Archive for March, 2012

Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 3)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been considering the issue of psalm paraphrases.  We’ve looked at the definition of “psalm-hymns” and their use in worship.  Last week, I pointed out how singing psalm-hymns can be advantageous.  Now, I’d like to propose a few guidelines for including psalm-hymns in hymnals and in worship.

First, let me say that having access to accurate, literal psalm settings—songs that are not psalm-hymns—is extremely important.  In psalm-singing, it is essential that congregations have the ability to sing God’s Word with the least possible amount of human alteration.  This may come in the form of chanting directly from the text of the Bible, using non-metered versions of the Psalms (which tend to be more accurate), or just singing settings that are faithful to the content and form of the Scripture.  Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of such resources for psalm-singing.  Chanting is an often-forgotten practice in today’s churches, and most literal psalm settings are either based on archaic Bible translations like the King James or newer versions with unbiblical modifications (such as gender neutralization, for instance).  What we really need are accurate settings of the psalms based on a solid modern translation like the ESV.  (If you know of any such resources, please share them!)

However, in the orthodox Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, we don’t limit ourselves to singing only the psalms; we sing hymns as well.  Because I believe there are solid biblical grounds for singing both psalms and hymns in worship, it is my conviction that nothing should hinder us from singing psalm paraphrases or “psalm-hymns.”  But in choosing repertoire for a new hymnal (or a congregation for that matter), here are some important points to keep in mind:

Psalm paraphrases should never replace or supersede literal psalm settings.  We already discussed how psalm-hymns can be useful in worship.  But I would contend that each biblical psalm should have at least one complete, accurate setting in any psalter.  An unfortunate shortcoming of the blue Psalter Hymnal, for instance, is with regard to Psalm 9.  The only setting of this psalm (number 14, “Whole-Hearted Thanksgiving”) is a weak paraphrase, with much of the biblical content truncated and replaced with an extra-biblical refrain.  There is nothing wrong with this selection as a psalm-hymn; it preserves the basic message of the text, and it’s certainly a rousing selection to sing at the opening of Sunday worship.  No, in this case, and in many others like it, it’s what’s missing that’s the problem.  We need solidly accurate settings in order to faithfully sing the psalms.

Psalm paraphrases should not tamper with the original theme of the psalm.  For instance, you may have sung a chorus based on Psalm 46:10—“Be still, and know that I am God.”  Yes, this is always a comforting reminder, but without reading the rest of the psalm, you wouldn’t realize that this statement is spoken in the context of global turmoil at a catastrophic level!  “Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.  Selah” (vv. 2, 3 ESV).  Only when we read the entire text can we appreciate the true comfort that comes from resting in God.  Many other instances like this exist.  No, a psalm-hymn doesn’t necessarily have to include an entire psalm text, but it should at least provide the general context surrounding its content.

Psalm-hymns are especially important when they incorporate the New Testament message into the Old Testament text.  Many of the psalm paraphrases in the blue Psalter Hymnal accomplish this beautifully.  Take, for example, numbers 83, 135, and 221 (from Psalms 45, 72, and 110, respectively).  In all three of these cases, the original significance of the psalm is preserved, but Christ is made the central focus.  This is an extremely helpful contribution to the practice of psalm-singing, as the candlelight of these Old Testament songs is flooded with the Light of the World—Christ himself.

I hope these few comments have helped to make the distinction and purpose of psalm-hymns a little clearer.  Perhaps it’s best to view psalm-hymns almost like we view hymns—as a supplement to psalm-singing, though never as a replacement.  It’s my belief that as a body of believers, we should use the best resources at our disposal.  So if we’re going to sing psalm paraphrases, as I believe we should, it is our duty to find the best possible selections, and sing them well and often.  May God grant the Psalter Hymnal Committee insight to select such psalm-hymns for our new hymnbook, and may they be used for generations to come in the heartfelt worship of our God.

To him be the glory,


Questions for discussion

  • Does your church tend to favor literal psalm settings or psalm paraphrases?
  • What are some of the weaknesses of psalm-hymns, especially as regards the Scriptural content?
  • What are some of the strengths of psalm-hymns, with regard to the versification, music, &c.?
  • Have you noticed songs that take a portion of a psalm or other Scripture passage dramatically out of context?
  • Should psalm paraphrases be found in the “psalm” section of the new Psalter Hymnal, or in the “hymn” section?

Psalm 106

Praise ye the Lord, for He is good;
Give thanks and bless His Name;
His loving-kindness changes not,
From age to age the same.

What tongue can tell His mighty deeds,
His wondrous works and ways?
O who can show His glory forth,
Or utter all His praise?

Like the psalm preceding it, Psalm 106 is a historical song, recounting the history of the nation of Israel.  But while Psalm 105 praises God for his faithfulness to his people, the majority of Psalm 106 is a record of the faithlessness of the Israelites.  While it’s never appealing for us to read through such a dismal catalog of sins, one purpose of using Psalm 106 in Christian worship is to convict us of our own rebelliousness towards our Lord.  Yet it also provides a contrasting hope; the song never fails to keep one eye firmly fixed on the changeless steadfast love of God.

There’s only one setting of Psalm 106 (number 211) in the 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal, a complete versification originating in the 1912 Psalter.  In that book and in the 1934 Psalter Hymnal, however, the psalm was split up into two shorter songs: “Praise Ye the Lord, for He is Good” (vv. 1-20) and “Their God and Savior They Forgot” (vv. 21-48).  As the flow of thought was clearly broken up by this split, I think the editors of the Psalter Hymnal made a wise decision when they merged the two into one.

