Posts Tagged 'Scriptural Accuracy'

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.


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:


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.


“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).


Read the complete report here »

Eight Reasons Why We Should Still Be Using Psalters


A blog post entitled “15 Reasons Why We Should Still Be Using Hymnals” has been gathering a lot of attention in the Christian blogosphere lately. Its author, Jonathan Aigner, presents a list of musical, practical, and symbolic/theological justifications for the continued use of hymnals in modern churches.

Most of his musical and practical points revolve around the fact that a hymnal places everything needed for worship in the hands of the congregation, setting an objective standard and showing who the true participants of worship should be.  Hymnals don’t require an up-to-date audio-visual system, they aren’t subject to technological glitches, and they don’t distract worshipers with bright colors and animations. These affirmations are a refreshing change from the increasingly stale world of contemporary Christian music.

I was most interested, however, in Aigner’s eight points of symbolic/theological relevance and their connection to a Reformed psalm-singing model of worship. If these are reasons to keep a hymnal, what should be our reasons to keep the psalter? I’ll offer a few thoughts in response to each of the author’s reasons below.

“1. Hymnals are a theological textbook.”

If the hymnal is good, this is true. But it’s just as easy to find a theologically bad hymnal as to find a theologically bad set of PowerPoint lyrics. Even the blue Psalter Hymnal contains some lyrics that don’t make it an entirely sound “theological textbook.” The experiential focus of #374 comes to mind, in which God “speaks to me everywhere”; or the lyrics of #478, which seem to confuse America with the new Israel; or especially #379 with its boldfaced Arminian plea, “Lord Jesus, Thou seest I patiently wait.” No, hymnals aren’t reputable repositories of flawless and systematic doctrine, and treating one as a “theological textbook” will likely lead to trouble.

A psalter, on the other hand, is a theological textbook. It proclaims the excellencies of God (Psalm 147), the beauty of creation (Psalm 8), the ramifications of the Fall (Psalm 14), the nature of God’s covenant (Psalm 78), the wonder of redemption (Psalm 130), the glory of God’s word (Psalm 119), the kingship of Christ (Psalm 110), and the life everlasting (Psalm 16)—just to mention a few themes of the psalms. And the text of a psalter is from the inspired Word of God itself, so (barring an unfaithful translation) all of its doctrine is true! What more “reliable sources of theological information” could there be?

“2. Hymnals involve tactile action.”

Aigner claims that holding a hymnal “engages you in the activity more than staring at a screen ever could.” To me, the virtue of a physical songbook is not so much in validating engagement but rather in validating authority. In contrast to PowerPoint lyrics that could have been thrown together from any number of sources, a printed songbook holds itself accountable for the source of its contents. In the case of a psalter, that source is the Word of God itself.

“3. Hymnals are not particularly distracting.”

Screens, as Aigner points out, can easily lose worshipers “in the colors, backgrounds, and movements.” This is a worthy point. Reformed worship has always been characterized by remarkable simplicity (more on that below), and a book containing only the words and notes to be sung powerfully emphasizes that simplicity.

“4. Hymnals preserve the aesthetics of the Sanctuary.”

Reformed churches have never focused much on visual beauty or ornate architecture. Our idea of “aesthetics” is governed chiefly by one principle: the centrality in worship of the Word and sacraments. In the sanctuary, these elements of worship are represented by the pulpit, the baptismal font, and the communion table.

By excluding distracting projection systems, printed songbooks help to preserve the proper focus in the aesthetics of the Reformed sanctuary. However, if our idea of sanctuary aesthetics is contingent on whether or not we see rows of attractive-looking hymnals in the pew backs, we’re starting in the wrong place.

“5. Hymnals confront us with ‘new’ songs.”

Aigner’s point here is that hymnals stretch congregations to learn unfamiliar songs. This is true, and how much more so for the Book of Psalms! Not only does the psalm-singer continually find new, unfamiliar passages as he explores this collection of inspired texts, but he will be confronted by new depth even in familiar passages as the Holy Spirit applies the Word to his heart.

