The Psalter in the Hymnal

The psalter has long played a prominent role in the worship of Christians in the Reformed tradition. John Calvin held the newly reformed church to the singing of the inspired words of the psalms. In the nineteenth century, particularly in North America, Reformed denominations began to accommodate hymns by binding them to the back of their psalters. The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has maintained this “Psalter Hymnal” format right up to the twenty-first century.

Though most other Reformed and Presbyterian denominations abandoned a separate psalter long ago, recent hymnals have signaled the psalter’s return. Both the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) included a psalter section within their most recent hymnals. However, these psalters were effectively eclipsed by the hymnals to which they were bound. Though the intention of including a separate psalter was to elevate its importance in worship, the result was that the psalter was sequestered and neglected.

Does the new hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts (LUYH, Faith Alive, 2013), a joint venture of the CRC and the RCA, include a complete psalter? Yes! The subtitle of the book—“Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs”—suggests the prominent role the psalter continues to play. But the packaging of the psalms is different than it has been in the past. Rather than gathered all together, the psalms are spread throughout the book. But this is not a passive diffusion. Instead, the psalms actively infiltrate the hymnal. This was the approach taken with the supplemental hymnal Sing! A New Creation (Faith Alive, 2001); the psalms were strategically placed next to corresponding hymns and songs to suggest how they might be used in worship. As a result, the engagement of the psalter—and congregational psalm literacy—increased.

The psalter within LUYH carries forward traditions cherished by the denominational heritages of the CRC and the RCA. Successive waves of Dutch immigrants brought a penchant for Genevan psalms to Reformed churches. Though the CRC and RCA denominations are no longer defined by a single ethnicity, many of these Genevan psalms continue to be treasured. Whereas the Psalter Hymnal (1987) was proactive in expanding the number of Genevan psalm melodies, LUYH falls back to preserving and nurturing those melodies that are most familiar and accessible. Including guitar chords for these melodies suggests that Genevan psalms can be sung in many different ways. Even in the seventeenth century these melodies would often be sung in the home or court to the accompaniment of a lute or drum. Today, for instance, there is no reason why these songs cannot be led by a contemporary band (to hear this in action, search YouTube for “Psalm 134 the Psalm Project”).

LUYH also carries forward many of the beloved texts of the 1912 Psalter. These psalm versifications formed the backbone of English psalm singing for the young CRC, and found their way into the RCA’s hymnals through cooperation with Presbyterian denominations in the twentieth century. Sturdy and eminently singable psalms such as “It Is Good to Sing Your Praises,” “Lord, Our Lord, Your Glorious Name,” “God, Be Merciful to Me,” and “O Come, My Soul, Sing Praise to God” will continue to inspire our worship.

However, the historical insistence that each psalm be presented in “hymn-like” form proved to be debilitating for some of the psalms. Truth be told, not every psalm sings well as a hymn. There are certainly psalms of praise and adoration that beg for bold, affirmative singing. Then there are psalms of contrition, which suggest a humbler form of engagement; and there are psalms that are steeped in hurt, anger, and pain. I know of no congregation that sings these thorny psalms as they have been presented in previous metrical (hymn-like) psalters. They fulfilled denominational demands for the full inclusion of the psalter but did little to engage the congregation in worship.

The paring down of the psalter to those psalms we find palatable in worship is a very dangerous thing. Pain, hurt, anger, feelings of abandonment and betrayal—these are realities in the life of faith and in the life of the church. Not acknowledging these emotions in worship can be suffocating to individuals and numbing for congregations. So, rather than fitting each psalm into a predetermined form, the editors of LUYH wisely listened to the psalms’ messages and asked these questions: How might the psalm instruct, critique, or direct our worship? What form, what tone of voice, best expresses the intention of the psalm? As a result, there are a number of ways that LUYH engages the full spectrum of psalms.

Partnering with Hymns

Earlier I stated that the psalms in LUYH actively infiltrate the hymnal. The placement of a psalm on the facing page to a hymn can uncover a meaning of the psalm that might otherwise be hidden.

Another way to partner with a hymn is by setting a psalm to a familiar tune. For example, a metrical setting of Psalm 140, “Deliver Me from Evil,” is set to the passion chorale tune commonly used with “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” This might guide the apprehension in the psalm on different levels. One person might identify the agonies portrayed in the psalm with Christ’s agony on the cross. Someone else might find in the psalm her own lament of suffering but also reflect on how Christ is fully acquainted with her suffering. Psalm 55, “I Need Your Help, O Lord My God,” is coupled with the hymn “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” When they share the same tune, it is easily apparent how a stanza of the hymn could be inserted into the distress of the psalm.

