Many who have read The Revised Grail Psalms have noticed two renderings-"blessed" and "blest"-of what is usually represented as a single word ("blessed") and thus might have been thought to represent a single idea. But the two renderings represent not only a difference in spelling and pronunciation; they also represent a difference in meaning. This article seeks to explain the different meanings associated with these two distinct terms as they appear more and more frequendy in English translations of Scripture and also to clarify how one is to understand the distinction by citing some examples of their usage in the new English translation of the Roman Missal.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED. 1933)1 identifies blessed and blest as spelling variations of the same word: the past tense and past (or passive) participle2 form of the verb bless. The latter form-blest-is further identified as "archaic and poetic." So blessed and blest are essentially variant spellings of the same English word, a variant based partially on the fact that they are often pronounced differently: blest is clearly meant to be pronounced as a one-syllable word, while the OED indicates that blessed is to be pronounced as two syllables (ble' sèd) when used as an adjective.
But the single English word bless bears many meanings-the OED lists eleven separate entries. In English renderings of the Scriptures, two of those meanings of bless have been used to translate two distinct Hebrew words. The Hebrew words, bârûk (a participle) and 'asrê (an adjective) are quite different from one another in both spelling and meaning. These words are also distinct when rendered in Greek and Latin (as discussed below).
Because the two different Hebrew words are represented by a single word in English translations, Scripture scholars have sought to retain the distinction of the original language by using the two variant English forms-"blessed" and "blest"-to represent the distinction between the separate Hebrew (and Greek and Latin) terms. The participle blest, pronounced as a single syllable, translates the Hebrew participle bârûk, while the two-syllable blessed is used to represent the Hebrew adjective 'asrê.
The distinction between the Biblical terms was clarified some decades ago by two giants in the field of Catholic biblical scholarship, Father Raymond Brown, ss, and Father Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ. In The Birth of the Messiah. A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, in the context of his analysis of the Visitation story, Brown distinguishes the two terms thus: "There are two sets of biblical words (and ideas) involving blessing that should be kept distinct, one set that we may call "participial," and the other "adjectival."3 He indicates that the Hebrew passive participle bârûk, rendered eulogêntes or eulogêmenos in Greek and benedictus in Latin, should be translated by the English word "blest." When referring to God, as in the phrase "blest be God," it is simply another way of saying "praised be God." The idea of extolling and acclaiming God conveys the idea that God is to be addressed with words of adulation and joy for what the All-Holy One has accomplished.
As the OED indicates, this is consistent with the history of the usage of blest in English. The editors of the OED note that this form is specifically used "esp. with an added notion of thanksgiving or acknowledgement of gracious beneficence or goodness: To praise or extol with grateful heart; 'to glorify for benefits received.'" The OED further refines the sense of the object of the verb being thus linked to "God or his attributes."
Here are two examples from the Psalter of the usage of blest as a translation of the Hebrew participle bârûk:
The LORD lives, and blest be my Rock!
May the God of my salvation be exalted,
the God who gives me redress
and subdues the peoples under me
In these verses from Psalm 18, the Psalmist acclaims God as the source of salvation, after having listed the many ways the poet has been rescued from foes. …