Archive for October, 2013

Meet Your New Psalter (Part 2)

Songbook Committee Report Excerpt

(Update, 11/3/2014: A fuller analysis and more accurate statistics on the Psalm Proposal appear in my article “The Outlook on the Psalm Proposal,” in The Outlook, Sept./Oct. 2014, vol. LXIV, no. 5., published by Reformed Fellowship.)

Readers, thank you for your hearty response to yesterday’s post.  Not even a few hours had gone by since publishing when comments, emails, and Facebook messages started to pour in with helpful and supportive reactions to the Psalm Proposal from across our federation.

I’d like to follow up on yesterday’s post by exploring some specifications and statistics of the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal.  Due to my lack of time for detailed study, these figures are rough and possibly a little out-of-date (since the Psalm Proposal is undergoing continual revision).  Nevertheless, for the purposes of a general overview, I hope they will suffice.  As always, please comment or contact me to provide corrections.

For much of the following data I am indebted to the ever-helpful URC Songbook Committee chairman Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen, and to Rev. John Bouwers and the congregation of Immanuel Orthodox Reformed Church (URCNA) in Jordan, Ontario.  Information on the Reformed Presbyterian psalters comes from a Geneva professor and the former director of my college choir, Dr. Robert Copeland.  See his essay “The Experience of Singing the Psalms” in the front matter of The Book of Psalms for Worship (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2009), xvi-xvii.

Size and scope

Currently the Psalm Proposal contains about 273 selections, a very respectable number compared to the existing Psalter Hymnal’s 310.  The distribution of psalm settings is slightly more balanced in the proposal than in the PsH, with most psalms receiving one to three versifications as opposed to the blue book’s pattern of giving “favorite” psalms four or five settings at the expense of less frequently sung psalms.  Besides the 22 songs assigned to Psalm 119, the greatest number of selections for a particular psalm is only four (for both Psalms 22 and 150).  Also, the Psalm Proposal utilizes the Reformed Presbyterian method of numbering, which adds a letter suffix to the number of each psalm (103A, 103B, &c.) rather than a sequential system.  Less literal arrangements are marked with the words “Partial” or “Paraphrase.”

Where the blue Psalter Hymnal fits in

Psalm Proposal Pie

URC members hoping to see a mere revision of the blue Psalter Hymnal may be unprepared for the extent of the Songbook Committee’s work.  Only about 45% of the proposed selections utilize psalm tunes from the blue book, and only 35% or so preserve the original tune for the equivalent psalm section in the PsH.  (Another 15% of the proposal’s tunes can be found in the blue Psalter Hymnal’s hymn section.)  For the texts, conducting an accurate survey is much more time-consuming, but I think it’s safe to say that relatively few selections maintain the original wording of the Psalter Hymnal; for most songs the committee has either modernized the language of the 1912 Psalter or taken up entirely different (though faithful) versifications.

Examples: 1A, 32A, 51ph, 103ph

(Note that in order to access these links you will need the username and password for the digital Psalm Proposal, available by contacting the Songbook Committee chairman at

Not burning the wooden shoes

The Psalm Proposal will offer United Reformed congregations a chance to preserve the rich psalm-singing heritage handed down to them from the Dutch Reformed tradition which utilized the 1551 Genevan Psalter.  At a glance I see no less than 23 Genevan tunes listed in the index of the proposal, of which at least four do not appear in the blue Psalter Hymnal.  By and large the texts for these settings are derived from the Canadian Reformed Churches’ ongoing work on their own Book of Praise.

Examples: 42A, 51A, 98B

Scottish psalmody: welcome (back?)

ABERYSTWYTH, LLANGLOFFAN, TARWATHIE, LLEF—whence are all these extraordinary tune names?  One of the biggest sectors of the Psalm Proposal’s contents brings in selections of Scottish origin (along with their distinctly Anglo-Saxon tune names) from the Reformed Presbyterian Book of Psalms for Singing and more recent Book of Psalms for Worship.  Both songbooks have their origins not in the continental Genevan Psalter, but in the Scottish Psalter of 1650.

