Our Psalter Turns 100

The year 2012 marks an important anniversary for the Protestant Reformed Churches. This year, the songbook which we use in our worship services, in our homes, and in our good Christian schools, The Psalter, turns 100. That this book is still used among us today is significant, since most Reformed and Presbyterian denominations no longer give the Psalms pride of place in their worship, or have discarded the singing of them altogether. It is therefore imperative that we treasure the heritage given to us in our Psalter, thank God for the blessings it brings, and also, where necessary, fortify its weaknesses, so that it might better reflect our commitment to singing that which is found in Scripture alone.

Historical Background

Our Psalter is sometimes called the 1912 Psalter because that is the year in which it was first published, although its origins go back to 1893. There were a total of nine denominations that participated in the making of this songbook, including the Christian Reformed Church, but the project was initiated by the United Presbyterian Church in North America. The first draft of the Psalter was presented in 1905, with a second appearing in 1909. In 1912, a final committee meeting was held in Pittsburgh and the finishing touches were put on the new songbook, which was published the same year.

In 1914, our mother denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, adopted the new Psalter for the English-speaking congregations of the denomination. When the Protestant Reformed Churches began, we also made use of this Psalter, and continue to do so down to the present day. Actually, our own churches originally adopted the 1922 edition of this Psalter, and have since published our own special editions which include our doctrinal standards and liturgy, church order, and the ecumenical creeds. Other denominations that use the 1912 Psalter include the Free Reformed Churches in North America and the Netherlands Reformed Congregations.

The Blessings of our Psalter

The 1912 Psalter has been and continues to be a great blessing to our churches. This is true from several perspectives. In the first place, the songs of our Psalter are the songs of Scripture, in which our lives are rooted. It is in the Scriptures that we read of our total depravity and guilt of sin. It is in the Scriptures that we learn of God’s grace in delivering us out of our spiritually dead state. And it is from Scripture that we derive the proper attitude of thanksgiving to God in our whole life for the wonderful salvation he has wrought for us. Hence, it is appropriate that we sing about all these things, inasmuch as they are found in the Psalms.

These very same Scriptures also bring us words of comfort in our many afflictions and sorrows, especially in the face of death. The Psalms are particularly comforting to God’s people as they face the last enemy. It is no secret that dying saints love to hear, read, and sing the Psalms, for they so wonderfully describe the pilgrimage of the child of God, and above all give solace concerning the end of that earthly journey. The rest of us too, whether facing the death of a dear one or some other personal affliction, undoubtedly find great consolation in singing the Psalms.

Indeed, we must appreciate the fact that the songs of the Psalter are taken specifically from the Psalms. There is great blessing in singing the Psalms because they are the very words which God has given to his church to sing, a fact which she has recognized for centuries. Rev. Jason Kortering, in his excellent pamphlet on Psalm-singing, tells us that in the apostolic and post-apostolic periods, the church sang only the Psalms, and the best of the church fathers strongly advocated the singing of them. Also, at the time of the Reformation, the Reformers revived the singing of the Psalms which the Romish church had abandoned almost entirely, thus making Psalm-singing a glorious heritage of Reformed and Presbyterian churches.

Therefore, it is also a great blessing that our Psalter incorporates many of the same songs sung by the church of the past. For example, there are songs from the Genevan Psalter, the very songbook used in John Calvin’s day for the worship of Jehovah when those of Reformed persuasion risked their lives in confessing the true gospel over against the errors of Rome. Who can forget the stirring words of Psalter 353: “Now Israel may say and that in truth…”? There are also songs from the Scottish Psalter of 1650, sung by the Presbyterians on the moors of Scotland during the awful “killing times.” One such song is known even to the little children: “The Lord’s My Shepherd” (Psalter 53). Even the Chorale section, though not originally part of the 1912 Psalter, is included in this heritage. It contains some of the favorite songs of our fathers in the Netherlands (also originally from the Genevan Psalter) which they sang with gusto even as they were persecuted by the apostatizing state church and arrested and fined by the oppressive government.

There is blessing also in that the Psalter we use is the universal songbook of our denomination. One of the many fruits of this denominational commitment to a common songbook can be seen at the pre-Synodical service each year, when so many strong singers from our various congregations come together and raise their voices with the words of the same Psalter they all know and love. This love of the Psalter arises not only out of familiarity with its contents, but also and especially out of a deep appreciation for its confession of the truth of God’s Word.

What is more, the members of our churches make this confession of the Psalter their very own, over against the lies of heretical hymns. Whereas hymns, written by sinful men, are prone to doctrinal error, the Psalms are the timeless and infallible words of the Holy Spirit, given to the church as a gift to be used for as long as she is upon earth. The introduction of hymns into the church services tends to the obliterating of the Psalms, and becomes an open door for heresy to creep in by means of song. Not so with the Psalms. They are secure, and ascribe all glory to God, for God is the author of them. This is not to say that we are forbidden to sing the good hymns. Rather, it means that we must guard our worship services so that the Psalms are maintained as the primary songs of praise to God.

Capacity for Improvement

Although our Psalter is indeed wonderful and a great blessing to our churches, it is by no means perfect. In fact, there are some aspects of it which should be altered. For example, some of the song titles are inaccurate, such as, “God in Nature” (171), or “Responsibility of Civil Officers” (223). Although the titles are not as important as the songs themselves, they nevertheless are meant to accurately reflect the content of the songs. Therefore, using an inappropriate title may very well lead to a wrong understanding of the words of the song itself.

There are also selections in our Psalter which leave out whole phrases and verses of the original Psalm. One example of this is in the two versifications of Psalm 137, both of which fail to explicitly mention the dashing of Babylon’s little ones against the stones. Although this is certainly very graphic language, it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and perhaps ought to be included in future editions.

In at least one instance in our Psalter, there is a song which contains lyrics which are questionable at best and heretical at worst. The song is Psalter 255, stanza 4, which begins this way: “While he proffers peace and pardon, let us hear his voice today.” Although some might argue that these words can be understood in a Reformed sense, they nevertheless have strong overtones of the well-meant offer, so much so, that this stanza is rarely if ever sung in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Thus, these words should be altered, so that we might in good conscience sing the fourth stanza of this song without subscribing to common grace.

Other songs of our Psalter, while not heretical, are rather loose renderings of the words of the Psalm on which they are based. An outstanding example of this is Psalter number 247, a versification of Psalm 90 arranged by the Unitarian composer Isaac Watts. While this and other such selections do not necessarily need to be removed from our Psalter, we do need to be aware of what the Psalms say, and in the singing of them we may not stray so far from the original text that the meaning is entirely lost.

Improvements to our Psalter may indeed be forthcoming. Synod 2011 instructed the contact committee of our churches to correspond with the Free Reformed Churches in response to a letter and survey sent by that denomination regarding the possibility of updating the Psalter. Included in this survey are a number of potential revisions, including a “review of the accuracy of Psalter selections wording.”

Whatever may come of this correspondence, let us always seek the Lord’s guidance concerning this important matter of updating the Psalter. If changes are to be made, let us see to it that they are made to better praise our God in song, and not to cater to the lusts of our flesh or make the Psalter look better in the eyes of the broader church world. May our chief purpose with the singing of the Psalms be to glorify our covenant God, thanking him for the miracle of the salvation he has wrought in Jesus Christ:

Now with joyful exultation
let us sing Jehovah’s praise,

To the Rock of our salvation
loud hosannas let us raise;

Thankful tribute gladly bringing,
let us come before Him now,

And, with psalms His praises singing,
joyful in His presence bow.