Improving the Psalter: Has the Time Come?

Singing in worship to God is a highly emotional activity for the believer. Singing involves the whole being—mind and will, body and soul. Words put to music can convey joys or sorrow, praises and petitions, with feeling that far surpasses merely speaking the same words. Any believer who has lost a loved one has experienced that sudden flood of emotion unexpectedly overwhelming him or her while singing a psalm in church. When trouble strikes, do not the songs of lament and cries for help come to our hearts, and our lips? The union of poetry and music powerfully expresses our thoughts and desires. The songs of our youth live in our souls and are an essential part of our worship.

Exactly for that reason, even the suggestion of improving the Psalter will cause some consternation, dismay, perhaps anger in some. I approach this topic with that recognition. I fully admit that if a committee were appointed to recommend changes in the Psalter, I would be concerned, and keenly interested.

Still, a special issue on singing the psalms requires us to examine the book we use to sing those psalms, and to face the questions 1) how can the Psalter be improved? and, 2) ought it to be improved?

Before we delve too deeply into this, allow me to set some boundaries. First, this discussion involves possible improvements to the Psalter, that is, versifications of the psalms. We have no interest in making it into a Psalter-Hymnal. Hymns are not an improvement of the Psalter.

Second, while some chafe at the versification that sets the psalms into verses with rhyme, we are convinced that such rhyming has much value, and ought not be done away with. I have especially two reasons for this. Poetry is a powerful medium for conveying truth in the form of praise, prayer, and lament. Poetry captures the emotions of the heart, and even draws them out. Singing to God should involve the soul, should carry along our souls, so long as the words accurately convey the truth of the Bible well. And, in addition, rhyme makes memorization of the songs easier for children, and easier for adults to remember. No, the Hebrew poetry of the psalms did not rhyme. But their kind of poetry would not be as moving to us. Keep the poetry—our kind of poetry—with rhyme.

Third, recognize that evaluation of music is very subjective. That is true when one is discussing quality, but especially is this true of taste in music. The tune that I detest may well be the favorite of my fellow church member sitting three rows ahead. Since any changes of tunes will cause distress somewhere, even changing tunes must be done carefully and for good reason.

Carefulness. Caution. Wisdom. Theological acumen. A poetic soul. A love for singing. A greater love for the church. A much greater love for God. All this, as a minimum, a “revision” committee needs.

By this time, it should be rather obvious to the reader that from this article you can expect but modest suggestions for changes in the Psalter. And yet, as noted earlier, any songbook produced by men can be improved. We start with a brief evaluation of the music.

According to one very experienced piano teacher in the PRC, a major plus for the tunes of the Psalter is that they are fairly easy to play. Beginning piano students can learn to play many of the Psalter numbers relatively early in their development. We ought to appreciate that, and consider that to be a feature of the Psalter that is worth preserving.

At the same time, some of the tunes in the Psalter are difficult for the average congregation to sing. What accounts for that? First, some tunes are set too high for most voices. In my first congregation, this difficulty was somewhat eased by the purchase of an electronic organ that would allow organists to lower the pitch one note. However, that is not always possible without causing problems on the other end of the scale, namely, putting the bass notes out of the reach of most bass voices. And today, with the shortage of organists increasingly leading to piano accompaniment in the worship service, lowering the pitch is not an easy option.

What else makes a tune difficult to sing? Large jumps in the scale from one note to the next, as well as many runs of notes in a song. Difficult timing can also contribute to making a song hard to sing. All this can be found in some Psalter numbers.

A serious evaluation of the tunes would include trying to match appropriate tunes with the words sung. A cry of distress ought to have music appropriate to that. Very different should be the tune of a song of praise. However, recognize the difficulty in this endeavor. Almost all psalms that start out with weeping, or as cries for help, conclude with praises to God. One tune will not fit both.

One final point on the Psalter tunes. Some of the songs sound like, well, honestly, a waltz or a folk dance. Others repeat the same note or line to the point that they can be monotonous. The tunes are quite familiar to us, so we may not even “hear” that. A bit more critical ear will alert you to the fact that Psalter tunes can be improved.

