Anyone who visits many reformed congregations in the United States will grow accustomed to seeing sanctuaries where the Trinity Hymnal shares pew racks with a separate volume of metrical psalms (usually the RPCNA’s The Book of Psalms for Singing/Worship or its spin-off Trinity Psalter). Many leaders in the Presbyterian Church of America and similar denominations have concluded that the psalmodic resources of their hymnal are inadequate and should somehow be supplemented. The 73rd General Assembly (2006) of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church even authorized the development of a Psalter-Hymnal, which would include musical settings of all 150 Psalms in their entirety, and which, presumably, would replace the Trinity Hymnal in those congregations that adopted it. This appendix briefly argues that these trends are neither required by Scripture nor beneficial to worship. While it’s true that many congregations err in the opposite direction by neglecting the Psalms altogether, and we pray that the studies of Psalm-based hymns included on this website may whet the appetite of some to sing more such hymns, it’s also true that an overemphasis on one kind of hymn (in this case, Psalm-settings) or the promotion of inadequate Psalm-settings can harm the church. The desire to supplement the Trinity Hymnal seems to come from speculative assumptions about the purpose of the Psalms and an unwarranted dichotomy between metrical psalms and other scripturally-rich hymns.
Christians who consider metrical psalms superior to other scriptural hymns may argue as follows. God wrote the Psalms, and he intended them to be sung. Therefore, congregations should sing them. When we sing metrical psalms we are singing the very word of God, whereas when we sing other hymns we are singing the thoughts of men. Thus, metrical psalms take priority over hymns, and it is not seemly for us to act as if we could improve on God’s own manual of praise. We should sing Psalms as God intended. We should sing all of them, in their entirety.
While one may admire the underlying desire to conform worship to biblical truth, it is important to recognize several misunderstandings at work here. First, as indicated in the polemical title chosen for this appendix, there is no evidence that anybody in either ancient Israel or the New Testament church sang the Psalms congregationally, except for occasional refrains (1 Chr. 16:36; Ezra 3:10–13; Neh. 8:6; 12:40–43). We affirm that the Psalms were indeed authored by the Holy Spirit and that they, like all ancient poetry, were originally sung. But it’s a huge leap from these premises to imagine ancient believers singing together from a songbook of 150 Psalms. The most straightforward reading of the Book of Psalms is as a canonical anthology of lyrical poetry: the repository of all inspired poems that do not belong in other books of the Bible. The superscriptions indicate that most were used in temple worship, but few scholars would insist that all Psalms (119, for instance) were designed for that purpose. Even if we were to concede this point for the sake of argument, the Old Testament describes temple music as something performed largely by professional (Levitical) singers and instrumentalists, not by the assembly. If early Christians sang canonical Psalms (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), solo singers would have recited or intoned a prose translation: the Greek Septuagint. Lay-congregational singing of strophic, metrical hymns based on Psalms dates only from the sixteenth century AD. Today, we sing metrical hymns based on Psalms and other Scripture because we deem this the best way to obey the biblical command to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly as we teach and admonish one another. But any claim that God intended the Book of Psalms itself to be the hymnbook, as the word is commonly understood, is a claim not derived directly from Scripture (unless one accepts the exclusive psalmist’s argument that Paul’s expression, “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” is his way to designate the Book of Psalms). It follows as a corollary that there is no need to single out psalmodic hymns as being somehow different from hymns based on other biblical texts, as when we place them in their own section of the hymnbook. The other sixty-five books of the Bible are as much the “word of Christ” as is the Book of Psalms.
A second misunderstanding places metrical psalms in a class by themselves because they are said to be the very word of God. Metrical psalters are often treated as if they were translations of Scripture. The effect of this approach has been deleterious. On one hand, the faithful reproduction of the word of God is understood to be a matter of preserving the words, propositions, and images of the Psalms in their original order, even as, on the other hand, the resulting translation is supposed to be in metrical and rhymed verse. Since it is impossible to do both in good English, the poets and editors of all literal, metrical, and English-language psalters fail. When they produce good poetry, the translation is deemed a paraphrase, and when they produce a literal translation, the poetry is bad. But God put beautiful poems in the Bible for a reason. Humans cannot twist a Psalm into something ugly and still call it Scripture. Consequently, all “metrical psalms” are really just hymns based on Psalms. They may be good hymns based on Psalms, or they may be bad hymns based on Psalms, but neither the good nor the bad has a greater claim to being God’s word than do good hymns based on other books of the Bible.
