After having spent the first few years following my conversion in the NIV, and several subsequent years in the NKJV, I have come to settle on three primary translations for both devotion and study. However, I try to keep several of the important versions at my fingertips.
My primary versions are the KJV and the ESV, however, I find the NRSV a pleasure when reading large chunks of sweeping narrative and the Psalms. I always tell people that I am far from a KJVOnlyist (far from it; I have about 80 different Bibles in about every translation). Nevertheless, if I were stranded on a deserted island, was commissioned to write a commentary there, and could have only one Bible, I would choose the KJV.
I say this for both the English of the receptor language and the textual basis. The ancient Hebrew frame of reference was a thought world of concrete realism; the modern world is full of abstractions. That is to say, the biblical authors used real-life, phenomenological categories and metaphors in their thinking, speaking, and not least, their literature. We, however, are accustom to using abstract concepts to communicate. The point with this observation is to suggest that the KJV like no other translation allows those concrete Hebraism to carry over into the receptor language. Let me illustrate this.
Consider John 1:18, where the KJV has the revelatory Word “in the bosom of the Father,” whereas modern translations have him “at the Father’s side” (see, e.g., ESV, NIV, etc.). Do both of these renderings basically mean the same thing? Sure. However, I may be “at the…side” of many people or inanimate objects with no real relation to the things except a spatial one. However, the “bosom” refers to a loose part of the garment, beneath the arm, bunched up by a sash; it is where one might imagine carrying a baby today. Thus, the literal KJV rendering on John 1:18 is loaded with connotations of nearness and personal intimacy. “At the Father’s side” simply does not communicate the same.
Another example where recent translations lose a bit in favoring the concepts of the modern audience is 1 Peter 1:13. The modern translations have “prepare your minds for action,” whereas the KJV again preserves the Hebraic metaphor “gird up the loins of your mind.” Notice the difference between another concrete metaphor of dress “gird up the loins” versus the abstract concept of preparation. The gird up, of course, refers to taking the long ends of a tunic or robe, lifting them up, and tucking them into a girdle like a big diaper almost. This would give the ancient freedom of mobility, making running easier (one thinks of the father of the prodigal son).
Beyond the contemporary word-picture that Peter was communicating through, the gird-up metaphor points past the dress metaphor to the most significant event in Israel’s history prior to the coming of Jesus, the exodus. The exodus motif is crucial to a correct understanding of 1 Peter, and the KJV rightly retains the language that reveals this theme was constantly in Peter mind in writing, even in this short phrase. What text, though, was Peter alluding to? Exodus 12:11 reads, “And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the LORD’S Passover” (KJV). More than that, this is confirmed by the fact that Peter couches this metaphor in the context of Jesus as the Lamb (1:19). So, in this case, not only does the retention of the concrete language of the original shed light on our understanding of the author’s thought-world and therefore the meaning, it also aids the reader to place the passage in its proper redemptive-historical context.
Granted, I spend an equal amount of time in the ESV, NRSV, and sometimes the NIV (just got a new single column NIV yesterday, which is great for reading through big books). However, I believe that any student of the English Bible should spend a goodish bit of time in the KJV, because the unfamiliar metaphors drive the student to deeper study, better reflect the thought-world of the author and thus his mind, and it elucidates the hook terms and phrases that flag important biblical-theological motifs.