Then there are the words—even more important, and having their own difficulty. As noted earlier, the Psalter consists of versification of the psalms. Taking the English translation of the Hebrew psalms and conveying the words and thoughts accurately and powerfully—that is a difficult task indeed. Overall, the Psalter does a good job (in my estimation) of capturing the message of the psalms. However, improvements can be made in some. There are places where the rhyme is forced and it distracts the thoughtful singer. Such forced rhyme may result in the introduction of foreign ideas or words not found in the psalm at all. A couple examples will suffice.

In Psalter number 137, stanza four begins: “I will receive from out thy fold no offering for my holy shrine.” Shrine rhymes with “Mine” in the next line. However, it is not found in the psalm, nor does the Bible ever speak of God’s altar as a shrine.

More than one of the psalms speak of God bringing Israel through the Red Sea using the expression that He the waters “clave,” and then creating rhyme the next line with “brought His people through the wave.” “A wave”? Poetic license, perhaps, but not language with “weight and majesty.” (Recall Calvin’s comments, front cover.)

More serious it is when the versification not only departs from the psalm, but sets forth something contrary to the teaching of Scripture. Psalter number 4 has God’s wrath falling on those “who tempt His wrath and scorn His love.” In others, God’s command to repent and believe is described in terms of “pleading” (e.g., 222, stanza 4) or God’s offering peace and pardon (255, stanza 4).

A related problem, one that could be easily resolved, is misleading and inaccurate titles like “Responsibility of Civil Officers” (223), which is a reference to Israel’s (that is, the church’s) rulers, not the civil government. Or, along the same line, “National Prosperity” (393).

One additional thought. Would it not serve the churches well that the numbering of the Psalter would be such that when we sing number 73 we are singing a versification of Psalm 73? That would be a difficult adjustment for adults, to be sure. But children and grandchildren would especially benefit from that renumbering— gaining familiarity with the psalms.

In my judgment, it is worth pursuing the goal of improving the Psalter. When I sing hymns, too often I stop singing for a line or two because the words are not correct. When I sing the versification of the psalms in worship, that ought not be necessary. But occasionally it is. Also, when I choose Psalter numbers for worship, too many times I have to avoid tunes because they are too high or too difficult to sing. Tunes have to be switched in order to find a suitable tune for the psalm I want to sing. Really, that should not be necessary. A couple of psalms I have never used in a worship service because a tune cannot be found that can be sung. That is not good.

The Protestant Reformed Churches once had a dedicated, capable committee appointed by synod to bring recommendations for improving the Psalter. This was back in the 1940s and 50s (Rev. Koole’s article documents some of this history). The committee seemed to be doing good work. In 1945 the synod approved many of the committee’s recommended changes—changes in seriously fl awed or poor wording, and changes in tunes. In 1949 the committee reported that they had begun their work “with the first number of our Psalter, carefully checking to see whether it measures up to the following requirements.” The stipulations are worth noting (Acts, p. 57):

a. That the versification is as close to the language of the Psalm as possible, and that the Psalm is fully covered.

b. That there are not doctrinal errors in the versification.

c. That the tune fits the words of the song, prayerful when the Psalm is a prayer, joyful when the Psalm is a song of praise.

d. That the tune is singable, especially for a congregation.

The committee reported that they had covered the first sixty numbers and believed it necessary to change the tune of seven numbers, and the versification of six of them. That sounds like careful, cautious, and wise work.

Sad to say, the good endeavor stalled. Synod approved many changes, but none of them were implemented. And in the aftermath of the schism of 1953, the churches lacked the energy to continue the project. The 1955 synod tabled the entire project, though with much praise for the committee’s work. Synod decided to place all the work in the archives of the PRC for possible future use in revising the Psalter (Acts, p. 33).

And in that connection, I issue a plea to our readers. All that archived work of the committee has vanished. It cannot be found in the PRC archives. Nothing. Someone must have that material. Perhaps someone will find it buried in some old papers and give it to the PRC archives. It would be much appreciated.

My hope is that the Protestant Reformed Churches will take up the cause again, and implement improvements in the Psalter. We might join with others who use the Psalter, or do the work and offer it to them. It can be improved. It ought to be. The worship of God in singing the psalms is worthy of our best.