Posts Tagged 'Paraphrases'

Featured Recording: The Timelessness of Psalm 139

Featured Recording

As I’ve mentioned before, finding good psalm versifications on YouTube can be harder than searching for a needle in a haystack.  Besides our own URC Psalmody YouTube channel, the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir channel, and a few others, the only solid psalm-singing resources I can typically find are jazzed-up contemporary songs that only allude to or loosely paraphrase the psalm they claim as their basis.

When I first discovered the video featured today, I was sure it would follow basically the same path.  It purported to be a setting of Psalm 139, but with a youth choir onstage and the piano accompaniment opening in a minor key, I wasn’t prepared to be impressed.

The first thing I noticed was that the lyrics were anything but shallow.  True, they weren’t strictly from Psalm 139, but they reflected a prominent theme of the broader Psalter, and beautifully interpreted this particular psalm for the Christian life.  Unfortunately, I don’t know the author of these lines (though I hope I soon will), but I’ve transcribed the first two verses below:

Through all the trials which God sends my way,
Through all the troubles that face each day,
Shadows and clouds may bring doubt and fear,
But Lord, I know Thou art near.

Sometimes the darkness seems empty and cold,
Sometimes I search for a hand to hold;
Lost and uncertain of what to see,
I find my courage in Thee.

What came next took me completely by surprise; actually, the first time I heard it, it sent tingles of awe down my spine.  In the space of one pivotal quarter note, the choir transitioned into a major key, opened up into gorgeous 4-part harmony, and began singing the beloved words of Psalm 139 straight out of the 1912 Psalter.  Hearing the voices of a few hundred children and young people singing these lines made them all the more moving.

Lord, Thou hast searched me and dost know
Where’er I rest, where’er I go;
Thou knowest all that I have planned,
And all my ways are in Thy hand.

Following this incredible musical statement of confidence and trust, the choir reverted to the original minor key for one more verse of the new arrangement, then ended their all-too-short anthem with one more stanza from Psalm 139:

If I the wings of morning take,
And far away my dwelling make,
The hand that leadeth me is Thine,
And my support Thy power divine.

The recording of this arrangement is embedded below:

I could make a multitude of applications as a result of this video, from the modernization of psalm settings to the structure of good choir arrangements.  Rather than overcomplicate this post, however, I’d like to leave you with just one thought: The psalms are truly timeless and intergenerational.  Even a child can sing in simple awe, “Lord, Thou hast searched me and dost know/Where’er I rest, where’er I go.”  But these same words can be uttered with equal sincerity by a hopeful young person with tantalizing prospects ahead of him, as well as by a weak and weary senior who through trials and troubles has proved God’s faithfulness over many years.  The inspired psalms speak to any and every Christian, with no regard to age, time, or place.  Of all things, that is what makes this arrangement so powerful, and the Psalter so valuable.


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Psalm 115

Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!

–Psalm 115:1 (ESV)

This declaration is one of the most humble and yet one of the most inspiring statements in all of Scripture.  With simple earnestness it admonishes each of us to trust in the LORD with all our hearts.  And the entirety of Psalm 115, like this opening verse, revolves around the same theme: total reliance on God.

The first half of Psalm 115 contains a drastic comparison: the idols of men, inert and helpless, versus the God of heaven, all-knowing and almighty.  Expressing the reaction of God’s children to the power of their Father, vv. 9-11 contain this thrice-repeated exhortation:

O Israel, trust in the LORD!
He is their help and their shield.
O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD!
He is their help and their shield.
You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD!
He is their help and their shield.

The rest of Psalm 115 (vv. 12-18) focuses on God’s blessings on his people and their response of praise.

The heavens are the LORD’s heavens,
but the earth he has given to the children of man.
The dead do not praise the LORD,
nor do any who go down into silence.
But we will bless the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore.
Praise the LORD!

–vv. 16-18

Today, as is our custom, we’ll consider the two versifications of Psalm 115 found in the blue Psalter Hymnal.

