On Reworking the Psalms for Modern Worship

Why? Because the scriptures say we should sing and make melody in our hearts with PSALMS and hymns and spiritual songs. We’ve got the hymns and spiritual songs thing down pat. But how often do churches sing psalms?

My church decided to change this in our worship services. But we hit a snag. By and large, the only psalms prepared for singing are from books like the Scottish Psalter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they were great…in Scotland…200 years ago. But today they read like the writing of inept desperados masquerading as poets. The average line in these renditions reads something like this:

                                Unto Thy word, O Lord, hath now in truth my heart inclined

                                        And of Thy mercies marvelous I daily me remind.

Now this is not bad–if you are Yoda. In any other situation, it is atrocious. There are times I have to stop singing from the Scottish Psalter in church because I am trying not to laugh. The lyrics are that bad. [1]

It shouldn’t be like this, of course. The psalms are the greatest poetry in the history of poetry. Even in English they are brilliant. Any faults with the Scottish Psalter then rest squarely at the feet of the people who pulled apart the psalms and torturously re-wrote them with their own four hands. By the time these renditions manage to rhyme all the lines, their finished products only vaguely resemble the original psalm.

And then there are the tunes. They meander monotonously around the same section of the keyboard, only moving on when it becomes clear that by lingering they might contribute to a discernible melody. I suspect such spastic note splattering can only be considered music in a very technical sense.

What then is the solution? To write new settings for these psalms. That is more easily said than done. Here, you see, is where my own snarkiness comes back around to bite me.  If we are trying to actually sing the psalms themselves, our song text should resemble the original psalm as closely as possible. But you cannot get too close or it won’t be sing-able. (Try singing Psalm 100 to any hymn tune you know. That’s the problem).

I have come up with three main guidelines to follow when writing psalm-texts. There are probably more, and probably better ones, than I have here. This is not exhaustive.

  • Originality is not the goal. This is not the place for writing my own hymn based on the text. While there is nothing wrong with that at all (“Oh Worship the King”), it is not the same as really singing the psalm itself. Surely Paul instructs us to sing psalms because no other writings so fully capture sound theology and true worship. The further we get from singing the actual psalm, the more of the psalm’s unique benefits we lose.
  • Rhyming is not supreme. The psalms do not rhyme. Hebrew poetry tends to rhyme thoughts rather than words, using parallelism and repetition. Needless to say, it is beyond difficult to squish a psalm written in this style into English hymnody without leaving something out. The only conclusion I can see? Rhyming is not of primary importance. This is not to say our renditions of the psalms can never rhyme. Only that they should not rhyme to the exclusion of mirroring the psalm. We should drop good rhyme sooner than good verses.
  • Accurate paraphrasing is acceptable. I feel a little uncomfortable about this one. Once you allow paraphrasing, you could hypothetically paraphrase away the whole psalm. But considering the length of some of the psalms and all the material they contain, it would be very difficult to ever write a perfect rendition. They were, after all, inspired. When setting a psalm, we are going to have to skip words. We may have to re-word certain phrases. But these re-workings should be done only when absolutely necessary and only when accurately holding to the tone, message, and general language choice of the psalm.

When it comes to tunes, I have less to offer. I propose only that music which accompanies the most perfect poetry in the world should be appropriately attractive. It should be attractive in composition and attractive in variety.

  • Attractive in Composition. This is a prime opportunity for the musically gifted in the Church to create new and endearing tunes that match the subject matter. The tunes should be beautiful, sing-able, and text appropriate. [2] Barring a brand new tune, the psalm is best served by attaching an appropriate hymn tune.
  • Attractive in Variety. One noteworthy feature of the Scottish Psalter tunes is that they all sound pretty much identical. But the palms do not say the same old thing again and again. Some are sweeping anthems of praise. Some are pleas for help. Some psalms pray God’s wrath on the wicked. Others express overwhelming sorrow for sin. All these different moods and many more should be conveyed, not by the text alone, but by the tune.

[1] Again, I am giving the benefit of the doubt to the original Scottish Psalter. After all, it’s not the Scots’ fault that native American-English speakers decided to translate the Scottish translations of the psalms using only pen, paper, and a boggle board.

[2] The sing-able thing is what most of our modern Christmas carols have forgotten. The average Christmas carol starts nearly an octave above middle G and proceeds to climb Jacob’s ladder from there. To be sure, this is very beautiful when sung by a choir (or by anyone who can sing reasonably well), but it is sure to produce frustration in the rest of the  plebeians (that’s me. I’m a plebeian).

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