The word “faithful” functions significantly in the guidelines. And so it should! “Faithful” is one of the Names of our Lord Jesus Christ (Revelation 11:19). He is called “the faithful Witness” (Revelation 1:5). The bride of Christ is called to be faithful (Revelation 2:10). The ninth commandment commands us to speak faithfully. We must also sing faithfully. The third guideline speaks about this. It reads:
When Psalms or other portions of scripture are set to music, the words must be faithful to the content and form of the inspired text.
The next guideline will address songs that are not versification of scripture – they too must of course, be faithful to the teaching of scripture. But this guideline deals specifically with songs that are paraphrases of scripture – Psalms or other portions – set to music.
Setting scripture passages to music is a great challenge. In our tradition, we do not chant texts of scripture; rather, we sing songs based on Scripture. What are characteristics of song? A song has an identifiable melody in a specific mode or key. It usually has several stanzas and a pattern for rhyming the words. It has rhythm. Other guidelines will speak about the music. Mere we are speaking about the words. As the songwriter sets the words of scripture to music applying the restrictions of metre, melody, rhythm and rhyme, he must all-the-while ensure that he is faithful to the text.
The songwriter's material is the inspired word of God. The lyrics do not flow forth from his emotions, experiences, or personal thoughts about what is true and good. Just like a preacher must handle faithfully the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), so must the songwriter.
It is a great responsibility to put a part of scripture to music. Once a song is in the church's songbook, it will be sung. The message of the song will be imprinted on the minds of those singing. If a song, in order to satisfy the restrictions of stanza, rhyme or metre, introduces elements that are foreign to the passage on which it claims to be based, those who sing it will think those elements belong to the word of God.
In this guideline we say that the words must be faithful to both the content and the form of scripture. To be faithful to the content of the text, the songwriter needs to have a good grasp of scripture. He needs to be a believer who can do some exegesis and who understands the teachings of the Bible. It is nearly impossible to make a song suitable for congregational singing that follows the text of the Bible word for word. The songwriter will need to fill out the text a bit here and there because of the restrictions implicit in song writing. Because this cannot be avoided, the songwriter needs to have a good hold on the teachings of scripture. The guideline also says that the songs need to be faithful to the form of the inspired text. The songwriter will need to pay attention to the length of the sentences, the specific words used, and the grammar of the text.
The Trinity Psalter has, in a very interesting way, sought to be faithful to the form, of the text by placing the actual verse numbers of scripture in the margin rather than numbers for the stanzas. The minister would, then, call for verses to be sung rather than stanzas. Something to think about!
In considering both content and form of the text, the song-writer will need to pay attention to the genre. For example, if the song is a lament, the music will need to reflect that. Similarly, if a joyful piece of scripture is set to music, the music must soar. Imagine “Rejoice, the Lord is King” set to the tune of Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord, wilt Thou Forget Me?” (see No. 18, Psalter Hymnal). Or vice-versa. The songwriter needs to choose an appropriate melody, key, metre, rhythm, and rhyme to suit the specific text.
One of the questions the Joint Songbook Committee is always asking as it selects songs for the future common songbook is: “Is this song faithful to the text of scripture?”