Posts Tagged 'Psalter Hymnal'

A Psalm-Singing App-etizer

I’ve come to know the perils of collecting psalters in a house (or a dorm room) with limited shelf space. How many layers deep can the books go before they either warp the bookcase or pose a health hazard? How can you protect the oldest and most fragile psalters from being torn, dropped, or otherwise abused? And just how many blue Psalter Hymnals should you have on hand for impromptu hymn-sings?

While I’ll always prefer holding a physical book in my hand, I’m (reluctantly) supportive of efforts to digitize psalters and hymnals, especially for the sake of portability and space-saving. For years the Reformed Presbyterians have led the industry in this area with their Android and iOS apps for The Book of Psalms for Worship. I’ve seen these apps in action and can attest that they work well and come in handy when carrying a psalter around just isn’t practical.

I’d certainly given up hope for any digitized version of the 1959/1976 blue Psalter Hymnal. But, as it turns out, a new resource has partially filled that gap! Recently, a reader from Singapore informed me that the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter is now available in an app format. The Android version has been out for a few years already, but an iOS version did not exist until just a few months ago. Both versions include the text of the 400+ psalm settings in the 1912 Psalter. But the iOS version also includes some fun and useful add-ons such as the Three Forms of Unity, a search function, and an audio feature. (It seems like similar functionality is included in the “Pro” version of the Android app, available here.)

1912 Psalter app

The biggest drawback to both versions of the United Presbyterian Psalter app is that neither one currently includes sheet music. Happily, the developer of the iOS app tells me that adding that capability is a goal for the future.

Even with just the text, these apps are a very useful tool for psalm-singing enthusiasts! The 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter was briefly used by the CRC and formed the basis for its later Psalter Hymnals. Even the blue Psalter Hymnal draws probably 70 to 80 percent of its psalm settings from the UP book. That means if you’re willing to get used to some changes in numbering, these apps can be helpful for URC folk who use the blue Psalter Hymnal as well.

With overhead projection supplanting traditional songbooks in many churches today, I think there are important advantages to maintaining a tradition of printed psalters in Reformed churches. That being said, it’s also encouraging to see digital resources popping up to help spread the love of psalm-singing in the 21st century!

–MRK

Doxologies from the Psalms

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How many doxologies can you sing?

I say “doxologies” because the category is far broader than the traditional “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” that usually comes to mind. “Doxology” is derived from the Greek words doxa (“glory”) and logia (“saying”); thus, a doxology is simply a “saying of glory” or a statement of praise, often in poetic form. In much of English hymnody, this statement of praise appears at the end of a hymn and references the three persons of the Trinity. Even the traditional “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” was originally the last stanza to a much longer hymn by Thomas Ken.

So while “the Doxology” does fit the trinitarian form commonly associated with hymn doxologies, so do these last stanzas of other hymns. Both are from the blue Psalter Hymnal—do you recognize them?

To the great One in Three
Eternal praises be
Hence evermore.
His sovereign majesty
May we in glory see,
And to eternity
Love and adore.

All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son, and Him who reigns
With them in highest heaven,
The one eternal God,
Whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.

Although references to the Trinity have become commonplace in sung doxologies, it’s not necessary for these references to be explicitly present. Think, for instance, of the last stanza of “By the Sea of Crystal” (#469). Thus, a doxology can be adequately described as any succinct yet powerful statement of praise to God, often occurring at the end of an element of worship.

Given the topic of this blog, you can probably imagine where this particular conversation is headed. If we’re looking for succinct yet powerful statements of praise to God, how can we neglect the divinely-inspired riches given to us in the Book of Psalms? In fact, I must confess that for the hundreds of times I’ve heard “The Doxology” sung at the end of worship, the number of times I’ve heard a psalm setting in that position is relatively small.

As it turns out, the Book of Psalms contains its own internal doxologies that divide the five subsections of the Psalter: Psalms 41:13, 72:19-20, 89:52, and 106:48. Most of these simply urge the people to “Bless the LORD!” and are followed by an “Amen.” In addition, one thinks of the five psalms that close the Psalter, each of which begin and end with “Hallelujah” or “Praise the LORD!” The blue Psalter Hymnal’s topical index lists some of these passages under the “Doxologies” heading: #73 stanza 6; #135 stanza 4 (and #488, from the same passage); #171 stanza 8; #211 stanza 23; and #309-310. But it would be foolish to limit our repertoire of psalm-based doxologies to these passages. To whet your appetite, here are four other Psalter Hymnal psalm settings that (though paraphrased) would be excellent choices for a doxology at the end of worship.

