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The Psalms in Worship: A Series of Convention Papers Bearing Upon the Place of the Psalms in the Worship of the Church, Editor: John McNaugher, United Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1907. Available as a Google eBook. [Reviewed by Joshua Hoekstra.]

Have you ever wondered where your Psalter came from? Why did the world need a new Psalter? What issues surrounded the creation of our Psalter? Who wrote these lyrics? What were they thinking when they wrote these lyrics? Lastly, and most commonly thought when struggling with an uncommon song, who picked this tune?

Psalms in Worship addresses all of these questions. This is a book about the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the first 413 songs we sing. (Remember, the other songs come from the old Dutch Psalter, which is nothing more than a translation of the original Genevan Psalter used in John Calvin’s day.) Psalms in Worship is a collection of fifty-four papers given at two conventions held in 1905 in Pittsburgh and in Chicago. The purpose of the conventions was “to promote the claims of the Psalms in the field of worship” (5). Additionally, the committee hoped that God would be pleased to use the work in “restoring the Psalms to their true place in the hearts and lips of Christian believers” (6). John McNaugher, the book’s editor, was also the chair of the Psalter committee and wrote the preface to the Psalter that we use today.

There were a number of pressing issues when our Psalter was produced. Clearly, modern hymns were being used in the church at the time and needed to be pushed back out of the worship service. One of the writers said this of our Psalter: “Possibly it is too free for us, and too literal for liberal hymn-singers. Examine it closely, and mark all its failings; but consider it mainly as an introduction of the Psalms to those who have long used the hymns exclusively” (The Psalms in Worship, 435).

Many concerns and criticisms are dealt with in this book. Christ is not present in the Psalms, said some. The Psalms are doctrinally incomplete, claimed others. Should we even sing imprecatory (cursing) Psalms? Psalms are detrimental to mission work! The children need something different! Will the versification be careless? Is this the proper tune to use?

Have you heard these same criticisms today?

Let’s face it: the Psalter we sing from isn’t perfect, nor will it ever be. The lyrics will never be quite right, and the tunes could always be better. It is a work of man; actually, twenty-three men. These men worked over the course of five years, privately studying, and meeting twice per year. Nine public sessions were held—not short sessions but ten to fifteen days per session and ten hours per day. This was not a hurried project; no accusation of rashness or carelessness can seriously be made. However, it is worth considering a few quotes in support of their work. “Some shuddered at every word of the original that was omitted, and trembled for the Ark when a word or phrase was added to the text; and yet one or the other must be done, or the work would stop. In nearly every case, after careful comparison of views, the form closest to the exact thought of the original was followed, and the truth of the text was retained without sectarian bias” (433).

And this: “The difficulties in the way of Psalm versification are neither few nor small. The Committee was charged to keep close to the original text, to conform to the language of the Authorized and Revised translations, to avoid extended paraphrases, to provide a variety of meters, and to express the inspired thought with chasteness and elegance of style in accordance with modern standards and tastes. It has been well said that a translation must not be so literal as to convert rich prose into poor verse, not so faithful as to be punctilious in interpretations, nor yet bound to the Hebrew idioms, while preserving the precise form and color of the inspired sentiment” (432).

Yet for all this effort there is no claim of perfection. Rather, we find this quote: “Ultra-conservatism may damage the cause by attaching the same importance to venerable customs as it does to divine appointment. At another time it insists on the use of tokens or antiquated versions of the Psalms, when good reasons exist for a change” (540).

A few points come out of the speeches that can aid us in using our Psalter. This committee did not compose new tunes; instead they leveraged existing tunes. So the next time you see Lowell Mason’s name on a Psalter number, remember that he wrote the tune you are singing but did not write the words. Longer Psalms were broken into sections and set to unique tunes. As an example, see Psalter 225 and 226. In the lower right of 226 you will see that it is actually verses 4–6. The use of verses here does not correlate to the Scripture verses but instead to the poetic verses that the Psalter committee drafted. Sometimes multiple versifications for a Psalm were used. For example, Psalters 52–56 are all versifications of Psalm 23. The Psalter committee deemed 52 to be most faithful to the original and so they listed it first. The reason for associating specific tunes to versifications was to allow church members more easily to memorize and recall the words based on the tune. Additionally, multiple tunes are used for some Psalms to provide variety.