psalmodyflowchartA bit of historical background may be helpful here.  Recall that the CRC’s red and blue Psalter Hymnals derived their psalm settings almost exclusively from the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter, which the joint work of several Reformed and Presbyterian denominations (as I mentioned in yesterday’s post).  Although the Reformed Presbyterian Church initially contributed to the effort, this denomination objected to the United Presbyterians’ prioritization of good poetry over Scriptural accuracy, eventually withdrawing from the project to produce its own revision of the 1650 Scottish Psalter.  Further revisions of this psalter were made in 1929 and 1950, leading to the RPCNA’s production of the Book of Psalms for Singing in 1973 and the Book of Psalms for Worship in 2009.  The dichotomy between the poetic approach of the 1912 Psalter and the literal stance of the Book of Psalms for Singing / Worship is still evident today if one compares Christian Reformed psalm settings with Reformed Presbyterian versifications.

All of this is to say that the Songbook Committee’s decision to prioritize RP settings over our more familiar ones could be interpreted in one of two ways: unfaithfulness to our own psalm-singing heritage, or a much-needed return to the Scriptural accuracy upheld in the descendants of the Scottish Psalter.

Examples: 2046A, 98A

The fruits of our own labor

One of the most exciting marks of a new psalm or hymn collection is the presence of good songs that have arisen in recent years from within our federation itself.  Songbook Committee members have contributed their own talents to the Psalm Proposal by composing new tunes, creating new versifications, and writing new verses to finish formerly incomplete psalm settings.  Several selections from the proposal are mostly or entirely the work of URCNA members.

Examples: 36pr

As this brief exploration demonstrates, the Psalm Proposal draws from an incredible diversity of sources.  Of all the complaints that could be leveled against its contents, limited scope is not one of them.  However, there are many other considerations involved in the lengthy process of transitioning to a new Psalter Hymnal.

Lord willing, we’ll continue tomorrow by examining the strengths and weaknesses of particular Psalm Proposal selections.  Your comments, as always, are appreciated.


Meet Your New Psalter (Part 1)

Hymnal Line-Up“So what’s happening with that Psalter Hymnal project, anyway?”

This week we pause URC Psalmody’s “regular programming” (if it can even be called that) to attempt to answer this question.  It’s been so long since the topic of the proposed URC/OPC Psalter-Hymnal has come up that even its dedicated page on this blog has grown out-of-date.  To minimize any misunderstandings regarding this multi-faceted topic, I’d like to start slowly—bear with me.

As always, a little background is helpful.  You may recall that the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) are currently engaged in a joint endeavor to produce a songbook containing complete metrical versions of all 150 psalms and a set of appropriate hymns.  Incorporating the separate mandates to produce a Psalter-Hymnal adopted by the URCNA in 1999 and by the OPC in 2006, this project represents what could become an historic manifestation of interdenominational unity.  Such unity in producing a songbook is probably unsurpassed since the creation of the CRC Psalter Hymnal’s predecessor, the 1912 Psalter, as a result of the joint work of several denominations: the Presbyterian Church in the USA, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Reformed Church in America, the United Presbyterian Church of North America, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Christian Reformed Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Associate Presbyterian Church.  Today’s joint Psalter-Hymnal project is what OPC minister Rev. Alan Strange called “the ecumenical opportunity of a generation.”

Although unity is a beautiful thing, it also presents challenges in learning to understand each other’s differences—and music, of all topics, is most likely to excite heated debate.  Think about it: only ecclesiastically-minded members (may I call us “church nerds”?) care about the differences between the URCNA and the OPC with regard to synodical authority, for example, or the roles of office-bearers.  Yet the songbook that each denomination uses sits in the rack behind every pew, affecting just about every member of the church on a weekly basis.  And while extensive experience in the area of church music is rare, everyone has an opinion on it.

The URCNA Hymn Proposal

The URCNA Hymn Proposal

Even before the merger with the OPC’s efforts in 2012, the URC’s Hymn Proposal, released in the summer of 2010, generated heated and extensive controversy.  It was not long before the blogosphere erupted with a myriad of articles questioning the integrity of the collection, or even challenging the motives of the Songbook Committee itself.  As a rather opinionated fifteen-year-old with what I considered sufficient knowledge of Reformed hymnody, I began to collect my own thoughts and concerns regarding the Hymn Proposal, ultimately submitting an 88-page report to my own consistory.  Although my approach was almost certainly over-zealous, many other URC members shared my worries.  By the time Synod 2012 convened, its agenda had amassed five overtures and one appeal regarding the proposed Psalter Hymnal from two classes and one consistory.

