How Literal Is Literal Enough?

I greatly appreciated Rev. Nick Smith’s guest post last week on why Christians need to learn to “sing the whole psalm.” As he points out, we need to fill our hearts and mouths with the complete message of the Psalter, even when it feels strange or unseemly to us, because this is how we learn to speak and act like Jesus. We ought not to be afraid of texts that call for God’s judgment, especially with the benefit of New Testament passages such as Revelation that assure us this judgment will one day take place. When the psalms we sing in worship have been paraphrased, or their sharper edges have been sanded off, they rob the church of the “bold prayer” that God would utterly destroy the wicked.

Rev. Smith’s response reminded me of the topic of “psalm-hymns,” or psalm paraphrases, that we’ve talked about before. Every Christian ought to care about Scriptural faithfulness in the words they sing as well as the words they read. Consistories and congregations, especially, should carefully consider the question of Biblical accuracy before purchasing a new psalter. But if you’re not a Hebrew scholar (and most of us aren’t), is there any way to tell how accurate the psalm settings you’re singing are?

Although unfamiliarity with Biblical languages may be a hindrance, I don’t think it should stop us from at least beginning to think in terms of Scriptural accuracy. So here’s a rule of thumb that has proved for me to be a great starting point: Get a pencil and mark all the verse numbers in the song. If this sounds strange, allow me to give an example.

psh-markup-1

A few months ago I was thinking about settings of Psalm 46 and decided to sit down with this version from the blue Psalter Hymnal to find out how closely it matched the prose psalm from the ESV. My goal, as mentioned above, was to identify all the verses from the prose psalm in this setting. You can see that it passed the test—Psalm 46 has eleven verses and I was able to locate all of them here (even though v. 11 is unmarked for some reason).

While this is a helpful way to establish that this psalm setting does in fact follow the pattern and flow of the original text, I went a step further. As you can see from this scan (click to enlarge it), I’ve developed a kind of shorthand to efficiently note weaknesses in the translation.

Parentheses ( ) designate words that roughly summarize the original text. You can see at the bottom of the second stanza I highlighted the word “fathers’,” which is close to the original term “Jacob’s,” but not quite the same thing. Whatever their reason may have been, the editors of this psalm setting decided to use a more generalized ancestral reference than one that named the nation of Israel directly. As far as Biblical accuracy, that’s a point against them.

Brackets [ ] designate phrases and concepts that definitely do not appear at that point in the prose psalm. For example, the third stanza contains references to “His wrath” and “His grace” which are not found anywhere in Psalm 46. In this particular passage we are not told whether God’s intervention to make wars cease to the ends of the earth is wrathful or gracious. An argument could be made for either. But in this case, it seems presumptive to incorporate these interpretive components into a psalm setting.

Finally, parallel vertical lines || appear where the versification has left out a concept or phrase from the original psalm. I combine most of these with a brief note in the margin as to what has been left out. In the middle of the second stanza, you can see that the portion of vv. 5-6 that mentions “when morning dawns” and “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter” is missing. These are vivid word pictures that bring Psalm 46 to light in the believer’s mind, like Rev. Smith suggested with Psalm 110.

All things considered, I could argue that this setting of Psalm 46 passes this simple inspection, though maybe not with flying colors. (In case you’re interested, I’ve since revised this text for Psalm 46, and the new setting is available here.) Unfortunately, if you apply this test to other songs in the Psalter Hymnal, some will fail miserably. If I tried to use the same principle to evaluate number 306 from Psalm 149, it would look more like this:

psh-markup-2

As you can see, in the last two stanzas of this psalm setting, which are clearly intended to represent Psalm 149:5-9, I was only able to locate v. 5, part of v. 6, and an elaborated version of v. 9 that includes pieces of vv. 6-8 within it. These lyrics fail to mention anything resembling the “judgment,” “vengeance,” “punishments,” “chains,” and “fetters” of the psalm. That’s a tremendous loss for us as psalm-singers, and because this is the only complete setting of Psalm 149 in the Psalter Hymnal, it’s even more lamentable.

The point here is not to emphasize God’s wrath and judgment simply to gloat in gory language. Rather, we must understand that the Christian life is one of constant warfare against “the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 52, Q&A 127). As one hymnwriter put it, we must be able to see “how the powers of darkness/Compass thee around” (Psalter Hymnal #464), and how those powers of darkness are overcome in the victory of Christ. It takes lifelong practice to recognize this battle for what it is. All the more reason for the songs we sing to portray this reality fully.

–MRK

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2 Responses to “How Literal Is Literal Enough?”


  1. 1 Ian July 17, 2016 at 1:52 am

    I’m glad you’re thinking this way! You know what I think about this–the closer to the prose text, the better. I suspect only a small minority of Christians can comfortably sing the last half of psalm 149… even the Reformation Study Bible seems muddled on what to do with it.

    • 2 Michael Kearney July 17, 2016 at 8:13 pm

      Agreed, and perhaps the second half of Psalm 149 (like many other psalm passages) should get more attention in preaching and/or singing than it usually does.

      My own attempt at a versification of the last half of Psalm 149 to complement The Book of Psalms for Worship‘s 149A:

      5. [5] Let the godly in glory
      Shout with uplifted heads,
      And in nightly wonder
      Sing for joy on their beds.

      6. [6] Let their throats fill with praises
      As they worship the LORD;
      Let their hands be holding
      A sharp two-edged sword.

      7. [7] Let them punish the nations,
      Strike where wickedness reigns,
      [8] Lay their kings in fetters,
      Bind their nobles in chains.

      8. [9] Thus the judgment once written
      Now on them is outpoured.
      Godly ones are honored;
      Give all praise to the LORD!


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