Posts Tagged 'Paraphrases'

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

Singing the Whole Psalm

smithThe following is a guest post by Rev. Nick Smith of the United Reformed Church in Nampa, Idaho. It appears in the May 25 issue of Christian Renewal Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

One of the things that Michael Kearney notes in his excellent article on the proposed Psalter Hymnal is the way it addresses the problem of “telescoped and sanitized” Psalms. This is an issue that I think is important for our churches, and I want to highlight some reasons that I think this is the case. Before doing so, however, I want to note a few things up front.

First, this is not the only or even the main reason that the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) will be a blessing to our churches. The dramatic improvement of the hymn selection, the expression of unity with the OPC, and the consistent use of actual contemporary English are all rich and important reasons to commend the committee’s work.

Second, as should be expected of anything done in community by way of working together with others, there are aspects of the new book that I don’t like. But this too is an opportunity to express our fellowship as churches, and to exercise our ability to work together and learn from each other. So I am eager to set aside my personal preferences for the sake of this great expression of unity, and for the sake of the larger benefits the book presents.

One of those benefits is the inclusion of full versions of each of the Psalms, versions that include much biblical content that has been excluded when the Psalms are “telescoped and sanitized.” A great treasure of the Reformed tradition is our commitment to embracing the Psalms as belonging to the church today, using them in corporate worship, and allowing them to shape our spirituality. The TPH will help us grow in this practice, to sing the Psalms in their entirety, precisely where they challenge us to grow in the way we sing and pray to the Lord.

Psalm-singing is deeply rooted theologically. The Psalms, as with all of Scripture, spoke of Christ and are fulfilled in Christ (Luke 24:44). Jesus grew up singing and praying the Psalms, crying out with the words of Psalm 22 on the cross (Matthew 27:46). The Psalms are rightly understood as singing of Christ and being sung by Christ. As we are united to Christ by faith, the Psalms become our songs and prayers that we share with him.

Moreover, the practice of singing the Psalms is fruitful precisely because they are God’s Word. There can be times when we may dislike the singing of a Psalm because what it describes or expresses doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t resonate with our experience. It doesn’t say what we desire to say. But this is exactly when the Psalm is most needed. We don’t always feel what we should feel; we don’t always desire to pray what we should pray. When we sing the Psalms, our spirituality is being shaped and formed by words that God has given to us. But when we sanitize those words or eliminate the elements that make us uncomfortable, that formative function of the Psalms is lost. Rather than the Psalm forming us, we have transformed the Psalm.

The TPH helps us address this problem. Our congregation is singing Psalm 110A (our “Psalm of the Month” for May). While the new setting is beautiful, singing a new version was difficult, since we have grown to love the setting of Psalm 110 in the blue Psalter Hymnal (#221, “The Lord unto His Christ Has Said”). If there’s a Psalm setting I’d be inclined to defend, it’s that one. And yet as we sang the new version, I was struck by some of the words:

The nations he will judge;
the dead in heaps will lie.
The mighty of the earth he’ll crush –
all who his rule defy.

I’ve read Psalm 110, I’ve sung it, I’ve preached on it. And yet when we came to the words, I wondered, “Are those words really in the Psalm?” Sure enough, it’s verse 6: “He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth.”

So why the disconnect? I suspect it’s because of our practice of singing versions that are “sanitized.” The setting that we most often sing, and that I was inclined to defend, says “Thou shalt subdue the kings of earth with God at thy right hand; the nations thou shalt rule in might and judge in every land.” There are no corpses, no heaps of dead, no shattering and crushing the proud who defy the Lord’s rule.

Does it really matter that we sing, “The nations he will judge; the dead in heaps will lie. The mighty of the earth he’ll crush – all who his rule defy”? It does matter, and it matters precisely because these words make us uncomfortable. These words give us a vivid and memorable way to sing of God’s defeat of all of his enemies, and the practice of singing them is meant to shape and form us.

