Straight from Scripture

In RW 10 Koyzis gave a brief historical overview of psalm-singing and offered suggestions for using the psalms in worship. In this second article, he compares ways of singing the psalms.

Psalm-singing Christians basically fall into two categories: those who chant the psalms directly from the Bible and those who sing metrical paraphrases of the psalms, in which the biblical text is reworked in poetic meter and (often) rhyme.

Churches with Reformed and Presbyterian roots traditionally are part of the second group, the tradition known as "metrical psalmody." We have sung the psalms almost exclusively in metered, paraphrased stanzas, and we have done so for obvious reasons. Congregations find metrical psalms easy to learn. And when a psalm is well translated into verse and set to an appropriate tune of regular rhythmic structure, it can be a joy to sing.

Limitations of Psalmody

Most of us are so familiar with metrical psalmody that we tend to overlook its limitations. There are several.

First of all, a paraphrase is a paraphrase. I am not so much of a literalist as to assert that a metrical psalm (as long as it faithfully conveys the meaning of the original) is not really a psalm. But the demands of meter and rhyme often necessitate changing a given text and even stretching its meaning somewhat. Worse yet, a rigid metrical pattern may require that the psalms be rendered in an extremely awkward form. In the Scottish Psalter of 1650, for example, the metrical paraphrase of Psalm 23 includes lines such as the following: "He lead-eth me the quiet waters by."

Fortunately, contemporary versifiers of metrical psalmody have felt free to depart from even such conventional patterns as rhyme and generally have been more successful in communicating a psalm's original meaning in comprehensible form. A well-known collection of these "freer" metrical psalms is Psalm Praise, a book that was published to popularize psalm-singing among Anglicans in the United Kingdom. (Four psalms from this collection are included in the new Psalter Hymnal.)

Second, singing the psalms to conventional hymn tunes can cause confusion, especially if the hymn tunes are well known. Hearing the same tune sung to both a hymn text and a psalm text tends to reinforce the notion that psalms and hymns are largely interchangeable—a notion that may be responsible (at least in part) for the historical tendency of hymnody to replace psalmody in most Protestant communions. Recovery of the Genevan tunes, most of which have not been attached to other texts, may be one way to combat this confusion.

Third, rendering the psalms in conventional Western meters usually means losing the Hebrew poetic forms. For example, the psalms were written in accordance with what has come to be called "parallelism," whereby a certain thought is repeated twice but in different words:

Save me, O God, by thy
and vindicate me by thy
Hear my prayer, O God;
give ear to the words of my
mouth. (RSV)

In these first two verses of Psalm 54 the second line echoes the first, and the fourth restates the third. This parallelism is easily retained in a standard translation such as the RSV or NIV but is often difficult to manage in a metrical paraphrase.

Advantages of Chanting

In contrast, chanting the psalms permits the use of a standard translation that not only is more faithful to the Hebrew but also retains the Hebrew poetic patterns. The Lutheran Book of Worship offers one of the simplest patterns for chanting the psalms (using the translation in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer); the pattern involves a limited number of chant tones that a congregation will find easy to master. Lutheran Worship, the hymnal of the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), offers a similar method of chanting the psalms (as translated in the NIV), using chant tones that are more modal in flavor.

The prose psalm texts are "pointed" for congregational chanting. Each psalm verse is divided by an asterisk (*). The first note in each part of the verse is a reciting tone to which one or more syllables are sung. At the "point" ' (asterisk), singers move from the reciting tone to the black notes. A vertical mark (') indicates one syllable per black note; a horizontal mark (—) indicates one syllable per two black notes.

Gelineau's Chant

One of the more interesting ways of singing the psalms was developed by Joseph Gelineau of France. Of all the methods of singing the psalms, Gelineau's chant best preserves the Hebrew poetic style, retaining both the parallelism and the metrical structure of the original. Ancient Hebrew meter is somewhat like early English meter (e.g., nursery rhymes) in that it focuses on the number of stresses within a line rather than on the number of syllables. Gelineau psalmody is often sung to the Grail translation, which was produced specifically for this purpose. The following passage (again from Psalm 54) is "pointed" to indicate the regular rhythmic stresses in each line:

O God, save me by your
by your power, uphold my
O God, hear my prayer;
listen to the words of my

Gelineau psalmody also takes into account the different number of lines within each stanza, something that is not possible with other methods of psalm-chanting.

