Psalter Revision: Governing Principles (3) Text (cont.)

Previous article in this series: February 15, 2017, p. 279.

My last article explained two principles that the interdenominational Psalter revision committee is using to evaluate the text, or lyrics, of the Psalter. Those two principles are completeness (“Is all of the scriptural Psalm represented in the Psalter? Is there one Psalter that captures the whole Psalm?”) and faithfulness (“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?”).

Five more principles govern the work of the committee regarding the text of the Psalter. Summarized, they are “3: Valuable overlaps. 4: Poetic value. 5: Archaisms. 6: Effective meter and rhyme. 7: Appropriate Christian language.”

In a moment, I will quote them in full and explain them.

“Lord” or “LORD”?

One point that fits under “text” but does not fit clearly under any of the seven governing principles regards our Psalter’s versification of the Hebrew name for God, “Jehovah.”

Many Bible versions—among them the KJV, NKJV, RSV, NIV, and ESV—translate this word as “LORD” with all capitals. This distinguishes it from the Hebrew word “Adonai,” which means lord or master and, when referring to God, is translated “Lord.”

Those who compiled our current version of the Psalter had no qualms about using “Jehovah”; it occurs over 200 times in the first 413 Psalter numbers. But, because not every Hebrew word gets worked into English poetry, at times the name is not versified at all. Other times, because the meter and rhyme require it, the word is translated “Lord.” You find no instance of “Lord” in our Psalter.

The committee has decided to propose spelling “Lord” as “Lord” in those instances in which the Hebrew has “Jehovah.” When the Hebrew word is “Adonai,” or when the name “Lord” is not found in the original language but is supplied for the sake of meter and rhyme, we will use “Lord.” This will help us sing with understanding!

The Last Five Principles Regarding Text

I quote again from the original (not 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

3) Is there unnecessary overlap between the Psalters, and how the Psalm is represented? It was suggested that the more commonly sung psalms should have more Psalter renditions, including less comprehensive ones.

4) Are the lyrics good poetry and do they demonstrate effective use of language? While we strive for faithful text, some license and freedom must be allowed so that the versifications are not rigid, and lists of names and nations are not necessarily included, etc.

5) Are there any archaic or unfamiliar words that should be replaced? [It was noted that all three Synods agreed that all pronoun references to the Lord be retained in their archaic form. This would also demand some archaic grammatical structures. Archaic language may also be retained if it is central to the poetry.]

6) Are the meters and rhymes effective?

7) Does the Psalter promote/retain Christian language, so that appropriate NT idioms in the poetry are maintained?

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.

Before I explain these principles, you should know that our Psalter is now 105 years old. The musical tunes used in it are usually much older. However, the lyrics of Psalters 1-413 were versified from 1895 on, and the final version approved in 1909, specifically for use in the Psalter. 2 I will be returning to this point twice in what follows.

Valuable overlaps

Here the committee is looking for at least two things. First, when a Psalm is versified more than once in our Psalter, is each different versification helpful? Second, when a later Psalter number has exactly the same lyrics as an earlier one, and thus is essentially a second tune (cf., 41 and 42, 65 and 68, 218 and 219, 355 and 356), is the duplication valuable?

Psalter numbers 60-68 are nine different numbers based on Psalm 25. It is helpful to look at these as an illustration of what I am saying, because from these numbers we can see both points.

Those who had been appointed to set the Psalms to verse for use in our Psalter made two different, complete versifications of the 22 verses of Psalm 25. The first had 17 “stanzas,” and is set to music in Psalters 60-63. The second had 14 “stanzas,” set to music in Psalters 64-66. The bracketed references to “stanzas” in the bottom, right-hand corner of our Psalter selections refer to these versifications of the Psalm.

So, do both of these different versifications have value? Should we have two renditions of Psalm 25? In the case of most Psalms, if not all, the committee sees value in having two different renditions of the same Psalm; at times one rendition brings out an aspect of the Psalm that the other does not. In fact, we are proposing a number of new selections because we desire a second rendition of most Psalms, and often our Psalter has only one rendition of some Psalms. But here is the issue for now: we still evaluate the different versifications to judge whether both are a valuable contribution to our Psalter.

The second point regards Psalter numbers that take lyrics already found in a previous Psalter number, and put the same lyrics to a different tune. I am not referring to those instances in which our Psalter clearly has two tunes to the same number. I am referring to instances in which two different Psalter numbers have the same lyrics. For instance, the lyrics of both Psalters 67 and 68 are already found in Psalters 64-66. Is this valuable overlap? The committee faces this on a case-by-case basis, looking also at the different tunes and how often our churches sing them.3

At the moment, the committee is of the opinion that we do not need both Psalters 65 and 68, or 218 and 219. We expect to propose eliminating 65 and 219. The result will be that we have two less tunes in our Psalter, but no lyrics will be lost.

How about Psalter 42? Because its lyrics are found in Psalter 41, consistency might lead us to get rid of it. But if our congregations sing it regularly, perhaps it would be wiser to keep it.

Poetic value, and effective meter and rhyme

Principle 6 (effective meter and rhyme) might seem to be the same as principle 4 (poetic value). In fact, the principle regarding poetic value is broader than that regarding effective meter and rhyme; the effective meter and rhyme is one specific application of poetic value. But these two principles are close enough in idea that I treat them both here.

