Psalter Revision: Governing Principles (1) Format

Previous article in this series: November 15, 2016, p. 87.

With this article I begin to explain the principles that the interdenominational Psalter Revision Committee is using to evaluate the musical selections in our Psalter, and on the basis of which it decides whether to recommend changes. The committee reported these principles to the respective synods, and each synod expressly approved them.1

The Importance of These Governing Principles

My purpose in this and following articles is to demonstrate that the revision committee is consciously asking the right questions and striving to find good answers. Evaluating music and poetry is inherently subjective; one likes this better, and another likes that. It follows that deciding whether any tune or set of lyrics should be revised is also at least partly subjective. I will not pretend that the nine men on the interdenominational committee do not come to the table with nine different minds and wills.

However, the minds and wills of these nine are not the ultimate explanation for the proposed revisions. The nine are focusing and directing their minds and wills to ask good questions, and to find good answers. The objective standard on the basis of which nine different men approach our work is set forth in these governing principles.

I hope every reader can appreciate this. Why can the members of our denominations be confident that the proposed revision will improve our Psalter in certain areas? Because the committee is being governed by certain principles, and because our respective synods have approved or adopted these principles.

So what are these principles? And how is the committee actually being governed by them? I will explain the principles, and give examples of how the committee is applying them in particular instances. Our “particular instance” at present is Psalter 203.

Three Categories of Principles

These principles fall into three categories: text, music, and format. By “format” we mean the appearance, presentation, or layout of the songs and music in the book.

The committee placed “format” last in the list, recognizing that it is the least weighty of the three. Scripture itself regulates the text of our songbook—we sing the Psalms, and certain other Scripture passages that are appropriate for song. So important is this point, that Reformed churches have expressed it in our Church Order, Article 69. The music of our songbook is not regulated as closely by Scripture (there are no inspired tunes), but this principle of worship is still relevant: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:40). The music of our songbook must be conducive to orderly, God-glorifying worship. But to the format of a songbook, neither Scripture nor any principle of worship speaks explicitly or implicitly.

Why begin with format, the least weighty of the three? First, because this matter can be treated rather briefly, in the rest of this article. Second, because a concern that some raise is: “What will the revision look like? Psalter #203 will still be Psalter #203, will it not? If not, how will we know how to find our beloved ‘In Sweet Communion’?”

The interdenominational Psalter revision committee informed the Synods of the FRCNA, HRC, and PRCA that it would consider six matters regarding format. I quote:

1) The Psalters must be numbered in such a way that the selection is determined by the Psalm number; have 1A and 1B for Psalm 1; 10A, 10B, 10C for Psalm 10, etc.

2) The Genevan Psalms are to be placed under the appropriate Psalm.

3) Each Psalter should have its own page when possible.

4) Unhelpful musical notations and editorial comments should be eliminated.

5) Tune and authorial information should be placed on the page.

6) Biblical Psalm titles could be adapted for inclusion.2

The third point speaks for itself. I’ll comment on the other five.

The First Two: Organized according to Psalms

The committee desires that the revised Psalter be familiar. It also desires that we know which portion of God’s Word we are singing in any given song. In our singing, God’s people must show that the word of Christ dwells in us richly (Col. 3:16). Let me repeat, to underscore, what it is that must dwell in us richly and be manifest in our singing: not first of all a favorite tune, nor familiar words set to English poetry, but the word of our Savior to us.

The Psalter’s current format helps us do this by identifying the psalm on which the Psalter number is based. For example, under Psalter 203 we find the words “Psalm 73.”

The proposed format of the revision will make this connection between psalm and song even more explicit by directly identifying the selection with the psalm on which it is based. Psalter 201 will become Psalm 73A, Psalter 202 will become Psalm 73B, and Psalter 203 will become Psalm 73C. We will grow not only in knowing our Psalter, but also in knowing God’s Psalms.

Another result of numbering our Psalter this way will be that all of the selections from any one psalm will be grouped together. On this point, our current Psalter could use improvement. Glancing through our current Psalter, you notice that to find all of the selections from a particular psalm, you must look in several different places—three places, if you use the PRCA Psalter (which ends with 434), and four, if you use the FRCNA and HRC version (which ends with 450). Numbers 1-413 cover the 150 Psalms in order. Next, numbers 414-430 are based on 17 different psalms. Then comes 431 (Psalm 81) and 432 (Psalm 99). Then, in the version of the Psalter used by the FRCNA and HRC, you find a selection from Psalm 134, then 12 more selections based on as many psalms. Interspersed in these are the Lord’s Prayer (433, 434), the Ten Commandments (435), a version of the Song of Zacharias (448) and a version of the Song of Simeon (450).

