Posts Tagged 'Hebrew'

Tunes (Part 1)

It seems like this is unofficially Reformed Presbyterian week here on URC Psalmody, thanks to James’s excellent articles on the RPCNA and their songbooks (and to the publicity generously provided by Dr. Clark and a number of other readers).  And I’m extremely grateful for these circumstances, because I’ve long desired to learn more about our Reformed Presbyterian brothers and sisters.

I insert this preface because today’s post has a good deal of relation to many of our topics of discussion over the past few days, most notably the various views on psalm-singing in the Christian church.  Yet it also introduces one of the broadest topics we’ve covered to date here on URC Psalmody, which can be summarized in a single word: tunes.

Although the tunes to which we sing the psalms are often taken for granted, they are crucial to the practice of psalm-singing—or any vocal music, for that matter.  That seems like an obvious statement, but stop long enough to think about it.  When was the last time you pondered the music of a particular psalm setting sung on a Sunday morning?  Did you study its melody, harmony, and rhythm to discover how the music interacted with its textual counterpart?  Did you play around with alternate harmonizations or test a different tune?  Though we may not often realize it, music is, put simply, the salt of our psalter.  Subtle yet permeating, it profoundly affects the significance of the text as well as the impact on its singers.

Music is one of the most powerful phenomena known to man.  If you’ve ever tried to watch a movie with the sound off, you know this to be true.  And if music is important to the storyline of a movie, how much more in the worship of our God!  Since one of the goals of URC Psalmody is to promote a greater awareness of the union between text and music in our psalms and hymns, I’d like to devote at least a few blog posts to discussing the tunes of church music in greater-than-usual depth.  Thus, our first topic: The original tunes of the Hebrew psalms.

One particularly striking feature of the book of Psalms is its repeated directions regarding the music used to accompany it.  The superscription of Psalm 6 (ESV) reads, “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith.  A Psalm of David.”  Psalm 8 was to be sung “according to The Gittith,” and Psalm 9 to “Muth-Laben.”  Psalms 45, 69, and 80 were to be sung “according to Lilies.”  Another tune, “Do Not Destroy,” was to be used with Psalms 57-59 and 75.  The music used to accompany the psalms was an integral part of Old Testament worship, but in God’s all-wise plan, none of these tunes have survived.

Or have they?  In the mid-1900s, a scholar by the name of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura made the revolutionary claim that the music of the Hebrew psalms had not been lost.  Rather, she said, the directions for musical performance were included within the texts of the psalms themselves, in a complicated system of notation known as the te’amim or the Tiberian Masoretic Accents.  Haïk-Vantoura reconstructed the music of the psalms by attempting to decipher these hidden directions.  Although her work is hypothetical at best, given the multitude of uncertainties about how the psalms were actually utilized in Israelite worship, one thing can’t be denied.  As Dr. Paul Jones says,

An interesting and validating aspect of Haïk-Vantoura’s work is that when applied to biblical texts it always yields coherent music, well suited to the mood of the words it accompanies.

(“What Psalm Ascriptions Tell Us,” Chapter 11, Singing and Making Music, p. 84)

Admittedly skeptical of this radical new method of deciphering the psalms, I browsed around YouTube to see if I could find recordings of Haïk-Vantoura’s work.  They do exist!  As I listened to her version of Psalm 148, I was profoundly moved.  The melody was simple, yet beautiful even to Western ears.  And it matched the text unbelievably well!

Now granted, Haïk-Vantoura added her own harmonizations to these psalm arrangements, which probably accounts for their surprising similarity to Western music.  But while the system is based largely on theory rather than actual practice, I must affirm that its results are surprising.

Studying these matters leaves me with a few extremely hard questions—and to take advantage of the conversational aspect of URC Psalmody, I’d like to ask for your input on each of them.

Questions for discussion:

  • After listening to some of Haïk-Vantoura’s psalm reconstructions, do you feel that the music is well-suited to the accompanying texts?  Do you think this system could be valid and accurate?
  • How important are the original Hebrew tunes to the psalms?  If we had access to them, should we use them as the basis for our own psalm-singing?  Or is music relative to the culture in which it is created, meaning that we should use distinctly Western (American/European) music in our worship?
  • Were the superscriptions of the psalms inspired by God?  How should this shape our understanding of the significance of music?
  • Was the original music of the psalms itself divinely inspired?  If so, how do we explain the apparent loss of this crucial part of the songs of God’s people?

Without a doubt, these are very difficult—possibly even unanswerable—questions.  Nevertheless, I hope you’ll take the time to offer a few of your own thoughts.  Even if we can’t resolve these questions, I’m confident that this discussion will enhance our collective appreciation of the immense value of music in worship.


