Once Again: How to Sing Psalms
It was with great interest that I read Dr. Dedden's article “Liturgy as Covenant Service.” I was particularly pleased to note that the author recommended that Psalms be sung in their entirety, if possible. This comes as a breath of fresh air. All too often, one finds that congregational singing of Psalms is restricted to selected stanzas only. Sometimes an artificial determinant is used to decide which stanzas are to be sung: odd- or even-numbered stanzas only, first and last, etc. Naturally, this does not do justice to the text.
Singing Psalms in their entirety would certainly ensure that we do not violate the literary unit, but it seems to me that this ideal will rarely be realised. When we consider Psalm 117, there should be no problem, neither should Psalm 1 present any difficulties. Singing four or more stanzas, however, will meet with some resistance, and as will easily be ascertained, our Book of Praise contains a considerable number of Psalms which have more than four stanzas.
In singing Psalms, I suggest that we consider the literary unit. This means that, if a Psalm is too long to be sung in its entirety, we should sing the required number of consecutive stanzas that will form one completed thought. This concept is very clearly illustrated if we were to sing Hymn 1B: to sing stanza 1 only would be absurd, since the Creed does not end there. The literary unity indicates that all stanzas of this hymn should be sung.
Something similar can be observed in the Psalms. For example, to sing stanzas one and two of Psalm 119 would not do justice to the literary context. Comparing the rhymed version in the Book of Praise with the Bible, we see that stanzas 1, 2, and 3 belong together. In fact, the verses 1 through 8 in the Bible comprise the segment under the Hebrew letter Aleph (as is well-known, Psalm 119 is divided into 22 sections, representing the entire Hebrew alphabet).
Singing in this manner, i.e., recognizing the literary unit, is nothing new. Some of us still remember how Dutch Psalters frequently placed the word “Pauze” between the stanzas of lengthy Psalms. It is regrettable that this practice is no longer current, for it would facilitate the recognition of groups of stanzas that express one completed thought.
Of course, one will ask: will this manner of Psalm singing take up too much time in the worship service – time which should be appropriated to the sermon? In order to address this question we will have to assess the need or importance of congregational singing. We need to consider how congregational singing fits into the four main elements of our worship service:
- to hear the Word of God,
- to use the sacraments,
- to call publicly upon the LORD,
- to give Christian offerings to the poor.
If it belongs to one of these elements, congregational singing certainly deserves more importance in our worship services than it receives presently.
The Word of God
The Calvinistic tradition of placing strong emphasis on Psalms differentiates us in an important aspect from other denominations that sing mainly hymns. Unlike hymns, Psalms can rightly be regarded as the Word of God. They teach us God's laws and the doctrine of salvation.
To Calvin the Psalms showed in a clear way the gospel of God's grace and redemption. They taught the people how to live.
The Psalms contained in absolute validity a divine moral law that went beyond the value of counterbalancing interests.
God's Word spoke of a super-temporal law to which a man had to submit without any hesitation or objection. God's demands in the Psalms were clear-cut and unambiguous.1
Psalm singing is hearing the Word of God, and more:
Be filled with the Spirit: Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:18b-20
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. Colossians 3:16a
Not only do we hear the Word of God and sing thanksgiving to Him, we also address one another.
To use the sacraments
Is congregational singing using the sacraments? Of course not; but if we consider the purpose of using the sacraments it will be evident that it has the same goal as singing. What, then, is the primary function of the sacraments? The Belgic Confession (article 33) teaches us that they “nourish and sustain our faith,” and the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord's Day 25) says that faith is strengthened by the use of sacraments. I submit that singing Psalms and Hymns also strengthens our faith, and I believe no elaboration is needed, for we know from experience that this is so.
To call publicly upon the Lord
In his preface to the Genevan Psalter, Calvin has this to say about congregational singing:
As for the public prayers, these are of two kinds: some are offered by means of words alone, the other with song. And this is not a thing invented a little time ago, for it has existed since the first origin of the Church; this appears from the histories, and even St. Paul speaks not only of praying by mouth, but also of singing. 1 Corinthians 14:152
Thus, according to Calvin, congregational singing belongs to our public prayers; in fact, public prayers were “also called 'the Psalms' because they had always been sung, and, perhaps, also because they consisted mainly of the Old Testament Psalter.”3
It is clear, then, that singing fulfils three important functions in the worship service:
- We hear the Word of God,
- It strengthens our faith as we sing and address one another in song, and
- We call publicly upon the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving.
If we are to worship God in our worship services, congregational singing should feature prominently.
Part of the reason for our current practice of singing only selected stanzas of Psalms and Hymns is that our tradition is to think of singing as being of secondary importance to what we do in our worship services, and make it dependent upon other elements. For example, after the reading of the Law, the “Psalm must have something to do with that constituting idea of God's covenant,” as Dr. Deddens states on p. 252; after the sermon, the Psalm or Hymn “may not be an arbitrary Psalm or Hymn.” However, this practice does not recognize the autonomous role congregational singing should occupy in the worship service.
It may come as a surprise that this tradition was not the practice in Calvin's time.
The idea of using Psalm verses as appropriate stanzas for a sermon was totally foreign to the practice of the French Reformation. The entire Book of Psalms was systematically sung in the worship services on a biannual basis, without leaving anything out.
This does not mean that every congregation in France and French-Switzerland sang the same Psalms on the same Sunday, but that in each congregation all 150 Psalms would have been sung at the end of a 25-week period. This was done according to a set table.
From this table it is evident that singing occupied a prominent place in the worship service. It indicates firstly that Psalms were sung in specified parts, if they were too long to be sung in their entirety. The subsequent part(s) of the same Psalm was not sung in the same service, but at another service. Secondly, the table indicates that congregational singing was not related to other elements of the service (the Law, the sermon, etc.), but that it was done according to a predetermined schedule. Thirdly, it shows that the congregations of the French Reformation sang a great deal in one service (an average of eighteen stanzas in one service).
Like Dr. Deddens, I should like to consider the aspect of custom. Custom or tradition are indigenously rooted in habit, and habits are difficult to break – even in the light of convincing evidence that it would be to our advantage to do so. In the case of congregational singing, our custom is to sing relatively little in a service, a few stanzas here and there, as appropriate to other elements of the worship service. The evidence presented above shows that congregations of the French Reformation sang a great deal, the entire Psalm or significant portions of consecutive stanzas, and that the Psalm singing was not dependent upon any other element of the service.
We may not be able to sing through all 150 Psalms twice yearly, nor may we wish to restrict our congregational singing to two or three Psalms in one service, but we could establish a schedule that would allow us to sing Psalms and Hymns in their literary context, and allow us to sing through the entire Book of Praise over the course of 52 weeks (150 Psalms and 64 Hymns).4 This would mean that over time we would be familiar with all Psalm and Hymn tunes in the Book of Praise. Each Psalm or Hymn would get sung at its scheduled time.