If there is ever an undertaking to revise the Psalter, this book should be a required read for every person on the committee. In addition to some of the quotes above, it gives helpful tips on making a Psalter. Versification must employ simplicity, not ambiguity. It must strive for the best poetic expression, correct accent, and a natural rhyme. It must not be so rigidly literal that words and phrases “jar upon the modern sensibility” (426). It must conform to current literary standards. Suitable meters must be paired to the Psalm. “Tyre, Philistia, Cush, might give place to some such expression as ‘Gentile nations’ without any perceptible loss to him who would sing with the spirit and the understanding” (426). Tunes must be strong and suitable. It must be singable. “Never must we so strive to make music easy as to make it cheap” (441). There must be a variety of tunes and meters—the songs can’t all have the same beat! Music should generally be composed by Christians because their compositions will have more depth and feeling since their hearts are not stony. The music selected should be judged in light of the Psalms themselves; in other words, the tune must fit the words that are sung. Avoid ditties; a “hip” tune is more likely to do the Psalm a disservice. Some tunes simply belong together because they have been fused to the words that are sung—can you imagine singing “In sweet communion Lord with thee” to ANY other tune? A balance needs to be struck between changing tunes, refreshing tunes, and keeping tunes. How wonderful when tunes can last from infancy to grave so as to provide “rallying points” (450) for the days of one’s life here on this earth. What a daunting task to compose a Psalter! Could you have done any better?

There is much in this collection of speeches that also addresses our attitude toward the use of Psalms in family worship. “The praise service should not be crowded out of the worship at the family altar. It is not true that there is no time for this service. We cannot afford to give it up in order to find a little more time to get gain or pleasure” (42). Not for work, not for school, not for soccer. Are we concerned that we cannot sing well? Are we afraid that our neighbors will hear? Perhaps a simpler way to witness could not be conceived. Would your neighbor really object to a few poorly sung psalms if the other choice were a heavy metal rock band? (Side note and shameless plug for the Psalm Choir: if you would like assistance singing in your family worship, please use www.youtube.com/prpsalmchoir; there you will find a playlist of Psalters from the many choirs that sing in our denomination.)

Regarding our singing of Psalms in the worship service, we can never emphasize enough the importance of focusing on the words. “The tendency is to minify the words and magnify the music. When the whole attention and thought must be given to the music in order to sing at all we sing by rote and scarcely know what we sing. The music gets ninety-nine parts of our attention and the sentiment one lone part” (43). This alone should keep us from hastily changing tunes. Additionally, our ministers have an important calling in regard to focusing on the words. “Let the pastor spend a few moments in each service in pointing out the beauty, sweetness, and richness of the portion selected for the praise service. The people can then more easily sing with the spirit and the understanding” (43).

Do you enjoy singing from the Psalter? Do you open wide your mouth when you sing? Are you excited for the Psalms and for our Psalter? Consider some of these quotes in conclusion. Read them with understanding. “I hear the choirs of the land invisible. Their melody is wafted through the gates of pearl and over the crags; the music of the throne-land is in my ears; and the songs that I hear are the lyrics we are singing, the old, old songs which bore the Hebrew hopes to the gates of gold, and strengthened our Saviour’s heart in the shadow of the cross—God’s songs, the songs of the redeemed, the songs of the covenant, thine and mine and those of the Church triumphant for evermore” (383).

Even more stunning: “In their exaltation of God the Psalms are incomparable, and in this they are truly catholic. A self-conscious age may sing its own emotions instead of the praises of God; but the Bride of Christ cannot be held for long with her eyes upon the sheen of her own garments, and when she turns from these to gaze upon her Bridegroom’s face, then will her praise burst forth again in the Songs of the Ages, and the Psalter of the Church Catholic will have come to its own” (403).

Finally, “Too little have we appreciated the importance of the musical interpretation of the Psalms, contenting ourselves with bearing witness when we might have been bearing trophies” (445). Trophies! Display pieces. Things you brag about. These are the Psalms. These are God’s words. Is there anything else worth bragging about?