Gelineau psalms are usually sung responsively. The soloist or choir begins by singing the refrain; then the congregation repeats it. The psalm then proceeds responsively with a soloist or choir chanting the verses and thecongregation responding with the refrain. Many Roman Catholics, who have recently begun congregational singing, have found this "responsorial" style of psalm-singing very helpful. A refrain (or antiphon, an older term) is much easier to learn than the whole psalm. Among Protestants who are used to exclusive metrical psalmody, the responsorial style has the advantage of making a clear distinction between psalms and hymns. Rather than simply reading the psalm directly from the Bible or singing a paraphrased version of it metrically, the congregation can sing the actual words from Scripture. (See Psalm 23 example.)

Other ways of singing the psalms include the Anglican chant, which involves a choir (though not necessarily) singing in harmony to speech rhythms, and the Gregorian chant, which is the more ancient method of psalm-chanting, simple enough to be used by either cantor or congregation. Examples of these can be found in the service music section of many enominational hymnals. Hymnals in the Reformed Presbyterian tradition also include examples of the other psalmody traditions discussed above.

(1) The heavens declare the glory of God;*
the skies proclaim the work
of his hands.
(2) Day after day they pour forth speech;*
night after night
they display knowledge.
(3) There is no speech or language*
where their voice is not heard.
(4) Their voice goes out
into all the earth,*
their words to the ends of the

Recources for Singers

Following is an incomplete list of some of the resources available for sung psalmody:


Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter. Available from Premier Publishing Ltd., 1249 Plessis Road, Winnipeg, Manitoba R2C 3L9, Canada. This psalter contains English versifications of all the Genevan Psalms and is used in the Canadian Reformed Churches. Harmonizations and accompaniments available from Church and Music Records, Box 154, Necrlandia, Alberta TOG 1R0.

The Book of Psalms for Singing. Published by The Board of Education and Publications, Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, 7418 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15208. This book contains mostly metrical psalms and a very few chanted psalms.

The Gelineau Gradual. Published by G1A Publications, 7404 South Mason Ave., Chicago, 1L 60638. This book includes gradual psalms and antiphons in accordance with the church year.

Gradual Psalms. Church Hymnal Series VI, in three volumes—-Years A, B, C. Available from The Church Hymnal Corporation, 800 Second Ave., New York, NY 10017.

The Grail Gelineau Psalter: 150 Psalms and 18 Canticles. Published by GIA Publications, 7404 South Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60638.

Music from Taize, vol. I and II. Jacques Berthier. Published by GIA Publications, 7404 South

Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60638. These volumes contain psalms as sung by the Taize community in France with instrumental descants.

Morning Praise and Evensong. Edited and arranged by William G. Storey, D.M.S.; Frank C. Quinn, O.P.; and David F. Wright, O. P. Published by Fides Publishers, Inc., Notre Dame, IN 46556. Contains psalms and canticles sung in accordance with the traditional daily office rites adapted to nonmonastic usage.

New Metrical Psalter. Published by Church Hymnal Corp., 800 Second Ave., New York, NY 1017. A words-only modern poetic version of the psalms in commonly used hymn-tune meters. Rev. Christopher Webber has included all psalms for the eu-charistic lectionary as well as those for special rites of the church. Permission is granted to purchasers to reproduce all contents in the Sunday bulletin.

Psalm Praise. Available from GIA Publications, 7404 South Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60638.

A Psalm Sampler. Published by the Westminster Press. The sampler includes a number of metrical and chanted psalms and canticles.

The Psalmody for the Day, Series A. Published by Fortress Press, 2900 Queen Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19129.


The Book of Praise Includes 70 psalms for singing today. Published by Carey Publications, 361 Aigburth Road, Liverpool L170PB, England.

The Hymnbook (1955). Published by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and the Reformed Church in America. Available from the Westminster Press, 925 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19107. This hymnal contains metrical psalms, mostly from the 1912 Psalter; also some Anglican chants in the service music section.

Hymns II. Published by Intervar-sity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois. Contains a limited number of metrical psalms.

Lutheran Book of Worship. Available from Augsburg Publishing House, 426 S. Fifth St., Box 1209, Minneapolis, MN 55440.

Lutheran Worship. Published by Concordia Publishing House, 3558 Jefferson Ave., St. Louis, MO 62118.

Psalter Hymnal (1987). Published by CRC Publications, 2850 Kalamazoo SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49560. Contains metrical psalms and canticles ("Bible Songs"), including Genevan psalms, texts from the 1912 Psalter, and more recent compositions.

Rejoice in the Lord. Edited by Erik Routley. Published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, 255 Jefferson Ave. SE, Grand Rapids, MI, for the Reformed Church in America.

Trinity Hymnal. Published by the Committee on Christian Education, Inc., the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Available from Great Commission Publications, 7401 Old York Road, Philadelphia, PA. Contains metrical psalms, mostly from the 1912 Psalter.

David T. Koyzis is a professor of political science at Redeemer College, Ancaster, Ontario.


Reformed Worship 11 © March 1989, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.