August 2, 2010

Psalm Singing

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms,Music,Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

In his lecture entitled “Introduction to Worship,” available here, James Jordan points out that one way to tell what Satan hates is to see what things that God wants in worship are missing or abused. What does Satan hate? One thing he hates is Psalm singing. Says Jordan,

The other thing the devil does not want is congregations singing the Psalms because the Psalms are full of holy war stuff. If you start singing the psalms, you start getting iron in your bones.

You know that Psalm 68, “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered,” was the marching song of the French Reformation. They would sing it as they went into battle. The Huguenots in France would sing it all the time. Of course, they didn’t have air conditioning then, so the windows were open and all the Catholics heard it, and it made all the Catholics so afraid that eventually the king outlawed singing Psalm 68 in public. So they’d go around whistling. And they had to outlaw whistling that melody.

Now, people are not afraid when they hear us sing “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.” They are not worried about you.

This move away from Psalm singing, it seems to me, has taken more than one form:

(1) Many churches do not sing the Psalms at all.  They may sing hymns or gospel songs or praise songs, but they don’t sing the Psalms.  In some of these churches, the Psalms are read; they may even be read responsively.  That’s better than nothing, but it’s also rather strange, isn’t it?  The Psalms were written to be sung.  David didn’t simply read them.  The Levites at David’s tabernacle didn’t simply read them out loud.  They sang them.  If you went to a performance of Handel’s Messiah, you’d be pretty disappointed if the performers read the text instead of singing.  But in many churches, the Psalms are not sung and, in most services, are not read.  And what that means is that the Psalms do not shape the piety, worship, expectations, language, biblical understanding, and so forth of the Christians in these churches.

(2) In some churches, a few Psalms are sung.  If you look in a hymnal (e.g., the Trinity Hymnal produced by the OPC and PCA), you won’t find all the Psalms.  You’ll find only some of them.

(3) There are songs that incorporate only a line or two of a psalm.  Take the well-known praise song “As the Deer.”  If you look at the first two lines, you’ll see that they are drawn from Psalm 42:1.  But immediately the song leaves Psalm 42 behind.  There are alternate stanzas that incorporate more of the psalm, but I certainly didn’t learn them and I doubt that a lot of Christians have.  This is not Psalm singing.

(4) Most of the Psalms that are sung in churches — and I’m talking about churches that are committed to Psalm singing — are metrical Psalms.  That is, someone has taken the Psalm and paraphrased it, arranging the words to fit a rhyme and rhythm scheme.  Doing so necessarily requires you to depart from a strict word-for-word translation of the Psalm.  For instance, “God” doesn’t rhyme with “sword,” so perhaps you change “God” to “Lord” to make the rhyme work.  The length of each line of a metrical psalm has to be a certain number of syllables with the accent falling in a certain place (“Da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA”), so what do you do with a long line in the Psalm?  You abbreviate it to make it fit.  At times, you rearrange words, producing something like what Jordan calls “Psalms by Yoda” (e.g., “You’ve raised like ox my horn”).

Do these changes really matter? Yes. I’m not opposed to singing Psalm paraphrases, and I particularly love the Genevan psalms. They’re still, to my mind, the greatest versions of the Psalms produced. But nevertheless they depart from a strict translation of what God actually said, and I think it is important that we learn to sing God’s Words and not our paraphrases of them.

Metrical Psalm singing, good as it can be, is not full Psalm singing.  A metrical Psalm is to a Psalm what a sermon is to a passage of Scripture.  It’s a paraphrase, a poetic rendition, an explanation.  But what about singing a good translation of the Psalm itself?  Who would want to settle for a sermon instead of a Scripture reading?  Who would settle for a poetic paraphrase instead of a Scripture reading?

But to sing a good translation, word for word, would require either a through-composed Psalm (and they’re somewhat hard to learn, given that there’s no repetition in them) or — horrors! — chanting.  And immediately the objections start: “We can’t chant!”  Why not? “Chanting is Roman Catholic!”  No more than saying the creed or a host of other things we do in church.  “Chanting would be too hard.”  But aren’t a lot of worthwhile things hard at first? The question is: Do we really want to sing the Psalms or not?

