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Lessons I Learned from Singing the Psalms

Growing Up with the Genevan Psalter

Growing up in a conservative Reformed church in the Netherlands, I sang only from the Genevan Psalter, a collection including all 150 psalms that was created hundreds of years ago under the supervision of John Calvin.

Behind this almost 500-year-old practice was the belief that singing the words of the psalms together meant we were singing the divinely inspired Word of God.

The church I grew up in was simply furnished; a baptismal font, communion table, and Bible were the only religious symbols represented. There wasn’t even a cross. But no expense was spared when it came to the quality of the organ, however simple the exterior. The message was clear: only the best was good enough for worshiping God.

No one expected perfection in congregational singing—some church members were known to sing off-key, but a few had such beautiful voices that I would smile when they scooted into a pew close to me, anticipating that the singing was going to be wonderful!

Those days of singing the psalms exclusively in worship are over in most churches. But the psalm-singing church has left a legacy of valuable lessons that continue to inspire the community of the saints today.

It’s a Book About Us

One gravestone in the old cemetery in my little hometown in the Netherlands bears the name Hendrik Reedijk. This eleven-year-old boy died on April 3, 1945 when he was struck by a grenade right in front of his house. I read an account of his funeral that was written by a classmate. As the whole class stood around the grave, the teacher suggested they sing a stanza from Genevan Psalm 85 (which they all knew by heart). This verse had been Hendrik’s favorite. Translated, it reads something like this:
Do you not raise us from death
in order that your people can rejoice?
May your goodness set us free;
give salvation and rescue through your hand,
by your grace, we pray, our sighing land.

This particular psalm had become a protest song of the Dutch people under Nazi occupation. To the German soldiers marching down the street as music and words poured forth from places of worship, it sounded like an old song from the Bible. But the people singing knew it was about their fight for freedom—a literal enemy indeed, and a sighing land. And so the people sang this psalm wherever they were as an act of defiance and as an expression of hope.

A few months ago I stumbled across an order of worship for a memorial service to remember those who died during the flood of 1953. Our little town had been one of the most devastated in the country. Most of the population were evacuated, but thirty-seven people drowned. Among other hymns, the Genevan psalms were given a place of prominence in the service of remembrance, including Psalm 93 stanzas 2 and 3:
Firm from of old has stood, O Lord, your throne
From everlasting you are God alone
To you the seas have lifted up their voice
The pounding waves that in their strength rejoice.
But mighty though the thund’ring floods might be
Far mightier than the breakers of the sea
Are you, the Lord who sits enthroned on high
The king whose name we praise and glorify.

So even when we were singing psalms about pilgrims traveling to the place of worship called “Zion,” “Jerusalem,” or the “Temple,” we all understood that the psalmist was also speaking about our very own church building. References to “Abraham” and “Israel” were about us, God’s people. When the psalmists mentioned the need for comfort and hope, or gratitude for such gifts received, we poured our hearts into their words—for they were also our words.

It’s God’s Word

Singing the Genevan Psalter was a gateway into the text of the Bible itself. As children, we were required to memorize a stanza of the Genevan psalms weekly for elementary school, and an additional stanza for Sunday school. Most of us knew large sections of the Psalter by heart. Years before I owned my first Bible, a copy of the Genevan Psalter was my faithful companion at home, school, and church. Singing those psalms was the primary way we were taught, at a young age, to treasure God’s Word in our heart, as the psalmist says in Psalm 119:11.

Not all the churches in my town used the same version of the Psalter. One church sang from a version completed in 1551; my church used the so-called “Old Psalter” dating from 1773; and in 1968 a new rendering was introduced and adopted by the more “progressive” churches.

My fifth-grade teacher allowed every pupil to choose which version they wanted to use for their weekly memorization. He would have three books open on the desk to make sure we remained faithful to the wording of the version we had selected. Since recitation was done by every student in front of the rest of the class, I was exposed to different expressions of language for the same psalms. Even though some of the older versions had words that were no longer used in everyday speech, by hearing the renderings of three versions, we never doubted that we each had memorized the same psalm. In this way we learned that there may be different and equally valid forms of language to help us express our faith.

