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The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary

4.39  ·  Rating details ·  542 ratings  ·  60 reviews
One of Newsweek’s Best Books of the Year and winner of the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement.

A cornerstone of the scriptural canon, The Book of Psalms has been a source of solace and joy for countless readers over millennia. This timeless poetry is beautifully wrought by a scholar whose translation of The Five Books of Moses was hailed as a “godsend” by Seamus
Paperback, 560 pages
Published October 19th 2009 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 2007)
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Nov 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: aere-perennius, 2015
Pseudo Psalm #149


1. For Alter.
To you Robert. I lift my pen. א
2. And work to compose tonight
before midnight a Sunday psalm.בּ

3. I read your book in bed and
in the bath. ג
4. I read it until I fell asleep
until my fingers pruned. ד

5. I read it while listening to
songs of Patti Smith. ה
6. I read it while listening to
songs of Frank Black. ו
7. I read it while listening to
songs of the Cult and Floyd. ז
8 But LOVED reading it while listening
to just the iambs of my heart. ח

9. I loved the book,
Bible of Bibles!

I am a convert! Not to a religion, no, no, but to Robert Alter as translator. I am now convinced, if one is at all interested in reading the Bible as literature, Robert Alter's translations are a must.

I wasn't sure at first. When I first approached one of his psalm translations, it seemed odd and alien in comparison to the Catholic Douay-Rheims version I had read of the same psalm. Of course it's reasonable to expect differences in different translations. But, anyway, my first
Oct 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Other than being mean-spirited, vindictive, vengeful, intolerant, bigoted, close-minded, hateful, conceited and self-absorbed, I think the Psalms are not bad.

No where else are the Psalms presented with such precision, beauty and scope as in Alter's translation. Like his other works, the introduction is worth the price of the book alone. He explains a powerful poetic form long forgotten (especially with the KJV's prose translation). But with that you get the sparse beauty of his Hebrew
Nov 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebooks
This book is actually by Robert Alter, who has retranslated the Hebrew Bible from classical Hebrew to modern English. Besides being a noted translator of texts of ancient people's, like the Babylonians, he is a Professor of Comparative Literature at Berkely, and a two-time recipient of the Guggenheim. What makes his works so fascinating and enlightening is that he is extremely knowledgable, not only of Hebrew, but of literary theory. For instance, he explains how poetry is created in all ...more
Joseph R.
Having listened to Alter's translation and commentary on the Book of Genesis on the Forgotten Classics podcast, I was looking forward to reading this book and finding out more about the Psalms.

The introduction covers the historical and literary background of the Psalms. The discussion gets a bit technical, especially reviewing the nuances of the Hebrew language and the various purposes, styles, and quirks of ancient poetry. The text is rather dense and requires a re-reading to get a better sense
Tom Mayer
Jul 04, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of Alter's previsou translations, those who admire the beauty and power of biblical poetry
I won't write much here because I'll have to do it all again for the press release (Full disclosure: I work as an editor for Norton). Suffice it to say that Alter is a sterling translator and his commenatry on the translation -- in many cases with notes longer than the passages rendered into English -- is authorative and thought-provoking. He first translated GENESIS, then the EXODUS, then he continued and put together one book on the FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES. I gather that the BOOK OF PSALMS is the ...more
Russell Fox
Working through all 150 psalms in this book of the Old Testament wasn't nearly as surprising, entertaining, or informative as many of the other books I've read, at least not in terms of history, mythology, or theology. Many of the psalms are repetitive and kind of banal. But I have to give those ancient psalmists some credit: this was the first book I've read in my long journey through the complete Bible that sometimes I honestly felt was speaking to me. That is, for the first time since the ...more
Melting Uncle
I read every last one of these puppies
Sometimes it got tedious
My advice to you if you want to read through the Bible for whatever reason-
Start with the Psalms early on and just read a few here and there as you make your way through the other books
If you try to go straight through in sequence they start to get repetitive and your eyes may glaze over
As always Robert Alter does an excellent job, but in the future I would feel equally comfortable going with the KJV if I had reason to reread any
Jackson Cyril
Oct 29, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Someone here described these translations as "masculine" and that's a nice Victorian term that captures the essence of these poems. For those of us who grew up hearing the majestic and sonorous cadences of the KJV (or, in my case, an 18th century, somewhat Baroque Tamil translation from the KJV), hearing the Psalms in a translation which is ruthlessly faithful to the blunt Hebrew is quite an eye-opening experience. I will probably always hear "valley of the shadow of death" or ...more
Michael Austin
Oct 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2013
It has been clear for some time that Robert Alter is in the process of doing for Hebrew poetry what the great Robert Fagels did for Greek and Latin epics: he is creating this generation's definitive translations and making them available to readers who would never have picked up The Iliad (or the Wisdom books, or the Psalms, or the Five Books of Moses, or 1 and 2nd Samuel) in any other translation. This translation of the Psalms may be well be his most important translation yet--and may survive ...more
Apr 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Hebrew enthusiasts, poetry enthusiasts
Recommended to Courtney by: Michael Wallace
Hebrew professor Robert Alter has a clear love for the poetry and lasting character of the psalms, and this shines through in his commentary. This translation aims to maintain poetic rhythm and phrasing as well as authenticity to the texts. The commentary is helpful, as it points out key themes, identifies areas of translation difficulties, and draws parallels among other biblical passages. At times the commentary is quite technical and likely only of interest to concerned readers of Hebrew, but ...more
Patrick Aleph
Jan 22, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely fantastic. Wish I had more time to read it!
Apr 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: theology
This really helped me understand the Psalms, reading each psalm again after reading the commentary to each one really helped me make sense of them (even basic stuff like telling you which verses are the voice of the psalmist, God or the psalmists enemy which helped a lot).

