Singing the Psalms

The Psalms are some of the earliest songs of the church, and they were some of the only songs permitted in church for much of the existence of the church, but for as long as the psalms have been sung—- since before even Christ—- not many people today speak about the psalm-singing tradition of our heritage, and I think that’s a loss.

The modern tradition of hymns didn’t go mainstream in churches until the Great Awakening in 17th-century England. Some Christian traditions did sing hymns before this: the Lutherans began writing and singing hymns during the Reformation, and the Moravians sang hymns from before the Thirty Years’ War, but hymns were not mainstream for a long time, because non-scriptural texts were considered inappropriate by much of the Christian church– who were these people writing hymns, who thought their human words could stand in worship next to the divine scriptures? Sermons were acceptable in worship because in them the Holy Spirit was speaking to the church through the minister/pastor, but hymn texts weren’t considered inspired by the Holy Spirit, rather, they were rejected as tempting the people to worship the human instead of the divine. (There is, of course, a considerable amount of nuance with this issue, having to do with the church’s changing theology about human creativity over the centuries, the church’s evolving relationship with music and the arts, and its struggles to justify the theology of God the one and only Creator, with the presence of creative people created by God. If you’re interested in the subject, look up Jeremy Begbie; he’s written several great books about theology and music/the arts, and it’s a very good place to start.)

The Great Awakening in 18th century England opened the doors for the leaders of the Dissenting movement such as Isaac Watts, and leaders of the Anglican church (some of whom would eventually become part of the Dissenting movement) like the Wesleys, to begin writing hymns and proving through demonstration the case for divinely inspired texts that were not literally scriptures, but were instead based on scriptures and theological concepts.

Prior to this hymn movement, the majority of the church sang the Psalms, if they sang anything at all. Now, the Psalms were originally intended to be sung, and they were; but they were not originally in English, so when the Bible was translated for the English-speaking church, the Psalms didn’t have the rhythm or rhyme of the original Hebrew. Open your Bible to the book of Psalms and you’ll see what I mean. It doesn’t matter what translation you have- the priority of the Bible translators was the preservation of meaning over meter, so they worked to find the English words that best conveyed the meaning of the original Hebrew, and the meter was typically disregarded.

If the English-speaking church was to sing the Psalms, then, there would need to be a translation of the Psalms in a singable meter.

One of the most popular early metrical Psalmbooks in the English church was Sternhold & Hopkins, 1562, named after the individuals who translated it. It was so popular that the Scottish Church published the Scottish Psalter in 1650 as their version of the S&H. And in the British colonies in America, the Bay Psalm Book was published in 1640, the first book printed in British North America, and heavily based on a copy of S&H that had been brought over from England. The next major edition in England was Tate & Brady, 1697, though many churches did not change to the new edition from Sternhold & Hopkins.

S&H

Comparing these different editions and publications shows the development of metrical psalmody over the years, sometimes improving and sometimes not 🙂 Some translations are pretty awkward, and some are rather lovely.

Our first example is Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks. (NIV)

Here are 4 different metrical versions of this Psalm, beginning with the S&H. Both the Tate & Brady and the Scottish Psalter are based on the S&H; and the fourth version is from the 1987 Psalter Hymnal, used by the Reformed Church of Canada.

psalters

Here’s another example, this time of Psalm 23. Though both of these metrical psalms were based on the English S&H, the Colonial Bay Psalm Book was a considerable step backwards in intelligibility and ease of reading, while the Scottish Psalter generally improved on the S&H, simplifying the Psalms with less stuffy language and a more colloquial rhythm.

You can see what I mean in the example below. I can easily imagine singing the Scottish Psalter version; in fact, there are a number of choral anthems based on it. Imagining singing the Bay Psalm Book version, though, just makes me cringe 🙂

psalm 23

Some churches today still sing the Psalms, using modern metrical psalters that descend from these early psalters. Over the years, the metrical translations have improved in intelligibility, rhythm, and meter, making Psalm singing an enjoyable experience for the church.

If your church is not one that sings the Psalms, you might consider getting a metrical psalter of your own and giving it a try. There is a reason that the church used to sing the Psalms– it’s a link to our ancestry, to the Israelites who used to sing the Psalms of David in the original Hebrew, and to the early church, which had nothing else to sing. There’s also something profound about singing the scriptures, letting the melody carry the Word of God directly to our hearts. A personal faith practice that includes singing the Psalms on a regular basis can open your heart to hearing and experiencing these scriptures in a new and profound way.

The Psalms are the sung scriptures in the Bible, and a wise church will hold on tightly to this singing tradition.

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