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Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Norristown, Pennsylvania.

Part 1—The Texts of the Psalter

A comparison of the texts of The Psalter with the texts of the Psalms in the KJV reveals not only that our versification of the Psalms are loose but also that the theology of the authors was not in all respects soundly Biblical. I do not mean to say that a significant portion of the words of The Psalter is objectionable. There is little that is. Rather I mean to say that the approach to psalm singing taken by the authors, and that therefore the underlying, rather than expressed, theology, is unsound. The words, if they were found in hymns, would be acceptable. As paraphrases of Scripture they are faulty, and reveal the unsound theology of their authors.

1) The loose paraphrasing is due in part to the fact thatThe Psalter, like just about every other psalter ever produced in the English language, is metrical. In metrical psalmody the irregular lines, stanzas, and rhythms of the Psalms are reduced to the form of the English hymn. This form adheres inflexibly to three things.

First. It has a regular meter (such as L.M., S.M., 8787, etc.), and a regular rhythm (iambic being the most common). It is, for this reason alone, plainly not suited to the singing of the irregular stanzas and lines, and prose rhythms of the Psalms as found in most English translations. It makes some paraphrasing necessary.

It was not always so. The Jews and the church of the New Testament up to the time of the Reformation chanted the Psalms; that is, they sang them as written in the original language or as found in an accurate translation. John Calvin introduced metrical psalmody into the church, and the Reformed and Presbyterian churches since that time have followed his example. The Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England still chant, and some more recent hymnals and psalters of Reformed and Presbyterian churches include a few examples of chant, but most congregations today consider it too difficult.

Perhaps today there is some movement away from the metrical Psalm. There is much popular music, not I think suited to worship, which uses the exact words of Scriptures. The Book of Psalms for Singing, the psalter of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, has some non-metrical settings of Psalms or parts of Psalms: 41C, 72D, 891, l00C, 106G, 117B, 134B, 150B. It is obvious that such settings would be too lengthy for the longer Psalms, but they are easier than chant, and, if well done, eminently suitable for shorter Psalms.

Second. The English hymn has rhyme. Rhyming is a difficult art even in a hymn, but in Psalm versification, where one has the additional requirement of faithfulness to the words of Scripture, its demands are harsh. Extensive paraphrasing and inversion of word order are necessary in order to make passable use of even the easiest rhyme scheme.

In this the compilers of The Psalter have followed the Reformation tradition. All the early English psalters, as also the Genevan Psalter, were rhymed. Rhyme was, at that time, considered indispensable to poetry, and an insistence on rhyme continued almost unbroken to the twentieth century. But 1) rhyme is no longer considered to be a necessary part of English poetry, 2) rhyme has no place at all in Hebrew poetry, and 3) accuracy ought to take precedence over rhyme, no matter how important we may consider rhyme to be.

Third. Since about 1700, compilers of English hymnals and psalters have demanded smooth English. Now this is a much more admirable and desirable thing than the desire for hymn tunes and rhyme, but because we have always pursued it in connection with these two it too has forced us into paraphrase.

Again it was not always so. The two psalters which were most widely used in England from the time of the Reformation into the 1700s (Sternhold and Hopkins, and Tate and Brady, both of which use rhyme with the metrical form) and the Bay Psalm Book (the psalter of the New England Puritans, and the first book published in North America) insisted on accuracy at the expense of smoothness. The result was almost always awkward, frequently difficult to understand, and sometimes comic. Numbers 53 and 268 in The Psalter are examples of this sort of versification. The Scottish Psalter was even more inflexible. All the Psalms were written in common meter (8686, the ballad meter), and were sung for a long time to fewer than ten tunes.

In 1719 Isaac Watts, an Englishman who was dissatisfied with the Tate and Brady psalter, published a new metrical version which maintained a high standard of English at the expense of accuracy. There were other things at work here, and I will have something to say about them later, but what moved Watts to do his work was the crudeness of the verse in the psalters then in use. The Psalter has plainly been influenced by Watts in this respect. Its verse is smooth, and its versification loose.

