The Foundational Role of the Psalms
Before hiring an architect to design a new home, one usually begins with a list of "must have's" for the new structure. The father of the family might say, "I must have a larger garage, with more room to store my tools and yard equipment." Others "must have" more kitchen counter top space and larger closets.
Our Songbook Committee developed a "must have" list for the kinds of songs the Church needs to sing. And as a top item on this priority list, we agreed we must have songs which are based upon the Psalms. So, the second guideline for our song selection:
The Book of Psalms is foundational for the Church's songs. Therefore, all of these Psalms, in their entirety, ought to be included in the Church's songbook.
The 150 Psalms are God's own "songbook." God Himself has directly revealed to us the kinds of songs He enjoys, the types of songs that give Him glory. The ancient Israelites worshipped God by singing psalms, among other elements in their worship. New Testament congregations are commanded to sing "with psalms" (Colossians 3:16). And, of all the music potentially available to them, what do we find the saints in heaven singing? A psalm-like composition, the Song of Moses (Revelation 15, Exodus 15)! From the ancient Church in Israel to the glorified Church in heaven, believers have always sung psalms.
No wonder the Westminster Directory of Public Worship, approved in England in 1645, states, "it is the duty of Christians to praise God publicly, by the singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family." Likewise, the current Church Order of the URC (art. 39) states: "The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches...." And a similar article in the Canadian Reformed Church Order (art. 55) also mandates the singing of psalms in worship.
With this as our biblical and historical background, it is not surprising that the current songbooks used in our federations give a numerical predominance to the psalms. The Psalter Hymnal has 310 psalm-songs in it, followed by 183 hymns. The Book of Praise contains 150 psalm-songs and 65 hymns. Our committee hopes to keep a similar predominance of psalms over hymns in the new songbook.
And not only in a numerical sense. The biblical psalms are "foundational" in the sense that the wording of the psalms, the themes in the psalms, the different genres (literary types) of psalms, etc. give rise to the criteria by which we are evaluating potential hymns. The biblical psalms are the "gold standard" by which all other church music is judged.
Our second guideline states that psalms "in their entirety" must be included in the new songbook. At least one version of each of the 150 biblical psalms will be included in the new songbook.
So many contemporary choruses take a snippet of a psalm and never go on to finish the psalm. Sometimes one "snippet" misrepresents the psalm as a whole. For example, "Thy Word" was a popular chorus from some years ago. It's a rendition of Psalm 119:105: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path." This verse is accurately quoted in the refrain. But the song writers include the following in their stanzas: "when I feel afraid, think I've lost my way, still you're there right beside me;" "Jesus be my guide, and hold me to Your side." When you read Palm 119:105 in its original setting, God's Word is said to be a norm for right living. The psalmist declares that he will obey God's Word. The psalmist does not speak in that context about "feeling afraid" or about having Jesus as "my guide." So, this "snippet" misrepresents the psalm as a whole.
Our joint committee purposely set the psalm section of the new songbook to one side, and began working first on the hymn section. We all realize that we have some differences in our traditions of psalm-singing. Rather than starting with those differences, we began our work with the hymns, where we find general consensus.
But the 150 psalms are always in the back of our minds. These psalms are God's inspired songs. The lyrics of these songs in their original form are without any fault or defect. Thus, these psalms shape our evaluation of each hymn we consider for possible inclusion in the new songbook.