The chief result of the musical deliberations at Synod 2012 was that the URCNA approved the proposal to merge efforts with the OPC.  First the URC’s Songbook Committee would work together with the OPC’s committee to adapt the psalm section the OPC had already almost completed; then the Hymn Proposal would be revisited.  Cognizant of the significant concerns expressed via the overtures to Synod 2012, Songbook Committee chairman Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen assured members in an October 2012 report that “this final hymn collection submitted to synod will be quite different from the Hymn Proposal previously distributed.”  In November 2012, reporting on their progress in compiling a Psalm Proposal, the Committee noted that it was “especially sensitive to maintain important continuity with the blue Psalter Hymnal.”  This desire to remain faithful to our churches’ rich heritage of psalmody and hymnody has remained evident in all of the Songbook Committee’s most recent communications to the churches.

This brief historical rundown brings us to the current status of the project.  After the OPC’s General Assembly met in June of 2013, the two Songbook Committees released a digital version of the complete Psalm Proposal at a website specifically created for the purpose,  Shortly thereafter, the URC Songbook Committee sent a letter to the consistories of all United Reformed congregations announcing the availability of this website for any interested church members.

This is an excellent step forward, but I have some concerns as well.

While provides an email address to which comments and concerns can be sent (, the URC committee has not established any formal feedback process like the one utilized in the time of the Hymn Proposal.  Although this prevents reams of musically technical recommendations from being awkwardly assigned to synod’s deliberation, I fear that it has also inhibited much of the conversation that is not only healthy but necessary for the quality of the finished product.

And the period for feedback expires December 31st, 2013.

Noting that the URC-related social circles I’ve been observing have remained surprisingly quiet with regard to the proposed Psalter-Hymnal over the past few months, I emailed Rev. Vander Meulen to inquire how the feedback process was going.  His reply echoed my own concerns: “We’ve received some responses, but not a lot.  With you, I’m a bit concerned that the word is not getting out.”

Although the Songbook Committee is competent to provide us with a solid and Biblically-sound book of praise, the very nature of their work tends to obscure the needs and desires of the average congregation.  Silence from the churches forces the committee’s members to act without vital feedback on the Psalm Proposal—feedback, I should add, which they themselves have requested.

United Presbyterian PsaltersWith less than ten weeks left in which to submit comments regarding the Psalm Proposal, our congregations’ review process should have started months ago.  Needless to say, all of us have busy lives and plentiful commitments.  As a busy college student with civil engineering as a stated major, my schedule isn’t exactly free either.  But if you struggle to find motivation to carefully consider this collection of songs, remember that the decisions made now will affect the musical heritage of our churches ten, twenty, maybe fifty years from now—profoundly, if not irrevocably.

If the hymns under consideration for our churches’ use were an important matter, how much more critical are the psalms!  We have entrusted this committee of fallible men and women to provide us with accurate and beautiful versifications of God’s Word itself, the singing of which is a divinely-required ordinance in worship.  If we fail to interact with the Songbook Committee’s work now, not only do we insult the hard labor they have been faithfully been carrying out for nearly fifteen years, we also gravely disservice future generations.

Over the next week I’ll be attempting to evaluate various aspects of the Psalm Proposal, as I have time.  If you’d like to join in this review, I’d encourage you to contact Songbook Committee chairman Rev. Vander Meulen at for the username and password required to access the digital version of the Psalm Proposal at  The collection is password-protected merely to prevent abuse of the sheet music, for which copyright permissions have not yet been secured.  Feel free to leave your own comments here, as always; I’d love to see URC Psalmody fulfill its intended role as a discussion forum rather than a lecture podium.

Readers, we have the opportunity to make our federation’s new songbook the finest it can possibly be, for God’s glory.  With grace, humility, and plenty of prayer, let’s give it our best effort.


