Do We Really Need a Psalter-Hymnal?

Donald M. Poundstone

Our church’s Psalter-Hymnal Committee deserves credit for translating and versifying the book of Psalms and setting individual psalms to singable music. Sadly, this is the best that can be said for a radical and unnecessary project.

The concerns we raise here admittedly come several years late. There ought to have been thorough discussion by the whole church in 2006, when the idea for a Psalter-Hymnal surfaced, and before our General Assembly voted to go full-speed ahead. And now the work has gotten entangled in a quest for better ecumenical relations with a sister church.

How We Got Trinity Hymnal

So it’s past time to recall the history of an Orthodox Presbyterian songbook. Shortly after our church was founded in 1936, officers and congregations realized there was no hymnbook in print that was suitable for use in our worship. In the mid-1940s, we decided to produce our own songbook. It took more than fifteen years to reach publication. Along the way, the General Assembly studied the place of song in worship and eventually rejected the recommendation to publish a book containing psalms exclusively, with no specifically Christian hymns. The church also refused to include all the psalms for singing in our new hymnal.

Trinity Hymnal finally appeared in 1961. It contained hundreds of excellent hymns and a wide but selective collection of psalms, psalm versions, and paraphrases. Trinity Hymnal quickly became much beloved and highly esteemed, both in the OPC and by schools and other churches. About 800,000 copies have been sold over a span of fifty years.

In the mid-1980s, after the Presbyterian Church in America joined us in the joint venture of Great Commission Publications, we determined to revise our hymnal. About 150 songs were deleted and replaced by new selections. Revisers, however, maintained the same balance of psalms and hymns, desiring “to make a good hymnal even better!”

Trinity Hymnal contains a marvelous, albeit imperfect, collection of hymns and psalms. Most people in our church have found it more than adequate, yet it remains open to revision and improvement. The Christian hymns express the fullness of biblical truth, suitable for a variety of occasions. The psalms included cover fundamental teachings in the book of Psalms: God is the almighty Creator and sovereign ruler of heaven and earth; our God, Yahweh (the LORD), is the universal King, the only true and living God; he is holy and just, full of love and mercy, and forgiving to those who fear him; he is the gracious Savior and Protector of his people; he raised up David and his descendants to govern his elect nation of Israel as kings; God’s moral law is holy, righteous, and good; and much more besides. What precious, enduring truth revealed in the Old Testament is missing from this catalog and thus absent from our current hymnal?

The Notion of Total Psalmody

Unless, of course, God commands us to sing all 150 psalms. This has not been proved. One member of the Psalter-Hymnal Composition Committee wrote of his conviction that God nowhere directs his people—either in the Old or the New Testament—to sing all the biblical psalms in worship. This view has been the overwhelming consensus within the OPC since her founding, and I concur in it. But a few years ago, without concerted or church-wide discussion, the General Assembly suddenly decided to abandon this consensus. This is what I mean by speaking of the Psalter-Hymnal project as a radical one. A founding member of our church recently called it “revolutionary”!

Rather than embracing the “total psalmody” view of a Psalter-Hymnal, I’m convinced we ought to continue our venerable practice of using carefully selected metrical psalms, psalm versions, and paraphrases for sung praise and prayer in our corporate worship, along with scripturally faithful hymns.

Why? Briefly—and maybe too bluntly—not all the psalms as originally written are suitable for corporate Christian praise and prayer. Let me explain. We need to recognize that the Psalms flow out of and reflect the “old,” that is, the Mosaic, covenant understanding and expression of biblical faith. Now, the old covenant reveals much that remains forever true: the existence and power of the Lord God, who is worthy of all praise and thanksgiving; God’s mighty works of creation, providence, and redemption, which deserve our admiration and gratitude; the sin and desperate guilt of fallen humanity; the way of salvation by divine grace through faith in a redeemer; the reality of answered prayer and the forgiveness of sins; and so on.

The Old Testament points us to Christ. But the Psalms, and the rest of the Old Testament, were written before the incarnation of the uncreated Son of God, prior to his earthly life and ministry of humble obedience and love, and before his death on the cross as an atoning sacrifice, his glorious resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. Our Lord Jesus, both in his teaching and in his way of life, revealed the fullness of God’s will for us.

Let’s think about the differences in outlook between the Old Testament, as represented by the book of Psalms, and the words and example of our Savior and his apostles. What are the notes sounded in the Psalms that Christians find troubling?

The first problem we usually feel is the invocation of curses or imprecations against enemies. The Psalms repeatedly seek and celebrate the destruction of human adversaries (see Pss. 35:1–8; 69:22–28; 109:1–20; 137:7–9). Such words and wishes occur in more than thirty psalms. Christians have sought to understand these expressions in different ways, sometimes—mistakenly, I think—by drawing a sharp contrast between the supposedly wrathful God of the Old Testament and the benevolent, loving, heavenly Father of the New Testament.

However we finally explain those psalms, desires for revenge clash noticeably with attitudes commended by Christ and his apostles (see Matt. 5:43–45; Acts 7:59–60; Rom. 10:1; 1 Tim. 2:1–2).

