Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Review: The Book of Psalms for Worship

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) has published a new Psalter, The Book of Psalms for Worship (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2009). Crown & Covenant was kind enough to seek my opinion of the new Psalter, and this review is a result of their inquiry, and encouragement to speak my mind fully and freely on the matter. In the interests of full disclosure, I was both a member and an officer (deacon) in the RPCNA for a number of years, and use both the 1973 RPCNA Psalter (The Book of Psalms for Singing) and the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter in our family worship.

The 2009 RPCNA Psalter has many practical reasons to commend its usage. It comes in both regular book-size format, as well as large-print (spiral-bound) and pocket (mini) sizes (this is true also of the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter published by the Trinitarian Bible Society), and in different colors. Selections from the new Psalter have been recorded and are available on CD and in MP3 format for download to aid in the singing of new Psalm settings. The Psalter itself is well-organized, containing indices of composers, tunes alphabetically and metrically arranged, topics and first lines from the Psalms, and an additional index referencing the usage of particular Psalms in the New Testament, all of which are handy resources. In addition, tables have been prepared identifying familiar hymn tunes used in the new Psalter as well as specifically comparing the differences between the 1973 and 2009 Psalters. "Understanding the Psalms in Christian Worship" and the historical perspective presented in "The Experience of Singing the Psalms" are commendable in the prefaces which precede the Psalms.

It is the substance of the work itself that gives this writer pause. The aim of the Psalter Revision Committee was to revise the 1973 Psalter by rendering it thoroughly in "modern English." This aim, to my mind, is questionable. While I am keenly aware of the challenges presented by singing some Psalm selections in an older Psalter -- the examples of "kyth'st" (Psalm 18.26) and "sith" (Psalms 16.8, 22.8, 50.17, 73.10, 86.3, 109.21, and 119.45) are often put forward in support of this argument for the need to modernize the language -- it must be remembered that just as "older is not always better," neither is newer always better. There is a great benefit to the church when the current generation is able to sing as their forefathers did, and changes ought not be made lightly to a book sung by the whole Church, which is indeed the very Word of God, and not a collection of uninspired hymns. Yet, though this version purposefully aims to eliminate "thee and thou" language entirely from its repertoire, going beyond the efforts of the 1973 edition this regard, in three cases (23B, 24B and 100A) the older "traditional" language is retained in the 2009 Psalter, and not thoroughly expunged. If it is virtuous to scrub from the Psalter all traditional ecclesiastical language, why retain some traditional selections at all? And if some traditional selections can be retained with profit to the church, why not more? What necessity compels this type of revision? Has our language really changed so much since 1973? Does referring to God as "Yahweh" truly reflect modern English speech better than "Jehovah" (Psalm 83.18)? If the effort to modernize the text of the Psalter is really as arbitrary as it appears, what does this say about the push to remove ecclesiastical language that has stood the test of time? The King James Version ("KJV") is still, according to the American Bible Society, "the most widely owned and used English translation in the USA." Traditional ecclesiastical language is, by the testimony of those both inside and outside the church, recognizable, understandable, usable, and sometimes ("ye" and "you") more faithful to the text of Scripture when it distinguishes between the plural and singular second person pronoun than our modern "you" which does not. When Psalm 82.6 uses both forms (KJV: "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most high"), Matthew Poole infers here that "ye" is directed towards the Jewish magistrates, but "all of you" encompasses "not only the rulers of Israel, but of all other nations." Such distinctions in the text of Scripture are obliterated by slavishly adhering to the modern preference for exclusively utilizing only the "you" form of the second person plural, as in "Gods you are, I have declared it, You are sons of Him Most High" (Psalm 82A, 2009 ed.). And for purposes of a versified Psalter, a great potential for rhyming is lost when traditional language is excised.

"Thou", "thee", "thy" and "thine" extend the range of rhyming and provide a contrast with "I", "me" and "mine" in a manner which "you" and "yours" fail to do. In the Penguin Rhyming Dictionary the word "you" has a mere page of words which rhyme with it. The word "your" throws up just 17 words, few of which can be used in the plural form: doer, brewer, sewer, ewer, skewer, skua, Dewar, viewer, wrongdoer, pursuer; reviewer, evildoer, tamandua (tree-living mammal), Porirua (New Zealand city), Potorua, revenuer (US revenue officer), interviewer. In other words there is virtually no word for a hymnist, writing in the language of devotion concerning the personal relationship of the worshiper with Almighty God, that rhymes with "yours". The word "thine" however, has a page and a half of words which rhyme - about 500 words. The word "thee" has virtually an innumerable number of words to rhyme with it, including most adverbs, all listed in many pages in the Rhyming Dictionary. What opportunities for creativity this gives to the Christian poet. (Geoff Thomas, "In Praise of 'Thee' and 'Thou,'" Christian Renewal, March 11, 2002, Vol. 20, No. 12)

