Paraphrasing the Psalms

This brings us to the first post in the “Actions” category—a category focused on stimulating some discussion on church music as it relates to (relatively) current events, especially within the URC.  For our first topic, let’s take a look at the difficult issue of paraphrasing the psalms.

The URC Psalter Hymnal Committee is currently working on collecting psalm settings for the new URC Psalter Hymnal.  In 2010, the committee had generated confusion amidst some of our church musicians by including some psalm-based songs (such as “Amid the Thronging Worshippers” and “Christ Shall Have Dominion”) in the Hymn Proposal, the future hymn section of the URC Psalter Hymnal, rather than the psalm section.  At issue was the problem of the settings’ Scriptural accuracy—their faithfulness to the original wording of the psalms.

This issue was handled in a similar fashion by the editors of the CRC’s gray 1987 Psalter Hymnal.  Choosing to offer only one setting per psalm, the CRC relocated many of the old psalm settings such as “How Shall the Young Direct Their Way?” and “How Good and Pleasant Is the Sight” to the hymn section of this songbook.  Their approach represents one end of the spectrum of reactions to paraphrased psalm versions.

For the URC, it seems that this trend has been reconsidered.  In an April 2011 report, the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee informed our churches that it had made the following decisions:

The Committee has decided to retain appropriate Psalm paraphrases in the Psalm section instead of including them in the proposed hymn section. Thus, Psalm texts that are true to Scripture will be listed as the first selection(s), with the paraphrases being listed after these primary selections. Paraphrase versions will be noted as such. Many well-known blue Psalter Hymnal Psalms are paraphrases and several are being retained as paraphrase versions. Also, some Psalm paraphrases currently in the Hymn Proposal (HP) will be moved to the proposed Psalm section.

With this update, it appears that within the URC, these familiar songs will be moving back to their original home—within the psalm section of the Psalter Hymnal.

These decisions are far from settling the matter, however.  What about Isaac Watts’ psalm paraphrases for instance, such as “Jesus Shall Reign” (based on Psalm 72)?  The vast majority of his compositions have appeared as hymns, not psalms, even in the CRC’s older Psalter Hymnals.  A great array of familiar hymns, from “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” to “Now Blessed Be Jehovah God,” is based on the psalms, yet conversely, some of the psalm-songs in the blue Psalter Hymnal are hardly recognizable when compared to the original text.  (Consider, for instance, number 79, which is based on Psalm 43.)

This brings us to the root question: How close should the lyrics be to the original Scriptural text in order to be considered a proper psalm setting?  How much can a psalm be paraphrased, for the sake of incorporating the New Testament message into the Old, without forsaking its integrity?  What criteria should be in place for selecting Biblically sound and yet poetically beautiful versions of the psalms?

Your thoughts on this matter, as always, are appreciated!



2 Responses to “Paraphrasing the Psalms”

  1. 1 Justice B February 18, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Hmm interesting point. I believe that if one is going to write a song based on a particular passage, one should try to at least reflect the general idea of the passage…

    • 2 Michael Kearney February 21, 2012 at 7:36 pm

      That’s a good rule of thumb, Justice. A lot of times, it just comes down to the purpose of the song. If the idea is to sing a complete psalm text, a more literal translation is probably what’s needed. On the other hand, if the purpose is to apply the concepts from the psalm to the Christian life, a freer paraphrase might be useful.

      Some further discussions about paraphrasing the psalms will be up in a few days, Lord willing!


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