Holding the record at 23 stanzas, the greatest number for any song in the Psalter Hymnal, the text of “Praise Ye the Lord, for He is Good” can seem prohibitively long.  Maybe it’s not practical to sing every verse during a worship service, but choosing a selection of five or six verses that relate the key themes of the psalm shouldn’t be hard.  As a fairly literal and understandable setting of Psalm 106, the text has very few shortcomings.

Two tunes for this setting are offered in the 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal, BARRE or ST. FLAVIAN.  I’ve found that BARRE can start sounding a little redundant if it’s sung several times in a row, since the melodic and rhythmic structures are predictable and repetitive.  To me, it also seems a little more cheery than befits the theme of the text.  Both of these factors lead me to prefer ST. FLAVIAN instead—an older yet more beautiful tune.  (If you’re looking for a suitable tune for an offertory or piece of service music, ST. FLAVIAN is especially easy to arrange and embellish!)  But regardless of the tune, singing this version of Psalm 106 can be an edifying reminder of God’s mercy to us—even when we fall far short of his righteousness.

In the Bible, the Psalter is divided into five books (Psalms 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-150), and the first four books all end with statements of praise.  So Psalm 106, which ends Book III of the Psalter, concludes with this congregational doxology, full of joy and praise for our covenant God whose steadfast love endures forever:

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting!
And let all the people say, “Amen!”
Praise the LORD!

(Psalm 106:48 ESV)


The Organ, the Prelude, and Biblical Worship

I had hardly started wondering what resource I could recommend in my next post on this blog when, during the course of the day yesterday, I discovered not one but two items to share—both regarding issues related to Biblical worship.

The first resource is a short blog post by Kevin DeYoung.  In it, he quotes Harold Best, a member of the music faculty at Wheaton College, on the importance of the organ in the worship service.  Among other things, Best argues:

Without any doubt, the organ is the most naturally supportive instrument for singing that Western culture knows of.  Its very design and its intelligent use in hymn singing are meant to accomplish one purpose: to support singing by the intelligent use of registers chosen to fill in the cracks—to provide both an underpinning and a blossom to the work of the congregational voices.

Now you may find DeYoung’s post interesting enough on its own, but if you’ve got the time for some deeper reading, you may want to also take a look at the comments that readers shared regarding this quote at the bottom of the page.  The views expressed there by the various commenters are many and diverse.  Here are some excerpts:

…the Reformed were the ones who removed the organs from the churches in the first place…

I don’t think any instrument has a biblical basis. It is at best an ‘aid’ to singing.  Indeed where we begin to invest it with biblical significance we have fallen into legalism or Judaism.

The usefulness of the organ depends almost entirely on the skills of the organist, and there are not very many skilled organists out there anymore.

…the only absolutes for worship music are that it should be reverent, theologically sound, and respectful of the particular congregation for which it’s being played.

…music is generational.  Worship stretches across generations, but it is usually easier to worship in the music of your generation.

…the organ is a hard instrument to sing to because the notes do not have the bite that, say, a piano does…

…I say that as the grandson of one of the last living church organists…

We can’t say that the organ is the only instrument favored by God but we also cannot say that the organ is an instrument of the past doomed to irrelevance.

Do any of these arguments sound familiar?  I guess this is a fairly accurate sampler of how worship music is viewed in Christian circles—even conservative Christian circles—today.  Thank God for the level of unity we have within the URC regarding how we worship him in song.

The second resource (which ties together many of the elements of the above comments) comes from a conference on Biblical worship, entitled “With Joyful Reverence and Awe,” held at the Sioux Falls URC last fall.  In one of the recorded sessions, Rev. Spencer Aalsburg speaks on “When The Worship Begins on Sunday—How Does Biblical Worship Look in Practice?”  His refutations of the erroneous philosophies of traditionalism and aesthetic relativism have a lot to do with the ideas in the comments I quoted above.  But while he delved into an explanation of just about every area of a traditional Reformed worship service, Rev. Aalsburg’s comments on the purpose of the prelude before the service were especially convicting and encouraging:

The prelude is a time to sit and meditate on what’s about to take place in the worship of God, and we prepare for what is going to be the most important hour and a half of the week.  It’s going to involve some preparation.  It’s going to involve continued preparation.…When there’s something you love and want to set your heart on, as it were, you plan.…So, no, this isn’t a time of elevator music, but it’s a work of preparing, meditating on what’s going to happen.  It’s not an opportunity to talk to those around you; we’ll have plenty of time to do that after the service.  This is the time to prepare yourself to meet with the living God who made heaven and earth—this thrice-holy God who has revealed himself in his Word.

Throughout the rest of the session, Rev. Aalsburg offers a Reformed perspective on the other aspects of the worship service, including special music, choirs, soloists, and so on.  Not only is this a great introduction to Reformed worship for newcomers, it’s an important refresher for all of us!  I was challenged to view the music I play in services very differently—not as something just for the congregation to enjoy, but as something to help the congregation worship God.

If you appreciate this session, you may also be interested in the other four sessions of the worship conference, featuring OPC pastor and Mid-America professor Rev. Alan Strange.   The recordings are all available via the Sioux Falls URC website.

So thank you, Rev. Aalsburg and the people at Sioux Falls URC, for an excellent conference on Biblical worship!


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,


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