The words are memorable. Much like stories in the book of Judges, the language sticks in the mind. Who can forget Ehud slaying Eglon, or Jael’s tent peg driven into Sisera’s temple? Likewise, when we sing “the mighty of the earth he’ll crush,” the language is vivid in a way that stays with us. This is important, because we face real enemies. The language of the Psalm is ultimately fulfilled in Christ’s defeat of the demonic forces of sin and death and hell, in his defeat of the spiritual powers that array themselves against the church. This is a reality that we come up against repeatedly in the Christian life. When we face temptation, when we face the darkness of depression and anxiety, when we are confronted with the reality of pain and sickness and death, we need to have sung the vivid words of Psalm 110 – Christ is on the throne, and he has crushed – and will crush – all of those enemies.

There is real evil in the world, and when people align themselves with that evil, when they obstinately refuse to follow Christ, and when they use their power to abuse and hurt and kill and rape and destroy, the Bible is clear that all of those wrongs are going to one day be set right. God’s people need to sing of that reality. One of the ways Christ defeats the serpent is by converting the nations and bringing salvation. That has been the case since Christ ascended and will be the case until he returns. But we also know that there are those who instead ally themselves with the serpent, who use their position of power to cause suffering for others. And the Bible calls us to sing of the day when all of that evil will be set right, when the Lord will bring justice.

Sanitized Psalms, cleansed of vivid language, withhold from the church a bold prayer that God intends to answer – a prayer that the day will come when evil will be destroyed, when sin and death and hell and all the demonic forces of the serpent will finally be crushed and defeated. This is the future God reveals in Revelation 19: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” This is the reality we sing of in the Psalms.

When we are frightened by evil, by the wicked powers that are present in the world, by political might that seeks to oppose Christ and his church, we are challenged to respond in faith. Over against the evil in the world, we are to be a people of hope, composure and confidence, living in a way that points to a future in which evil does not have the last word. Psalm 110 is given to form in us a vivid remembrance of that hope:

The nations he will judge;
the dead in heaps will lie.
The mighty of the earth he’ll crush –
all who his rule defy.

–Rev. Nick Smith

“Crippled in Both Feet”

1887 United Presbyterian Psalter

1887 United Presbyterian Psalter

Why has psalm-singing fallen by the wayside in so much of the Western church? Many people blame the rise of hymn-singing for the decline of psalm-singing. But in 1906, two men from the Christian Reformed Church reversed the argument. Instead they blamed a deficiency in psalm-singing for the rise of hymn-singing.

Today I’d like to take a short excursion from this summer’s Behind the Psalter Hymnal series—which is almost over, don’t worry—to present another fascinating document from the vaults of church history. It’s a report submitted to the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1906 on “the new American rhyming of the Psalter.” That “new American rhyming” would become the United Presbyterian Psalter published in 1912, whose psalm settings have become beloved favorites in many Reformed churches. The 1912 Psalter was the source for most of the psalm settings in the blue Psalter Hymnal and several other psalters of the 20th century.

As the finishing touches were being applied to the text of this new psalter in 1906, Henry Beets and Henry Vander Werp submitted this report to the CRC’s synod to provide some background and personal commentary on the project. The original report was in Dutch; since then it’s also been converted into English by an unknown translator, and the version I’ve posted on URC Psalmody is a slightly edited version of this translation.

Dutch Psalter, 1773 translation

Dutch Psalter, 1773 translation

In their report, the two Henrys compare the psalters that were then being used in the English-speaking and Dutch-speaking churches of the CRC. The former often used the 1887 United Presbyterian revision of the Psalter (pictured at the top of this page). The latter used the Genevan Psalter according to its 1773 translation into Dutch (pictured at right). In colorfully blunt language, Beets and Vander Werp expose serious deficiencies in the English psalter. They call it “kreupelrijm, en in meerdere gevallen kreupel aanbeide voeten”—“a crippled rhyming, and in most instances crippled in both feet.” They compare the Dutch psalter to the sun, and the English to “the moon, and not even a full moon!” They even write that the English translation “must take a back seat for the Dutch sister”—who knows where that expression came from.

