With the recent release of the RPCNA’s new psalter, The Book of Psalms for Worship, we should remind ourselves that, strictly speaking, there really is no such thing as a “new psalter”. Only one psalter has ever existed in the church—the psalter God inspired and gave to us before the time of Christ. That psalter has not changed and cannot change. While the psalter itself does not change with time, our handling of the psalter does change. We change our translations and versifications of the psalms. We change the tunes which accompany the psalms.
What principles should direct our handling of the Book of Psalms? Since the Psalms themselves are old and unchanging, should not our handling of them reflect these important features? In other words, would it not be a wise course of action for us to handle the psalter delicately and to modify it as little as possible? A disconcerting trend in the RPCNA is the frequency with which the psalter is revised. For many members of our church, the 2009 edition of the psalter is the fourth RPCNA psalter of their lifetime. What has changed so much over the past 60-70 years to necessitate these revisions? Has the English language changed drastically during this interval? Were the previous editions intolerably poor translations? Why do we have this recurring impulse to revise the psalter?
My concern is that we may be revising for the wrong reasons. My suspicion is that we revise the psalms partly because we are not quite comfortable with their antiquity. The temptation is ever before us to tire of singing the same songs, generation after generation. Perhaps we think that a new edition of the psalter will give us fresh experiences of God’s Word, or we may think that those outside of our church will find a new edition of the psalter to be more appealing. This approach to the Scriptures is also evident whenever a new translation of the Bible is produced and read. Perhaps a fresh experience with God or renewed interest in his Word is gained, but for how long does the experience last, and how much is lost when an older translation is discarded? We ought to hide God’s Word in our hearts, but consider how much memory work is forfeited when a new translation is adopted! Further, is not there something to be said for being contented with God’s Word, knowing that the Word is sure and trustworthy, something changeless in an ever-changing world? It seems to me that frequent modifications to the psalter undermine our belief that the word of the Lord endures forever.
Another hunch of mine is that we revise the psalms partly because we are less than comfortable with the handling of the psalter by our forefathers. Apparently each generation desires to “improve” the psalter, but how much real “progress” have we made? Ask yourself this question of principle, “Should we handle the psalter as progressives or as conservatives?” In other words, should we view the psalter primarily as something to be refined and bettered from one generation to the next, or should we view the psalter, first of all, as something to be preserved and maintained from one generation to the next? Which takes precedence in our handling of the psalms, conserving or progressing, seeking to maintain continuity with the past or trying to advance toward a more “perfect” psalter (as if perfection were attainable in this life)?
The latest edition of the RP psalter departs radically from previous editions in this significant respect: its utterly “modernized” English. Gone entirely are “Jehovah”, “thee”, “thou”, “ye”, and the like. While we may not use these words in our everyday conversations, this older language has abided within the church’s liturgical vocabulary. This language is still intelligible to nearly all English-speakers, and it is still cherished by many worshippers, because this older vocabulary lends to the majestic style of praise of which God is most worthy. Even uninspired hymnals in other churches continue to employ the traditional language of the 17th and 18th centuries. If non-RPs are not modernizing their old hymns, why must RPs feel compelled to modernize thoroughly the psalms? Personally, I view the mix of traditional and contemporary English in the psalter of 1973 to be quite satisfactory for our corporate worship services. I harbor grave concerns about the consequences of breaking substantially from the past in the words that we utilize for divine worship.
We should celebrate the old age of the psalter and not try to conceal its age by continually revising it. Further, we should honor the service of our forefathers in their singing of the psalms and seek to keep the noble tradition of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. Surely the ancient Israelites of the old covenant were not revising the psalter every few decades, and certainly the New Testament exhorts us to guard the good deposit entrusted to us, the form of sound words (cf. 2Tim 1:13-14). I hope and pray that The Book of Psalms for Worship will prove to be a blessing to the RPCNA, but I believe that the questions I have raised here need to be pondered by the church.