226, “Not unto Us, O Lord of Heaven”

The most significant drawback of number 226 is that it is an extremely condensed version of Psalm 115—a light summary rather than a full psalm setting.  The list of idols’ flaws in Psalm 115:4-8 is not completely represented in this setting, and vv. 9-13 are unapologetically smashed into a single stanza, with significant chunks of the original text missing entirely.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to deny that the poetry of “Not unto Us, O Lord of Heaven” is some of the best in our songbook.  With regard to poetic beauty, the second and fifth stanzas are my personal favorites:

The idol gods of heathen lands
Are but the work of human hands;
They cannot see, they cannot speak,
Their ears are deaf, their hands are weak;
Like them shall be all those who hold
To gods of silver and of gold.

The heavens are God’s since time began,
But He has given the earth to man;
The dead praise not the living God,
But we will sound His praise abroad,
Yea, we will ever bless His Name;
Praise ye the Lord, His praise proclaim.

The melody of number 226 is a fine one.  From what I can tell, GAIRNEY BRIDGE was composed by Ernest Kroeger in 1901 for the United Presbyterian Board of Publication—the creators of the 1912 Psalter.  Thus, it has the unique characteristic of being specifically tailored for this psalm setting.  Two accusations that could be legitimately leveled at the tune are its high key (it could be reasonably re-set in D-flat or D) and its unusual chromaticism (especially in mm. 6 and 8-10).  Personally, I haven’t found that these flaws significantly impede congregational singing, so I wouldn’t be quick to suggest a tune change.  If both of these aspects are concerns at your church, however, you might consider the different harmonization and lower key of gray Psalter Hymnal number 115.

In conclusion, number 226 is a fine song.  However, I think it is best utilized as a psalm-hymn rather than a strict versification.  I’d be content with this as a secondary psalm setting in the URC Psalter Hymnal, but I would also be very interested to see if a more accurate version might be used in its place.

227, “The Lord Who Has Remembered Us”

“The Lord Who Has Remembered Us” is merely an excerpt from Psalm 115, but it’s not a bad selection.  The chief merit of number 227 is that it provides a complete and accurate versification of Psalm 115:12-18 rather than skimming over key points.  The tune, ST. ANNE, is very appropriate since it is often associated with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”  I am happy to see it here in a time signature of 4/2 rather than 4/4, since this meter lends itself to a fittingly meditative chorale rather than a bumpy common-time melody (as it is too often played).  Thankfully, no tune change is necessary here!

Although I can claim nearly every psalm in the Bible as my favorite, Psalm 115 stands out from the rest for its simple honesty and humble expressions of praise.  This passage provides a much-needed perspective adjustment for all of us as we sojourn in this idolatrous world yet follow our heavenly Father.

Not unto us, O Lord of heaven,
But unto Thee be glory given;
In love and truth Thou dost fulfill
The counsels of Thy sovereign will;
Though nations fail Thy power to own,
Yet Thou dost reign, and Thou alone.


Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 3)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been considering the issue of psalm paraphrases.  We’ve looked at the definition of “psalm-hymns” and their use in worship.  Last week, I pointed out how singing psalm-hymns can be advantageous.  Now, I’d like to propose a few guidelines for including psalm-hymns in hymnals and in worship.

First, let me say that having access to accurate, literal psalm settings—songs that are not psalm-hymns—is extremely important.  In psalm-singing, it is essential that congregations have the ability to sing God’s Word with the least possible amount of human alteration.  This may come in the form of chanting directly from the text of the Bible, using non-metered versions of the Psalms (which tend to be more accurate), or just singing settings that are faithful to the content and form of the Scripture.  Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of such resources for psalm-singing.  Chanting is an often-forgotten practice in today’s churches, and most literal psalm settings are either based on archaic Bible translations like the King James or newer versions with unbiblical modifications (such as gender neutralization, for instance).  What we really need are accurate settings of the psalms based on a solid modern translation like the ESV.  (If you know of any such resources, please share them!)

