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AN ENGLISHMAN named John Rogers published a seminal work in 1537, early in the English Reformation. It was an English Bible called the “Matthew Bible,” or “Matthew’s version,” which contained the Scripture translations of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale, together with Rogers’ notes and commentaries. It also contained a healthy portion of Martin Luther’s work, because Coverdale translated from his German Bible.
Hardly anyone knows that Matthew’s version is the real primary version of our English Bible. It served as the base for the Great Bible, which the Geneva Puritans revised in 1560. The Great Bible was also the base of the Bishop’s Bible, which went on for further amendment in the KJV, making the KJV the fourth revision of the Matthew Bible.
For my upcoming book, The Story of the Matthew Bible, I examined some of the changes made to the Scriptures over the years. One of my surprises has been Psalm 23, and in particular what the Geneva Puritans did with it. In my last post, I showed what they did at 1 Peter 1:13, when they removed the teaching of the revelation of Christ in the preaching of the word. Now at Psalm 23, the teaching of the word was removed again. (The full versions of the Psalm, with commentaries, are at the end of this paper, for reference.) See what happened to verse 2:
1537 Matthew Bible The Lord is my shepherd; I can want nothing. He feedeth me in a green pasture, and leadeth me to a fresh water. (Rogers’ note: This fresh water is the healthful water of the word of God.)
1539 Great Bible The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing. He shall feed me in a green pasture, and leadeth me by the still waters.
1560 & 1599 Geneva The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to rest in green pasture, and leadeth me by the still waters.
In the Matthew Bible, v.2 is about the word of God as our pasture, food, and refreshing water. This was also the teaching of St. Augustine and of Martin Luther (and is also reflected in the Psalm as contained in the traditional Anglican prayer books). According to them, not only v.2, but the whole Psalm is mainly about the word, which quickens the soul and leads us to righteousness (v.3). John Rogers confirmed this understanding in his notes, in which he taught that the word refreshes us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (v.4). The ‘shadow’, Rogers explained, is darkness and affliction. Therefore, God’s word is the pasture and water of his sheep while they walk in adversity. It is also the table set before us in the presence of our enemy (v5).
In Coverdale’s Great Bible revision, we go from being fed and led to fresh water, to being fed and led by still waters. However, we need to understand this as agreeing with Rogers’ exposition, in that God’s word stills our hearts. Coverdale himself expressed this understanding when he translated Luther’s essay on Psalm 23, in which he made it clear that God’s word, especially when we hear it in the congregation and receive it by the sacraments, is our green grass, water, table, oil, and full cup. “In this Psalm,” he wrote, “doth David and every Christian heart give thanks and praise unto God for his most principal benefit, namely, for the preaching of his dear and holy word …” The word and promises of God are our final resort and comfort in adversity:
In the great heat, when the sun doth sore burn (Ps cxx), and I can have no shadow, then leadeth he me to the fresh water, giveth me drink, and refresheth me: that is, in all manner of troubles, anguishes, and necessities, ghostly [spiritual] and bodily, when I know not elsewhere to find help or comfort, I hold me unto the word of grace. There only, and nowhere else, do I find the right consolation and refreshing.
But then, in the Geneva Bible, all teaching about the word of God disappears. There is nothing about it, nor about being fed in any way, in the Geneva Scriptures or commentaries. The notes do refer to God’s care and provision, but not through or by the word. All such reference was removed – and this knowingly, by men who had the earlier versions at hand. Surely they were aware of Reformation teaching and the teaching of St. Augustine. But, remarkably to me, they departed from it. They whose loud cry was sola scriptura, now emphasized God’s care sine scriptura.
After the Geneva version, no Bibles that I have seen recovered Matthew’s message:
Psalm 23:1-2 in versions after the Bishops’ Bible
1611 KJV and 1895 RV The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
NIV 1984 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters.
The Message 1996 God my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from.
The modern versions of Psalm 23 might cause believers who walk in adversity, not in rest, to wonder if their faith is lacking. The Matthew Bible, however, sows no such confusion, but contrariwise, gives comfort. I remember how, as a new believer coming to this Psalm in modern versions, I was puzzled by it. Shall we be bedded down in lush meadows while the Lord had nowhere to rest his head? The reality is that much of our lives are passed in want of rest and stillness, but what is never wanting to us is God’s word and promise.
Lastly, see below how, in the Geneva Bible, two more essential doctrines are lost, which were also lost at 1 Peter 1:13 (again, see my previous post). At v.3, the idea of the new birth through the word is lost. (The old English ‘quickeneth’ meant ‘quickened to life’.) In v.6, the idea of eternal life is lost.
Psalm 23 Compared
|1537/ 1549 Matthew Bible||1560/ 1599 Geneva Bible|
|Summary: He describeth the wonderful surety and great grace of a faithful and sure confidence in God.||Summary: Because the Prophet had proved the great mercies of God at divers times, and in sundry manners, he gathereth a certain assurance, fully persuading himself that God will continue the very same goodness towards him forever.|
|1. The Lord is my shepherd; I can want nothing.|
2. He feedeth me in a green pasture, and leadeth me to a fresh (a)water.
3. He quickeneth my soul, and bringeth me forth in the way of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4. Though I should walk now in the valley of the (b)shadow of death, yet I fear no evil, for thou art with me; they staff and thy sheep-hook comfort me.
5. Thou preparest a (c)table before me against [in full view of] mine enemies; thou annointest my head with oil, and fillest my cup full.
6. O let thy loving kindness and mercy follow me all the days of my life, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
|1. The Lord is my shepherd, (a)I shall not want.|
2. He maketh me to rest in green pastures, and leadeth me by the still waters.
3. He (b)restoreth my soul, and leadeth me in the (c)paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4. Yea, though I should walk through the valley of the (d)shadow of death, I wll fear no evil, for thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
5. Thou doest prepare a (e)table before me in the sight of mine adversaries: thou doest (f)anoint mine head with oil, and my cup runneth over.
6. Doubtless kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall remain a long season in the (g)house of the Lord.
|Rogers’ Notes:||Geneva Notes:|
(a) The fresh water is the healthful water of the word of God, of which is said Esai lv.a*
(b) Shadow for darkness and affliction, as it is said Esai li.e*
(c) Look the Psalm lxxviii.c. [Rogers’ note on Psalm 78:19 says, “By the table is understood all sorts of victuals necessary for man, yet it is often taken for the bread and water of the wisdom of the word of God, as in the Psalm xxiii.b.]
* The Isaiah verses mentioned in Rogers’ notes are too long to include here.
|(a) He had care over me & ministreth unto me all things|
(b) He comforteth or refresheth me.
(c) Plain, or straight ways.
(d) Though he were in danger of death, as the sheep that wandereth in the dark valley without his shepherd.
(e) Albeit his enemies sought to destroy him, yet God delivereth him, & dealeth most liberally with him in despite of them.
(f) As was the manner of great feasts.
(g) He setteth not his felicities in the pleasures of this world, but in the fear and service of God.
 A clue perhaps to the meaning of ‘shadow’ in Tyndale’s translation of 1 Peter 3:6, that the women are not to be afraid of “every shadow.”
 Myles Coverdale, A very excellent and swete exposition upon the two and twentye Psalme of David, called, in latyn, Dominus regit me, et nihil. Translated out of hye Almayne into Englishe by Myles Coverdale, 1537, in Parker Soc., Remains, 282. The “two and twentye Psalme” is now known as the 23rd Psalm.
 Ibid., 300.
 L. Maria Willis (1864), Canadian Book of Common Prayer, Hymn #454.