The Hymn Question

Although I do not believe that silence in regard to the proposal to introduce New Testament versifications into our singing in our public worship necessarily means that it must or will be interpreted as agreement with this proposed innovation, the undersigned wishes to offer a few remarks and comments with respect to this proposed change.

First of all, a hymn-singing church becomes more and more a hymn-singing church and less and less a Psalter-singing church. I am aware of the fact that the proposal which now confronts our churches concerns only the versification of New Testament Scriptures. Rev. Vanden Berg intends to call attention to the original proposal that was submitted to our churches, which proposal advocated the introduction, not of versifications of Scripture, but of hymns, and the undersigned will not call attention to this. However, I do wish to ask the question: why is it that the introduction of hymns into public church services has for its result that the hymns become increasingly popular and that that church becomes less and less a Psalter-singing church? The reason for this is obvious. People, especially young people, clamor for hymns because they do not understand the psalms. The psalms are too profound to be understood by them. They like to sing songs which they understand. This being the case, it lies in the nature of the case that to cater to this desire to sing songs which are understood, we will not be drawn closer to the psalms but we will be increasingly weaned away from them. Then we certainly will not grow in our knowledge and love of the psalms. To satisfy the appetite for songs that are more easily understood can only have for its result that those songs will become increasingly popular and our present Psalter will fall increasingly into disrepute and ill-favor. And this would surely be a calamity! The profound richness of our Psalter, of the “one hundred and fifty psalms of David,” must never escape us or be taken away from us. What constitutes this richness? This: these psalms present to us a complete picture of the Christian’s spiritual life, his needs and his struggles in the midst of the world. This can hardly be said-of our modern or current hymns. One of the reasons why Reformed synods have clung tenaciously to these “one hundred and fifty psalms of David” is that, whereas the introduction of hymns will always necessitate the introduction of other hymns with each passing age, the psalms apply to all ages and they can always be sung (see J. Jansen’s explanation of Art. 69 of our Church Order). The popularity of hymns is surely rooted in the failure to appreciate and understand the Psalter as we have it. This has, I dare say, always been our stand. I want to mention this although I know that the hymn question in our churches today concerns only the introduction of faithful New Testament versifications into the singing in our public worship.

Secondly, it is my humble opinion that the need for this change in our Psalter is not nearly as great as some might possibly think it is. It has been stated that it is only with the greatest difficulty that we can “find” Psalter numbers to, be sung at our special services. Is this difficulty, however, as great as some might think? We have several special services, throughout the year. Our Psalter can certainly supply us with many appropriate songs for the following special services: New Year, Prayer Day, Good Friday, Ascension Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Old Year. I am sure that we have no difficulty selecting Psalter numbers to be sung at these special services. One might ask: but what about Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost? The undersigned, of course, concedes that it would be wonderful to sing songs upon these special occasions which, when sung by the whole congregation, can also be sung with understanding by the ENTIRE congregation, including the children. However, are we, even upon these special occasions, in such dire straits? Do we not have the songs of Zacharias, Mary, and of Simeon for our Christmas services? Do we not have Psalter Numbers 28, 29, 48, 49, 261, 318-320 for our Easter services? And do not these psalms qualify as Easter songs, refer directly to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and have they not been quoted by our Savior to that effect? Is it not wonderful that already in the fold Dispensation the Church was led by our Chief Prophet to speak and sing of His coming suffering and death and resurrection, that this was foretold in the dispensation of the shadows, and that therefore everything was established already from before the foundation of the world? And, how difficult would it be for the parents to call the attention of their children to these numbers and teach them their wonderful significance? Our greatest difficulty concerns Pentecost Sunday. This, I believe, lies in the nature of the case. Pentecost, of course, is the feast of the fulfillment, is so strictly New Dispensational. Yet, we also have songs that are appropriate for this “day of days.” I again ask the question: Is the need for a revision of our Psalter so terribly great? Besides, it has been said that there are songs in our Psalter that are peculiarly Old Dispensational, really do not apply to the New Dispensation. The psalmist, for example, sings of “making atonement for our sins.” And it is said that atonement has now been made upon the cross of Calvary, that therefore the church should not use this language of the Old Dispensation. But, does this mean, or would this imply that therefore the Psalter would eventually not be used anymore because we live in the New Dispensation? The reader will understand that I am merely asking this question.