However, in the orthodox Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, we don’t limit ourselves to singing only the psalms; we sing hymns as well.  Because I believe there are solid biblical grounds for singing both psalms and hymns in worship, it is my conviction that nothing should hinder us from singing psalm paraphrases or “psalm-hymns.”  But in choosing repertoire for a new hymnal (or a congregation for that matter), here are some important points to keep in mind:

Psalm paraphrases should never replace or supersede literal psalm settings.  We already discussed how psalm-hymns can be useful in worship.  But I would contend that each biblical psalm should have at least one complete, accurate setting in any psalter.  An unfortunate shortcoming of the blue Psalter Hymnal, for instance, is with regard to Psalm 9.  The only setting of this psalm (number 14, “Whole-Hearted Thanksgiving”) is a weak paraphrase, with much of the biblical content truncated and replaced with an extra-biblical refrain.  There is nothing wrong with this selection as a psalm-hymn; it preserves the basic message of the text, and it’s certainly a rousing selection to sing at the opening of Sunday worship.  No, in this case, and in many others like it, it’s what’s missing that’s the problem.  We need solidly accurate settings in order to faithfully sing the psalms.

Psalm paraphrases should not tamper with the original theme of the psalm.  For instance, you may have sung a chorus based on Psalm 46:10—“Be still, and know that I am God.”  Yes, this is always a comforting reminder, but without reading the rest of the psalm, you wouldn’t realize that this statement is spoken in the context of global turmoil at a catastrophic level!  “Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.  Selah” (vv. 2, 3 ESV).  Only when we read the entire text can we appreciate the true comfort that comes from resting in God.  Many other instances like this exist.  No, a psalm-hymn doesn’t necessarily have to include an entire psalm text, but it should at least provide the general context surrounding its content.

Psalm-hymns are especially important when they incorporate the New Testament message into the Old Testament text.  Many of the psalm paraphrases in the blue Psalter Hymnal accomplish this beautifully.  Take, for example, numbers 83, 135, and 221 (from Psalms 45, 72, and 110, respectively).  In all three of these cases, the original significance of the psalm is preserved, but Christ is made the central focus.  This is an extremely helpful contribution to the practice of psalm-singing, as the candlelight of these Old Testament songs is flooded with the Light of the World—Christ himself.

I hope these few comments have helped to make the distinction and purpose of psalm-hymns a little clearer.  Perhaps it’s best to view psalm-hymns almost like we view hymns—as a supplement to psalm-singing, though never as a replacement.  It’s my belief that as a body of believers, we should use the best resources at our disposal.  So if we’re going to sing psalm paraphrases, as I believe we should, it is our duty to find the best possible selections, and sing them well and often.  May God grant the Psalter Hymnal Committee insight to select such psalm-hymns for our new hymnbook, and may they be used for generations to come in the heartfelt worship of our God.

To him be the glory,


Questions for discussion

  • Does your church tend to favor literal psalm settings or psalm paraphrases?
  • What are some of the weaknesses of psalm-hymns, especially as regards the Scriptural content?
  • What are some of the strengths of psalm-hymns, with regard to the versification, music, &c.?
  • Have you noticed songs that take a portion of a psalm or other Scripture passage dramatically out of context?
  • Should psalm paraphrases be found in the “psalm” section of the new Psalter Hymnal, or in the “hymn” section?

Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 2)

Last week I brought to your attention the concept of the “psalm-hymn” and how it relates to current discussions about the new URC Psalter Hymnal.  Since then, I’ve received a few comments in favor of psalm-hymns, and a few in favor of literal psalm settings.  Honestly, I’m still on the fence myself regarding how to strike the proper balance between Scriptural accuracy and congregational edification.  I think enough has been said about the merit of literal settings for now, though, so in this post, I’m going to briefly outline a few possible advantages of using psalm-hymns in worship.

First, many psalm-hymns interpret the psalms in light of the New Testament, in a way that literal psalm settings cannot.  For instance, in Psalter Hymnal number 135 (“Christ Shall Have Dominion”), Psalm 72 is understood to speak of Christ as the eternal King.  While this exegesis is not found in the actual psalm, we cannot really say it is unbiblical, since this message is confirmed throughout the rest of Scripture.  In fact, even Jesus often interpreted passages from the psalms to refer to himself (Psalms 110 and 118, for example).  Similarly, the author of Hebrews not only quotes from the psalms extensively, but applies them to New Testament truth as well.  Just as our ministers preach on Old Testament texts and interpret them through the lens of the whole gospel, so these psalm-hymns bring the songs of God’s people Israel into focus for the people of God’s new covenant.