Readers from the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), you might think the authors would at least have a higher regard for your psalm settings. Nope—in their opinion, the psalter “of the Covenanter Church here and in Scotland is much poorer and less poetic” even than the “crippled rhyming” of the United Presbyterians. Ouch!

We could easily write off these pastors’ criticisms of the English psalter as mere ethnic favoritism. Of course two ministers whose first language was Dutch would prefer a Dutch psalter to an English one! But I think there’s more to it than that. Beets and Vander Werp write:

The greatest defectiveness…with respect to the rhyming of the Psalms in our country is the spiritual poverty. In order to cling scrupulously to the Hebrew text, they have, so to speak, placed handcuffs upon the spirit thereof in many places. The glorious worshipful spirit of the Psalms cannot spread out its wings far enough in such narrow boundaries.

I’m sure Beets and Vander Werp would emphasize that any translation of the Psalms must faithfully represent the original Scripture. But they make an interesting point: by attempting to be slavishly literal, the translators of past English psalters often made the psalms actually more difficult to understand. How can the average psalm-singer even begin to worship while struggling to decipher perplexing lines like “For thee to keep in all thy ways/His angels charge He shall”? Such language may have been (slightly?) more colloquial in 17th-century Scotland, but in our contemporary American context, must we really settle for this?

Not only do these ministers propose that a rhyming of the psalms can be done better, they say it needs to be done better. They write:

From this is to be understood the great urge for spiritual songs [i.e. hymns] which are used in the American churches. At first these hymns found entrance because the Scottish rhyming did not do enough for the Christian heart, which felt a need greater than the stiff, crippled, spiritually poor rhyming used for centuries in the Scottish churches could supply. Hence there are very few Psalms found in the hymnbooks of most American churches. (emphasis mine)

Here my ears really perked up. If you ask why the Psalter has fallen out of use in most American churches, people will blame a variety of sources: Isaac Watts’ psalm paraphrases, Ira Sankey’s gospel hymns, or the genre of “CCM.” But what if these pastors are on to something? Maybe part of the reason we stopped singing the psalms was because our translations didn’t do them justice.

There’s good news, of course. The 1912 Psalter, which Beets and Vander Werp called “unquestionably a great improvement,” has ingrained its psalm settings into the hearts and minds of multiple generations of believers, including many of us in the URCNA. Now, in the 21st century, we have at our disposal a wealth of resources for psalm-singing that is not only literal but also beautiful and memorable. The Reformed Presbyterians’ recent Book of Psalms for Worship includes many excellent psalm settings, both new and old, recast in simple, straightforward English. For those who still prefer the Genevan tunes, like Beets and Vander Werp so obviously did, there are the Canadian Reformed Churches’ new Book of Praise and New Genevan Psalter. And, of course, we have the promise of a further contribution to modern metrical psalmody in the URCNA and OPC’s forthcoming Psalter Hymnal.

When it comes to hymns and psalm settings, I’ve always tended to be a stickler for the “original lyrics.” I love some of the quirky wording of old psalters, and I’ll be sad if I ever have to see them go: “All earth to Him her homage brings,” “Who only doeth wondrous works in glory that excel.” But if we insist on clinging to archaic, deficient psalm settings merely for the sake of history or tradition, we may need to be reminded of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “[I]f with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?…For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (I Cor. 14:9,33).

–MRK

Read the complete report here »

URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal Update

Hymnological Math

Our local news station likes to pat itself on the back by calling viewers’ attention over and over to the fact that they saw a particular story “First on 12.”  Sometimes it’s a particularly boring piece of news that no other station could be expected to cover.  Then they’ll brag that it’s a story you’ll see “Only on 12.”

The update I’d like to share with you today is neither mundane enough to be something you’ll read “Only on URC Psalmody,” nor recent enough to be something you’ll read “First on URC Psalmody.”  Had I been unencumbered with a host of other obligations, maybe this post would have gone up a little earlier.  Nevertheless, here it is: a summary of the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee’s latest report.

Read the entire press release here.