Psalm 113

(My sincere apologies for the dormancy of URC Psalmody over the past week.  I’ve been enjoying a much-needed vacation, including an exciting visit to our church plant in Washington, DC.  But more on that later…)

Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
praise the name of the LORD!

–Psalm 113:1 (ESV)

Psalm 113 is one of six psalms in a collection that is often called the Egyptian Hallel or the Egyptian Hallelujah.  The Jewish liturgical year featured Psalms 113-118 prominently, especially during the season of Passover.  In fact, it is entirely possible that the hymn Jesus sang with his disciples in Matthew 26:30 was taken from this set.

The cover of one of the oldest hymnals in my collection, proclaiming the command of Psalm 113:3: "From the rising up of the sun to the going down of the same, the Lord's name is to be praised."Psalm 113 opens with a rousing thrice-repeated command to praise the LORD.  In vv. 2 and 3, this praise is extended through all of space and time.  The rest of the psalm gives us two reasons for praising God: because of who he is (vv. 4-6) and because of what he has done (vv. 7-9).  For a short poem of nine verses, this psalm is one of the most powerful exhortations in all of Scripture to worship and adore our God.

224, “Praise God, Ye Servants of the Lord”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

For such a beautiful and powerful song, I believe Psalm 113 is slightly underestimated in the blue Psalter Hymnal.  One might argue that the fault originates in the 1912 Psalter and the 1934 Psalter Hymnal, which devote only a single woefully incomplete setting to Psalm 113—equivalent to the first four stanzas of this version.  The older versification simplifies v. 7, then completely skips v. 8 and the majority of v. 9.  It ends instead with an elaborate repetition of the closing command to praise the LORD.

In this respect, we can be thankful to the editors of the blue Psalter Hymnal for including a fifth verse to complete the text.  Even with this solution, however, the flow of thought of the psalm is interrupted, and the rhyming scheme of the last stanza (A-B-A-B) clashes noticeably with the scheme of the first four (A-A-B-B).  Although Psalm 113:1-6 is versified well enough in Psalter Hymnal number 224, it seems to me that the fourth and fifth stanzas (vv. 7-9) would need a minor overhaul in order to properly represent this majestic text.

The tune, ANDRE, also has its drawbacks: it is both repetitive and unnecessarily high.  Though I tend to be a stickler for preserving the original keys of tunes, even I must admit that ANDRE would be much better suited in the key of E-flat or F.  Although my aversion to this setting is admittedly subjective, it does seem that a much better tune could be implemented for number 224.  With the abundance of long-meter ( tunes available within the Psalter Hymnal as well as in other books, a replacement shouldn’t be hard to find.  Some possibilities that immediately come to mind are numbers 35 (PARK STREET) or 170 (WINCHESTER NEW).

You might point out that regardless of whether or not we approve of the blue Psalter Hymnal version of Psalm 113, we’re simply stuck with it for now.  That’s partially true; the average United Reformed congregation isn’t going to tear out pages of the old blue hymnbooks to replace them at will.  However, even for small, budget-conscious churches, there are a number of plausible solutions to the problem of substandard psalm versifications.  One such resource, which I don’t often recommend, is the gray Psalter Hymnal.

While retaining the overall form of “Praise God, Ye Servants of the LORD,” the Gray version (number 113) includes a much better versification of vv. 7-9 in the fourth stanza, as well as a decidedly better tune.  Even the modernization of the words in this case doesn’t significantly detract from the text.  If your church doesn’t own copies of the gray 1987 Psalter Hymnal, you might be able to use a digital version of this selection, available on

Meanwhile, readers, are any of you aware of other Psalm 113 settings that are solid, both Biblically and musically?  I’d love to hear your comments below, as it would be a great help to be able to compare multiple renditions of this text.  For in the case of Psalm 113, as in all of our worship, we ought to strive towards the best possible offering of praise to God.  “Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time forth and forevermore!”


Jehovah: A Solution?

A few days ago, I discussed the name “Jehovah” and pondered its removal from the songs of the URC Hymn Proposal.  Although I didn’t offer my own viewpoint at that time, I did identify four questions that can help us evaluate the Songbook Committee’s decisions:

  1. How serious of an offense is it to God when we use the name “Jehovah”?
  2. Does the Jewish practice of replacing “YHWH” with “Adonai” actually have Biblical grounds?
  3. What name for God is an accurate replacement for “Jehovah”?  Should we instead use “YAHWEH”?  “Adonai”?  “The LORD”?
  4. What is the best way to non-intrusively replace references to “Jehovah” with a better name?