36, “The ends of all the earth shall hear” (Psalm 22)

(Sung at Synod 2012)

Psalm 22 opens as one of the most poignant laments of the Psalter, foreshadowing Christ’s suffering on the cross. But the latter half of this psalm opens up into an exultant declaration of praise, with references to the generations that will come to fear the Lord because of the mighty things he has done. The author of Hebrews interpreted this psalm as being sung by Jesus himself (“He is not ashamed to call them brothers,” Hebrews 2:11), and one can’t help but think of how suitable it is for Christians, those who have been purchased by Christ’s blood, to join in singing Jesus’ own statement of praise. This doxology would be especially suitable after a presentation from a visiting missionary (“The ends of all the earth shall hear”) or after celebrating the Lord’s supper.

The Lord’s unfailing righteousness
All generations shall confess,
From age to age shall men be taught
What wondrous works the Lord has wrought.

All earth to Him her homage brings,
The Lord of lords, the King of kings.

105, “O God, Be Merciful to Me” (Psalm 57)

Because of its strong themes of lament, Psalm 57 may seem like an unusual choice for a doxology. David cries out for God to be merciful to him amidst the “storms of destruction” and enemies that long to devour him. Yet in the middle of these pressing dangers he breaks out twice in a passionate exclamation of praise: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!” (vv. 5, 11). The last stanza of the Psalter Hymnal’s setting would be a fitting and sensitive doxology even after a worship service filled with confession and lament.

Yea, I will early wake and sing,
A thankful hymn to Thee will bring,
For unto heaven Thy mercies rise,
The truth is lofty as the skies.
Be Thou, O God, exalted high,
Yea, far above the starry sky,
And let Thy glory be displayed
O’er all the earth Thy hands have made.

284, “Give Thanks to God, for Good Is He” (Psalm 136)

(Sung at Synod 2012)

Psalm 136 is notable because each of its twenty-six verses concludes with the phrase, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” This magnificent poem surveys how the Lord’s covenant love was displayed to Israel throughout redemptive history, and how he continues to “remember us in our low estate” today (v. 23). Although it is a fairly free paraphrase, the last stanza of the Psalter Hymnal’s setting of Psalm 136 nicely sums up the doxological thrust of this psalm:

He helped us in our deepest woes,
His grace abideth ever;
He ransomed us from all our foes,
His mercy faileth never.
Each creature’s need He doth supply,
His grace abideth ever;
Give thanks to God, enthroned on high,
Whose mercy faileth never.

303, “O Sing Ye Hallelujah” (Psalm 147)

You may recognize Psalm 147 as one of the Psalter’s concluding statements of praise (Psalms 146-150). As far as singing goes, however, Psalm 147 probably has one of the lesser-known text and tune combinations in the blue Psalter Hymnal. This psalm is a marvelous exposition of the Lord’s power in providing for his people. He fills them with the finest of the wheat (v. 14), but he also does something far better: he gives his statutes to Israel (v. 19), something no other nation has enjoyed. For us who have been grafted into the true Israel, the last stanza of this psalm setting reminds us what a privilege it is to be called into the presence of God himself for worship. (If a more familiar tune is needed, try LANCASHIRE, #364.)

His statutes and His judgments
He makes His people know;
To them as to no others
His grace He loves to show;
For matchless grace and mercy
Your grateful praises bring;
To Him give thanks forever,
And Hallelujah sing.

What are your favorite psalm doxologies? Share them in the comments below!

–MRK

How Every Delegate Should Vote Next Week

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It’s an unwritten rule of church relations: If you want to get into an argument as fast as possible, question a brother or sister’s favorite song. The rule applies to every church tradition from a cappella psalm-singing to contemporary worship music, including the URCNA.

Synod 2016 meets in Grand Rapids next week, and I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s going to be a difficult meeting. Decisions related to the Psalter Hymnal are by no means the only issues of importance on the agenda, but they will be painful nevertheless. A new book means some of our most beloved psalm settings and hymns may end up on the chopping block—and let’s admit it now: that hurts.

