by James D. Oord
The Book of Psalms for Worship is the latest branch on the Scottish psalm-singing family tree. This tree is old and rich, and would be too difficult to trace out without spending hours of research to produce pages (yea, books!) of material. In fact, several books on the subject exist.
The Scottish Psalter
To outline its history briefly, I adapt this timeline, and most of the following historical data, from the preface to The Book of Psalms for Worship:
- 1564 – the first complete metrical Psalter in English is published in Scotland.
- 1643-53 – the Westminster Assembly (yes, that Westminster Assembly) meets. One of their tasks is to produce a new metrical Psalter in English.
- 1646 – the Westminster Assembly’s Psalter is completed.
- 1650 – the Psalter is approved by the Church of Scotland and published as The Scottish Psalter.
The Scottish Psalter “embedded itself in the Scottish soul” and became a token of Scottish Presbyterianism (and English-speaking Presbyterianism in general). In the book linked above, Dr. Millar Patrick says that in The Scottish Psalter, “Church music of the period comes to its climax.”
The Scottish Psalter was (and is) used across the globe by English-speaking Presbyterians for years. It was also used to develop Psalters in Turkish, Armenian, Modern Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and other world languages. It is a testament to the beauty and faithfulness of The Scottish Psalter that it was used, virtually unchanged, by Christians around the globe for about 350 years. There were a few revisions made by various denominations, but these often sacrificed textual and doctrinal accuracy for agendas or aesthetics. The Scottish Psalter was used as a source for the Psalter Hymnal, the Trinity Hymnal, and many other hymnals throughout the history of English metrical psalmody.
The Book of Psalms for Singing
The next major step in Scottish psalmody comes in 1973, when the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America (RPCNA) revised the Scottish Psalter into a new publication, The Book of Psalms for Singing, which has become the most popular English language Psalter of the last 40 years. It includes over 425 selections covering all 150 biblical psalms. The language of the Scottish Psalter was updated where necessary, more tunes were added, and some of the long psalms were broken up into shorter thematic sections. It also includes a few chants (of the modern, not Gregorian, sort). In general, it is a very clean, well-organized Psalter – a refreshing and needed update which remained faithful to the biblical texts.
The Book of Psalms for Worship
At the RPCNA’s 167th Synod in 1997, a committee was formed to further revise and update The Book of Psalms for Singing. Consulting both the Hebrew and faithful modern English translations, the committee developed The Book of Psalms for Worship, published in 2009. It’s a very attractive update, maintaining what was good and familiar from The Book of Psalms for Singing (in terms of tunes and words) while still striving for more excellence and increasing faithfulness to the biblical psalms. It includes over 440 selections, covering all 150 of the biblical psalms. Fresh tunes from other psalm and hymn traditions were added to the collection of rich and familiar Scottish tunes. References to “Jehovah” were removed and replaced with “Yahweh” or “LORD” in all capitals, to increase faithfulness to the original Hebrew text of the psalms.
Both The Book of Psalms for Singing and The Book of Psalms for Worship are excellent Psalters and come highly recommended for use both personal and corporate. They are truly unparalleled for their faithfulness to the biblical texts.
The Book of Psalms for Worship is a particularly helpful and handy tool for singing the Psalms.
One excellent and refreshing feature of both Psalters is their numbering system. Those familiar with the blue Psalter Hymnal might know the frustration of having to keep track two sets of numbers for each selection (selection 100 is Psalm 55, selection 232 is Psalm 118, etc). Both of these Psalters do away with this problem by simply numbering with a numeral representing the Psalm number and a letter to indicate the selection (so 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D, 3A, etc.).
Here are nine reasons I love The Book of Psalms for Worship and I think you should, too:
- Not only does it number the selections so handily, as mentioned above, but it also contains small numeral superscripts within the song texts themselves so that you always know which verse of the psalm you are singing. The biblical verses that the selection covers are also listed at the top of every selection.
- There are New Testament verses listed for each selection, to help guide you in your mediation on how each psalm functions in light of the work of Christ.
- The selections are remarkably faithful to the text of Scripture, even to the point of sometimes sacrificing rhyme for accuracy. If you’re looking for a way to sing the Psalms directly from the Bible, this is about as close as you will get. For the last year, I’ve ended my morning worship time by reading a psalm from the ESV and then singing it from The Book of Psalms for Singing. I have been so impressed with the textual accuracy that is so evident in this Psalter.
- The tunes are well selected and appropriate to the emotional “feel” of the Psalm. Speaking as someone brought up in the tradition of the blue Psalter Hymnal, there are many familiar tunes (and the unfamiliar ones are quite beautiful and rewarding to learn).
- Although many of the psalms are divided into multiple selections, great care is made that each selection of a particular psalm often has the same meter. This means that you could easily sing the entire psalm through with one tune, if you so desired.
- At the end of each of the five “book” divisions of the psalms (divided as the Hebrew text divides them – 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150), there is a fitting doxology – a verse or two of praise that marks a fitting close to the material of the book.
- There are excellent topical indexes, an index of Psalm verses quoted in the New Testament, plus all the typical indexes you would expect in a Psalter.
- The Book of Psalms for Worship has a lot of fun online content! There is an excellent iTunes app that includes all the tunes and texts of the Psalter. There is also a website that includes playable files of all the tunes of the Psalter. Crown and Covenant has left no stone unturned – there is no excuse for you to not learn these psalms and tunes!
- The Book of Psalms for Worship comes in so many fun formats. There are the standard versions, the thin versions, the mini-versions (in three fun colors!), and just this week they’ve unveiled the tremendously attractive thin-mini-versions (excellent stocking stuffers for your favorite bloggers!). I carry my mini-version with me wherever I go and have encouraged many of my friends to do the same. As a result, spontaneous psalm-sings have been known to burst out at the most unexpected times.
I have been tremendously impressed with The Book of Psalms for Worship. It strikes me as a tremendously thoughtful Psalter, really built to encourage people to love the Psalms. They’ve done everything they can to make this Psalter accessible and usable. The Book of Psalms for Worship is a meaningful and faithful way to sing through the book of Psalms.
- HERE is link to a sample psalm from The Book of Psalms for Worship.
- HERE is Crown and Covenant’s home page for The Book of Psalms for Worship.
- Psalter.org, a beta website created by Crown and Covenant, contains MIDI (computerized) piano recordings of each tune in the Book of Psalms for Worship as well as its older counterpart, the Book of Psalms for Singing.