Psalter Revision: Governing Principles (2) Text

Previous article in this series: January 15, 2017, p. 185.

The interdenominational Psalter Revision Committee, by using various principles to evaluate the Psalter selections, is determining whether to recommend changes to each individual Psalter number. These principles regard text, music, and format. I am explaining these principles, and using a current Psalter number as well as its proposed revision to help the reader understand the principles.

In the last article I surveyed the principles that regard format. When that article was published, the bottom of the page of Psalm 73C (Psalter 203, in its revised form) was cut off. As a result you could not see all the things I was trying to show you. For one thing, the tune’s author, name, and meter (that you could not see) will be found at the bottom and no longer the top of the page. But even more, you could not see that at the bottom right hand corner of the page is found this: “203.” I said it was there, but you could not see it (because the page was cut off ). Trust me on this one. [With apologies, we reprint that page here.] We are doing our best to help you recognize the finished product as being a revision of the Psalter you know, so that you can get familiar with it more quickly.

In a moment we will turn to the principles that govern the text. But first…

Our Website and the PR Psalm Choir

One of the committee members who represents the Heritage Reformed Churches, Ellis Meschke, works in the area of Internet technology. He has created a website, www.thepsalter.net, to keep us informed with the progress of our committee, and he promises to do his best to keep the site up-to-date. As of this writing, that website contains two main resources: 1) a list of the principles that we are discussing in these articles, and 2) our proposals regarding Psalms 73-89.

All readers should note well: the governing principles have received the approval of the three synods. However, the proposed changes to the Psalter have not yet been officially adopted, nor will they be in 2017. And, the proposed changes need further editing. That which is found on the website is not the final product. However, from the website you will get a good idea of what the committee envisions, and the direction in which it is going.

While I am digressing anyway, let me point out that another committee member, Joshua Hoekstra, directs the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir. As its name indicates, this choir sings Psalms—only Psalms. Many of their selections are from our current Psalter, while others are from other Psalm books such as the Scottish Psalter. But the choir has already been practicing and singing some of the new selections that our committee is proposing. If you are able, do attend their program on May 7, 2017 after the evening worship, at Grandville Protestant Reformed Church. And after the concert, if you were not able to attend, you can hear them on their YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/prpsalmchoir.

Let’s go on to the principles that govern the text, or lyrics of the songs.

The first two principles

Of the seven principles regarding text, I will treat two in this article and the other five in the next. I quote from the original report (not the supplemental report) of the interdenominational committee to the 2016 Synods of the FRCNA, HRC, and PRCA. This quote comes from paragraph 4, “The Principles,” and from point a, “Text.”1

We affirm the desire to sing accurate renditions of the Psalms. It is the purpose of the committee to review the general accuracy of the lyrics in the current Psalter. It was noted that the first version of each Psalm in the Psalter was generally seen as the most accurate rendition of the Psalm by the 1912 committee.

The general accuracy of the text will be considered along the following criteria:

1) Is all of the scriptural Psalm represented in the Psalter? Is there one Psalter that captures the whole Psalm?

2) Is the text faithful to Scripture? Is it theologically sound? Is it the language of Scripture? Are all things included that have been omitted in the past? To what degree is it a paraphrase or does it include unnecessary poetic license?

[Then follows principles 3-7, DJK.]

The general accuracy of the text must be considered in relation to what is already familiar and will be revised and compared with other versions only if the Psalter is seen as inaccurate.

Our committee of nine has summed up these principles in a few words: Principle 1 is “Completeness.” Principle 2 is “Faithfulness.”

Completeness

“We, who have sung the Psalter all our lives, are hardly aware that there are parts of Psalms absent from the Psalter, and that some Psalter stanzas do not come from the Psalms. If they are interested in testing this, it would be worth anyone’s time to start with Psalter #205, for example, and compare it to Psalm 74; or #206, compared with Psalm 75.”2

The committee’s desire is that our Psalter versifications be a complete versification of the Psalm, so that no part of the Psalm is ignored.

The matter is not always so easy; it requires the committee to make judgment calls.

For example, Psalm 18 is versified in three Psalter numbers—34, 35, and 36. These three Psalter numbers successively versify the entire Psalm, so that one could say that the Psalm is completely treated. Yet, looking more closely, one notes that the 21 stanzas of these three Psalter numbers versify 50 lengthy verses of Psalm 18. The question must be faced: even if the Psalm is covered generally, what thoughts or ideas in the Psalm are omitted, or given the briefest treatment? Once those are identified, the next question is: can we add anything to the existing Psalter versifications, so that God’s people can sing the entire Psalm? Usually it is very difficult, if not impossible, to blend new versifications into old. In that case, perhaps an entirely new versification of the Psalm is needed. The subcommittee assigned to Psalm 18 recognizes the problem, and is currently searching for the best solution.

