Have you seen this conversation between Bono—lead singer of the rock band U2—and Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible? It’s an interesting glimpse of two very different artists discussing the ways that Scripture inspires and challenges them. Here’s the video:
First, you certainly noticed that the Psalms come in for praise from both Bono and Peterson. The U2 song “40,” for example, is based on the words of Psalm 40:
If you’re not familiar with Psalms, it’s a book of the Bible that collects 150 ancient Hebrew poems, prayers, and songs, many of them written by the famous Old Testament king David. The psalms are noteworthy for expressing the full range of human emotion, from joy and gratitude to frustration and confusion. One reason the psalms are so widely read today is that no matter what you’re feeling or where your life is at the moment, there’s almost certainly a psalm that speaks to you.
The book of Psalms contains some of the Bible’s best-known passages. You can start reading Psalms from the beginning by clicking here, but if you’re new to this book of the Bible, you might want to instead start by reading some of these particularly famous examples:
- Psalm 23: A short but much-loved assurance that God watches over his children like a shepherd watches his flock.
- Psalm 46: Another beautiful description of God as a protector; in this psalm God is likened to an unbreachable fortress surrounding his people.
- Psalm 22: Not every psalm is upbeat and joyful in tone. In Psalm 22, the author cries out in frustration at God’s apparent absence from his life.
There are too many noteworthy and famous psalms to list here, but those make a good starting point for exploration. For some good introductory background for reading the book of Psalms, take a look at these two short articles:
- How Should We Read the Psalms? Pastor Mel Lawrenz explains what to expect from the psalms, and what to watch for as you read through them. A good introduction for beginners, briefly covering the different ideas you’ll encounter there.
- Why Study the Psalms?: Outlines the book of Psalms, with links to some more famous psalms and to an article explaining the great value of reading them.
The other topic you may have noticed in the video above is regular mention of The Message Bible. What is this Message Bible that Bono finds so inspiring?
The Message (its full name is The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language) is one of the more unique Bibles produced in recent years. It’s a Bible translation (carried out by Eugene Peterson, Bono’s discussion partner in the video above) that makes very heavy use of modern idiom and slang with the aim of being easily understood by modern readers who struggle with the more “old-fashioned” language found in most other Bible translations. Of course, most Bible translations aim for readability and understandability, but The Message goes farther than most in using modern-sounding language. Here’s how the publisher describes it:
Some people like to read the Bible in Elizabethan English. Others want to read a version that gives a close word-for-word correspondence between the original languages and English. Eugene Peterson recognized that the original sentence structure is very different from that of contemporary English. He decided to strive for the spirit of the original manuscripts—to express the rhythm of the voices, the flavor of the idiomatic expressions, the subtle connotations of meaning that are often lost in English translations.
To give you a sense of how The Message reads, let’s compare the same passage in The Message with a different famous English Bible. Here’s how the classic Authorized King James Version of the Bible translates the famous Psalm 23:
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.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. — Psalm 23 (AKJV)
And here’s how The Message translates the same passage:
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.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure. — Psalm 23 (MSG)
That’s quite a difference in style, isn’t it? Which approach speaks more clearly to you? The style of Bible translation you read is a matter of personal preference, without an objectively right or wrong answer; and many Bible readers find it useful to refer to several different Bibles in the course of serious study to make sure they’re grasping all the nuances of a Bible passage. If you’re interested in reading more of The Message, you can find it in Bible Gateway’s online library—click here to start reading Genesis 1 in The Message. You can also buy a print copy in the Bible Gateway Store, if you prefer a physical edition.
I hope this has been a useful bit of background for the Psalms, The Message, and the Bono/Peterson video above. And I hope you’ll take a few minutes to explore the remarkable book of Psalms for yourself—as both Bono and Peterson suggest, they contain some of the most beautiful and challenging words in all of the Bible!