Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 1)

In an earlier post, I presented a question about the psalms we sing in church: Where is the dividing line between psalm settings and hymns?  Or, to put it another way, how close must the lyrics of a psalm-based song be to the original Scriptural text in order to be considered a proper psalm setting?

There’s much more to this issue than a simple set of criteria.  Because of this, I’d like to discuss the topic a little more thoroughly in a short blog series—offering my own thoughts, but also seeking comments and guidance from my readers.  The discussions in this series might seem rather painstaking, but I’m convinced that this matter is important, since it directly influences our view of the psalms we sing.  I ask you, then, to bear with me!

Two quotes from the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee help to set the issue of psalm paraphrasing in context.  In a recent article in The Outlook, Mrs. Denise Marcusse explains, “There are a lot of questions swirling around URC circles about the new songbook and the committee’s work on the hymnal.  The proposed new hymnal is intended to be just that: a new hymnal!  We understand that some might wish this to be a replicated blue Psalter Hymnal.  The committee, however, is working from the understanding that this songbook will span more generations by adding some newer songs along with some of the older and well-loved songs.  Mainly we are striving to have it be a hymnal that more closely reflects our Reformed creeds and confessions.  It will be a songbook in which the psalm songs more closely reflect the Scripture texts and do not just loosely paraphrase God’s Word” (emphasis added).

Looking back at the Songbook Committee’s original criteria for selecting church music, we read in guideline 4 that “when psalms or other portions of Scripture are set to music, the words must be faithful to the content and form of the inspired text (II Tim. 3:16)” (again, emphasis added).

I’m sure we would all agree that these are commendable standards for psalm settings.  Yet at the same time, one might ask, where is the dividing line?  How close to Scripture is close enough?  What exactly is the “form of the inspired text” and how should it be followed?  While we can’t really answer these questions directly, I’d like to at least try to sketch a few tentative guidelines as we enter this discussion.  Let’s start with a simple example.

If you take a look at Psalter Hymnal number 28, and then compare it to number 31, you’ll probably notice some differences right away.  Although the two texts are based on the same section of Psalm 19, their content is hardly the same.  Number 28 follows the literal order and phrasing of the psalm, with little deviation or poetic embellishment.  Number 31, on the other hand, is a much freer paraphrase.  It starts with a fairly simple versification of Psalm 19:1-4a.  In the second stanza, it condenses verses 4b-6 into a single line, then adds a reference to “moonbeams soft and tender” (which aren’t mentioned anywhere in Psalm 19), ending with two lines that revisit verses 3, 4.  In the third stanza, the text summarizes verses 1-6 from the psalm, then skips completely over verses 7-13 to end with a loose paraphrase of verse 14.

My point is not to criticize this particular Psalter Hymnal selection, but merely to emphasize one important definition.  The name I’m going to assign to this definition is the “psalm-hymn.”  While the distinction between a psalm-hymn and a regular psalm setting is hard to pinpoint, here are some typical characteristics of these songs:

  • Psalm-hymns generally contain only pieces of the original psalm.  They focus on one small section, skim the main themes from the rest of the text, or merge fragments of multiple psalms.
  • Psalm-hymns are not strictly true to the form of the inspired text.
  • Often, psalm-hymns contain refrains or other repetitions of key themes.
  • In some cases, an excerpt from a psalm is used as a springboard to other themes in a psalm-hymn.  The percentage of “non-psalm” content is much higher than that of a traditional psalm setting.
  • The paraphrasing of a psalm-hymn is usually very free compared to other settings.

Below is a short list of Psalter Hymnal selections I’ve compiled that, in my evaluation, fall into this category.

  • 13, “Lord, Our Lord, Thy Glorious Name”
  • 14, “Whole-Hearted Thanksgiving”
  • 31, “The Heavens Declare Thy Glory”
  • 36, “The Ends of All the Earth Shall Hear”
  • 37, “Amid the Thronging Worshippers”
  • 78, “Judge Me, God of My Salvation”
  • 79, “Send Out Thy Light and Thy Truth”
  • 135, “Christ Shall Have Dominion”
  • 137, “In Doubt and Temptation”
  • 180, “It Is Good to Sing Thy Praises”
  • 198, “Thou, O Lord, Art God Alone”
  • 204, “O Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord”
  • 221, “The Lord unto His Christ Has Said”
  • 265, “To Thee, O Lord, I Lift Mine Eyes”
  • 282, “Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim”
  • 284, “Give Thanks to God, for Good is He”
  • 297, “O Happy Land, Whose Sons in Youth”
  • 304, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah”
  • 483, “Come, Ye That Fear Jehovah”

Again, I realize that this discussion may seem overly technical and practically irrelevant.  Yet this topic, in my belief, is extremely important at this point in time—because the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee’s treatment of these issues will influence (for better or for worse) the songs we sing in worship for decades to come.