(5) When churches do sing the Psalms, they sometimes do so in ways that rob them of their power.

*   C. S. Lewis said that a lot of hymns in his day were “fifth-rate poetry set to sixth-rate music,” and that’s true of some metrical psalm versions, too.  Sometimes the music doesn’t fit the words.  Check out, for instance, the version of Psalm 88 in the blue Christian Reformed Church Psalter Hymnal, where the darkest Psalm in the Bible is set to light, bouncy music.

* When people think of “chant,” they often think of Gregorian chant.  There are forms of Gregorian chant that can be quite powerful (e.g., the ones included in the Cantus Christi), but those aren’t what springs immediately to mind.  Instead, when you say the word “chant,” people think of a choir singing Gre-e-e-go-o-o-o-o-o-o-r-r-i-i-a-a-n cha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-n-n-nt, with every syllable stretched out over a series of notes, rising and falling in a soothing way.  That’s great for ambiance, with one candle lit, when you’re having dinner with your wife. But it isn’t warlike and it isn’t something the congregation can sing.

* The Anglican tradition includes a lot of Psalm chanting, but if you get a CD of it, chances are pretty good that it will be sung by a boys’ choir.  Now there’s nothing wrong with a bunch of young boys singing in their high-pitched prepubescent voices.  But the effect is more sweet than warlike, and such CDs don’t give you a good idea of what chant could be like.

* I mentioned above that I love the Genevan psalms.  Sung at a good pace, they’re lively, dancelike, and at the same time warlike.  You can imagine pounding your spear on the ground as you sing them.  But sung slowly, in a dirgelike fashion, few people can stand them for more than a stanza or two.  Ho hum.

And if you buy a CD of Genevan psalms, chances are that’s what you’ll get, perhaps because a choral performance, especially with people singing parts, needs to be slower to bring out the complexity of the music.  For that reason, Bach’s motet “Jesu, meine freude” is going to be sung more slowly than the hymn “Jesus, Priceless Treasure.”

The other thing you’ll find on a CD of Genevan psalms (or, worse, in the liturgy!) may be an organist doing improvisation for a while between each stanza. Don’t get me wrong. That kind of stuff is fine — for a concert. My acquaintance Harm Hoeve is a great Dutch organist and he does fantastic improvisations on the Genevan psalms. But it kills congregational singing and it makes it unlikely that the congregation will want to sing more than a couple of stanzas.

So when you listen to CDs of this sort of music, you have to use your imagination. Imagine what the Genevan psalms would sound like if they were kicked up a gear or two and sung by a bunch of David-like soldiers. Imagine that those Anglican chants were being belted out by a bunch of tribal warriors : “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.”

Having said all of that, I must also say this:  In criticizing these traditions, I’m not saying, “My church does this rightly, but yours doesn’t.”  Rather, my aim is to point out something that the whole church, my congregation included, needs to work on.  I don’t know of very many churches at all that sing all 150 Psalms, let alone in a good literal translation, let alone in a lively and martial way.  What can we do to bring about a change?

Posted by John Barach @ 2:44 pm | Discuss (6)

6 Responses to “Psalm Singing”

  1. Paul Baxter Says:

    One persistent issue involved here is that poetry cannot, in a strict sense, be translated, so any approach other than developing fluency in ancient Hebrew is going to be inadequate one way or another.

    The happiest compromise I’ve run into in my own experience has been the work of a couple I met at Houghton College who enjoyed taking scripture passages and fitting them with minimal changes into folk-style arrangements. The entire student body at that time knew several of these songs, so it was a wonderful community experience to know that everyone around you knew the text of Ps 130 and might sing it with you.