Our federation-wide sensitivity to the topic of church music has been revealed to me in several communications I’ve received from URC pastors, elders and members in recent weeks. I’ve heard opinions ranging from the overwhelmingly positive to the astonishingly critical, and I’m glad to listen to and learn from all of them.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if we’ve adopted a double standard in evaluating the new book. Although we may examine its lyrics and music with a magnifying glass, we often fail to consider the new book as a whole. By contrast, we have a very positive overall view of the blue Psalter Hymnal, yet we may have lost sight of some of its specifics. And I’m afraid that many songs from the blue book would fail under the careful scrutiny so quickly applied to the proposal.

To give an example, I’ve heard allegations that the new songbook contains hidden strains of universalism and Roman Catholicism—a shocking claim which, if true, would give us great cause for concern. Supporting evidence is drawn from hymns that include lines like “died to save us all,” or from a communion hymn translated by a priest, John Mason Neale, exhorting us to “take by faith the body of the Lord.” Now, in context these lyrics can easily be explained Scripturally: the “us all” refers to the church, and the “body of the Lord” merely echoes Jesus’ own words in Matthew 26. I don’t think heresy is implied in either case.

More concerning, however, is the tendency to elevate the blue Psalter Hymnal as the gold standard to which other songbooks must attain. In this case, no mention is made of some of its own hymns that could be interpreted in the very same light. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” contains the line “Light and life to all He brings,” while “Faith of Our Fathers” was written by a Roman Catholic priest to commemorate Catholic martyrs. I’m not judging the merit of either of these hymns. I merely want to point out that by this line of reasoning, we would have to conclude that the blue Psalter Hymnal too is a corrupted seedbed for unreformed heresy.

Most of all, though, I’m surprised that this conversation is coming to a head at such a late date. We’ve had 19 years to think about this project, to recommend our favorite songs, to share our concerns, to overture our consistories and classes and synods as to what shape the new book should take. We might have even appealed the very decision to pursue a new book. We’ve had access to a complete psalm proposal and two complete hymn proposals. We’ve had every opportunity to participate in the project with a spirit of mutual edification and constructive criticism.

Yet 19 years later—and one week before what may be the last vote on the book—we are still asking and answering questions about why the “old blue” won’t remain in print forever, why working together with another denomination is to our advantage, and “why we need a new Psalter Hymnal anyway.” Rather than acknowledging this as a monumental task that requires the active involvement of every concerned member, we apparently prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize. We criticize the distant and unknown—the motives of the Songbook Committee, the traditions of the OPC—in contrast to the familiar, the good, the safe.

Brothers and sisters, let’s remember one thing: the new book is corrupted. It’s corrupted because we are. And the blue Psalter Hymnal is corrupted too—because we were corrupted back then as well. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought,” said Paul, and much less do we know how to sing as we ought. Even the most staunchly Reformed songbook would still bear the marks of our sin and imperfection before God.

And that’s why we’re commanded to sing: because we’ve been promised redemption from this corruption, and because the experience of congregational singing builds us up together as the body of Christ. As we fill our hearts and mouths with the words God has given us in the psalms, as well as the words of godly men and women of old—slowly, imperfectly, through thee’s and you’s, Jehovah’s and Lord’s, archaic verbs and clumsy rhyming schemes—still, we learn to speak like Jesus. That heavenly accent we pick up is one not of arrogance and confusion, but of humility and peace.

If you’re preparing for next week’s synod, I trust that you won’t base your decision on the new book merely on my words or the words of others, but that you are even now prayerfully considering the question of our songbook for yourself. I humbly urge you to meditate on Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 as refreshing reminders of the context in which our redeemed singing must occur.

Above all, take comfort in this: it is in the very experience of disagreeing over the Psalter Hymnal project that we are being taught what brotherly love and self-sacrifice look like—if our eyes and ears are open.

–MRK

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

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 6)

The Big Three (Psalter Hymnals)It’s long past time to wrap up URC Psalmody’s summer series. I head back to Geneva College in a week, and what I imagined as two or three blog posts has grown into a lengthy and multi-faceted series. That’s typical fare for this blog—so today, let me try to provide some concise closing thoughts.