Lord’s Day 38: The Eternal Sabbath

Catechism and Psalter

A popular view of the fourth commandment in many theological circles classifies it as a part of the ceremonial law, distinct from the moral laws represented in the rest of the Decalogue.  Although the Heidelberg Catechism is silent on the nature of this command, it clearly assumes that observance of the Lord’s Day should shape the Christian life of gratitude as much as any other ordinance.  Yet the fourth commandment presents anything but a “go-to-church-at-least-once-every-Sunday” kind of legalism.  Rather, as the Catechism shows, it impresses upon us an attitude of worship from the heart every day of our lives, and an expectancy of “the eternal Sabbath” that awaits us in heaven.  Today, as we continue in URC Psalmody’s series through the Heidelberg Catechism, we’ll consider the teaching of Lord’s Day 38.

103 Q.  What is God’s will for us in the fourth commandment?

A.  First,
that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained,
and that, especially on the festive day of rest,
I regularly attend the assembly of God’s people
to learn what God’s Word teaches,
to participate in the sacraments,
to pray to God publicly,
and to bring Christian offerings for the poor.

that every day of my life
I rest from my evil ways,
let the Lord work in me through his Spirit,
and so begin already in this life
the eternal Sabbath.

Suggested Songs

88, “The Lord is Great, with Worthy Praise” (Psalm 48)

“That, especially on the festive day of rest, I regularly attend the assembly of God’s people.”  Psalm 48 sets forth in glorious language the majesty of God’s holy city—for the Old Testament, Jerusalem; for the New Testament, the Church universal.  Many a pastor has pointed out that there can be no “lone ranger” Christians; it is not only natural but necessary for a follower of Christ to unite himself with the body of believers, which is itself Christ’s bride and Christ’s city.  As we “consider well her ramparts,” we ought to be compelled to join the rest of the Church universal in reverent worship.

The Lord is great; with worthy praise
Proclaim His power, His Name confess,
Within the city of our God,
Upon His mount of holiness.

Mount Zion, glorious and fair,
Gives joy to people in all lands;
The city of the mighty King
In majesty securely stands.

Within her dwellings for defense
Our God has made His presence known,
And hostile kings, in sudden fear,
Have fled as ships by tempests blown.

With our own eyes we have beheld
What oft our fathers told before,
That God who in His Zion dwells
Will keep her safely evermore.

263, “With Joy and Gladness in My Soul” (Psalm 122)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“I regularly attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor.”  Too often Christians tend to fall into one of two extremes with regard to observing the fourth commandment: we are either encouraged to ignore it entirely, or urged to follow it strictly in a sense of guilt.  According to the Catechism, neither pole is biblical.  It ought to be our heartfelt desire to assemble for corporate worship as we realize the immense benefits Sabbath observance offers for both our physical and spiritual health.  Psalm 122, as versified in the blue Psalter Hymnal, reflects this attitude.

With joy and gladness in my soul
I hear the call to prayer;
Let us go up to God’s own house
And bow before Him there.

We stand within thy sacred walls,
O Zion, blest for aye,
Wherein the people of the Lord
United homage pay.

O pray that Zion may be blest
And have abundant peace,
For all that love thee in their hearts
Shall prosper and increase.

7, “On the Good and Faithful” (Psalm 4)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, and on YouTube)

“That every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin already in this life the eternal Sabbath.”  Psalm 4 speaks sweetly of the true spiritual rest we can enjoy as God’s children.

On the good and faithful
God has set His love;
When they call He sends them
Blessings from above.
Stand in awe and sin not,
Bid your heart be still;
Through the silent watches
Think upon His will.

Lay upon God’s altar
Good and loving deeds,
And in all things trust Him
To supply our needs.
Anxious and despairing,
Many walk in night;
But to those that fear Him,
God will send His light.

In God’s love abiding,
I have joy and peace
More than all the wicked,
Though their wealth increase.
In His care confiding,
I will sweetly sleep,
For the Lord, my Savior,
Will in safety keep.

159, “O Lord of Hosts, How Lovely” (Psalm 84)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, and on YouTube)

The Psalter Hymnal contains four beautiful arrangements of Psalm 84, and this one serves as a wonderful summary of the message of this Lord’s Day.  The true Christian’s heart yearns for the dwelling place of his God; his fainting soul finds refreshment in worshiping among the saints.  If even the lowly sparrow finds a place of refuge in God’s house, should we not much more think of it as our abiding home, our retreat from the world’s storm?  For those who spend each day of their lives trying to “begin already in this life the eternal Sabbath,” God will see to it that “all the way to Zion/Their strength shall still increase.”