“6. Hymnals give validity to new hymns.”

I must confess I’m not entirely sure what Aigner means by this statement. He comments, “The fact that these [new] songs are now sandwiched in between hymns like ‘Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty’ and ‘Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,’ adds to their validity.”

Is a song’s position in a hymnal a good criterion by which to judge its validity? Finding “In the Garden” (to use the author’s whipping-boy) across the page from “How Firm a Foundation” doesn’t give me a higher opinion of it—nor should it.

A psalter, however, does validate psalms we might be tempted to skip over—for example, abject laments like Psalm 137 sandwiched between psalms of praise like Psalms 136 and 138. By its composition, a complete psalter reveals a broad spectrum of attitudes of prayer and praise which are appropriate for worship.

“7. Hymnals make songs less disposable.”

In contrast to “text on a screen” that “is there one second and gone the next,” “hymnals are symbols of consistency.” True, but hymnals get regular makeovers too. I remember a comment by the CRC and RCA’s new songbook committee to the effect that a typical hymnal has a lifespan of only about 25 years. In contrast, the psalms form a complete and unchanging songbook for the worship of God’s people. While psalters, too, need periodic revision to ensure clarity and faithfulness to Scripture, the permanence of their contents far surpasses that of a hymnal.

“8. Hymnals give congregational singing back to the people.”

“Holding hymnals symbolizes the fact that the voice of the congregation is the primary instrument in corporate worship,” says Aigner. Amen! Everything about corporate worship, as we’ve been considering in recent posts, revolves around the holy dialogue between God and his people. Congregationally sung, the psalms are an unsurpassable manifestation of that conversation as we sing God’s Word back to him.

All in all, Aigner says hymnals “are important symbols for worshiping congregations,” chiefly because they set an objective standard for congregational worship while reclaiming it from the control of the projection system or worship team. How much more are psalters essential symbols for worshiping congregations! They symbolize our desire to worship God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, in a manner he has commanded, and with the words he has given us.

Sing to the Lord, sing His praise, all ye peoples,
New be your song as new honors ye pay;
Sing of His majesty, bless Him forever,
Show His salvation from day to day.



Meet Your New Psalter: Summary Thoughts

West Sayville CRC/URC, 1943

West Sayville CRC/URC, 1943

The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) are a peculiar lot.  In age, our churches range from a hundred and fifty years to merely a few months.  In size, some have only a few dozen members, while others have close to one thousand.  In background, their ministers and members hail from Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, Presbyterian, evangelical, and Roman Catholic backgrounds, just to name a few.

For all these differences, we still choose to identify ourselves with the term “United.”  The glory of the Church is that we, though many members, are one body through Christ’s blood (I Cor. 10:17).  It is he who “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and . . . made them a kingdom and priests to our God” (Rev. 5:9, 10 ESV).  Unity, we confess, does not require homogeneity; Christ’s Church comprises many members from different backgrounds who are called to serve different functions for the edification of the whole body.

Within the broad dome of the Church universal stands the URCNA, as a group of believers with common convictions about how God desires to be worshiped according to his Word.  Our congregations have entered into this covenant together: “The churches of the federation, although distinct, voluntarily display their unity by means of a common confession and church order.  This is expressed as they cooperate and exercise mutual concern for one another.”1 Seeking to honor the Apostle Paul’s command that all things in the churches be done decently and in good order (1 Cor. 14:40), we agree to uphold this specific kind of unity by upholding common principles of government.

However, believing the same things does not always mean that we practice the same things.  For a variety of reasons, the particulars of worship in the URCNA differ from congregation to congregation: the format of the liturgy, the proportion of psalms to hymns, the length of the sermon, and so on.  Germane to the focus of URC Psalmody, the songbooks each church utilizes vary as well.

