Featured Recording: The Depths of Psalm 88

O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.

–Psalm 88:14, 15 (ESV)

Featured Recording

Let’s not kid ourselves: Psalm 88 is shocking.  It is a lament of laments.  Charles Spurgeon said of Psalm 88 that “this sad complaint reads very little like a song, nor can we conceive how it could be called by a name which denotes a song of praise or triumph; yet perhaps it was intentionally so called to show how faith ‘glories in tribulations also.’  Assuredly, if ever there was a song of sorrow and a Psalm of sadness, this is one.”

Lord willing we’ll consider the contents of Psalm 88 when we arrive at it in our progression through the Psalter.  Today, though, I’d like to ask a tough question: How do we sing Psalm 88?  How can a musical arrangement be crafted to adequately reflect the darkness and despair of this text?

The valuable vaults of the World-Wide Web give us a glimpse into historical attempts to set this psalm to music.  The Genevan Psalter of 1562 includes a sufficiently doleful tune in the Dorian mode, though I believe this recording is much too fast.  Of course, Psalm 88 was versified in a host of other historic Psalters, but recordings of the music used there are much more difficult to find.

What of our own Psalter Hymnal?  How does it treat Psalm 88?

About a year ago, a member of a United Reformed Church in Iowa and a friend of my co-author James Oord posted some thoughts on this psalm setting on her blog, Free Indeed.  Tierney lamented, and rightly so, that the version of Psalm 88 in the Psalter Hymnal is (or, at least, is often rendered as) “an atrocity.  How can you possibly sing words written from the depths of a soul so utterly desolate and torn apart, to a tune that belongs at a carnival—and really mean what you’re singing? It’s a musical lie, and borders on making a mockery of the text.”

Along with a few other readers, I commented on this post, and a thoughtful (and, I think, very profitable) discussion followed.  Both of us saw the same problems with this versification of Psalm 88—a weakly paraphrased text set to a jarringly jolly piece of music.  Tierney’s solution was to create a new and beautiful minor tune to be used to the words in the Psalter Hymnal; mine was to play around with varying harmonizations and stylistic approaches to try to redeem the original tune.  Along the way we shared thoughts about some of the notorious issues that plague any set of psalm paraphrases—scriptural accuracy, tune choices, and songbook loyalty, among others.  (If you’ve got a few extra minutes, I’d humbly encourage you to read the comments!)

That’s a rather roundabout way to introduce today’s Featured Recording here on URC Psalmody.  The very same day I commented on Tierney’s post, the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir uploaded a video to their YouTube channel with a new arrangement of Psalm 88.  They had kept the original tune, IRVING, and they had kept its original harmonies—but it was the most hauntingly appropriate rendition of Psalm 88 I’ve ever heard.  As I re-listen to it now, the power of this recording almost transcends description.

I’d encourage you to give some thought to Psalm 88 and how it ought to be sung.  Does this rendition convince you as fully as it convinced me?  Do you instead prefer Tierney’s alternate tune, or maybe my own rather sloppy arrangement?  Your wisdom, thoughts, and comments are always appreciated.

As we conclude this post, it might be helpful to call attention to Spurgeon’s further words on Psalm 88.  He points to a single but permeating “ray of comfortable light which shines throughout the psalm.”  Whatever the troubles of the psalmist may be, he still addresses his prayer to the God of his salvation.  “The writer has salvation, he is sure of that, and God is the sole author of it.  While a man can see God as his Saviour, it is not altogether midnight with him.  While the living God can be spoken of as the life of our salvation, our hope will not quite expire.”  Indeed, even in the valley of the shadow of death, we can rest assured that the Lord remains our Savior.  It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that the Christian can sing Psalm 88.

–MRK

(Click here for our last Featured Recording, posted three weeks ago)

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6 Responses to “Featured Recording: The Depths of Psalm 88”


  1. 1 Gerrit Jan van der Haar April 20, 2013 at 7:12 am

    The first time I heared the posting of the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir, I was almost moved to tears. I like it very much! I wonder how it sounds when a congregation is singing it.
    I agree with Tierney that the original recording he made of this tune does not fit to the darkness and despair of the text of the Psalter. His revision is a good attempt to more harmony between text and tune.
    My problem is more in the text. To my tast it is to much a paraphrase. I prefer more similarity between the Psalmtext from the Bilble and the songtext of the Psalter. Generally speaking I prefer the Scottish Psalters.

    I’ll give you an example of psalmrecording on Psalm 88 with Genevan tune and the 1773-text (generally used in most reformed denominations in the Netherlands). This is a recording of congregational singing from the Grafhorst Reformed Chuch in the Netherlands. The poster has uploaded hundreds of Psalmrecordings from the Netherlands and the US.

    The second example is from a poster who made a list of all the 150 Psalms beautifully sung on the Genevan tunes and to the 1773-text.

    A usefull website for singing is: http://www.psalmboek.nl. Here you find all Genevan tunes in 4 different speeds and rhythms. You also find 3 different Dutch textversions (Datheen, 1773, 1967) and an English text of all the 150 Psalms. Unfortunately is only in Dutch. But the navigation on the site isn’t difficult.

    With brotherly greeting from the Netherlands,

    • 2 Michael Kearney April 22, 2013 at 9:12 am

      Mr. van de Haar,

      Thank you so much for sharing these resources! I think both of those Genevan recordings convey the proper mood of the psalm much better than the first recording I posted. I also agree with you that the problem in this case lies more with the text in the Psalter Hymnal than with the tune. It is definitely a weak paraphrase, as Tierney and I discussed over on her original post.

      Since you mention the Dutch text versions, I’ll ask an unrelated question I’ve had for a while: Would you happen to know what text version the Christian Reformed Church in North America would have used in its early days, before the transition to the English Psalter? I suspect it would have been the 1773 version, but I’m not sure.

      Thanks again, and brotherly greeting from the States!

      Michael Kearney

      • 3 Gerrit Jan van der Haar April 23, 2013 at 4:23 pm

        Dear Michael,

        You are absolutely right. The Dutch immigrants in the 19th century used in the Netherlands the Psalm version of 1773. When you would like to know more about this version, please let met know. When they arrived in Michigan they practised their faith in the Dutch language. I’m not sure how long this lasted. Bur in the 1950’s there were still enough CRC-ministers who could speak Dutch. This was very pleasant for the Dutch immigrants in Canada after 1950. Several Dutch speaking US-ministers served in that time new founded CRC’s in Canada.
        The 19th century immigrants in Michagan and the Mid-West joined at first the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church (= now RCA). Afterwards in the 1857 Secession the CRC was founded. One of the founding fathers of the churches in Michigan, Rev. Van Raalte, remained however in the RCA.
        Today there are still exclusive Psalmody congregations in the RCA. For example Providence Reformed Church in Grand Rapids MI and the Reformed Church of Springfort ON.

  2. 4 Rita Vandervliet April 21, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    What an awesome version of Psalm 88! Hauntingly beautiful rendition!


  1. 1 Featured Recording: Meet the Korean-Genevan Psalter! | URC Psalmody Trackback on April 26, 2013 at 7:01 am

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