The translator has avoided words which have later religious connotations (like Salvation which he translates as rescue as the Psalmists were not referring to being "saved" in a spiritual sense but from physical dangers like
May 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Incredible poetry, incredible translation

It's been nothing short of a joy to read these translations by Robert Alter, and this translation of Psalms just might be the best of them all. Aside from the beauty of the words and the images they conjure, the notes were equally valuable and interesting. I learned about the different genres of psalms as well as clues to when they might have been written. Fascinating stuff, really. Alter tends to dismiss a lot of scholarly speculation as to particular
Jan 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
This is one of those books where I either started reading from beginning to end but didn't finish or one of those where I will continually be reading it. It's pretty much both of those things. I am sure at one point I would've read all of Alter's translations on the Psalms but for now I am reading it not in order. Overall though, I really like his notes and appreciate his translation. He is taking the Hebrew as is and trying to make notes of the culture and it's surrounding, as well as possible ...more
David Smith
Jun 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I’ve read other single translations of the book of Psalms: “The Complete Psalms” by Pamela Greenberg, “Psalms for Praying” by Nan Merrill, “The Psalms in Other Words” by Dom Hubert van Zeller, “A Book of Psalms” by Stephen Mitchell. Robert Alter’s “The Book of Psalms” excels them all in both content and commentary. Alter brings to bear his expertise of the Hebrew language, his sensitivity to Hebrew poetry, his grasp of linguistics and grammar, and his breadth of knowledge of biblical ...more
He does such interesting translation work. The formatting is annoying on the kindle though--the footnotes aren't linked, so you either have to jump back and forth (which is very difficult on a kindle) or wait and read them all at the end of the psalm. That's annoying but doable with psalms, but the thought of trying to do that with, say, Genesis is preventing me from buying his other volumes, which is too bad.
Margie Dorn
Nov 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a truly impressive translation and commentary on the psalms. It has moments of wonderful insight, and is worth having on the shelf of any serious student of Hebrew Scriptures. That being said, I should also note that it focuses on the linguistic and literary features of the psalms over the historical, theological, and pastoral foci that are my own preferred interest. The historical and theological are not excluded, just not the primary focus.
Eric Willeforde
Jul 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Along with the Anchor Bible translations and the KJV, this may be the most enjoyable rendering of the Psalms. Far more accurate than the latter while containing critical apparatus to rival the former, this book is another triumph for the great translator. Can't wait for his complete Hebrew Bible coming out this December.
Seth Mcdevitt
Oct 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you love the psalms, and you love poetry, you need this book. This is my favorite translation of the psalms. Given what I know about Hebrew poetry, this translation is the best I've encountered. Alter does what the NASB cannot, give credence to the brevity, violence, and power of the Hebrew language. Worth your money. The introduction alone is worth the price of the book.
Jul 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Book reviews often get stuck in the well-used clichés to which they are prone. But something becomes cliché because, at one time, it was a new word or expression that captured well the intended target of its praise. Robert Alter's diamond accomplishment of a Psalms translation and commentary, equally poetic as scholarly, is simply...wait for it...a triumph.
David L
Sep 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Robert Alter's Psalms

Robert Alter provides translations of the Psalms that are moving and inspiring, with commentaries that explains the purpose of the individual psalm with explanations of his decision-making process in its translation.