While the majority of our congregations have used the blue 1959/1976 CRC Psalter Hymnal for years, a growing number of churches use alternate songbooks such as the Trinity Hymnal, the Trinity Psalter, or the Book of Psalms for Worship.  Some churches have transitioned into a more hymn-based pattern of worship, while many churches maintain the primacy of the psalter.  Reflecting on such a broad spectrum, it is impossible to imagine that a new songbook for the URCNA can ever meet the needs and desires of every one of our congregations.

Distribution of CRC Churches in the 1930s

Distribution of Christian Reformed Churches, 1939

Added to some of the other stresses the URCNA faces at this point in its seventeen-year existence, the subject of a new Psalter Hymnal raises further complications.  Our federation’s painful departure from the liberalizing Christian Reformed Church has made us suspicious of denominational hierarchy and alert against hints of liberalism in our own federation.2  As we try to solidify our own unity, our attempts to unite with like-minded denominations have thus far been extremely cautious.  Ideologically, we must combat mindless traditionalism in worship while quelling fears about the ethnocentricity often caricatured in Dutch Reformed churches.

The process of adopting our first federational songbook (in collaboration with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) confronts us at just this challenging and formative stage of the URCNA’s existence.  Right now, perhaps the unhealthiest possible path would be to compel each church to discard its distinctives in favor of an across-the-board standard for psalm- and hymn-singing.  I sometimes wonder if—for now—it would be as foolhardy to require our oldest churches to discard their blue Psalter Hymnals as it would be to coerce new congregations into purchasing them.

Uniformity and unity are not the same thing.  And true unity takes time.

So, as a federation of churches from such diverse backgrounds and situations, how do we move forward?  In particular, how do we produce a songbook that will unify us rather than dividing us?

What follows are the humble thoughts of a first-generation URC member with little experience or wisdom to offer regarding the best course of action for our churches.  Because of my comparative ignorance of the traditions and requirements of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the focus of this post may seem too narrow, for which I sincerely apologize.  If you gain nothing else, I simply ask you to follow my chain of reasoning—at least as it applies to the URCNA—and see whether you arrive at the same conclusions.  Let this be not an arrogant opinion piece, but a catalyst for deeper discussion.

Psalter Hymnals in use during a mission tripAlthough I cannot fully say that I “grew up” with the blue Psalter Hymnal, even my thirteen years in the URCNA have inculcated in me a deep admiration for the history and heritage of our churches.  I am awed to think that when my home congregation sings Psalm 122 from the blue Psalter Hymnal, “My Heart Was Glad to Hear the Welcome Sound,” they sing it in union with their forefathers, who utilized this very song in the church’s fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1926.  It blows me away to realize that the tunes for selections like “As the Hart, About to Falter” were composed at the request of John Calvin himself in the mid-1500’s—and, of course, that their psalm-texts were sung in Old Testament Israel.

When it comes to longstanding traditions, we can just as easily overlook their beauty in our zeal for improvement as ignore their pitfalls in an aversion to change.  Despite its flaws, I firmly believe that the blue Psalter Hymnal offers our denomination a rich and meaningful collection of psalms and hymns.  Like any good songbook, it honors our heritage while uniting the church across continents and centuries.  (How does this compare to the creed of contemporary Christian worship, in which a fifteen-year-old chorus has already exceeded its shelf life?)

Am I of the opinion that the URCNA should scrap the entire Psalter Hymnal project and stick to the “Old Blue”?  Absolutely not.  For many reasons I heartily concur with multiple URC synods that, sooner or later, our federation must move past the CRC 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal.  Given the blue book’s many decades of service and the vast diversity of our churches’ perspectives, however, I am apprehensive of the consequences of a drastic musical transition at this point in the URC’s history.  To compel our senior saints now to learn new words and tunes to psalms they have sung since their childhood presents a loss I am not sure the immediate benefits of a modernized psalter can outweigh.

