There are a lot of questions swirling around URC circles about the new songbook and the committee’s work on the hymnal. The proposed new hymnal is intended to be just that: a new hymnal! We understand that some might wish this to be a replicated Blue Psalter Hymnal. The committee, however, is working from the understanding that this songbook will span more generations by adding some newer songs along with some of the older and well-loved songs. Mainly we are striving to have it be a hymnal that more closely reflects our Reformed creeds and confessions. It will be a songbook in which the Psalm songs more closely reflect the Scripture texts and do not just loosely paraphrase God’s Word. Below are some of the most frequently asked questions concerning the hymnal. If you have access to the URCNA website you may have read these Q & A’s before. If not, some of your questions concerning the Hymn Proposal may be answered below. To read the complete list of the Q & A’s visit URCNA website at www.urcna.org
Q. It seems that that Hymn Proposal (hereafter, HP) is inconsistent in how it deals with archaic language (for example, “thee” and “thou” changed to “you” and “your”). In some traditional hymns the older language is retained but not in others. Why is that?
A. The Committee’s general policy in dealing with archaic language is to replace as much of it as we can with ordinary, contemporary English. This is in line with Guideline #5, namely, to sing God’s praises using “intelligible” words. We think that using understood, modern language is especially important for our children and young people in our churches. It also helps those who are new to the Christian faith.
However, sometimes older, archaic words are so rooted in a hymn that to change those words would be to lose something of the richness of that hymn. For example, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” would sound very strange if we were to sing, “Guide me, O Great Lord God.” In that hymn (HP #176), and a several others like it, we are recommending retaining the traditional text.
In other cases, some lines in some hymns end with a “thee” or “thou” or another more archaic word and are necessary for the rhyming of the next line(s). To change these words would require rewriting an entire line. In those instances we recommend retaining the traditional wording. Some examples are “My Jesus I Love Thee” (HP #207), “Ah, Dearest Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended” (HP #131), etc.
Q. We notice that the HP has changed some of the notes and the keys in which some hymns are written in the blue Psalter Hymnal (bPH). Why is that?
A. In many instances, we believe the bPH sets hymns at an unnecessarily high key. We know of many organists and other musicians who typically lower the key when they are playing the hymn in a worship service. So we have adjusted many songs to a lower key. Our preference is that the notes of a hymn would go no higher than a high D and no lower than the A below middle C.
Q. Why does the HP include some selections from the bPH psalm section? Isn’t this supposed to be a hymn-only proposal?
A. Many of the psalm-songs found in the bPH do not follow the biblical psalm line-for-line, or even verse-for-verse. Some of them are paraphrases. In our report to Synod 2010 we mentioned how our Committee probably will find other psalm-songs in the bPH to be paraphrases. Rather than omitting a well-known psalm-song altogether, we think some of these can be easily incorporated in the hymn section of the new songbook.
Q. Why are some children’s songs included in the HP?
A. As a Committee, we believe that young children are part of the worshiping church, and, therefore, we should include songs that children can more easily grasp. Additionally, we would hope that this new songbook will be used at home and in family worship.
Q. When it’s all said and done, for the countless hours and thousands of dollars spent, wouldn’t it have been better to let each church choose its own songbook from the several songbooks in print? Or, couldn’t each church publish its own supplemental songbook?
A. It was Synod Hudsonville (1999) that formed our Committee. That synod gave our Committee our mandate to produce a new songbook for our churches. Ever since that time, synods have upheld and reaffirmed that original decision. Synods have had many opportunities to reverse that decision but they have not. On the contrary, by a strong majority the delegates at our most recent in London, Ontario (2010) specifically approved the publication of a new, official songbook for our churches.
While that should be reason enough, there are other good reasons for publishing an official songbook, instead of having churches printing their own collections of songs. Here’s the reasoning found in part of our report to Synod London:
“Please note that when we speak of adopting an ‘official songbook,’ we are not raising the matter of using additional songbooks, or a supplemental collection of songs. As things currently stand, Article 39 of our Church Order allows for consistories to approve hymns not found in the official Psalter Hymnal. In this section of our report [to Synod London] we are simply discussing whether all our churches must have at least one songbook as their official songbook, the songbook that all URCNA churches will use in common.
[About this matter] we spoke with Dr. Bert Polman of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship. He concludes that the absence of any formal rationale for an official songbook probably reflects the unspoken assumption among Reformed churches that having an official songbook needed no argumentation. In other words, in the past it was simply assumed that Reformed churches, as well as many other federations, would develop and use an official songbook. Each federation would choose songs representing its own history, theology, and liturgical principles, and would collect those songs in their official songbook. So we find official songbooks of the Methodist Church and the Lutheran Church and the Presbyterian Church. So also, the Christian Reformed Church always had her own official songbook throughout her entire history. This is simply the way it was, and no rationale for an official songbook was needed.
Q. Why is the name “Jehovah” replaced by some other name for God in some of the hymns in the HP?
A. The Songbook Committee, along with the Canadian Reformed “Book of Praise” committee, requested advice about the best rendering of the covenant name of “Yahweh” (YHWH) from several Old Testament (Hebrew) scholars. We received responses from Dr. Cornelis Van Dam of the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches, and from Prof. Mark Vander Hart of Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Both of these scholars encouraged us to avoid the term “Jehovah” as much as possible.
The term “Jehovah” first appears in the medieval church and arises out of a misunderstanding of the Hebrew text. Here’s what happened: When reading the Torah, the Hebrew name of God, YHWH, was not pronounced by the Jews, and so when they came across the name, they would automatically say “Adonai” (meaning “Lord”) or sometimes “Elohim.” Later, when vowel markings were placed under the Hebrew letters, the ancient vocalizers put the vowels of “Adonai” under YHWH in order to remind the reader to say “Adonai.” What happened in the medieval context was to take the consonants YHWH of the written text and read this with the vowels of “Adonai”—thus “Jehovah” or the alternate spelling “Iehoua.”
This means that “Jehovah” is actually a phonetic corruption of God’s name.
Based on the advice of the scholars we consulted, our committee thinks it best to find replacements for “Jehovah” wherever possible. In this we are also following the practice of the “Trinity Hymnal” (1990 edition), the “Book of Praise,” and other songbooks used by most confessionally-orthodox Reformed churches.
In conclusion, the Psalter Hymnal committee asks you to bear with us, as the Hymn Proposal is a work in progress. All seven classes of the URCNA submitted communications to the committee by their deadline of October 31, 2011. The committee, which consists of one representative from each URCNA classis, met in a three-day meeting November 1–3, 2011, at Faith United Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. At this meeting the committee continued their work on the selection of Psalm songs and began the process of revisiting many of the hymns as requested by the seven classes. The committee has reviewed all the communications sent to them by the seven classes and is making many adjustments as requested by the classes to produce a hymnal that reflects the worship of our churches to the praise and glory of our triune God.
Denise Marcusse is a member of Faith United Reformed Church in Holland, MI, and a member on the Psalter Hymnal Committee, representing Classis Michigan. She is also an accompanist and choir director, youth leader, and Bible study leader at her church. She has a passion for music and a desire to produce a songbook that will be used for the glory of God for many generations to come.