18 selections from The Book of Psalms for Worship are available on the new recording Abundance—downloadable in MP3 format today at the Crown & Covenant Publications web store. The packaged CD release will be available for $15 by August 20.
How refreshing to attend a conference on psalm singing without any other Reformed Presbyterians! Not that I tire of RP fellowship, but rather I was energized by the enthusiasm of non-exclusive psalmists who are hungry to sing psalms. The buzz question (and name) of the conference was “Where Are the Psalms?” (See related post.)
People were looking. Some were musicians, some pastors, some students. They asked questions like: “Why did the American church go from psalmody to almost exclusive hymnody so quickly?”; “How can we introduce more psalms into our worship?”; “What are the best kind of arrangements to sing?”
Terry Johnson, pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga., summarized a history of psalmody and psalm books. He referred to the psalter as the “canonical hymnbook”; and he stressed that in reformed theology the “congregation is the choir” and music must be written with that in mind. He, unlike some others, preferred the Scottish metrical tradition with familiar tunes and clear, modern versifications.
Composer Hal Hopson, on the other hand, introduced his responsorial psalm arrangements, which use the words straight from scripture. This style requires a trained choir and cantor, singing Anglican-chant style, with the congregation only singing a repeated phrase of the psalm occasionally.
John D. Witvliet, author and director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, spoke of challenges to psalm singing and how to overcome them.
1. Viewing worship as expressive not formative. When we think that worship is just about expressing ourselves, as opposed to us being formed and changed by worship, we might not choose to sing the psalms or at least not all of them, suggested Witvliet. He quoted from a few early church fathers to show that they thought that scripture, particularly the psalms, were meant for us to know how to feel and how to be—not just for us to use to express how we already feel or how we already are. Singing the psalms, all the parts, will change us toward what God wants us to be.
2. Over-familiarity or casual familiarity with the psalms. Sometimes we are so casually familiar with certain psalms that we don’t think about their true meaning or all the applications to our hearts and minds. One solution, he said, is to juxtapose psalms with the sermon sometimes—not always singing the expected or familiar.
3. The psalms settings we sing. Sometimes the melody doesn’t fit the whole psalm. Witvliet suggested singing different parts to different tunes or finding tunes that can adapt to different moods.
4. The “untidy parts” of the psalter. Here, the challenge is how to sing imprecations, complaints, and despairing thoughts. “With a holy whisper,” was his reply. We must wrestle with God in humility. All the words in the psalter are profitable for us because they are God’s word, but this doesn’t mean that we sing them casually or with arrogance, especially those more difficult parts.
5. Resources. If you think there are not enough resources for psalm singing, Witvliet has compiled an encouraging stack in his book, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources. You will not be surprised to know that Crown & Covenant Publications is mentioned more than once.
If I am able, I will provide a link to the recorded audio of these talks when they go online.
Language is always changing. That is why etymology, the history of words, is so interesting. The word “nice,” for instance, didn’t mean something pleasant years ago; now it does. “Nice” came from the Latin nescius (ignorant). The adjective was not a kind thing to associate with someone’s name. “He is nice” meant “He is an idiot.” Ironically, the word, at a later time, came to mean “having refined taste”—rather the opposite. Nowadays, “nice” is so overused it almost creates a vacuum. The hearer is quick to import his or her own idea of what the author means: nice can be good or bad or willy-nilly.
Because language is always changing, my journalism professor was adamant about us having the current year’s dictionaries and style books. Usage and words, like it or not, evolve during our lifetimes. If we don’t recognize this, we may not communicate what we mean to communicate.
Take the pronouns “thee” and “thou,” for instance. In early modern English, these words were the singular and informal counterparts to “ye” and “you.” If you were talking to a close friend, you would use “thou,” but if you were talking to someone you didn’t know well or a group of people, you would use “ye.” Nowadays, we make up for the absence of “thee” and “ye” by saying “y’all” and “yinz guys.” If one reads Shakespeare, one realizes that “thee” and “thou” are used more among the drunkards and thieves, and “you” and “ye” are used more among the polite talkers, but even then the distinctions were eroding.
In the 1500s, Tyndale, used thou and ye to make the distinction between the plural and singular in the Hebrew and Greek; he didn’t take into consideration whether it was a formal or informal usage. As the usage became archaic in conversation, some Bible translations and religious orders like the Quakers kept the usage in the written word, but it lost its raison d’etre. Nobody was using “thou” to express familiarity or plurality, but more often to express the opposite: formality and respect. In the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which was published mid-20th century, “thou” is used only as a pronoun to address God and “you” was used everywhere else. What a reversal of the intended meaning!
When The Book of Psalms for Singing was put together in 1973, there was some understanding about the current misuse and misunderstanding of “thee” and “thou” and “ye.” The committee worked to introduce more versifications that used “you” to refer to God and man, singular and plural.
Now in 2009, we have the promise of a psalter that uses “you” consistently throughout. Surely, this clears the waters of intended meanings.
Another illustration of the need to change wording occurred when I was working on the Kids Sign Psalm DVD, which brouhg some exposure to the new versifications of the psalter. Most of the changes I saw were minor. In some places, I wondered why the text was changed. One was such spot was in Psalm 57:7. The old versification reads, “My heart is fixed…” The new is “My heart is firm.”
When I was singing it for practice, my then17-year-old who is a writer and poet with a knowledge of Latin and French, said, “Oh, wow, is that what that means?”
He had thought that it meant that his heart was “repaired,” because of the outdated use of “fixed.” Firm, then, better communicates the idea of “unmoved” to this 21st century audience.
Perhaps this is a reason to change our psalters as we change our dictionaries, at least more often than once in a few decades.
There are many valuable things about using the common and spoken language of the people to communicate God’s Word. The 2009 psalter, entitled The Book of Psalms for Worship, is promising in this regard.
While psalm singing isn’t new to many who read this blog, it is still a newly-rediscovered practice for many. There is a great blog entry on the reformation21 blog that covers the topic very well.
Head on over to read this great post, and you can pick up copies of the psalters mentioned in the post —two of which are published by Crown & Covenant —The Book of Psalms for Singing and the Trinity Psalter.
If you are looking for a good book on the topic of psalmody, we recommend Sing the Lord’s Song by John Keddie.
We just received boxes and boxes of our newly revamped Psalm Settings booklet. We updated this booklet four years ago to fix a number of musical and layout issues found in the original “green” booklet. However, there were still some things that were less-than-ideal, especially the size of the type.
In this new version, we have standardized the type-size making for a more readable and singable book. We have also fixed some of the lingering musical issues.
If you would like a copy, you can get one from our website.
You read that number correctly. Since its first printing in 1973, The Book of Psalms for Singing has been a blessed part of the worship of God’s people around the world.
After receiving our most recent shipment, we wondered how many copies of The Book of Psalms for Singing have been printed and sold over the past 35 years. Would you believe 100,000? Yes, a denomination with a membership of about 6,500 has produced 100,000 copies of its psalter. This number really shows how widespread the use of The Book of Psalms for Singing is in a variety of churches.
We hope you join with us in rejoicing at the spread of psalm-singing to God’s people everywhere!