Thirdly, I would like to suggest that our Protestant Reformed homes become more familiar with our Psalter. I have already remarked that our parents should instruct their as we sing them. However, I have also something else in children in regard to the beauty of our Psalter, to the psalms mind. When we gather in our homes about the piano (and how often do we do this?), what songs do we sing? Do not misunderstand me. I certainly do not wish to leave the impression that we should not sing hymns. But, how often do we sing from our Psalter? Why is it that our young people and children are often so much more familiar with our modern hymns than they are with our Psalter? How often does it not happen that we, when we sing or hum to ourselves, sing or hum modern or current hymns, but no Psalter numbers? Our Psalter is so wonderfully and inexpressibly rich. Does this unfamiliarity with our Psalter not have something to say to us? I think it has. I know of people who have come to us from other churches who have expressed amazement at the profound beauty and richness and depth of our Psalter. May we never lose it! O, I do not mean to suggest that our churches are in danger of losing our Psalter. But I do wish to emphasize the wonderful beauty of our Psalter, and I may certainly express the personal wish that we never lose this wonderful collection of songs as sung in our public services.

Fourthly, Rev. Hoeksema in The Standard Bearer of January 15, 1962, while commenting on Rev. G. Vanden Berg’s resolve to treat this hymn question inThe Standard Bearer in connection with his discussion of Art. 69 of our Church Order (the issue before our churches today would revise this article), calls attention to the fact that, although Art. 69 speaks of the “150 psalms of David,” we do not even have the 150 psalms of David. In this article Rev. Hoeksema writes that there are no 150 psalms of David, that we do not know how many of the psalms were composed by David, that quite a few of the psalms were composed by others. He also writes that we cannot sing the psalms of David, and that we never do. What we sing is not a psalm of David but a versification of it. And he also writes, in the third place, that we certainly do not sing the 150 psalms of David, but many more. Is this argumentation as potent and as cogent as it may sound? With all due respect to Rev. Hoeksema, I do not think so. At least, it raises a question in my mind. Art. 69 of our Church Order speaks of the 150 psalms of David, and tells us that these are psalms of David. I realize that Rev. Hoeksema also comments on this. We cannot sing the psalms of David, and we never do. This, of course, we concede. We never sing the psalms as David wrote them. It would be impossible for us to sing them as he wrote them. All this we concede. But, to all this we reply: what of it? Did not our fathers know this? Did not our fathers know this when they composed Art. 69 of our Church Order?! Did not our fathers know that Ps. 89:7, 8 (Rev. Hoeksema quotes these verses as they appear in our Holland psalm book) are not a literal presentation of the inspired Word of God but to a great extent a versification of it? Of course, we must understand that the versification which accompanies or characterizes each psalm is based upon that particular psalm. It is exactly this which adds to, and establishes the beauty of our Psalter. I repeat: our Psalter presents to us a complete picture of the Christian’s spiritual life, his needs, and his struggles in the midst of the world. But, did not our fathers know all about this? So, this is my question: why is it that our fathers, knowing all this and fully aware of it, nevertheless clung to the 150 psalms of David, laid these songs upon the church, and were extremely hesitant and reluctant to add other songs to what are mentioned in Art. 69 of our Church Order? J. Jansen, in his commentary upon the Church Order, mentions exactly this in his explanation of Art. 69 of the Church Order. I certainly would like a complete answer to this question before I could ever possibly go along with the proposed change.

Finally, one more thing. The opposition to the proposed change of our Psalter is great and, deeply rooted in our churches. Of this there is not the slightest doubt in my mind. And it is also my conviction that we must not ignore this deeply seated feeling among many of our people. Besides, I have great respect for this “conservative” element in our churches. I use the word “conservative” here only because I wish to emphasize that they wish to retain the present Psalter as it is. I have great respect for the reason why they are opposed to this change. They are opposed to this change because they fear for the welfare of our churches should this proposed change be adopted. As of now, I consider this change, also for this reason, to be extremely ill-advised at our present time. Our churches are small. I dread the idea of a change in our Psalter which would cause extreme anxiety and apprehension among our people. Frankly, I do not believe it is worth it.

—H. Veldman