In the next installment, God willing, I’ll dig deeper into the structure of these psalm-hymns and discuss their place in the Psalter Hymnal.  For now, though, I’d like your input.  As you can see, the majority of the selections on the list of psalm-hymns are old favorites, beloved by many.  In your experience, what are the benefits of using these songs in worship, as opposed to more literal psalm settings?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of psalm-hymns, and how might they be improved?  As always, I look forward to your responses.

To be continued!

–MRK

References

  1. Denise Marcusse, “Now That’s a Good Question.”  The Outlook, January/February 2012, pp. 21, 22.
  2. The fourth Guideline for Selecting Songs, from the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee (see p. 4 of their report to Synod 2010).
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5 Responses to “Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 1)”


  1. 1 Steve Vander Woude February 22, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Great blog, Michael. As a fellow member of a URCNA church, I share your interest in the worship music of the federation.

    I think the benefits of closer correlation between psalm text and musical setting are many. For one, a literal setting connects the congregation more directly to the actual word of God, so that in singing members learn and hear God’s actual inspired words and sing them back to God. Singing closer versions of the texts will also be an avenue to more engaged reading and memorization of the psalms as songs of the Church.

    We can think of setting a psalm for singing as analogous to translating Scripture. Taking my cue from the preface to the ESV Bible, Bible translation should strive to be “essentially literal”, capturing, as much as possible, the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. (By the way, this underscores the importance of the Bible translation that is used as the basis for our psalm settings.) Of course, setting a psalm translation for singing is another step removed from the original text. We must be concerned with appropriate musical expression, meter, rhythm, rhyme, tempo, etc., but the principals of Bible translation should inform how greatly we alter the text to accommodate these practical and aesthetic concerns. If we venture too far into paraphrase, we are left with a hymn–perhaps theologically correct–but not a psalm setting.

    Steve Vander Woude
    Community URC
    Schererville, IN

    • 2 Michael Kearney February 22, 2012 at 7:30 pm

      Thanks Mr. Vander Woude, these are great points. Your comparison of psalm paraphrasing to Bible translation is especially helpful. I’m not sure what translation the Psalter Hymnal psalms were based on (it may have been the American Standard Bible as was used in the 1912 Psalter), but when compared against the older Bible versions, most of these psalm settings actually match the text very closely. So it seems that even back then, the hymnal editors followed the principles you mention.

      If this is the case, what we need today are new settings of the psalms, similar in style to the ones we currently use, but based instead on an accurate modern translation like the ESV. I’ve heard good things about Crown and Covenant’s The Book of Psalms for Singing, as Rev. Shane Lems has mentioned on his blog The Reformed Reader. If these settings are as good as they purport to be, hopefully we’ll see some of them appear in the URC Psalm Proposal.

      With regard to engaged reading and easier memorization, I agree with you, yet I’ve also found that it’s sometimes actually easier for me to memorize a paraphrase of a psalm (I’ll try to expand on this a bit in the next post). In any case, it’s the accurate representation of God’s Word that counts.

      Thanks again for the comments!

      –Michael

  2. 3 Charles L. Baker February 24, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    With this concern over accuracy, why isn’t there serious consideration of setting the ESV Psalter, plus the Canticles in Saint Luke 1 and 2 to ancient chant tones? Anglican chant, Gregorian chant, and Plainsong are relatively simple and, therefore, easily learned. I am well aware that the Continental Reformed tradition is the Genevan Psalter (excellent, BTW), which are metrical settings. That said, singing the Scripture text itself would be an improvement, since all metrical settings call for some paraphrasing. Another advantage, once chant was learned, the Psalter could easily be sung unaccompanied.

    • 4 Michael Kearney February 25, 2012 at 10:04 am

      Chanting is a practice with which I have next to no experience, but I’d love to learn more about it. Certainly it might be a beneficial practice for us as an aid to memorizing Scripture! Do you know of any resources regarding chants that might be helpful?

      Thanks for this input!

      –Michael


  1. 1 How Literal Is Literal Enough? | URC Psalmody Trackback on June 6, 2016 at 1:01 pm

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