A Useful Resource for Psalm Singing

A major part of recovering the Reformed theology, piety, and practice is the recovery of Psalm singing.  As anyone who has tried it knows, it is not easy.  In many places there are no congregations where the Psalms are sung regularly in public worship. It is not uncommon to meet young people who have never sung a Psalm in public worship.

Second, some Psalms are difficult to understand. There is a class of Psalms known as “imprecatory” Psalms that call down curses upon God’s enemies. In the modern period (e.g., C. S. Lewis’ otherwise brilliant book on the Psalms) such language has often been considered sub-Christian or unpleasant. To quote the Heidelberg Catechism: we should not be wiser than God. He gave us imprecatory Psalms. If there is a problem, it is not God’s. We need to adjust our thinking to his Word. We need to learn how to understand such Psalms in their redemptive-historical context. In the New Covenant we are not a national people. We do not have a national agenda to wipe out Canaanites. So, what do we do, in our place in redemptive history, with such Psalms? Michael Kearney and James Oord have been blogging about singing the psalms in a URCNA context and their most recent post takes a look at just such an imprecatory Psalm (58) and the way James handles it is a good model for us.

A third challenge in recovering the singing of God’s Word in worship is the way the psalms have been paraphrased in the modern period. Michael offers a blunt assessment of what happened to Ps 58 in the 1912 Psalter (which was inherited by the Psalter Hymnal):

The primary word that comes to mind as I evaluate this versification of Psalm 58 in the Psalter Hymnal is “dull.”  The creators of the 1912 Psalter, for whatever reason, chose to soften the message of this fierce imprecatory psalm to an almost unrecognizable extent.  One can tell from its very brevity that much of the meat of Psalm 58 has been omitted from this setting.

One suspects that many are unaware of the degree to which the Psalms, as we have them in modern editions, have been modified. The dynamic, concrete, historical realism of the Psalms, which reflects on God’s particular saving work in redeeming his people in a particular historical circumstance, is often replaced by bland, abstract language that has more in common with 19th-century American piety than 11th-century BC Israel.

He also has some pointed language about the tune used for this paraphrase of Ps 58. Again, amen. One of the earliest HB posts was a call for new tunes for the Psalms. We may be thankful for the good work of our brothers and sisters in the RPCNA in their new Book of Psalms for Worship. We may be hopeful that the new OPC-URCNA Psalter Hymnal will be an improvement in these respects.

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13 comments

  1. The Lutheran Service Book (Concordia Publishing House, 2006) has all 150 Psalms in ESV translation pointed for chanting, with various tones included. It’s not a bad option, assuming one doesn’t mind owning a book with all sorts of other hymns in it (not to mention an English translation of Luther’s Latin Mass). 😉

  2. I’d like to pitch a great book on singing the Psalms, if I may. Dr. LeFebvre has written an excellent introduction to singing the Psalms that handles a lot of the introductory and practical problems, while avoiding polemical debates. I wrote a review of the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Singing-Songs-Jesus-Revisiting-Psalms/dp/1845506006/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1348004857&sr=8-1&keywords=singing+the+songs+of+Jesus

    It is a lot easier to just get into the polemical debates about the Psalms than to really think about their context and purpose first. I wish that I had access to this book when I first encountered Psalm-singing, as I would have been able to more thoughtfully discuss the polemics later on.

  3. In the WELS church I was a member of for 4 years, we sang and chanted the Psalms every Sunday.

    It is a great thing, and easy to sing once you get used to it.

  4. The Crown & Covenant Psalter is great! I particularly like Psalm 46 to the tune of “A Mighty Fortress.”

    • Thanks Nate and Lloyd. Nate, I agree. I have a deep affection for Ein Feste Burg but singing the actual Psalm (of which EFB is a paraphrase) is even more glorious, and all the more when done acapella. Hearing God’s people sing his Word is a powerful thing.

  5. “In many places there are no congregations where the Psalms are sung regularly in public worship.”

    Dr. Clark, in your opinion, how do we change this status quo in the Reformed churches? Is it a lack of education on the part of the elders, the lay people? How is psalm singing recovered in our own confessionally Reformed congregations?

    • Hi Victor,

      This is a great question. I asked this question of Bob Godfrey and David Hall a while back. Take a listen. I think they did a good job.

      I would add that I think people generally like the status quo. They don’t see the problem and some are not very tolerant of the suggestion that the status quo is not quite right.

      As I tried to explain in Recovering the Reformed Confession, there are three approaches to this question, progressives, conservatives, and confessionalists. The first more or less acknowledge that they don’t like the confessional and historic practice of the 16th and 17th centuries. The second group professes to agree with the principle of the original approach but wants to conserve the status quo.

      The first group is probably the largest. The second group is smaller and the third is very small and largely ignored by the rest. So, there’s a simple sociological problem, Minority opinions are easily marginalized and the marginalized can’t do much about it. If they press to hard, they are dismissed as cranks or worse they are silenced. That’s just the history of ideas.

      So, what do we do? We pray. Nothing can stop the Holy Spirit. We teach patiently and persistently. We keep asking people to consider whether what we’re doing currently is what the Scriptures teach as we confess it. We ask people to consider the discrepancy between the original Reformed practice and the contemporary practice. Eventually momentum may turn in favor of the confessionalists (as defined above).

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