1934, 1946, and 1976 editions of the Psalter Hymnal

Please don’t misunderstand me: an accurate, literal, modern psalter is a noble goal.  But if our churches are to remain united, the transition from old to new must be as gentle and gradual as possible.

For this reason I am deeply grateful to the Songbook Committee for striving to preserve many of the favorites of the blue Psalter Hymnal, especially the selections whose lyrics have remained unaltered.  In general, I’d rather see the “Old Blue” over-represented than under-represented in this first edition.  Even if some of its imperfections must be carried over for now, there will be sufficient opportunities for improvement in future editions.

The Book of Psalms for WorshipLet it not be said that the Psalm Proposal offers no positive contributions to our psalm-singing repertoire—far from it!  For instance, I was thrilled to notice the inclusion of several Reformed Presbyterian favorites such as 91B (“Who with God Most High Finds Shelter”) and 98A (“O Sing a New Song to the Lord”).3  As I continue my studies here at Geneva College (a Reformed Presbyterian institution), I am personally developing a love for their unique approach to psalm-singing.  Such selections are indispensable: they contribute to the overall quality and Scriptural accuracy of our own psalmody while building unity with the RPCNA, our (Phase 2) sister denomination.

However, for every new song in the Psalm Proposal, I would personally love to see a more substantial handful of Psalter Hymnal material as well.  Including more well-known “standard repertoire” like PsH numbers 7, 22, 70, 95, 135, 137, 185, 201, 205, 230, 267, and 307—with few alterations, may I add?—could significantly lessen the doxological bump our churches will face.

Admittedly, this is a tall order.  Above the preferences of the churches, our Songbook Committee must be cognizant of the needs of their collaborators in the OPC, while maintaining a product that faithfully sets God’s Word to appropriate and beautiful music.  Nevertheless, if the new Psalter Hymnal tears our federation apart rather than building it up, one of its critical purposes has failed.

Whether our music comes from the blue Psalter Hymnal or any other songbook, singing God’s praises in a sin-cursed world can never be executed perfectly.  Yet we are one in Christ, and Christ himself can give the United Reformed Churches in North America the humility and brotherly love we need to see this wonderful expression of unity come to fruition.

If that true unity develops, the blessings that result from this project will make even its gravest challenges worthwhile.


1 Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America, 6th ed., p. 1.

2 See “A History of the United Reformed Churches in North America.”  

3 Note that to access these links, you will need the password provided upon request to all URCNA and OPC members by our Songbook Committee Chairman, Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen.  Email him at

Meet Your New Psalter (Part 3)

Hymnal Line-Up

As we continue this brief journey through the proposed psalm section of the joint URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal, I’d like to spend some time today evaluating a few specific songs from its contents.  Please keep in mind that much of this material represents merely my own biases and opinions; nevertheless, I hope it can at least serve as a helpful stimulus for your own reactions and recommendations.

1A, “That Man Is Blest”

Let Psalm Proposal #1A serve as the poster-child for this collection’s many settings that exactly (or nearly) duplicate songs from our existing Psalter Hymnal.  A careful look through “That Man Is Blest” reveals only one tiny textual change, from the archaic “Yea, blest” in stz. 2 to the more contemporary “How blest.”  Everything about the tune, MEDITATION, including its Psalter Hymnal key and harmonization, has been preserved.  You’ll also notice that gender neutralization is not an issue here—references to “that man” and “his works” have remained, in keeping with many modern Bible translations including the English Standard Version.

Many other Psalter Hymnal settings have been preserved in the Psalm Proposal in their entirety and without significant alterations.  Here are a few other examples:

69ph, “Thy Loving-Kindness, Lord, Is Good and Free”

“Thy Loving-Kindness, Lord, Is Good and Free” (Psalter Hymnal #129) has long been a favorite selection from the Psalter.  Although its text is rooted in the reality of affliction, it looks upward to the Lord’s never-failing mercy.