Another instance to which a solution is being proposed regards Psalm 78’s treatment of the ten plagues in verses 44-51. In the inspired songs of Zion, the ten plagues are treated in detail only in Psalm 78 and in Psalm 105:27-36. (Psalm 135:8-9 and Psalm 136:10 are much briefer treatments, with emphasis on the killing of the firstborn). That the Holy Spirit inspired songs that refer to these plagues, and list them in detail, is noteworthy. If God’s judgments on Egypt served the salvation of Israel, we sing these songs in the conviction that God’s ongoing judgments on ungodly unbelievers serve the salvation of His church today!

But how completely does Psalter 213 treat these verses? It packs all ten plagues into the last part of stanza 14 and the first part of stanza 15:

Ungrateful and blind, no longer they thought

Of wonders and signs and mighty deeds wrought,

Of how all the rivers of Egypt ran red,

And plagues in God’s anger were heaped on their head.

They thought not of how, their freedom to gain,

In Egypt’s abodes the first-born were slain,

And how all God’s people were led forth like sheep,

The flock He delighted in safety to keep.

The committee proposes adding two stanzas between the two just quoted. Using these new stanzas, we would sing in praise to God:

The locusts and flies their harvests decreased,

No plenty remained for man or for beast.

The frogs and the lice o’er the land did abound,

The vines and the trees were laid low to the ground.

Their herds were destroyed by hail from the sky,

The flocks were struck down with fire from on high.

The pestilence ravished throughout all the land,

God’s people were saved by His Almighty hand.

One other point related to “completeness” is worthy of note. The committee desires that the first selection of every Psalm (1A, 16A, 18A, 73A, 78A) be a versification of the entire Psalm. This does not rule out subsequent selections that treat a portion of the Psalm, but it does enable the congregation to use one number to sing the entire Psalm, when it desires to do so.

In some instances, this will mean combining Psalter numbers. For instance, Psalters 27 and 28 together treat Psalm 16; Psalters 37 and 38 together treat Psalm 19. These numbers will be combined into one selection, so that the entire Psalm can be sung. Of course, the longer the Psalter selection, the less likely that the minister would pick every stanza. However, the option to sing the entire Psalm will be available, and when that is not feasible, it will still be possible to sing various selections throughout the Psalm that relate more particularly to the sermon.

Faithfulness

As the quote above indicated, several points fall under the umbrella of “faithfulness.”

One point regards paraphrase and poetic license.

The reader can appreciate, I hope, that to turn Hebrew poetry into English poetry does require some poetic license. The main characteristic of Hebrew poetry is parallelism—two sentences that are parallel in subject, verb, and object, in which the second sentence often adds to the meaning of the first, or provides a contrast to the first. But parallelism is not a primary feature in English poetry; rather, rhythm (meter) and rhyme are. So not only must one who sets the Psalms to music ensure that the English translation of the Hebrew Psalm is faithful, but he must then also try to convey that translation faithfully in the form of English poetry, without losing the meaning or chief ideas of the Psalm.

This is not always easily done. The Genevan Psalms (found in the Psalter’s choral section) generally are very loose versifications of the Psalm. Often they cover the Psalm in a relatively few number of stanzas (though, admittedly, the stanzas are often long). In the process, they do not capture the thought of every verse in the Psalm. Other of our Psalter numbers are like that as well.

While our committee recognizes that some poetic license is inevitable, our desire is to be sure that the license taken was not excessive. For this reason, we are more willing to recommend a Genevan or another looser version of the Psalm as a second or third versification; but we strive to be sure that the first versification is not only complete but also as faithful to Scripture as possible.

That brings me to the second point about faithfulness—theological soundness and using the language of Scripture. We are reviewing each selection and comparing it with the Psalms to ensure accuracy.

Let me give a few examples of what is being proposed.

Psalm 20:7 reads, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.” Psalter 43, stanza 5 reads: “How vain their ev’ry confidence Who on mere human help rely; But we remember for defense the Name of God, the Lord Most High.” The graphic imagery of chariots and horses is lost. If we keep the lyrics of the current Psalter 43, we would surely want to change that. Consider the versification of another Psalter, which in every other respect is identical to our Psalter 43: “In chariots some have confidence, on horses others will rely; But we remember for defense the Name of God, the Lord Most High.” Considerably better. Exactly how we will address Psalter 43 is a question; does it need a new tune? If so, will we use different lyrics altogether? I cannot say what the answer will be. But what I can say is that, if we keep the current lyrics, we will also change that phrase. And we will argue that by doing so we are improving the faithfulness of our Psalter.

Two more examples I state briefly. Psalm 8:5 reads: “For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and has crowned him with glory and honour.” Psalter 14:5 versifies that as follows: “On man Thy wisdom hath bestowed A pow’r well nigh divine.” “Well nigh divine”—is that really what Psalm 8:5 means?

Psalm 9:17 speaks of God’s judgment on the nations: “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.” Psalter 16:8 is faithful in this part of its versification: “The wicked shall perish, the nations shall fall,” but then continues, “Forgetting their God, who is God over all.” That God is the only true God is beyond dispute. But only Israel knew Him as “their God”; the wicked nations around did not, as the Psalter says.

More examples could be given. I do not mean to leave the impression that our current Psalter is unfaithful to Scripture, or only barely faithful. Generally, it is very faithful. But the goal of the committee is to be sure it is as faithful a versification as possible.