Second, in some cases, these psalm-hymns may actually be wiser choices for congregations than literal psalms.  Yes, singing literal psalms is a commendable goal for Reformed churches that desire to improve the psalm-singing they have practiced for decades.  But what about newer congregations that are emerging from more contemporary music styles?  Mightn’t switching from gospel songs and praise choruses directly to complex literal psalm settings easily discourage such churches?  The psalm-hymns in our songbook preserve the basic unaltered message of the Scripture, yet present it in an easy-to-learn hymn-like format.  Many of the tunes used with these texts are from familiar songs like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “To God Be the Glory.”  All this to say that, regardless of the excellent value of literal psalm settings, I believe psalm-hymns might be more practical for some congregations, and more helpful in learning to sing God’s Word—especially for the first time.

Third, the paraphrase settings of the Psalter Hymnal have become very familiar to many URC congregations.  Forsaking the old, well-known songs completely, even to incorporate newer and more accurate psalm settings, is hard to justify for these churches.  Yes, all churches should be open to change, when change is necessary to worship God more faithfully!  But is it helpful or hurtful to such congregations to remove familiar favorites just because they are psalm paraphrases rather than literal translations?  And is it any coincidence that many of the most beloved psalm settings in the Psalter Hymnal—“Lord, our Lord, Thy Glorious Name,” “O Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord,” “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah”—are actually psalm-hymns?  Time itself has shown that these songs resonate with worshipers across multiple generations, often in a way that literal psalm settings cannot.

Fourth, and last, psalm-hymns have a definite advantage when it comes to memorization.  I do agree with those who have pointed out that singing literal psalm settings is an excellent way to memorize the words of the Bible.  However, the elements of rhyme and meter in the psalm-hymns are extremely helpful for the memorization of the theme of the psalm, since each line nudges the reader on to the next.   Personally, I know it’s much easier for me to memorize Psalm 8 in this manner—

Moon and stars in shining height
Nightly tell their Maker’s might;
When Thy wondrous heavens I scan,
Then I know how weak is man.
How great Thy Name!

—than to memorize the literal ESV text: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (vv. 3, 4).  The flow of the melody, the number of syllables, and the rhyme at the end of each line—all of these things give the reader clues about what to expect next.  Sometimes literal psalm settings are able to accurately render the Scripture while still conforming to this rhymed-meter flow, but often these poetic elements become compromised in the effort to translate the psalm literally.  Both kinds of psalm singing can be used as an aid to memory, but the method of memorization is quite different.

In these few points I’ve simply tried to bring your attention to some of the benefits of psalm-hymns.  All that I’ve written is just an amateur appraisal of singing the psalms from a fairly inexperienced onlooker.  So, comments, questions, corrections, concerns—all are heartily welcome, as usual.  I’d especially like to hear how you view psalm-hymns in your church, and whether you’ve noticed similar benefits in singing them.  And next time, Lord willing, I’ll wrap up our discussion with a few practical ideas on the place of psalm-hymns in worship.

Until next time,


Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 1)

In an earlier post, I presented a question about the psalms we sing in church: Where is the dividing line between psalm settings and hymns?  Or, to put it another way, how close must the lyrics of a psalm-based song be to the original Scriptural text in order to be considered a proper psalm setting?

There’s much more to this issue than a simple set of criteria.  Because of this, I’d like to discuss the topic a little more thoroughly in a short blog series—offering my own thoughts, but also seeking comments and guidance from my readers.  The discussions in this series might seem rather painstaking, but I’m convinced that this matter is important, since it directly influences our view of the psalms we sing.  I ask you, then, to bear with me!

Two quotes from the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee help to set the issue of psalm paraphrasing in context.  In a recent article in The Outlook, Mrs. Denise Marcusse explains, “There are a lot of questions swirling around URC circles about the new songbook and the committee’s work on the hymnal.  The proposed new hymnal is intended to be just that: a new hymnal!  We understand that some might wish this to be a replicated blue Psalter Hymnal.  The committee, however, is working from the understanding that this songbook will span more generations by adding some newer songs along with some of the older and well-loved songs.  Mainly we are striving to have it be a hymnal that more closely reflects our Reformed creeds and confessions.  It will be a songbook in which the psalm songs more closely reflect the Scripture texts and do not just loosely paraphrase God’s Word” (emphasis added).