If you’re not familiar with the URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal project, this page provides some helpful background information.  As of last November (the date of their last report), the committee had tentatively chosen settings for all 150 psalms.  This report of their March 5-6 meeting includes a substantial amount of overlap, but also some new information.

By now the committees have completed a provisional “Psalm Proposal,” which includes one full metrical version of each psalm (except for Psalm 119, which is divided into its twenty-two large stanzas).  “In all, there are about 235 complete metrical Psalm songs included in the proposal. In addition to these metrical versions, there are about 40 partial or paraphrase Psalm songs that have been agreed upon.  Most of these partial or paraphrased Psalms are from the blue Psalter Hymnal (PH), as a fair percentage of selections in the PH are either partial or paraphrased Psalms.”  This seems to indicate that the Psalm Proposal will be only slightly smaller than the psalm section of the blue Psalter Hymnal (with 310 psalm-songs), and it is my guess that the evaluation process will tend to add more selections to the list.

The URCNA committee reports:

Sensitive to issues of continuity and familiarity, our committees have retained many full metrical or partial/paraphrase selections from the PH in several ways: either as is, or with updated words (e.g. ‘thee’ to ‘you’), or with fuller or more scripturally accurate texts (e.g. a partial text in the PH has been converted into a complete metrical version).

One of the most controversial characteristics of the Hymn Proposal was its extensive modernization of the lyrics of the hymns; the committees will have to address this issue as they tweak the Psalm Proposal as well.  Whatever course of action they decide upon, there are bound to be strong opinions throughout our churches.  Thus, we ought to pray for God’s wisdom and guidance for the committee members, especially as they try to sort out these sticky matters.  May the discussions and the final decision be to his glory.

Pocket Psalter HymnalI am very excited about the committee’s decision to expand some partial texts from the Psalter Hymnal into full ones.  One example they give is Psalter Hymnal #282, “Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim.”  In the blue book this setting only treats vv. 1-7 and 19-21, but the report notes that it has been converted into a full versification in the Psalm Proposal.  Recently I even experimented with completing a setting of Psalm 63 in a similar fashion.  To me, this seems to be an excellent way to preserve the familiarity and heritage of our psalter, while also improving its quality and Scriptural accuracy.

Once again the committee emphasizes, “By retaining many well-known tunes as well as adding some excellent new ones, we hope that our churches will be able to robustly sing all of the Psalms in the collection.”

Now, what of the future?  It has taken the committees nearly two years to complete the Psalm Proposal; beginning this summer, they plan to begin work on a “new and improved” Hymn Proposal.  Meanwhile, the Psalm Proposal is expected to be released online sometime after the OPC’s General Assembly in early June of this year.  “There will be an online system for churches from both of our communions to submit feedback.  After considering this feedback, we hope to have the Psalm Proposal ready for recommendation in 2014 to both the URCNA Synod and the OPC General Assembly.”  Work will continue on the Hymn Proposal, which the committees hope to present to synod and the General Assembly in 2016.  “Upon approval, the final editing, publishing, and printing of the entire songbook would then commence in the Fall of 2016.”

I’ll be honest: I remain on the edge of my seat as I wait to see what’s inside the Psalm Proposal.  Collecting beautiful, singable, familiar, and (above all) Scripturally accurate psalm settings into a reasonably-sized psalter is an incredibly arduous task.  There’s no doubt there will be disagreement amongst the members of our churches regarding which songs should be included and how much they should be modified.  And, like anyone in the URCNA, I need to be prepared for the fact that the Psalm Proposal will probably omit a number of my personal favorites.

But should these objections be allowed to bring our sixteen-year project to a grinding halt?  I hope and pray it may not be so.  I pray that our discussions and feedback to the committee will be well-measured, well-grounded, and well-intentioned for the good of our federation.  I pray that God will grant wisdom and good judgment to the members of the Songbook Committee as they continue their work.  Most of all, I pray that our efforts would be seasoned with grace and Christlikeness—for all our singing is in vain if it is not to God’s glory.

–MRK

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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