We began by asking this question: Why do we sing out of a Psalter Hymnal? More particularly, why do we sing both psalms and hymns in worship, yet still insist on distinguishing between the two?

To help answer this question historically, I dug up several applicable documents from the early history of the Christian Reformed Church: overtures from different classes in 1928 (here and here) regarding the question of hymn-singing, the “Report on the Hymn Question” from 1930, the Foreword to the first Psalter Hymnal in 1934, and a few other sources. I found plenty of arguments for and against hymn-singing in worship (along with a fair share of weird Dutch expressions). What I didn’t find was a substantial argument on Biblical and historical grounds to justify the introduction of hymns—especially in a denomination that had gotten along fine without them since the Reformation 300 years earlier. I read plenty of reasons why hymns might be permissible in worship, but not much (other than repeated appeals to “New Testament light”) as to why they were needed.

In fact, even the optimistic Psalter Hymnal Committee of 1930 acknowledged some significant dangers with the introduction of hymn-singing. One of them was that the psalms would cease to be sung in worship. Wary of this possibility, the Committee proposed the following principle:

Whereas the Psalms in the Old Testament were purposely given for Public Worship (cf. for instance Ps. 51:1; 52:1; 53:1; etc.) and were used accordingly, and whereas they do not belong to the things set aside by the New Testament, but, to the contrary, their Divine authority and lasting worth is pronouncedly acknowledged in the New Testament (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33,35), it must be considered, acknowledged, and maintained by us as a principle founded on the Word of God, that Psalm-singing must always remain an element in our Public Worship.…[A] service without the singing of Psalms would be conflicting with the will of God as revealed in His Word. (pp. 21,22)

Yet after this well-placed word of caution, the committee rushes to add, “Nor does it follow that because of said danger the use of New Testament Church songs must be considered out of the question.” Just because they can be abused doesn’t mean they can’t be used properly, they suggest. Besides, they claim, the “urgent demand” for hymns in Reformed churches cannot be brushed aside as “disloyalty, spiritual weakening, and retrogression.” Once again they call attention to supposed insufficiencies in the psalms: that they speak only “in the Old Testament language of hopefully expectant prophecy, not in the New Testament language of jubilant fulfilment.” And here’s the real whopper: they turn the discussion about hymn-singing on its head by suggesting that an exclusively psalm-singing church is “guilty of neglect in properly caring for Public Worship and for the perfection of the saints, and of slighting a precious gift of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, a psalm-singing church harms its members by not allowing the singing of hymns. That’s a bold claim!

In summary, the committee asked the Synod of 1930 to (1) continue the preparation of a collection of English hymns; and (2) to (attempt to) prevent psalm-singing from fading away by revising the Church Order and setting limits in place on how many hymns could be sung in a worship service. Synod more or less agreed, and the Psalter Hymnal project moved forward. That’s most of the story; for the rest of it, you can refer back to the first Psalter Hymnal’s Foreword.

Got it? Does this synopsis give you an historical glimpse into the reason for the unusual wording in the URCNA’s Church Order—that the psalms “have the principal place,” but hymns “may be sung”? The relationship between psalms and hymns in North American Reformed worship is a long and complicated one. Partly it was a Dutch vs. English and European vs. American issue. Partly it was a Reformed vs. broader evangelical issue. Mostly it was an issue of biblical interpretation. And just because the CRC’s synod officially “settled” the question doesn’t mean it really went away.

Eighty years ago, hymns entered the worship of a denomination that was still deeply divided over the question. That’s the heritage that’s been handed down to us in the URCNA.

I can’t end without noting one additional twist, however. While the 1932 Church Order clearly stated that “the singing of the Psalms in divine worship is a requirement,” the CRC later revised their Church Order to merely state, “The consistory shall see to it that the synodically-approved Bible versions, liturgical forms, and songs are used” (Revised Church Order, 1959, Article 52b). All reference to the primacy of the Psalter was gone! With that revision in mind, it’s important—and encouraging—to note that the URCNA’s Church Order is actually a step back in the direction of principial psalm-singing.

How will the URCNA’s worship change as the years go on? Will our new Psalter Hymnal prove to strengthen our commitment to psalm-singing or dampen it? For the answer to these questions we’ll have to wait on God, pray fervently, and work for the good of the Church. May our worship be pleasing and acceptable in his sight.

–MRK


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