    There were, of course, several drawbacks. Only of few of their songs were from the Psalms. The only Psalms they did in their entirety were 130 and 117. (I still much prefer to sing their setting of the NIV text of 130 to the translation of Luther’s metrical version). But even so, it was a wonderful taste for me of how the singing of scripture can work.

    Feel free to check out the Jacobson’s music here:

  2. John Says:


    Thanks for this great post. You might want to check out the NEW CanRC Book of Praise, with much better versification here


  3. John Says:

    Another thought: I made a comment about “Gregorian chant” in this post, noting that the sort of Gregorian chant you find on some chant CD is often slow and creates an ambiance that makes you want a glass of wine and a darkened room.

    But without taking away from what I said about that, I should point out that Gregorian chant doesn’t have to be that way. There are examples of this sort of chant in the Cantus Christi, and they don’t create that sort of mood at all. As with the Genevan tunes, depending on how you sing a chant, you can kill it or make it glorious.

  4. David T. Koyzis Says:

    I am a little late in commenting on this, John, but what exactly does your congregation sing from? Do you chant the Psalms, or do you rely on metrical versions?

    One comment: I don’t quite understand your focus on the martial nature of the Psalms. Certainly Psalm 68 qualifies, as do the final verses of Psalm 137, but most of them do not. Should not lament be sung as lament, praise as praise, &c.? The Psalter is a diverse collection, after all.

  5. John Barach Says:

    Thanks for the interaction, David.

    With regard to your first question, the congregation I’m currently pastoring uses the red Trinity Hymnal and the RPCNA’s Book of Psalms for Singing, neither of which are my favorites. I supplement with other psalms drawn from the Cantus Christi, which include Genevans and some from Schutz.

    You’ll notice that I didn’t mention any chanted versions. In my previous congregation, we sang much of the liturgy, chanted the Beatitudes and the Te Deum, and worked a tiny bit on chanting some psalms. Here, in our monthly Psalm sings, I’ve worked a bit on chanting the Beatitudes. But that is as far as I’ve gotten. For myself, I’ve been using the chants in Reading the Psalms with Luther.

    My ideal psalter would probably be a rather thick book (but then the Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal is 1000 pages). I’d like to include

    * The whole psalter in as accurate a translation as possible, pointed for chant.

    * Anglican chant and/or Gregorian chant for the whole psalter.

    * All 150 Genevans and all 150 from Schutz’s Becker Psalter.

    * Another metrical version (or two) for at least some of the psalms.

    But I’m not going to see that book in my lifetime. My grandkids, however, might. I hope. And I expect that 1000 years from now, they’ll look back and wonder why we sang so few psalms.

    As for my emphasis on the martial nature of the psalms, I agree with you that it may be lopsided, an overemphasis. I certainly agree that lament should be sung as lament, and that such songs (e.g., Psalm 88) would be slower, etc., while Psalm 148 ought to be sung joyously and quickly and lightly, not in a particularly warlike way.

    My emphasis here — which I acknowledge in light of what you said is an overemphasis — springs from (a) the realization that many or most of the laments in Scripture are related to enemies (e.g., Psalm 6) and especially backbiters and so have a warlike element, (b) the recognition that many of the songs of praise also are related to battles and victories (e.g., Psalm 149), and (c) a reaction to the modern tendency to be anything but warlike and even to disapprove of the warlike and strong in favor of the soft and sweet. But even a song like Psalm 23, often sung to a sweet tune, has an emphasis on enemies and is arguably a song about feasting on the battlefield. Which is why the Genevan Psalm 23 is superior, in my mind, to the famous Crimond tune. =)

    But again, I do appreciate your “pushback” on the warlike stuff.

  6. David T. Koyzis Says:

    Well, John, this would be a huge volume indeed. It would be beyond the resources of most churches to purchase so many copies of such an ambitious collection. On the other hand, if we’re looking to the distant future, perhaps parishioners would be singing from an e-reader, in which case putting such a “volume” in the hands of everyone would be more feasible.

    “And I expect that 1000 years from now, they’ll look back and wonder why we sang so few psalms.” Wouldn’t that be great!

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