This text is one of those “Psalter Hymnal essentials” which the Songbook Committee has wisely included in the Psalm Proposal.  However, the tune is another matter: the committee chose to replace EVENTIDE (“Abide with Me”), which appears in the PsH and has been used with this text since the 1912 Psalter, with ELLERS (“Savior, Again to Thy Dear Name We Raise,” PsH #326).

While tune choices necessarily reflect some aspects of personal taste and preference, I can point to several objective reasons why EVENTIDE remains a more faithful choice to accompany this text.  First, it is a highly familiar selection, having been used with this text for more than 100 years.  Second, it possesses musical integrity as a conventional and well-proven hymn tune (though it should be noted that ELLERS is musically sound as well).  Third, and perhaps most importantly, its associations with the text of Psalm 69 are deep and profound.  Even as distressed Christians sing, “Needy and sorrowful, to Thee I cry,” the tune calls to mind the words of “Abide with Me”—“I need Thy presence every passing hour; / What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?”  Such a connection is lost when the tune of a psalm setting is needlessly changed.

Although personal preference is certainly involved in this discussion, as a church musician I have reservations about several of the Psalm Proposal’s tune changes which neither connect properly with the text nor provide the familiarity essential to a smooth transition to a new songbook.  Here is a partial list:

To be fair, the Songbook Committee has also made several commendable tune modifications to settings in the Psalm Proposal.  For instance, 104B, “My Soul, Bless the Lord,” replaces the Psalter Hymnal’s HOUGHTON with the association-rich tune LYONS, which calls to mind the creation imagery present in the familiar hymn “O Worship the King” (PsH #315).  Interested observers may also notice the introduction of several appropriate new tunes such as NEW CITY FELLOWSHIP for 51pr, “God, Be Merciful to Me” (in addition to the familiar tune AJALON).

On the other end of the spectrum, some of what I consider to be the Psalter Hymnal’s weakest tune choices have been preserved in the Psalm Proposal.  Perhaps the most dramatic instance is 13, “How Long Will You Forget Me,” whose bouncy tune FAR OFF LANDS seems totally unsuited for all but the last stanza of this desolate lament.  Since pairing a psalm text with an appropriate tune is one of the most difficult challenges an editorial board can face, do not hesitate to share well-reasoned recommendations of this nature with the Songbook Committee.  They welcome such feedback!

19A, “The Heavens Above Declare”

Much more common than psalm settings which alter the tune of a familiar Psalter Hymnal number are selections which pair a new versification with an existing tune.  Psalm Proposal 19A, for instance, utilizes the tune of Psalter Hymnal #28 (ARTHUR’S SEAT) with new words from the Scottish collection Sing Psalms.  Here are a few other instances of this trend, which seems to help bridge the gap between the familiar PsH psalm settings and the new versions in this proposal:

128B, “Blest the Man Who Fears Jehovah”

Among the Psalm Proposal’s selections, 128B seems a bit of an enigma.  Although its lyrics have been thoroughly modernized, the Songbook Committee made the decision to keep all three uses of the obsolescent form of the Lord’s name, “Jehovah.”  In contrast, many of the Psalm Proposal’s other selections, even those in which the word “Jehovah” plays a much more significant role, have lost this familiar term.  Numbers 146 and 148pr, both formerly titled “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” now bear significantly altered lyrics and hardly recognizable titles.  In general, I am inclined to suggest that even though the name “Jehovah” is neither up-to-date nor linguistically correct, perhaps the Songbook Committee should approach its removal with a little more caution—especially for the first edition of this new Psalter Hymnal.  A few of many other instances in which “Jehovah” has been removed:

This selected survey of the Psalm Proposal’s contents is far from exhaustive, nor is it a particularly well-refined exposition.  However, if nothing else, I hope this blog post has served as a somewhat-helpful introduction to the many facets of the Psalm Proposal.  Do you have any comments or concerns to share?  What are your favorite or least favorite selections in this proposed songbook?  I’d love to know!



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