God providentially governed the compilation of the 150 Psalms so that they appeared in the order in which we find them in Scripture. It is reasonable to organize our Psalter in the same order, grouping all the selections from one psalm together in one place.

Back to the concern: how will you know how to find what we now know as Psalter 203? In one of several ways. First, when you know that Psalter 203 is based on Psalm 73, you simply turn to the selections from Psalm 73. They are all in one place. Second, the committee proposes a number be placed in the lower right hand corner of each page, corresponding to the current Psalter number (in this case, look for “203”).3 Finally, an index will be included so that at a glance one can know where to find the old “203.”

The Fourth: Fewer Musical Notations

The committee is reviewing every Psalter number with the goal of having fewer musical notations and editorial comments in the Psalter. These include instructions on how to sing the song, like “slowly” (Psalter 216), “rit[ard]” (Psalter 202, 220), and “organ, voices in unison, voices in harmony” (Psalter 219, 226). This also includes fermatas—those marks over a note that tell us to lengthen the note by some undetermined length, such as you find twice in Psalter 202, once in the main part of the song and once in the chorus.

Most of these will be removed. Our accompanists can study the music and words to determine how to play the music in a way appropriate for their own congregation.

A few fermatas might still be found in the revision, in cases in which the committee agrees they are necessary. It is very likely that the fermata in the chorus (but not in the main section) of 202 would remain.

The Last Two: More Helpful Information

The last two matters regard what information, in addition to the music and lyrics, is found on the page.

Copyright notices will not usually be necessary. They were necessary in 1912 when our Psalter was first made, but now the music of our Psalter is in the public domain. When we include tunes or selections not currently found in our Psalter, we will provide notice of copyright when necessary, as required by law.

Above the music and lyrics of every Psalter number, but below the number and title, one finds the meter of the tune, the name of the tune, and the author of the tune. These will still appear, but will be moved to the lower left hand corner of the page, in this order: author name, tune name, meter.

Currently, below Psalter 203 one finds the words “[Selected Stanzas].” Possibly these words refer to a previous versification of the psalm, but that is not certain. In the revision, we propose informing the singer which verses of the psalm are covered; so under “73C” you find “vv. 23-28.” Also, the small subscripted numbers at the beginning of various lines will indicate that the Psalter lyrics correspond with that particular verse.

The committee began to implement the sixth matter mentioned above, “Biblical Psalm titles could be adapted for inclusion.” The current song titles are general; they do not clearly capture the essence of the Psalter, in distinction from other Psalter numbers. For example, Psalter 203 speaks of “Life With God.” But that title could be used also for Psalter 204 (also from Psalm 73), or even for a selection from Psalters 31 or 32. Our initial plan was to replace the current titles with the title of the Psalm. In the case of Psalm 73, that would be “A Psalm of Asaph.” But then Psalters 73A, B, C, and D (201-204) would have the same title. And does knowing that Asaph wrote the Psalm help us understand the song as we sing it? Perhaps one could argue that there is some benefit to that. But then one comes to Psalm 75, the heading of which is: “To the chief musician. Al-taschith. A Psalm or Song of Asaph.” Does all that help? And if “Al-taschith” is correctly translated to mean, “to the tune of ‘Do Not Destroy,’” is that any more helpful?

In the end, the committee decided to use the first words of the song as the heading for that song. For Psalter 203, that would be “In Sweet Communion.” Do not our children often refer to the Psalters by the first words anyway? One of my children once asked to sing the “Hallelujah” number. We had to ask if he meant 409 or 413, but at least we narrowed it down quickly to those two.

If in the matter of format, a matter less weighty than those of text and music, the committee is being governed by principles, the reader may be sure that in the weightier matters the same is true. God willing, I will address the principles regarding text in the next article.


1 Although this article was written primarily for the Standard Bearer, it is being shared with the Free Reformed Churches in North America and the Heritage Reformed Congregations for use as they see fit. Because of this, I quote the relevant decision of each denomination’s synod. The 2016 Synod of the FRCNA decided: “1. To adopt the principles for revision that have been developed by the committee and outlined in the report” (Article 32). The Synod of the HRC “granted...approval of the principles as laid out in the report” (Article XI.4, motion 160607-12). The PRCA Synod’s approval of these guidelines is implied in its instruction to its committee to continue participating in this project. Synod’s third ground for taking this decision was “Acceptable guidelines presented to Synod 2015; the principles presented in the Psalter Revision Committee report [italics mine, DJK]; and the committee’s preliminary report” (Article 49 B. 3, ground c).

2 Report of the Interdenominational Psalter Revision Committee, point 4. c., found on page 169 of the PRCA Acts of Synod 2016.

3 Whether this will always be in the lower right hand corner, or whether it will alternate from left to right, so that it is always on the outside corner, the committee has not yet determined.