2) The relative smoothness of the verse does not imply the conclusion that the poetry of The Psalter is good. It is not. The versifiers frequently lose the parallelism, the most prominent characteristic of Hebrew poetry, and reveal a fastidious and refined distaste for the color and earthiness of Hebrew imagery. It is plainly not appropriate, by their standards, to talk about worms, bulls, bottles, beds, teeth; etc. in poetry. The mundane has no place or must have a poetic description. Poetry is a way of seeing life through rose-tinted glasses. The poetry of The Psalter is so bland that it can be called poetry only by virtue of a poetic form. Psalms 7, 10, 22, 35, 38, 55, 58, 59, 68, 73, 74, 75, 77, 110, 129, and 149 and good examples.

Psalm 136, as found in The Psalter, shows a similar dislike for Hebrew poetry. This is the psalm in which every verse ends with the refrain, “For his mercy endureth forever.” Our compilers thought this a bit much. In the first versification, Number 376, the refrain appears after every fourth verse. In the second versification it appears after every second verse. In the third versification it appears after every verse, but in two forms.

Some psalms make effective use of repetition. Psalm 118:10-12 is a good example. The compilers of The Psalter don’t like it, and do away with it wherever it is found.

Here, then, is some of that bad theology mentioned in the paragraph at the beginning of this section. Modern ideas of poetry take precedence over the words of Scripture. Our “refined tastes” are allowed to dictate how we treat the Psalms and what we sing.

3) Bad theology also shows itself in the tendency to Christianize the Psalms. It is not considered appropriate that New Testament Christians sing the language of the Old Testament. Therefore the versifiers in some places substitute the name Christ for references to the Anointed, etc.: Psalms 1, 22, 45, 72, and 110. The word church appears several times. When “burnt offering and offering for sin” are mentioned in the Psalms, The Psalter always uses more general language: sacrifices, offerings, etc. See at least Psalms 40 and 66. Specific references to Old Testament characters and nations, and even events, are almost always removed altogether or made general. See especially Psalms 60, 83, 108, 136.

However, it must be admitted that The Psalter does not go as far in this direction as Isaac Watts and others. Watts’ “psalter” bears the title The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Apply’d to the Christian State and Worship. In one place he claims to have

brought down the royal author into the common affairs of Christian life, and led the Psalmist of Israel into the Church of Christ without anything of a Jew about him. 1

Of his versification of Psalm 119 he says

I have collected and disposed of the most useful verses under 18 different heads, and have formed a divine song upon each of them. But the verses are much transposed to attain some degree of connection. 2

The well-known Christmas carol “Joy to the World’ is part of Watts’ versification of Psalm 98.

4) The versifiers apparently thought that some Psalms or parts of Psalms are not applicable to Christians. We see this, first, in the summarizing of the historical Psalms: 105, 106, and especially 78. We also see it in the softening of the imprecatory Psalms. This has been accomplished in several ways. Sometimes the imprecations are omitted altogether: Psalms 137 and 139. Sometimes they are shortened: Psalms 69 and 109. Sometimes the wording is changed to something less forceful. In Psalm 28, for example, a prayer against the enemies is changed to a statement about God coming in judgment. In Psalm 18 the psalmist’s celebration of the victories given him is almost entirely lost.

There is a theology of Psalm singing which may be called Reformed. It recognizes that the Psalms as written, with all their references to Old Testament history, Old Testament rites, and no longer existing persons and nations, with all their fierce hatred of the enemies of God and His church, with all their earthiness, and with all their real and supposed difficulties, are the poetry of the Spirit of Christ designed for the edification and worship of the church. There is another theology of Psalm singing, which began to develop during the decline of Calvinism in England and was both influential in and influenced by the development of hymnody, which forces the Psalms into a form thought to be more suitable for New Testament Christians. The Psalter is more heavily influenced by the latter than the former.

Part 2—The Music of The Psalter

Music is, of course, an area in which my knowledge is so limited that there are very few things I can say. I have received considerable help from Mr. Roland Peterson and from a few books which I read on this subject, but three or four months is not sufficient for an education in music, or even the more limited field of church music. Therefore others must receive the credit for what is true and accurate in the following paragraphs, while I must bear all the blame for mistakes.

The whole subject of music is further complicated by the fact that our liking for some tunes and dislike for others are so seldom based on objective standards. We tend, probably partly because most of us are not musicians, to like what we are used to rather than what is good.

On the basis of such knowledge as I have and as is readily available to anyone uneducated in music, it is possible to say that the music of The Psalter is poor and poorly selected.

