Versifying Psalms for Singing
Versifying a psalm might sound simple. After all, psalms are poetry—how much effort can it take to make them singable? But as anyone who has tried can tell you, versifying a particular psalm in an appealing, singable, and authentic way is actually a very complex assignment.
The versifier who undertakes this assignment soon becomes aware that much is expected of him: First, the psalm is probably very familiar in one or various biblical prose versions to those who will be singing it. The writer must be sensitive to the language of those versions. Second, those who sing the psalm may remember former versifications; if so, they may be expecting certain outstanding, memorable images to appear in an immediately recognizable way. The writer must be aware of those images. Third, the writer must devise a suitable meter, suitable stanzaic divisions, natural word order, and possibly a pleasant, unforced rhyme scheme. Fourth, and most important, these expectations and the writer's attempts to meet them should not "weigh down" the final product; the final versification should be a lyrical, fairly literal vehicle for the spontaneous worship of God.
Although each of the psalms is unique, and although various versifiers bring different approaches and talents to the task, I believe that the simple guidelines stated above are applicable to most situations and most psalms. To give readers some idea of how these guidelines work, I shall present my versification of Psalm 114 as a fairly typical example of the practices, problems, and pleasures involved in versifying a psalm.
The theme of Psalm 114 is familiar: God's care for his people Israel as they fled Egypt elicits an awesome response from nature (the Red Sea and the Jordan). His power delights the whole creation (even the mountains and the little hills). And at such power the whole creation should tremble ("Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord.")!
The balance and repetitions in the four paragraphs (two verses apiece) of the biblical version of this psalm led me to devise four short stan/as in long meter (eight syllables per line) with an AABB rhyme scheme. Thus, the first stanza evolved:
When Israel fled from Egypt land,
from foreign tongue and cruel hand,
the Lord took Judah for his home
and Israel for his very own.
Since the biblical versions of this psalm begin with the time reference—"When Israel went forth from Egypt"—I was able to start naturally with it, adding the word "land" to make possible the rhyme with "cruel hand" in line two, which captures Egypt's foreign hardships. Instead of making Judah and Israel God's "sanctuary" or "dominion,' I decided on the words "home" and "his very own (3,4), chiefly because these simple ordinary words more easily capture God's intimate dwelling with his people. Throughout the stanza (and the entire psalm) I was also working to avoid unnatural word order like "When Israel out of Egypt went" or "the Lord among his people dwelt." The "slant rhyme" of the words "home" and "own" is acceptable-probably even desirable—I believe, in order to avoid the possible monotony of perfect rhyme throughout.
Paragraph two of Psalm 114 (vv. 3 and 4) introduces the memorable images of the sea and the Jordan receding and of the mountains and hills skipping like rams and Iambs. Although the Israelites' crossing on dry ground is only intimated, and although no direct reference is made to God's command, I include the words "dry land" to rhyme with command, thus, maintaining the graphic images and making the implied exodus reference more clear. Fortunately the words "rams" and "lambs" furnish ready-made rhyme and the adjectives "joyful" and "playful" (inserted to achieve the proper meter) escape being mere padding by enhancing the spirit of exuberant whimsy and praise:
The sea rolled back to form dry land,
the Jordan fled at God's command.
The mountains skipped likejoyful rams,
the little hills like playful lambs.
The emphatic repetition of these vivid images as questions in the next paragraph of the psalm (vv. 5 and 6) encouraged me to retain this technique (four rhetorical questions with one strongly implied answer) in the third stanza:
What made you part, O mighty sea?
Why, Jordan, did you turn to flee?
Why, mountains, skip likejoyful rams?
And, little hills, like playful lambs?
As in the third paragraph of the biblical text, this third stanza reinforces the joy and vigor of praise in the world of nature, implies that God is the answer to each question, and suggests natural possibilities for antiphonal singing in the worship service.
The last paragraph of the biblical text calls on the earth to "tremble… at the presence of the Lord…, the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water." By opening stanza four with the word now and including the Lord is near, my version attempts to apply the call to praise more immediately to the singing congregation:
Now tremble, earth, the Lord is near;
bow down and see your God appear.
His might makes springs to gush and glow;
from flint the cooling waters flow.
Although I regretted omitting the reference to Jacob and the word rock in this stanza, I tried to encourage the spirit of reverent worship by the words bow down and by implying that God may "appear" to his people through the natural images they have seen in the psalm. With the alliteration and liquid sounds of gush and glow, flint and flow, and with the concluding open o in the word flow, I attempted to bring the psalm to an authentic and moving conclusion. I hope that the simple poetic vibrancy of these words may help to make them very personal—to cause the springs of faith to "gush and glow" and cause the dry flint of human hearts to feel the "cooling waters flow."
(1) When Israel came out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a
people of foreign tongue,
(2) Judah became God's sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.
(3) The sea looked and fled,
the Jordan turned back;
(4) the mountains skipped like
the hills like lambs.
(5) Why was it, O sea, that you
O Jordan, that you turned back,
(6) you mountains, that you
skipped like rams,
you hills, like lambs?
(7) Tremble, O earth, at the
presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
(8) who turned the rock into a pool,
the hard rock into springs of
I believe that our most difficult decision was to do a virtually new versification of the Psalms. This was not only a radical innovation but would, as we realized, involve an enormous amount of work. The decision of how many Genevan tunes to use was also a difficult one.
—Anthony Hoekema (PH)
The most controversy was provoked by not including all 150 canonical psalms for singing. We determined that in order to do this we either would have to greatly enlarge the volume or eliminate more hymns than the church would accept.
—Donald Poundstone (TH)