Last June, I submitted an 88-page report on the Hymn Proposal to the leadership of West Sayville Reformed Bible Church.  (After being compacted a bit, the report eventually made its way to the Songbook Committee through classical overture.)  In this critique, which I’ve quoted below, I devoted a section to this very topic.  While I can’t give any wise answers to the second and third questions, I did have some recommendations (albeit rather uneducated ones) regarding the first and fourth.

Due to my lack of knowledge about God’s name in the Hebrew language, I cannot comment on the accuracy of the name “Jehovah”—I trust the Hebrew scholars the Songbook Committee has consulted in their decision that the name should be avoided where possible.  Since the arguments at the end of this explanation seem a little faulty, however, I would like to make a few comments.

With regard to the “phonetic corruption of God’s name”: Certainly we are to reverence God’s name, but we must also realize that human language in its entirety is flawed!  How do we know that the way we pronounce God’s “real” name, YAHWEH, is not incorrect as well?  I would humbly submit to the Committee that God knows our hearts when we use the name “Jehovah.”  We know we’re referring to God, and God knows we’re referring to him.  If a choice is offered between “Jehovah” and “Lord” or some other name for God, then I would definitely try to pick the other name.  However, in the psalm and hymn settings, I am not sure that it is wise to sacrifice the quality of the poetry or the familiarity of the hymn for the sake of linguistic exactness.

With regard to the offense given to Jews: By no means do I want to disrespect the Jews, but “Jehovah” seems comparatively low on the list of things they would be offended about in Christian worship.  Do we make any effort to tone down our declarations of the deity of Jesus Christ, the nature of the Trinity, or God’s purpose of election to avoid disturbing the Jews?  It seems slightly convoluted to me to worry about one word when the whole of Christianity is offensive to them.

To flesh out my position on this issue, here are two contrasting examples.  Consider hymn № 8 in the 1959/1976 CRC (blue) Psalter Hymnal: “O Jehovah, Hear My Words.”  This is an unfamiliar psalm setting to most, I would venture to assume.  Because of that, familiarity is not a big factor when considering modifications to this hymn.  Additionally, the placement of the syllables is favorable enough that the first line could be changed to “Lord, my God, O hear my words.”  This alteration does not interfere with the poetry of the setting, stilt the relationship between poetry and music, or place God’s name on a weak syllable (which I believe should be avoided if at all possible).  It is faithful to Psalm 5 and does not change the meaning of the line significantly.  In this case, I believe removing “Jehovah” works well and is a wise modification to the song.

On the other hand, consider hymn № 304 in the blue Psalter Hymnal: “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.”  I can’t speak for all URC churches, but I know that in West Sayville, we sing this song regularly enough that most of us are familiar with it.  Compare this psalm setting with the version in the 1987 CRC (gray) Psalter Hymnal, № 188.  In this second instance, “Jehovah” has been completely removed.  The first line of the hymn is completely unrecognizable, and many phrases in the original have needed to be changed as well.  In this case, the poetic aspect has been completely changed, the words do not fit as well with the music, some elements of the original meaning have been altered, and congregations’ familiarity with the psalm setting is lost.  In instances like this, I do not recommend that “Jehovah” be removed from the text.  (Note also that for this hymn, the 1990 Trinity Hymnal has kept “Jehovah” even though the text has been modernized—see № 110.)

To distill this information down into a few bullet points, I object to removing “Jehovah” if…

  • Scriptural, doctrinal, or confessional accuracy is compromised (I, 1, 3, 4).
  • The original meaning of the hymn or psalm setting is affected (vii).
  • Congregations’ familiarity with the hymn or psalm setting is lost (viii).
  • The poetic flow of the hymn or psalm setting becomes stilted (III, i).
  • God’s name ends up on a weak syllable (i).
  • The altered lyrics interfere with the original music (iv).

When these problems can be avoided, I support the Songbook Committee’s decision to remove “Jehovah.”  Otherwise, I recommend that the original version of the hymn or psalm setting be kept—as the Committee has done in the case of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” (URC 2010 № 176).

(The parenthetical references in the bulleted list refer to grounds for selecting church music presented by the committee and expanded by the West Sayville musicians, which appeared in the report.  I’ve uploaded them here on URC Psalmody in a document called Principles and Guidelines.)

Now that I’ve shared my thoughts, where do you stand on this issue?  Does the name “Jehovah” continue to be a common appellation for God in your congregation?  Should this questionable term be removed from our new Psalter Hymnal, or should it remain for the sake of tradition and familiarity?  In what unobtrusive ways might the Songbook Committee be able to solve this dilemma?  I look forward to your comments.



Jehovah: Why (and Why Not)?