O Lord of hosts, how lovely
Thy tabernacles are;
For them my heart is yearning
In banishment afar.
My soul is longing, fainting,
Thy sacred courts to see;
My heart and flesh are crying,
O living God, for Thee.

Beneath Thy care the sparrow
Finds place for peaceful rest;
To keep her young in safety
The swallow finds a nest;
Then, Lord, my King Almighty,
Thy love will shelter me;
Beside Thy holy altar
My dwelling-place shall be.

Blest they who dwell in Zion,
Whose joy and strength Thou art;
Forever they will praise Thee,
Thy ways are in their heart.
Though tried, their tears like showers
Shall fill the springs of peace,
And all the way to Zion
Their strength shall still increase.


Lord’s Day 37: Promoting Truth and Trustworthiness

Catechism and Psalter

In his Sermon on the Mount, Christ gave this exhortation to his disciples: “Do not take an oath at all…Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 6:36, 37).  Does this commandment require Christians to abstain from any kind of oath-taking whatsoever?  Lord’s Day 37 of the Heidelberg Catechism, our focus in today’s installment of this URC Psalmody series, continues to shed light on the third commandment by addressing this complex question.

101 Q.  But may we swear an oath in God’s name if we do it reverently?

A.  Yes, when the government demands it,
or when necessity requires it,
in order to maintain and promote truth and trustworthiness
for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good.

Such oaths are approved in God’s Word
and were rightly used by Old and New Testament believers.

102 Q.  May we swear by saints or other creatures?

A.  No.
A legitimate oath means calling upon God
as the one who knows my heart
to witness to my truthfulness
and to punish me if I swear falsely.
No creature is worthy of such honor.

Suggested Songs

59, “Ye Children, Come, Give Ear to Me” (Psalm 34)

We may swear an oath “in order to maintain and promote truth and trustworthiness for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good.”  The psalmist David intersperses heartfelt praise and profound wisdom in Psalm 34.  In verses 11-14 he addresses his audience as children to teach them the fear of the Lord.  His exhortation: “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.”  As the Catechism emphasizes, truthfulness does indeed bring glory to God.

Ye children, come, give ear to me
And learn Jehovah’s fear,
He who would long and happy live,
Let him my counsel hear.

Restrain thy lips from speaking guile,
From wicked speech depart,
From evil turn and do the good,
Seek peace with all thy heart.

By evil are the evil slain,
And they that hate the just;
But all His servants God redeems,
And safe in Him they trust.

106, “Do Ye, O Men, Speak Righteousness” (Psalm 58)

(Sung by Grace URC in Dunnville, ON)

“A legitimate oath means calling upon God as the one who knows my heart to witness to my truthfulness and to punish me if I swear falsely.”  Psalm 58 provides a negative example of the truthfulness spoken of in this question and answer by calling attention to wicked men’s lack of integrity.

Do ye, O men, speak righteousness
And upright judgment mete?
Nay, in your hearts is wickedness,
And in your hands deceit.

The wicked, from their earliest days,
In sin are gone astray,
With forward heart, in foolish pride,
From wisdom turned away.

The good shall triumph and rejoice,
And this shall be confessed:
On earth the God of justice reigns,
And righteousness is blessed.

251, “I Have Followed Truth and Justice” (Psalm 119)

(Sung by West Sayville URC on Long Island, NY, and Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

Psalm 119:121-128 pictures the cry of a humble believer seeking to follow the path of God’s righteousness, swimming against the entire cultural stream of the world.  In fact, this section of Psalm 119 has in its gazes not just the third commandment, but all of God’s laws.  May this prayer be ever on our lips as we strive to life in grateful devotion to our Lord.

I have followed truth and justice;
Leave me not in deep distress;
Be my help and my protection,
Let the proud no more oppress.
For Thy Word and Thy salvation,
Lord, my eyes with longing fail;
Teach Thy statutes to Thy servant,
Let Thy mercy now prevail.

I am Thine, O give me wisdom,
Make me know Thy truth, I pray;
Sinners have despised Thy statutes;
Now, O Lord, Thy power display.
Lord, I love Thy good commandments
And esteem them more than gold;
All Thy precepts are most righteous;
Hating sin, to these I hold.


URC Psalmody on YouTube

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