Aside from the issue of ecclesiastical language, there are concerns about the tunes employed in the new Psalter. To acknowledge one notable step forward, the designated tune for Psalm 135A has been changed from the more challenging "How Good The Lord Is" to the more familiar "Austria." Meanwhile, the complex "Russia" from Psalm 119X remains in 119W, while the stirring "Russian Hymn" (originally "God Save the Tsar!", the national anthem of the Russian Empire), is now included (119K), though at the expense of the pleasant "Morning Star" (119K, 1973 ed.). As a personal matter, this writer is disappointed to see the tune "Irish" dropped from usage in this edition. Of greater concern, however, is the inclusion of at least nine Christmas carol tunes ("Noel" used in 21A and 89B; "Veni Emmanuel" in 22B and 42B; "Bunessan" in 23C; "Normandy Carol" in 29B; "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" in 47C; "Forest Green" in 66B; "Sussex Carol" in 84C; "Christmas" in 117A; and "Coventry Carol" in 119S). While it is to be acknowledged that tunes are adiaphora and familiarity can be a strength when adapting a tune from hymn usage to Psalm accompaniment, sometimes the associations of a tune can be detrimental because they are distracting, and in this case, the connections with Christmas caroling seem particularly problematic. New tunes are not objectionable because they are contemporary compositions, or included for the first time, and when a Psalter is revised, such are expected; but new tunes with theological baggage such as strong associations to a religious holiday that violates the regulative principle of worship for which the RPCNA stands, in this opinion of this writer, are not an improvement.

It is in the areas of translational and theological accuracy that my own concerns chiefly reside. The men who wrote the 1673 Puritan Preface to the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter (including John Owen, Matthew Poole, Thomas Watson, Thomas Manton and other luminaries and superb Hebrew scholars) were able to say:

But then ’tis meet that these divine composures should be represented to us in a fit translation, lest we want David, in David; while his holy ecstasies are delivered in a flat and bald expression. The translation which is now put into thy hands cometh nearest to the original of any that we have seen, and runneth with such a fluent sweetness, that we thought fit to recommend it to thy Christian acceptance; some of us having used it already, with great comfort and satisfaction.

Fidelity to the Hebrew text in an English versification ought to be the chief goal of a modern Psalter to which all other appropriate aims are subordinate. I have not yet seen a perfect English Psalter, but I am concerned that a Psalter revision be an improvement in the areas of faithfulness to the Biblical text and not a step backwards.