Have you ever sung “Come, Ye That Fear Jehovah”?  A favorite selection from the blue Psalter Hymnal, this jubilant paraphrase of Psalm 22 has been used in worship for about a hundred years now.  At first, I was grateful to see that it had been included in the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee’s Hymn Proposal.  But when I looked at the music for the first time, I was flabbergasted—the text had been drastically altered.  Instead of singing “Come, Ye That Fear Jehovah,” we were now singing “Come, All Who Fear the LORD God.”  As in several Hymn Proposal selections, the name “Jehovah” was eliminated from this song.   Why?

In the March/April 2012 issue of The Outlook, Mrs. Sheila Ypma of the URC in Lethbridge, Alberta, presents a commentary on this trend.  Below is an excerpt from her article.

If the name Jehovah will be taken out of our psalms, then we will no longer sing these wonderful words of exaltation to and of Jehovah.  Then we will also lose a wonderful heritage.  I am not sure if members in the URCNA want such drastic changes made to the beautiful psalm renditions of our PH [Psalter Hymnal].  However, if Synod 2012 approves the removal of the name Jehovah from the four songs mentioned above (HP [Hymn Proposal] #3, 4, 19, and 271) then, to be consistent, all other references to Jehovah will likely be eliminated.

We wonder why the name Jehovah is no longer a suitable name for our God.  Until now, we delighted in the name Jehovah and considered it to be theologically sound.  We had not been told that it was sinning against God to call on the name of Jehovah.  If it is sin to call God by the name Jehovah, then by all means change the above songs and the more than seventy-four other blue PH psalm versifications that attribute praise, glory, honor, and reverence to Jehovah.

To be accurate, I should mention that some small errors in reasoning are present in this opinion piece.  For one thing, the issue related to the name “Jehovah” is mainly one of linguistic correctness, not theological soundness.  Personally, I do not believe that we can label the use of this name as a sin against God.  (I’ll give a justification for this view in a future post.)  Also, without giving a clear case for continuing to use the name “Jehovah,” the author appeals only to tradition, a source that should always be secondary to the authority of Scripture.  Nevertheless, I share Mrs. Ypma’s fundamental concern: I too would be extremely disappointed if favorite psalm settings like “Jehovah Is My Light” and “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” appeared in drastically modified form in the future URC Psalter Hymnal.

Yet it is unwise for us to ignore the significant reasons presented by the Psalter Hymnal Committee in defense of their decision.  In a “Frequently Asked Questions” page on the URCNA website, the committee offers this explanation:

The Songbook Committee, along with the Canadian Reformed “Book of Praise” committee, requested advice about the best rendering of the covenant name of “Yahweh” (YHWH) from several Old Testament (Hebrew) scholars.  We received responses from Dr. Cornelis Van Dam of the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches, and from Prof. Mark Vander Hart of Mid-America Reformed Seminary.  Both of these scholars encouraged us to avoid the term “Jehovah” as much as possible.

The term “Jehovah” first appears in the medieval church and arises out of a misunderstanding of the Hebrew text.  Here’s what happened: When reading the Torah, the Hebrew name of God, YHWH, was not pronounced by the Jews and so when they came across the name, they would automatically say “Adonai” (meaning “Lord”) or sometimes “Elohim.”  Later, when vowel markings were placed under the Hebrew letters, the ancient vocalizers put the vowels of “Adonai” under YHWH in order to remind the reader to say “Adonai.”  What happened in the medieval context was to take the consonants YHWH of the written text and read this with the vowels of “Adonai”—thus “Jehovah” or the alternate spelling “Iehoua.”

 This means that “Jehovah” is actually a phonetic corruption of God’s name. Further, the pronunciation “Jehovah” sounds blasphemous to Jews today. They still highly reverence the covenant name YHWH, and we would do well not to cause unnecessary offence.

Based on the advice of the scholars we consulted, our committee thinks it best to find replacements for “Jehovah” wherever possible. In this we are also following the practice of the Trinity Hymnal (1990 edition), the Book of Praise, and other songbooks used by most confessionally-orthodox Reformed churches.

Now, to be frank, I must admit that I don’t completely agree with the Psalter Hymnal Committee’s conclusions.  Unfortunately, because we must work from existing songbooks and centuries-old traditions, the best solution is not as simple as a blanket removal of this questionable term.  From Mrs. Ypma’s article and the committee’s decision, these key questions arise:

  1. How serious of an offense is it to God when we use the name “Jehovah”?
  2. Does the Jewish practice of replacing “YHWH” with “Adonai” actually have Biblical grounds?
  3. What name for God is an accurate replacement for Jehovah?  Should we instead use YAHWEH?  Adonai?  The LORD?
  4. What is the best way to non-intrusively replace references to “Jehovah” with a better name?

Feel free to share your own responses and reactions to these questions in the space below.  In the near future, I hope to follow up on this post with some related thoughts.  As always, stay tuned!


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