If metrical psalms are not the very word of God, how are we supposed to keep the apostle’s instruction to be filled with the Spirit (that is, the inspired word of God, see section 2, “Message”) as we address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs? When we sing in the assembly we are to teach, admonish, and praise with the words and theology of the Bible. The actual reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13) is central to corporate worship, and every other element—preaching, prayer, singing, and sacrament—reflects on and points to Scripture. To sing the word of God in the exact and literal sense, however, is an activity practically impossible for a congregation. When the church has attempted this, historically, it has assigned the duty to specialists (choirs, soloists, monks) who can manage the prose text—prose, because the poetry of Scripture has been translated into another language—in a musical form suited to prose (chant). If we wish, as the reformers did, for the whole congregation to sing God’s word, we must distill it into a form suitable for congregational singing. Hymns, like sermons, proclaim the message of Scripture. Both retain, in a sense, the label “the word of God,” but neither are understood to be so in the strict sense.
Some Psalms are so individual in their voice and so particular in their circumstances that a close paraphrase cannot meaningfully be put in the mouths of congregants. What can it mean, for example, if we sang to one another or to God on a Sunday morning, without explanation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” The words vividly voice the feelings of someone (David) close to despair, even as they literally describe the station in which Christ found himself on the cross. But is there any warrant for maintaining that God wants us to assume that station ourselves—any more than he wants us corporately to identify with, for example, the prophet’s words in Jeremiah 20:7–18 or certain monologues of Job? All these God-breathed texts are to be understood as the words of individuals under particular circumstances, not as models for corporate prayer. This is not to say that congregations shouldn’t lament or even complain when under duress, but a hymn based on Psalm 22 will interpret and apply it. Unexplained allusions to the “bulls of Bashan” or to my hands and feet being pierced will not do.
A third misunderstanding sees merit in making a complete psalter available for congregational singing. If God saw fit to include something in the Book of Psalms, who are we to omit it? The answer to this question, as explained above, is that the Book of Psalms and a book of congregational songs are two different things, and a God-fearing congregation without a complete metrical psalter will nevertheless still read and preach from the whole Book of Psalms, for all Scripture is breathed out by God to be the rule of faith and life. But a congregation’s song repertoire can only be so big. It can no more comprise the whole Book of Psalms than it can the whole Book of Isaiah. Since many Bible passages say similar things about similar subjects, it is reasonable to conclude that a congregation’s song repertoire can declare the whole counsel of God without interacting with every verse particularly. The repertoire should include excellent, biblical hymns covering all the major topics of the Book, including the “hard” ones like lament, confession, and imprecation. One cannot argue, however, either from the Bible or from prudence, that congregations should sing together metrical versions of all 150 Psalms.
We hope that nothing written here will be taken to downplay the importance of grounding congregational song in the Psalms. Given the riches of prayer and praise to be mined there, given the New Testament use of the Greek word psalmos, and given the importance of psalmody in church history, the Psalms will rightly have more influence on our singing than will any other book of the Bible. (In the “Hymn Studies” part of our website, 21 out of 120 hymns follow a particular psalm closely, and numerous others are psalmodic in various and significant ways.) But all metrical psalters that are made to be God’s word, rather than based on God’s word, become travesties of God’s word, and as such they dishonor God, desensitize Christians to the power of the Psalms, and, more often than not, condition Christians to disengage and dislike congregational singing. The way for us to address one another in psalms, so as to edify, is to sing great hymns that are based on the Psalms—along with, of course, the careful reading of, and preaching from, literal translations of the psalms elsewhere in worship.
If a congregation currently equipped with a metrical psalter is singing from it wholeheartedly, far be it from us to suggest that it stop! If, on the other hand, metrical psalms languish on lips or in pew racks, we would caution against jumping to the conclusion that the fault must lie in the congregants’ hearts. Rather, it may be that they have been asked to endure something unhelpful and never required by Scripture. If such be the case, it would be wise to pack away the metrical psalter or not to purchase it in the first place, assuming the main hymnal is a good one. The second edition of the Trinity Hymnal (1990) includes 152 hymns derived particularly from 100 Psalms (according to the descriptions in the lower left-hand corner of each). Even if one were to consider only hymns labeled “Psalm such-and-such” or “from Psalm such-and-such” and not “based on Psalm such-and-such,” and even if, of those, one were to consider only the better 60% (since, admittedly, they are not all excellent, and many share tunes with other important hymns), that would still leave 78 excellent hymns based quite closely on particular Psalms, which is more than enough to constitute the core of any congregation’s repertoire. These hymns include multiple examples of all psalm genres. And they benefit from a clarity and beauty not found in either The Book of Psalms for Singing/Worship or the Trinity Psalter—clarity and beauty which allow for an impressive faithfulness to the original. The skeptical reader is invited to examine “That Man Is Blest Who, Fearing God” (Trinity Hymnal #558) in light of Psalm 1 and “Oh, Wherefore Do the Nations Rage” (Trinity Hymnal #314) in light of Psalm 2, over against the corresponding texts in a metrical psalter.