oral expression of sermons and public reading of the Scriptures—an art used skillfully in the KJV.

Prose is normally considered the ordinary form of spoken or written language without metrical structure. Poetry is the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, to create in the reader the beauty of imaginative, inspirational feelings and thoughts. Verse is the succession of metrical feet (or beats) written, printed, or orally composed as one line of a poem. The King James translators included meter to enhance the reading of the prose.

There are several meters used in most verse: anapest, dactyl, amphimacer (cretic), iamb, and trochee. Note a couple of meters in the comparison of the KJV with modern expressions.

Anapest (short-short-long) is a metrical foot (a group of two or three syllables forming the basic unit of poetic rhythm) of three syllables, two short ones followed by one long emphasized syllable.

Deuteronomy 32:2 “My doc/trine shall drop/ as the raine,/ my speech/ shall distill,/….”

NKJV “Let my teaching drop as the rain, My speech distill as the dew.”

ESV “May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew.”

Isaiah 53: 1 KJV Who/ hath believed/ our report?/ and to whom/ is the arm/ of the LORD/ revealed ?”

NKJV “Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

ESV “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?”

Dactyl (long-short-short) is a foot of three syllables, one long followed by two short in quantitative meter, or one stressed followed by two unstressed in accentual meter.

Psalm 149:8 “Binde their/ kings with/ chaines, and their/ nobles with/ fetters of yron;

NKJV “To bind their kings with chains, And their nobles with fetters of iron.”

ESV “Bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron”

When comparing the NKJV and the ESV it is abundantly clear that the KJV has a cadence and meter that makes reading and memorizing more fluid. Most scholars today would agree that the ESV stresses accuracy of the translation above reading style, although they have sought to consider it in the end product. Even the NKJV while a revision of the KJV does not do justice to the rhythmic essence of the KJV.



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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.


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