Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 2)

Last week I brought to your attention the concept of the “psalm-hymn” and how it relates to current discussions about the new URC Psalter Hymnal.  Since then, I’ve received a few comments in favor of psalm-hymns, and a few in favor of literal psalm settings.  Honestly, I’m still on the fence myself regarding how to strike the proper balance between Scriptural accuracy and congregational edification.  I think enough has been said about the merit of literal settings for now, though, so in this post, I’m going to briefly outline a few possible advantages of using psalm-hymns in worship.

First, many psalm-hymns interpret the psalms in light of the New Testament, in a way that literal psalm settings cannot.  For instance, in Psalter Hymnal number 135 (“Christ Shall Have Dominion”), Psalm 72 is understood to speak of Christ as the eternal King.  While this exegesis is not found in the actual psalm, we cannot really say it is unbiblical, since this message is confirmed throughout the rest of Scripture.  In fact, even Jesus often interpreted passages from the psalms to refer to himself (Psalms 110 and 118, for example).  Similarly, the author of Hebrews not only quotes from the psalms extensively, but applies them to New Testament truth as well.  Just as our ministers preach on Old Testament texts and interpret them through the lens of the whole gospel, so these psalm-hymns bring the songs of God’s people Israel into focus for the people of God’s new covenant.

Second, in some cases, these psalm-hymns may actually be wiser choices for congregations than literal psalms.  Yes, singing literal psalms is a commendable goal for Reformed churches that desire to improve the psalm-singing they have practiced for decades.  But what about newer congregations that are emerging from more contemporary music styles?  Mightn’t switching from gospel songs and praise choruses directly to complex literal psalm settings easily discourage such churches?  The psalm-hymns in our songbook preserve the basic unaltered message of the Scripture, yet present it in an easy-to-learn hymn-like format.  Many of the tunes used with these texts are from familiar songs like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “To God Be the Glory.”  All this to say that, regardless of the excellent value of literal psalm settings, I believe psalm-hymns might be more practical for some congregations, and more helpful in learning to sing God’s Word—especially for the first time.

Third, the paraphrase settings of the Psalter Hymnal have become very familiar to many URC congregations.  Forsaking the old, well-known songs completely, even to incorporate newer and more accurate psalm settings, is hard to justify for these churches.  Yes, all churches should be open to change, when change is necessary to worship God more faithfully!  But is it helpful or hurtful to such congregations to remove familiar favorites just because they are psalm paraphrases rather than literal translations?  And is it any coincidence that many of the most beloved psalm settings in the Psalter Hymnal—“Lord, our Lord, Thy Glorious Name,” “O Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord,” “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah”—are actually psalm-hymns?  Time itself has shown that these songs resonate with worshipers across multiple generations, often in a way that literal psalm settings cannot.

Fourth, and last, psalm-hymns have a definite advantage when it comes to memorization.  I do agree with those who have pointed out that singing literal psalm settings is an excellent way to memorize the words of the Bible.  However, the elements of rhyme and meter in the psalm-hymns are extremely helpful for the memorization of the theme of the psalm, since each line nudges the reader on to the next.   Personally, I know it’s much easier for me to memorize Psalm 8 in this manner—

Moon and stars in shining height
Nightly tell their Maker’s might;
When Thy wondrous heavens I scan,
Then I know how weak is man.
How great Thy Name!

—than to memorize the literal ESV text: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (vv. 3, 4).  The flow of the melody, the number of syllables, and the rhyme at the end of each line—all of these things give the reader clues about what to expect next.  Sometimes literal psalm settings are able to accurately render the Scripture while still conforming to this rhymed-meter flow, but often these poetic elements become compromised in the effort to translate the psalm literally.  Both kinds of psalm singing can be used as an aid to memory, but the method of memorization is quite different.

In these few points I’ve simply tried to bring your attention to some of the benefits of psalm-hymns.  All that I’ve written is just an amateur appraisal of singing the psalms from a fairly inexperienced onlooker.  So, comments, questions, corrections, concerns—all are heartily welcome, as usual.  I’d especially like to hear how you view psalm-hymns in your church, and whether you’ve noticed similar benefits in singing them.  And next time, Lord willing, I’ll wrap up our discussion with a few practical ideas on the place of psalm-hymns in worship.

Until next time,


2 Responses to “Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 2)”

  1. 1 justsinner99 March 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Great post! Very helpful, balanced treatment of the subject.

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