How might the psalm instruct, critique, or direct our worship?

Similarly, the Taizé chant “Within Our Darkest Night” provides a hand to hold as we probe the dark night of the soul described in Psalm 88. Or consider how we gain access to the pain of a friend’s betrayal by juxtaposing Psalm 41 with phrases from the well-known hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” With the psalmist we might pray to God, “Even my best friend . . . has turned against me. . . .” The hymnist urges us on in our prayer: “Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

Models for Prayer

Worship leaders often skirt particular psalms because they think them irrelevant, locked in a time and place far from their own. Such a stance fails to allow the psalms to critique the way we pray in worship. In fact, many of the psalms pierce our facade of wholeness. We may write off some psalms because they deal with particular “enemies” that no longer exist. However, many of these “enemies” are not outside our community but inside. This reality can be hard to put into prayer, but the psalms prod us to do so.

Thus, using words from Psalm 35, we now have a “Litany for the Slandered.” And, while we often pray for the sick and dying in our congregations, a litany drawn from Psalm 102 allows us to hear the voice of the dying. While it may not be conceivable for your congregation to sing Psalm 74, by interweaving verses of the psalm with a hymn and a prayer we are invited to remember those who perished in the Holocaust and pray for communities suffering such trauma today.

And what of all those psalms of the dispossessed that lash out against insufferable tyrants? Is there a place in worship for psalms like these? Perhaps—if we allow for the possibility that we may sometimes be tyrants ourselves. Might we be living in such a way that someone somewhere might honestly pray this psalm against us? Consider the layout of Psalms 52 and 75 (see p. 32).

The intervening prayers help us to locate our voice. Maybe we are the victim. Or are we the victimizer? The psalter often brings us to a place we would rather not go in worship. Perhaps that’s the point.

A Broadening of Styles and Approaches to Psalmody

Because John Calvin desired that the psalms be sung by the people, not just the trained clergy, he edited a psalter. He engaged poets and musicians so that the book of Psalms would be set in French according to the conventions of Western poetry, including strophic meter, rhyme, and melody. Though the language and tunes have changed over the centuries, psalters in the Reformed tradition have held closely to the dictates of these conventions. To be sure, the predominant form for psalms in LUYH continues to be this hymn-like form. But we are also claiming a broader psalmodic heritage. In fact, the psalter within LUYH is enlarged by reclaiming well-known “hymns” as psalms. Titles like “Joy to the World,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” and “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” are welcomed into the psalter. Scripture choruses like “You Are My Hiding Place,” “As a Deer,” and “I Lift My Eyes Up” might not treat entire psalms, but are rightly claimed as belonging to the psalter. New genres of psalm singing are also included, such as Stuart Townend’s “My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone,” Paul Thé’s “Our Help,” and Ken Medema’s “All My Life.” Also included are black gospel settings such as “The Lord Is My Light” and “Total Praise.” And by singing psalms like “Como el ciervo/Like a Deer,” “Bān bȋn ah/Let All Nations,” and “Saranam, Saranam” we voice the psalms with Christians around the world.

Lift Up Your Hearts begins with Psalm 100, which finds its genesis in Calvin’s Genevan psalter. It is fitting that this new hymnal begins with a psalm that is so utterly Reformed in source and substance. But it is also important to note that even this Genevan psalm did not start or end with “us.” The original language was French, but the tune later found itself paired with an English versification by William Kethe. It was also translated into Dutch. Turn the page in LUYH and you find that it was also translated into Hungarian, German, Indonesian, Spanish, Swahili, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. This only scratches the surface of where this one setting of Psalm 100 has traveled. Turn the page again and we have Robert Grant’s distillation of Psalm 104, “O Worship the King.” On the facing page we find Thomas Birks’ setting of Psalm 19, “The Heavens Declare Your Glory,” set to a tune by J. S. Bach. It is with such a psalmodic overture that we then turn the page to the twenty-first century to sing a new song, “God of Wonders.” The psalter is alive. Lift up your hearts. Let us sing.


Martin Tel ( is the C. F. Seabrook Director of Music at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he directs the seminary choirs, facilitates the music ministry for daily worship, and offers courses in the area of church music.

Reformed Worship 108 © June 2013, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.