Following the New Testament, we also understood that the psalms proclaimed Christ. We could clearly see references to Christ’s suffering and triumph in the words of the psalms (see, for example, Psalms 22 and 24).

It’s OK to Express Feelings

Although the church services I attended made plenty of references to Reformed theology, there was no doubt that singing the psalms was about faith, and that faith was something people experience.

The psalms, I learned, are all about a shared human condition. Singing them helped me listen to others and what they were experiencing, even if I hadn’t (yet) gone through anything similar. The psalms enable God’s people to stand with each other in the depths and heights of their lives.

Without conscious effort, while singing the psalms I learned that there are many different forms of prayer. I often reflect on how both personal prayer discipline and church liturgy are nicely balanced when they include a mixture of elements found in the psalms: praise, thanksgiving, supplication, lament, confession, wisdom, and songs to express love of (and longing for) the act of public worship.

Together as a community we also learned that it is appropriate and biblical to express our emotions. Music has the ability to open the heart to know its feelings. In conversations outside of church I often heard expressions of the Northern European matter-of-fact view of life: “What do you expect?” or “Let’s get on with it.” But during worship it was acceptable, and not uncommon, to see people wiping a tear while singing psalms. If David was allowed to be sad or happy and his expressions became part of the Word of God, who are we to deny our own feelings of distress and joy and the whole range in between?

Language Matters

The value of using outdated language to express one’s faith experience is a matter of perspective.

For example, asking twenty-first- century worshipers to express their innermost feelings with words used in Shakespeare’s day may not necessarily be helpful. The advantage of singing the psalms in contemporary language is the opportunity they give us to present the beauty of these ancient prayers and praises to a new generation.

On the other hand, language does have a way of jolting us out of the spiritual ruts in which we may occasionally find ourselves. Growing up singing the Genevan Psalter, I learned about the holiness of God. Now every time I sing those psalms I’m reminded of God’s total “otherness” as I approach God with all my humanness. Elevated or unfamiliar language can heighten our awareness of deep-rooted spiritual truths.

I love singing the psalms as expressed in their very old language. The language helps me to not take for granted being in the presence of God. And it reminds me of God’s people from many times and places. Sometimes old language has the power to startle us with delight. I recently sat up when I heard again the lines from Psalm 43, stanza 4 in the 1773 version of the Psalter:
Then I will go up to the altars of God
to God, my God, the source of joy;
Then I will, shouting for joy, pair voice and strings
to the praise of his goodness
who, after a short period of misery,
will delight me without end.

I have no illusions about any translation of the psalms—in Bible versions or Psalter editions—being inspired. Any rendering of words from one language to another reflects a particular lens of understanding. It is obvious, for example, that the Genevan Psalter is a product of the Reformation, and its different versions reflect several historical phases of the Reformed Church. This means we need to translate them again to fit our contemporary theological understanding and community.

It’s a Book about Community

So the Psalter lives on, coming to us in many different ways. The Genevan psalms remind us of our ancestors and the sacrifices they made to pass on their faith. Singing the psalms reminds us that we are a community and validates our personal faith experiences within the communion of saints.

The tunes of the Genevan psalms may have been influenced by popular sixteenth-century Genevan music, but they have an unfamiliar ring to our twenty-first-century ears. For that reason, a number of attempts are being made to bring the words of the psalms to a new generation of believers using new melodies. Although I will be among those who will mourn the loss of the Genevan tunes, as long as the psalms are part of worship I will gladly learn any new tune to which they are set.

But whatever happens, I’m convinced that the church will continue to benefit if we can capture the attention of a new generation of worshipers with the words of the psalms—and even with some of the tunes dating back to Calvin’s own church!