1) Almost without exception the music comes from the nineteenth century. Three things may be said about this. First, the nineteenth century is not known for good music, and that is putting it mildly. The Victorian Bad Tune is notorious among modern musicians. Erik Routley, who has written several books on church music, and is a well-respected twentieth century musician, says

The vice of Victorian music is often said to be “sentimentality”, and if sentimentality is emotional content backed by no solid truth, a show of feeling with no intention of consequent honesty, the description is an accurate one . . . it was music composed in order to create irresponsible emotion and an unreal sense of wellbeing . . . . 

But this music, the secular music of the salon, was not the final degradation. It remained for the church to debase music to the limit. For music designed to create mere natural emotions such as sorrow or pity, or peace of mind has at any rate what a celebrated broadcaster call “animal content”. But the hack-music of the church, of which our hymnals (and The Psalter) are still full, and which our churches are only now beginning to abandon, music designed to produce not natural emotion but (save the mark) religious emotion—this was music at its lowest ebb. 3

He later says of this same music that it “is prone to diverge from even the serviceable ideal in the directions of supreme tedium or of shameless vulgarity.” 4 English composers abandoned “all contrapuntal and harmonic integrity in favor of a musical sensationalism which transgresses the bounds of good taste with dreary regularity.” 5 Of J.B. Dykes, one of three composers who have more tunes than any other represented in The Psalter, he says,

He gathers his material from the continental opera, and every one of his tunes shows a combination of seductive melody with a clearly discernible structural failure . . . . 

The secret of his style is, of course, the concert-goer’s attitude which had infected the Victorian parish church. Hymns were made not to sing but for people to listen to choirboys singing. 6

And of the music in general,

Victorian church music . . . is composed with an eye to the “atmosphere” required by the church, and with an eye to the agreeable sensations which it would produce in the ears of the worshippers. It was composed in a self-conscious way which was unknown to the composers of the Puritan psalm-tunes or the music of the Wesleyan revival. 7

Secondly, there is good music available to us from every age of the church’s history. To ignore it in favor of music from only one period, and that a destitute one, is foolish. Thirdly, even with the addition of a few “Genevan tunes” at the end of The Psalter our own heritage is very poorly represented. It is a rich one. The Genevan Psalter is of the highest quality. But let us beware. Most of these tunes as they appear in The Psalter have been thoroughly corrupted. Some have even been made unsingable, e.g., #432.

2) Some of the music is plainly too difficult for a congregation to sing: Numbers 16, 18, 22, 24, 42, 59, 81 to name only a few from the beginning of The Psalter.

3) Some tunes are unsuited to the texts with which they are matched. Now this is not an easy matter to judge (because the standard cannot be entirely objective: there is always something of personal preference involved in such judgment), and I do not want to get into argument here about specific cases. Nevertheless there are some cases regarding which few would disagree: for example, Psalter #136.

4) If I say at this point that 25% of the tunes are unquestionably bad, any musicians among us will probably raise a howl of rage. By objective standards probably much more than 50% can be called unquestionably bad, but 1 am not a musician and cannot judge such matters. In the 25% fall only those tunes which we do not use, which we sing only with great difficulty, or which we do not sing correctly.

Let us also note that there are about 19 Psalms that we never or rarely sing because of the tunes to which they are set. They are Psalms 3, 10, 13, 20, 28, 41, 52, 54, 58, 59, 60, 74, 105, 112, 114, 120, 129, 131, 134. In addition there are parts of 16 other Psalms which we do not sing for the same reason. They are found in Psalms 9, 31, 32, 34, 36, 37, 43, 44, 68, 69, 95, 106, 107, 118, 119, 136. That means that there are 35 Psalms (again nearly 25%) which we do not sing, or do not sing completely, because of the music to which they are set. If we add to these the parts of Psalms which are altogether missing from The Psalterwe come to the conclusion that at least one third of the Psalms cannot be sung or cannot be sung completely.

The music which we use in the singing of the Psalms is not, of course, as important as the Psalms themselves. It does not exist for its own sake, but is strictly subordinate to the text. Nevertheless it is important. When it is bad or unsuitable it will call attention to itself rather than the text. It will divert our thoughts and emotions from Scripture, and demean the congregation’s praise. At its best it will enhance our understanding and help us to perfect our praise. It ought, therefore, to be carefully chosen.

