Singing Psalms — Why Not the Whole Enchilada?
Frank Ezinga has another interesting post over here about the singing of Psalms. Specifically, he’s interested in tracing the history of why so many Reformed churches only sing very select parts of the psalms, rather than whole Psalms. He believes there’s a historical reason for this and he provides a musical sample to prove his point. If you’re familiar at all with the Genevan tunes as sung in Canadian Reformed Churches, this sample will probably be unrecognizable.
I’ve always agreed with Frank: we ought to strive for singing whole Psalms. I know that sometimes it’s impractical — Psalm 119 being the classic example. My personal guideline is that if it has five stanzas or less, we normally sing the whole thing. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. By that guideline, with the latest revision of the Book of Praise there are some 72 Psalms that can easily be sung in their entirety. There are quite a few more that have six or seven short stanzas that could also be sung whole. Psalms of eight or nine stanzas can be split and the whole psalm can still be sung in the worship service, even if not all at once.
I know that if I’m sitting in church and the minister selects, say stanzas 1 and 5 of Psalm 146, I always feel cheated. It’s only five stanzas — why not sing the whole thing? It’s a beautiful Psalm. Sometimes, however, even ministers get squeamish about some of the content of the Psalms. A classic example is Psalm 95 and its last two stanzas. The Psalm starts off encouraging praise for God and then stanza 4:
Today, would you but hear His voice:
Do not repeat your father’s choice
who stubbornly with Me contended;
at Massah’s rock and Meribah
they tested me although they saw
how they by Me had been defended.
And stanza 5:
For forty years they wearied Me,
I said, “They show no loyalty.”
Their hardened hearts resist My favour;
My ways they foolishly ignore.”
And so I in my anger swore:
“Into my rest they’ll enter never.”
I can remember attending a Psalm-sing at a Free Church of Scotland congregation some years ago. I requested Psalm 95 (from the RPCNA Book of Psalms for Singing). The minister presiding asked the congregation to sing it, but left off the last part because he thought it was awkward for us to sing that. I’ve seen many CanRC ministers do that too and I’m just as guilty as anyone. Why are we so squeamish? We have no problem reading the whole of Psalm 95, why such a problem with singing it? Are we afraid that someone might be offended? Then we may just as well drop the reading of the Law. It makes no sense. Let’s sing whole Psalms as much as possible.