Reality is that those who compiled our current Psalter wanted a quality product, so they used good English versifications. I am using the word “good” now in reference to the poetry. Whether the poetry is faithful to Scripture falls under Principle 2; but the poetry of our Psalter numbers is always good English poetry in every respect. I have not been able to find a single instance to this point in which the committee judges a Psalter number to be of inferior poetic value.

When we evaluate different versifications with a view to including them in the Psalter, we look for ones that also have good poetic value. I hope to introduce you to some of these after I finish surveying the principles that guide us in our work.

Archaisms

Because our Psalter is over a century old, no one should be surprised to find in it some words that are archaic. Not the only instance of this is our Psalter’s use of the Old English “thee/thou/thy” in the singular both in reference to God as well as to men and places, and its use of “ye” (plural) with reference to humans.

Addressing archaisms, then, the committee is looking at three main areas.

First, if we can replace an archaic word with a word or words that convey the same idea while not destroying the meter and rhyme, we stand ready to propose doing so. For example, Psalter 48 stanza 2 reads: “The suff’ring one He has not spurned Who unto Him for succor turned.” No harm is done to rhyme or meter by replacing “succor” with “help has,” so that we sing “Who unto Him for help has turned.”

Second, we intend to keep all uses of “Thee/Thou/ Thy” with reference to God, but stand ready to change them, as well as the word “ye,” when they refer to people or places. Psalter 4 contains two examples. In stanza 4 we sing “Be wise, ye rulers of the earth,” and in stanza 5, “Delay not, lest his anger rise, and ye should perish in your way.” No harm is done to change the two instances of “ye” to “you.” More examples can be found in Psalter 223. In Psalters 237-239, pronouns referring to the church (“Zion”) include “thy” and “thee.” We are proposing changing them to “your” and “you”—though this gets tricky, because in each of those numbers “thee” concludes a lyrical line, and rhymes with “see” or “be” or “agree.” We are not interested in destroying the rhyme; in fact, to maintain it is one of our principles. How this matter will finally be resolved remains to be determined.

Third, verbs such as “hath” and “hast” and “didst” are archaic, and we are considering fixing them. We realize that “Thou have” in place of “Thou hast” is an awkward attempt to combine Old English (“Thou”) and modern English “have”), so not every such verb will be changed. However, in a number of places the change will work well. What does not work as well with “Thou” will work better with “Who.” See Psalter 206 for instance: “And Thou Who didst establish it….” “Who did” is grammatically acceptable.

Appropriate Christian language

The Psalms were written in the Old Testament era of types and shadows. We sing them in the New Testament era, enjoying realities to which the pictures pointed. At times the versifications found in our Psalter use the language of the New Testament.

One example might be in the Messianic Psalms. Israel of old knew that the Messiah, or Christ, was coming. But Israel did not know Him by His name “Jesus.” Yet the word “Jesus” appears in the titles of seven Psalter numbers. Psalter 54 is an instance: “Jesus Our Shepherd.” Under the point of “appropriate Christian language,” the committee is evaluating whether the New Testament language is properly used.

erhaps the example I just gave is not the best, because we are not proposing to use the current titles. Remember that we propose replacing them with the first line of the first stanza of each song, so we are not reviewing the titles.

But here are two other examples. Psalm 72 is a Messianic Psalm, and yet the Hebrew word “Messiah” is not used in it. Is our Psalter warranted for making us sing “Christ shall have dominion…” (Psalter 200)? The Psalms were written for Israel of the Old Testament. Is it appropriate for us to use the word “church” in place of “Israel,” as in Psalter 63:4, “Thy church, O God, do Thou redeem From all adversity”?

Generally, we are finding that the Psalter uses appropriate New Testament language when versifying the Psalms. In other words, it gets the typology right. Clearly, the answer to the two questions in the previous paragraph is “Yes.” But we are reviewing the Psalter with this in mind, to ensure it is always accurate. And we intend that any proposed additional selections would do the same.

Seven principles govern the committee in evaluating the text of the Psalter; five govern the committee in evaluating its format; and six govern us in evaluating the music itself. To this we turn next time.


1 In the PRC Acts of Synod 2016 and Yearbook, this is found on pages 167-168.

2 An essay by Rev. J. C. K. Milligan contains some brief comments about the history of the versification of the Psalms in our current Psalter. See his chapter “Psalm Versification—the Uniform Metrical Psalter,” pages 428-435 in The Psalms in Worship: A Series of Convention Papers Bearing Upon the Place of the Psalms in the Worship of the Church, ed. John McNaugher (Pittsburgh: The United Presbyterian Board of Publication), 1907. A free, scanned PDF file of this book is available from Google Books. The interested reader might also read an article by Rev. Ray Lanning, “The Songs of Zion: An Appreciation of The Psalter of 1912,” Standard Bearer, vol. 69, no. 17 (June, 1993): 402.

3 As to “how often,” we have objective statistics from our churches. In addition to several “data points” from worship services of some PRCs and HRCs in other years, we have gathered a list of every Psalter number sung in every PRC worship service in 2015.