Specific examples of such backwards steps in the new Psalter include:
  • Messianic Psalms: The phrase "kiss the Son" (Ps. 2.12), which is such an important witness to the mediatorial kingship of Christ, a doctrine which is represented in the historic Covenanter blue banner ("For Christ's Crown & Covenant"), is replaced with the generic "Honor Him" (2B and 2C) and "be sincere in your devotion" (2D), both of which substantially weaken the Biblical proclamation here that it is the Son of God, Prince Messiah, who rules the kings and judges of the earth. To "kiss" (a token of subjection) "the Son" (that is, Christ) is a most notable and emphatic command directed to the kings and judges of the earth with respect to Him who is "Lord of lords, and King of kings" (Rev. 17.14), that it's dilution with such banal expressions can only serve to weaken what is otherwise a strong statement of the kingship (government) and the Sonship (person) of Christ. The phrase "this day have I begotten thee" (Ps. 2.7), an important witness to the eternal Sonship of Christ, is replaced with "I have brought You forth this day" (2B and 2C). In Psalm 8 the phrase "For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour" (v. 5), rendered "For Thou a little lower hast Him than the angels made; A crown of glory and renown Hast placed upon his head" (8A, 1973 ed.) and "Next to God You have made man, With light and honor crowned" (8B, 1973 ed.), is translated thus in the new Psalter: "Yet You created him to be Just less than one divine; You gave him honor as a crown, And made his glory shine" (8A). This new rendering, so far from being an improvement, sounds positively Arian on the surface of it. Hebrews 2, however, explicitly cites this passage in affirming the Sonship of Christ. In light of the fact that the New King James Version (NKJV) style of capitalization is employed in this Psalter, the lower case "him" is conspicuous in its failure to acknowledge the "him" and "his" in question to be Christ (even the phrase "son of man" in v. 4 is not capitalized), and clearly diminishes his divinity, and thus the Messianic import of this Psalm. Why should these sorts of downgrades in both translational and theological accuracy be made when the aim of the revision is to improve upon that which went before?
  • The insertion of uninspired words in Psalms: In Psalms 24B, 150C and 150D Hallelujah choruses are added which are not in the original text. There is no justification for this from a Psalter produced by a church which adheres to exclusive psalmody, not even when the people added to Psalm 118 during the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. Adding uninspired words to the text, no matter how well-intentioned, and singing them to God in worship is quite simply a violation of the regulative principle of worship which the RPCNA is committed to upholding both in word and in practice.
  • Refrains: Psalms 19C and 47C use refrains in a way that Scripture does not. The rearranging of verses out of order for purposes of creating a refrain go far beyond the simple versification of a metrical Psalm into the realm of re-writing. Opponents of exclusive psalmody often argue that a versified Psalm is no longer in fact the inspired Word of God. This writer does not agree if it can be shown that fidelity to the original text underlies the versification, but when a Psalm is re-written so significantly as to skip over a verse and consign it to the refrain of each stanza, or take two verses and turn them into a refrain that gets repeated after earlier verses but out of order, then this gives merit to the argument that it is in fact a human composition based on a Biblical text rather than a faithful rendering of a versified Psalm. Oddly, in Psalm 136B, a proper (Biblical) refrain, verse 7b ("for his mercy endureth forever" in the KJV or "His love endures forever" in The Book of Psalms for Worship), is omitted, and this happens again in Psalm 136C when verses 17 and 18 are compressed together, with one legitimate refrain employed instead of two as used by the text (see below).
  • Intermingling, compression and omission of verses: Psalms 6B (vv. 1-2), 8A and 8C (vv. 7-8), 22C (vv. 14-15), 44A (vv. 7-8), 105B (vv. 11-12), 136A (vv. 11-12), 136B (v. 7) and 136C (vv. 17-18) intermingle or compress, sometimes to the point of omission, Bible verses. Switching back and forth between a pair of verses to achieve versification or, especially, compressing verses to the point of omission is treading on dangerous ground, in this writer's opinion. This makes at the very least for a reductionistic and short-circuited translation effort.
  • Translation choices: Psalm 23D (2009 ed.) takes the familiar phrase "Yea, though I walk in death's dark vale" (Psalm 23A, 1973 ed.) and renders it "Though I walk the valley where death hides the light." Psalm 77.18a (rendered "The voice of thy thunder was in the heaven:" in the KJV and "Amid the whirlwinds of the sky Thy voice in thunder pealed" in Psalm 77C, 1973 ed.) is now rendered "Across the sky tornadoes roared" (Psalm 77B, 2009 ed.). These are two instances of translation renderings that leave this writer scratching his head.
This not meant to be an exhaustive list of flaws, but an illustration of the types of concerns shared by this writer and others about the new Psalter. Though I love the 1650 Psalter, I am not opposed to using other editions, as my own family practice evidences (though my stated concerns about the 2009 Psalter do have some application to the 1973 Psalter, it seems to me that the newer edition goes beyond earlier flaws). And I have striven to look for the good as well as the bad in this new edition. But from the larger perspective of what is good for the church, I fear that the tendency of the RPCNA to issue new editions of the Psalter every generation or so by the use of ever-more modern versions (the RPCNA used the 1650 Psalter until the end of the 19th century, and since then new versions have been published in 1889, 1912, 1929, 1950, 1973 and 2009), rather than strengthening the witness to exclusive psalmody, is in fact undermining this goal, and diluting the power of God's Word in the life and witness of the church. While Psalters can be improved, the concept of "generational Psalters" -- that is, that each generation ought to have its own particular edition of the Psalter -- seems to only promote the fracturing of the church by pitting one generation's form of worship against the preceding and the following generations. Fidelity in the translation of the Psalms has been sacrificed for the sake of modernity, and to what end? The improvements in the new edition -- and there are some -- are outweighed by its deficiencies, some of which are merely tacky translation renderings or distracting melodies and some of which actually tread on very dangerous theological ground. I wish that I could recommend this Psalter, and but for the love of Christ's church, and the good of the RPCNA which has a special place in my heart, and with humility, I can only do so if it is used with discernment.

I wish to express appreciation to both Rev. Adam King (RPCNA) and Sean McDonald for their invaluable assistance in providing information and insights as I took up this review. I also wish to add that I remain a great fan of Crown & Covenant Publications and am thankful for their many labors to promote the singing of Psalms, and for their encouragement to review this Psalter and speak my mind freely.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free from the publisher in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

7 comments:

  1. I am not sure i agree with everything that you said, but when it comes to the tunes, courses, refrains, and intermingling of verses'.

    You made one statement that I fell the need to set the record straight on.
    "The complex "Russia" in Psalm 119X was dropped altogether, which is probably a good thing,"
    They did not remove the tune "Russia" it is no with the Psalm 119W they removed the alternate tune for thous verses.

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  2. Thank you for your comment, Nathan, and for this factual correction. I have changed my statement accordingly. Blessings!

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  3. Andrew,

    Thanks for an insightful review of the new RPCNA psalter. Great points to ponder. Although I appreciate the RPCNA, your observations give me pause to be thankful for the 1650.

    I have posted a link to your review at www.exclusivepsalmody.com

    Mark Koller

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  4. It is worth noting that some of the concerns expressed here have also been expressed within the RPCNA, and Synod has formally approved revisions to some selections.

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  5. 119X is definitely a favorite at our church. It gets requested frequently at our weekly Psalm sing.

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  6. To springboard on anonymous above, the RPCNA Synod has approved some revisions for the 5th ed addressing some of the shortcomings above. For example Psalm selections 19C, 47C, 150C and 150D have been removed from the 5th ed. As have the Hallelujahs and Amens from 24B.

    See - http://www.crownandcovenant.com/v/vspfiles/assets/images/bopfwchanges5thednew.pdf

    This is just a good BEGINNING in my opinion. It's a good example of how these sorts of revisions have to have a methodology and process to go with them or they can get out of hand.

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  7. The Book of Psalms for Singing is far superior to the new Book of Psalms for Worship.

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