Psalter revision: Proposed lyrical changes

Previous article in this series: February 1, 2018, p. 195.

I have explained the principles that the synods of the HRC, FRC, and PRC have adopted to guide the interdenominational Psalter revision committee in proposing changes to our Psalter. The committee’s proposed changes to Psalms 73-89 have been distributed. But what is yet to come? How does the committee envision applying these principles to the rest of the Psalter? I will introduce you to some of the changes being proposed to the versifications of Psalms 1-40 (Psalter numbers 1-112). These proposed changes fall into three categories: changes to existing lyrics, changes by adding new lyrics to existing songs, and changes by adding entirely new songs. In common, these changes improve the faithfulness of our Psalter to the Scriptures.

Archaic verb forms

Before I get to the main point of this article, an aside regarding archaic verb forms. In the proposed changes to Psalms 73-89, a number of archaic verb forms were modernized in places where the pronoun subject was not modernized; for example, “Thou didst” became “Thou did,” “Thou shalt” became “Thou shall,” and “Thou wilt” became “Thou will.” At its meeting in February 2018, the committee evaluated input from various people regarding these changes, and recognized that if the pronoun subject form is archaic, the verb form must also be archaic. To restate, either the pronoun subject and the verb must both be modernized (“You did”), or neither may be modernized (“Thou didst”). The committee has already gone on record as saying that the pronouns “Thee/Thou/Thy” will not be modernized when they are used in reference to God. So the archaic verb forms will be restored in those instances in which they were changed.

Changes to existing lyrics

Some of these proposed changes in Psalms 1-72 (Psalters 1-200) involve changing only a few words of existing lyrics to make them more faithful to Scripture. In my first article on the principles regarding text (March 15, 2017), I pointed out one such change being proposed to Psalter 43:5. Currently, that stanza reads, “How vain their ev’ry confidence Who on mere human help rely; But we remember for defense The Name of God, the Lord Most High.” Psalm 20:7 reads, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.” The committee proposes to change the first part of Psalter 43:5 so that we sing: “In chariots some have confidence, On horses others will rely....” If this proposed change is adopted, we will sing the more vivid language of the Psalm itself, language that will reinforce in our minds the figures and types of the Old Testament.

Take Psalter 91:3 as another example:

Afflictions on the good must fall,

But God will bring them safe through all;

From harmful stroke He will defend,

And sure and full deliv’rance send.

This stanza versifies Psalm 34:19-20, which reads: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all. He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken.” Do you recognize that “harmful stroke” is a vague and general versification of Psalm 34:20? The committee recommends changing those words to “broken bones”—a more specific, vivid, and accurate versification. This change also underscores the Messianic character of Psalm 34:20 (fulfilled in Jesus’ death on the cross, John 19:36), which our Psalter currently fails to do. The stanza will then be:

Afflictions on the good must fall,

But God will bring them safe through all;

From broken bones He will defend,

And sure and full deliv’rance send.

These changes can be made easily within existing lyrics, because they involve a change of words or phrases. Other changes involve adding new lyrics to existing songs.

Adding new lyrics to existing songs

The committee is proposing that, when possible, the first musical selection of a Psalm be a versification of that entire Psalm. This has been the reason why at times we have proposed combining two Psalter numbers into one song—for example, 225 and 226, and 37 and 38. Other times we are proposing to accomplish this by adding additional lyrics to a current versification of Scripture. Almost always these additional lyrics are being borrowed from other songbooks; in other words, the committee is not making the new lyrics.

Psalter 71 is a case in point. The lyrics of Psalters 71 and 72 treat Psalm 27 fully. We propose to keep both of those Psalters as selections 27A and 27B. But desiring that 27A (Psalter 71) be a full versification of Psalm 27, we are proposing to add lyrics found in the URC/OPC Psalter (with permission from these churches, and following appropriate copyright laws). These lyrics, which would become stanzas 6-10, are:

6. O hear me when I cry, And answer me in grace! Thou, LORD, to me hast said “Inquire and seek my face.” My heart in glad response will speak “Thy face, O LORD, my heart will seek.”

7. Hide not Thy face from me, Thy servant, LORD, I pray; Since Thou hast been my help, O turn me not away! In anger, do not cast me off. My Savior, God, forsake me not!

8. Though father may forsake, The LORD will take me in. Though mother may betray, The LORD will be my friend. LORD, teach Thy way and make me go In level paths against my foe.

9. Do not surrender me To plotting of my foes; False witnesses arise Who lies and slander pose Against my life, they cause offense, They breath out hate and violence.

10. If I had not believed That I would surely see The goodness of the LORD With those that living be. O, wait for GOD! Be strong in faith. Be bold of heart; the LORD await.

Psalter 75

Another instance is Psalter 75. Bear in mind that Psalter 75 is the only versification of Psalm 28 in our Psalter, so it ought to be an accurate versification. To present the matter better, I will put Psalm 28:1-5 and Psalter 75, stanzas 1-3 next to each other. You can see that Psalter #75:1, 2 accurately reflects verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 28:

Psalm 28

1. Unto thee will I cry, O Lord my rock; be not silent to me: lest, if thou be silent to me, I become like them that go down into the pit.

2. Hear the voice of my supplications, when I cry unto thee, when I lift up my hands toward thy holy oracle.

3. Draw me not away with the wicked, and with the workers of iniquity, which speak peace to their neighbors, but mischief is in their hearts.

4. Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavors: give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert.

5. Because they regard not the works of the Lord, nor the operation of his hands, he shall destroy them, and not build them up.

Psalter 75

1. O Lord, to Thee I cry; Thou art my rock and trust; O be not silent, lest I die And slumber in the dust.

2. O hear me when in prayer Thy favor I entreat; Hear, while I lift imploring hands Before Thy mercy seat.

3. O let me have no part With those that hate the right; For as their works, so their reward: Jehovah will requite.

Do you see that Psalter 75:3 does not fully versify Psalm 28:3-5? The committee proposes to replace the third stanza in our Psalter with three stanzas that are found in the 1959 edition of the Christian Reformed Psalter Hymnal. Those three stanzas read:

O draw me not away With those of evil will; With them who speak of peace indeed, But still are plotting ill.

Requite them for their wrong, Their evil deeds, O Lord; O give them then their just desert, And to their deeds reward.

Thy deeds they disregard, Thy handiwork despise; And therefore thou wilt cast them down And never let them rise.

Although this versification is more complete, does it matter? Our current Psalter 75 does not contain an extended prayer for God’s judgment on the wicked, but the essence of the prayer is found in the third stanza. Is it so important that we implore God at length for judgment?

The answer to that question depends on the answer to this: is our goal in singing from our Psalter primarily that we sing words and tunes that we like? Or is it that we sing the Word of God, and learn to pray with Old Testament Israel for God’s judgment on her and His enemies? By including these imprecatory sections, the Holy Spirit was teaching Israel to do the latter; we ought to do the same. Especially as we observe apostasy and lawlessness in the world and false church, the true church must sing—and must desire to sing—of her longing for judgment, and of her comfort in hearing that judgment will come.

Not all are eager to see the Psalter revised. But all ought to recognize this fundamental weakness of the versifications of our 1912 Psalter, and be dissatisfied with our Psalter at least in this respect: time and again, it weakens or silences the imprecatory (divine judgment) language of the Psalms.

Next time I intend to introduce the three new selections being proposed for Psalms 1-40.