Part 3—Recommendations

1. That we use the following guidelines for the format of a new psalter.

a. That the psalter be bound, at least at first, as the Church Orders are bound.

1) This will allow Synod to approve the work in small pieces.

2) This will also allow the churches to begin use of it before it is complete.

3) This will make further revision possible if the churches should find the choices unusable.

b. That the versifications be numbered following the example of The Book of Psalms for Singing, the psalter of the RPCNA.

c. That the headings of the Psalms (not the titles given in The Psalter) be included. These are sometimes helpful in understanding the Psalm.

d. That the psalter include the following indexes:

1) Index of Authors, Translators, Sources. NOTE: There is no index of this sort in our present psalter because the authors, etc. are mostly unknown.

2) Index of Composers, Sources, Arrangers.

3) Metrical Index. NOTE: There are many errors in the present metrical index.

4) Index of Tunes.

5) Index of First Lines.

6) Index of Important Words. NOTE: This in place of the subject index found in The Psalter and most hymnals. The present subject index is very poorly done.

e. That tunes and words be printed separately, as in English hymnals.

1) This will make the task of typesetting and revision easier.

2) It is generally agreed that it is easier to sing with understanding if the words are not found between the clefs of music.

2. That we use the following guidelines for texts.

a. That, as much as possible, we sing the Psalms rather than paraphrases. That accuracy and completeness not be surrendered for the sake of rhyme, or for the sake of a metrical version if a good, singable, and more accurate non-metrical version be available.

b. That The Psalter be so arranged that there be at least one setting in which each Psalm may be sung completely. One exception to this may be Psalm 119, which can be treated as 22 Psalms.

c. That a high standard of English grammar and sty1e be maintained. We cannot expect to reach the standard of the KJV, but we can certainly do better than The Psalter. We do not want to lose the poetry of the Psalms, the parallelism and the vivid imagery. We ought to avoid as much as possible the awkwardness of the early psalters.

d. That repetition of lines and choruses not be used except when justified by the text of the Psalm. These things come from the Revival and Gospel songs of the nineteenth century, and were originally designed to allow the “congregation” to join a soloist in at least part of the singing.

3. That we use the following guidelines for music.

a. That it be possible for a congregation to sing. NOTE: an average congregation ought to be able to learn the tune in four or five tries, according to some musicians.

1) There ought to be no difficult leaps up and down.

2) The range of each part from lowest to highest note ought to be within the capacity of unskilled singers. I have been told that this implies a range from low B flat to high E flat.

3) There ought to be no complexities of rhythm or meter that make it impossible to sing the tune as written. The dotted eighth with 16th, frequently found inThe Psalter, is one example.

4) The tune ought to be transposed up or down if necessary to bring the highest or lowest notes within the range of unskilled singers.

5) In metrical versions the tunes ought to be syllabic or near syllabic, i.e., there should be only one note for each syllable sung.

6) The four parts ought to sing together. Tunes like #254 call attention to themselves, rather than to the words.

b. That it be suited to the text. This is, as I said above, somewhat subjective. But let us remember that the Psalms are not sweetly sentimental ditties. If they were, perhaps Victorian church music would be more suitable for singing them.

c. That it be attractive and of high quality in both melody and harmony according to agreed standards of music.

d. That there be variety: from every period of church history, of as many different forms and meters as possible.

e. That there be as little use as possible of tunes associated with familiar hymns and carols.

f. That faddish and popular music be avoided.

g. That it not be offensive in its associations (if it has any) with ungodly amusements and ungodly texts.

If we undertake this work we must be prepared to devote years to the task. Some work, especially on the texts, will have to be original. Getting copyright permissions takes time. Good work cannot be done overnight. But I believe that it is possible for us, even with our limited resources, to produce a psalter of much higher quality than the one presently in use.


1. Quoted from Henry Alexander Glass, The Story of the Psalters: A History of the Metrical Versions of Great Britain and America, London: Kegan, Paul, Trench & co., 1888, p. 48. 

2. Ibid. p. 178. 

3. Erik Routley, The Church and Music, pp. 179, 180.

4. Ibid., p. 180. 

5. Ibid., p. 181. 

6. Ibid., pp. 182, 183. 

7. Ibid., p. 183.