We don’t have space to discuss this problem at length here, but consider these words of Prof. Mark D. Futato in his recent commentary on Psalm 109:

The psalmist was praying against those who persecuted him. The theocracy, God’s reign in Israel from the time of Moses to the time of Christ, was a shadow of future events (Heb. 10:1). One of those events is the final judgment of God. The destruction of the Canaanites in the days of Joshua was a shadow of the final judgment and not, therefore, normative for how we are to deal with our neighbors who do not believe in Jesus. The imprecations against the wicked in the book of Psalms were also shadows of the final judgment—appropriate for the era of the theocracy, but not for this present age. The gospel era is one of kindness, tolerance, and patience—intended to bring people to repentance and faith (Rom. 2:4). This is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). And this is why Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to pray for them, not against them. This is why Paul taught us to pray that God would bless our enemies (Rom. 12:14; 1 Cor. 4:12). Like the psalmist we leave vengeance to God, but unlike the psalmist we pray that God would bless those who bring pain into our lives. (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Psalms and Proverbs, pp. 348–49)

To be sure, a righteous God will finally judge unrepentant sinners and consign the wicked to everlasting punishment. But it is not for us to invoke curses on those who oppose the gospel and us. God calls believers instead to love, serve, and evangelize the lost.

The so-called imprecatory psalms, however—like a broken website for a government spending program—are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems for Christians in the Psalter.

A second, and related, issue concerns our response to suffering and persecution. For the psalmists, insults and afflictions are typically bad experiences to be abhorred and avoided. While the authors normally end up seeking refuge and finding comfort in God, they frequently speak words that verge on despair (see Pss. 25:16–20; 88:15–18; 89:46–51; 120:5–7).

Our Savior, on the other hand, taught his disciples the glories of being insulted (Matt. 5:11–12). If the world hates Christians, it’s because it first hated Jesus (John 15:18–21). The apostles learned this lesson well and rejoiced at the privilege of suffering for the name of Christ (Acts 5:40–41). We know, in ways that old covenant believers couldn’t, that the insults and sufferings we experience as Christians identify us with the Son of God (1 Pet. 4:12–19).

We still feel, of course, intense mental and physical pain. But countless martyrs over the centuries have faced torture and death, not with complaints and cries of anguish, but in the comfort of God’s peace and the assurance of heaven. Christians regularly celebrate—and desire to imitate, if necessary—such remarkable courage.

Champions of the Psalter often boast that the Psalms give voice to every human emotion—from anxiety, fear, and frustration to depression, grief, anger, and animosity. This is true enough. But the real question is, do the psalms adequately express responses to life’s trials that the New Testament commends to Christian believers? Christ and the gift of Holy Spirit have made a big difference!

The third difficulty in singing all the psalms as written is the attitude displayed toward the nations. The Old Testament looks forward to a day when Gentiles will worship the God of Israel. At the same time, pious Jews for hundreds of years before Christ looked upon heathen neighbors with fear, contempt, and hostility. Egypt, Canaanite nations, Moab and Edom, Assyria and Babylon—these were Israel’s bitter opponents and frequently the enemies they sought to kill in holy war under the theocracy.

The coming of Christ, and his finished work of salvation, changed the way believers look at Gentiles. The resurrected Jesus sent out his church with the power of the Holy Spirit to make disciples of all nations and proclaim the gospel to every creature (Matt. 28:18–20; Mark 16:15). This momentous development in the history of salvation renders hostility toward foreigners, so common under the old covenant, out of place in this age. There’s no basis for Christians to sing against foreign peoples the harsh sentiments found in the Psalms.

Finally, to take one more example, there’s the matter of a future life. We know expressions in the Psalms that suggest the hope of enjoying God beyond this world. But in addition, at least four times in the book of Psalms, we read that physical death marks an unwanted and silent end (see, for example, Pss. 6:5 and 88:10–12).

However we try to make these gloomy words sound Christian, they in fact differ greatly from the transparent confidence and joy made known to us through Christ’s empty tomb. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and whoever believes in him will never die (John 11:25–26). Paul assures believers that to depart this world and be with Christ is great gain (Phil. 1:21, 23). The living hope that Christians possess through union with our Lord in heaven is not compatible with old covenant expressions of dread, anxiety, or uncertainty about the future.

Please don’t misunderstand these concerns about the content of some psalms. I love singing many of the psalms; they express praise and thanksgiving for the majesty and glorious works of God. It’s also true that many psalms point us toward the fullness of New Testament spiritual life.

But we also ought to recognize the limitations of the Psalter’s outlook, especially when compared to God’s final revelation in the New Testament. This is why we should follow in the footsteps of hymn writer Isaac Watts, who famously said three hundred years ago that we must strive to give King David a Christian voice. A minister in our church told me he believed God gave us the psalms in order to teach us how to write hymns. How true!

Herein lies a serious problem with the Psalter-Hymnal project. The committee was tasked with producing a complete collection of psalms with “as much accuracy” as possible. In other words, it was charged with denying David a clear Christian voice! I hesitate to use such an inflammatory word, but—to speak frankly—this makes a fetish of the Psalter. Why should we think God is most highly pleased when we sing his praise in words belonging to what the Epistle to the Hebrews calls an “old” and now “obsolete” covenant (8:13)? We possess, thankfully, accurate and reliable translations of the Psalms in our English Bibles. But there’s nothing wrong with infusing old covenant songs and prayers with new covenant truth, insight, and understanding.

If there are better and useful psalm settings on offer, let them be tested—published and used for a while in a separate volume—and then added to Trinity Hymnal in future revisions. A Psalter-Hymnal is not necessary for the OPC and may well promote disunity or even the dividing up of our church into small, competing units.

I hope and pray there’s still time, and that we’ll seize the opportunity to discuss these matters openly and get them right. We owe it to our children and grandchildren. Even now, there’s no need for us to make a huge, costly, and long-lasting mistake.

The author, a retired minister, is stated clerk of the Presbytery of the Northwest and a member of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. New Horizons, March 2014.

New Horizons: March 2014

The Psalms in Worship and the Psalter-Hymnal Project

Also in this issue

Singing the Psalms with the Psalmist

Why Should We Sing All 150 Psalms?

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