Looking back at the Songbook Committee’s original criteria for selecting church music, we read in guideline 4 that “when psalms or other portions of Scripture are set to music, the words must be faithful to the content and form of the inspired text (II Tim. 3:16)” (again, emphasis added).

I’m sure we would all agree that these are commendable standards for psalm settings.  Yet at the same time, one might ask, where is the dividing line?  How close to Scripture is close enough?  What exactly is the “form of the inspired text” and how should it be followed?  While we can’t really answer these questions directly, I’d like to at least try to sketch a few tentative guidelines as we enter this discussion.  Let’s start with a simple example.

If you take a look at Psalter Hymnal number 28, and then compare it to number 31, you’ll probably notice some differences right away.  Although the two texts are based on the same section of Psalm 19, their content is hardly the same.  Number 28 follows the literal order and phrasing of the psalm, with little deviation or poetic embellishment.  Number 31, on the other hand, is a much freer paraphrase.  It starts with a fairly simple versification of Psalm 19:1-4a.  In the second stanza, it condenses verses 4b-6 into a single line, then adds a reference to “moonbeams soft and tender” (which aren’t mentioned anywhere in Psalm 19), ending with two lines that revisit verses 3, 4.  In the third stanza, the text summarizes verses 1-6 from the psalm, then skips completely over verses 7-13 to end with a loose paraphrase of verse 14.

My point is not to criticize this particular Psalter Hymnal selection, but merely to emphasize one important definition.  The name I’m going to assign to this definition is the “psalm-hymn.”  While the distinction between a psalm-hymn and a regular psalm setting is hard to pinpoint, here are some typical characteristics of these songs:

  • Psalm-hymns generally contain only pieces of the original psalm.  They focus on one small section, skim the main themes from the rest of the text, or merge fragments of multiple psalms.
  • Psalm-hymns are not strictly true to the form of the inspired text.
  • Often, psalm-hymns contain refrains or other repetitions of key themes.
  • In some cases, an excerpt from a psalm is used as a springboard to other themes in a psalm-hymn.  The percentage of “non-psalm” content is much higher than that of a traditional psalm setting.
  • The paraphrasing of a psalm-hymn is usually very free compared to other settings.

Below is a short list of Psalter Hymnal selections I’ve compiled that, in my evaluation, fall into this category.

  • 13, “Lord, Our Lord, Thy Glorious Name”
  • 14, “Whole-Hearted Thanksgiving”
  • 31, “The Heavens Declare Thy Glory”
  • 36, “The Ends of All the Earth Shall Hear”
  • 37, “Amid the Thronging Worshippers”
  • 78, “Judge Me, God of My Salvation”
  • 79, “Send Out Thy Light and Thy Truth”
  • 135, “Christ Shall Have Dominion”
  • 137, “In Doubt and Temptation”
  • 180, “It Is Good to Sing Thy Praises”
  • 198, “Thou, O Lord, Art God Alone”
  • 204, “O Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord”
  • 221, “The Lord unto His Christ Has Said”
  • 265, “To Thee, O Lord, I Lift Mine Eyes”
  • 282, “Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim”
  • 284, “Give Thanks to God, for Good is He”
  • 297, “O Happy Land, Whose Sons in Youth”
  • 304, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah”
  • 483, “Come, Ye That Fear Jehovah”

Again, I realize that this discussion may seem overly technical and practically irrelevant.  Yet this topic, in my belief, is extremely important at this point in time—because the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee’s treatment of these issues will influence (for better or for worse) the songs we sing in worship for decades to come.

In the next installment, God willing, I’ll dig deeper into the structure of these psalm-hymns and discuss their place in the Psalter Hymnal.  For now, though, I’d like your input.  As you can see, the majority of the selections on the list of psalm-hymns are old favorites, beloved by many.  In your experience, what are the benefits of using these songs in worship, as opposed to more literal psalm settings?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of psalm-hymns, and how might they be improved?  As always, I look forward to your responses.

To be continued!



  1. Denise Marcusse, “Now That’s a Good Question.”  The Outlook, January/February 2012, pp. 21, 22.
  2. The fourth Guideline for Selecting Songs, from the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee (see p. 4 of their report to Synod 2010).

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