May 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biblical-studies
Alter is one of the great living OT scholars. His commentary / translation of Psalms will help you understand this misunderstood OT book of songs better.
Tom Greentree
Mar 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Read in prep for a sermon series on the Psalms (and yes, I read all the footnotes!). An invigorating translation, with insightful commentary.
Sep 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent commentary and beautiful translation that adheres to nuance of original language (as much as possible).
Apr 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The translation of Ps 139 with its commentary is worth the entire book.
Virginia Aguirre
Aug 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reference
The best guide to the psalms I have ever seen. I go back to it to better understand as I read them elsewhere.
Apr 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So different

The translation is so different that I often was startled. I spent a lot of time reading the extensive footnotes. Great for study. Difficult for worshipping.
Dec 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Nothing short of stunning. Puts the KJV to shame. Go-to Psalms for English readers. The footnotes are indispensable.
David Clark
Aug 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Two dear friends and trusted bibliophiles (Brian Volk and Leslie Leyland Fields) recently commented in these Goodreads electronic annals concerning Robert Alter's poetic translations of the Psalms. I have little to add to their thoughtful words except to concur that Alter's singing translation are wonderful. Once getting over my lifetime of familiarity with the King James Version, I have come to treasure Alter's translation.

I recently taught a short course on the Psalms and found the
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InHisCare Reading...: Psalm 95:1-2 3 3 May 02, 2014 07:23AM  
Awesome Christians!: Psalms 2 15 Jul 04, 2013 10:15PM  

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Robert Bernard Alter (b. 1935) was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Lifetime Achievement and the PEN Center Literary Award for Translation. He is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and has published many acclaimed works on the Bible, literary modernism, and contemporary Hebrew literature.
“When Israel came out of Egypt, 1 the house of Jacob from a barbarous-tongued folk, Judah became His sanctuary, 2 Israel His dominion. 3 The sea saw and fled, Jordan turned back. 4 The mountains danced like rams, hills like lambs of the flock. 5 What is wrong with you, sea, that you flee, Jordan, that you turn back, 6 mountains, that you dance like rams, hills like lambs of the flock? 7 Before the Master, whirl, O earth, before the God of Jacob, Who turns the rock to a pond of water, 8 flint to a spring of water.” 1 likes
“72 1 For Solomon. God, grant Your judgments to the king and Your righteousness to the king’s son. 2 May he judge Your people righteously and Your lowly ones in justice. 3 May the mountains bear peace to the people, and the hills righteousness. 4 May he bring justice to the lowly of the people, may he rescue the sons of the needy and crush the oppressor. May they fear you as long as the sun 5 and as long as the moon, generations untold. May he come down like rain on new-mown grass, 6 like showers that moisten the earth. May the just man flourish in his days—7 and abundant peace till the moon is no more. And may he hold sway from sea to sea, 8 from the River to the ends of the earth. Before him may the desert-folk kneel, 9 and his enemies lick the dust. May kings of Tarshish and the islands 10 bring tribute, may kings of Sheba and Siba offer vassal-gifts. And may all kings bow to him, 11 all nations serve him. For he saves the needy man pleading, 12 and the lowly who has none to help him. 13 He pities the poor and the needy, and the lives of the needy he rescues, 14 from scheming and outrage redeems them, and their blood is dear in his sight. 15 Long may he live, and the gold of Sheba be given him. May he be prayed for always, all day long be blessed. 16 May there be abundance of grain in the land, on the mountaintops. May his fruit rustle like Lebanon, and may they sprout from the town like grass of the land. May his name be forever. 17 As long as the sun may his name bear seed. And may all nations be blessed through him, call him happy. Blessed is the LORD God, Israel’s God, performing wonders alone. 18 And blessed is His glory forever, and may His glory fill all the earth. 19 Amen and amen. The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended. 20” 0 likes
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