Trinity Psalter Hymnal: An Appraisal, Part One

The Trinity Psalter Hymnal is a joint publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the United Reformed Churches in North America.

I want to evaluate the psalter and hymnal sections separately on their own merits, and then the volume as a whole. This is part one, covering the psalter portion.

General Commendations

At the outset, I want to describe what I personally love about this hymnal in general. First on the list are the aesthetics of the bound volume. Its physical dimensions are practically identical to the previous Trinity Hymnal; it generally feels good in the hand and is not unwieldy. The paper is of high quality, somewhat thin, yet very opaque. The printing is legible and clear.

Second, I want to commend the typesetting of the psalms and hymns. The fonts chosen, while somewhat pedestrian (Times New Roman for the lyrics and Sibelius’ Opus for the music), nevertheless complement each other quite well and add to the overall legibility. The choice of Times is likely to create continuity between the TPH and the previous Trinity Hymnal, but its nature as a highly readable and utilitarian font is unmatched so I can’t complain. A more welcome change is the switch to Opus for the music; the TH used Finale’s Petrucci, which I personally find rather unbalanced. And thankfully, unlike some recent hymnals, neither are the notes too big nor the words too small (compare with Hymns of Grace, published by Master’s Seminary Press).

Just a curiosity for your viewing pleasure: An (admittedly lo-res) image of part of Psalm 106A, demonstrating inconsistent use of font. The highlighted portions are in Palatino, while the surrounding text is in Times (or Times New Roman). I know, I’m a nerd.

Third, the quality of the indexes is unmatched. Some hymnals have foregone extensive indexing, but not the TPH. First is the list of copyright holders and administrators, then Authors, Translators, and Sources of Texts, followed by Composers, Arrangers, and Sources of Tunes. Following these are two full indexes of the tunes themselves, first alphabetically by name, then metrically by meter. Then comes a biblically arranged list of Scriptural references, helpful in service preparation to find psalms and hymns that match the biblical texts used throughout the service. Finally, there is a list of topics (likewise helpful for preparation) and a list of all the hymns and psalms by title and first line. This comprehensiveness allows for all the materials needed for service preparation to be in the hands of the minister in the hymnal, without the need to look elsewhere.

Finally, as the editors mention in the preface, this is the first hymnal to include the Six Forms of Unity, that is, the confessions of both the Reformed churches (Three Forms of Unity) and the Presbyterian churches (Westminster Standards). This psalter hymnal is tangible evidence to the ecumenical relations between the URCNA and the OPC.

With that, let’s start to look more specifically at the two major sections of this psalter hymnal.

The Psalter: the Good, the Bad, and the Could Be Better

The first section of the psalter hymnal consists of 281 full, partial, and paraphrased settings of each of the 150 biblical psalms. Many of the psalms were newly metricized by the Joint Committee for the TPH, while some were pulled from previous psalters. Of special mention are the 1650 Psalter, the Genevan Psalter republished by the Canadian Reformed Churches, the Psalter 1912 (the index records 74 selections in the psalter section alone), and the RPCNA’s Book of Psalms for Singing and Book of Psalms for Worship.

The new versifications by the Committee are generally very well done, though they can tend to be a bit flat and prosaic. This is fine, though, because literal accuracy is preferred to poetic fluency (hence psalm singers’ love for the venerable 1650 Scottish psalter). They avoid unnecessary paraphrase, though at times compression and expansion are used. In general they are about as literal as the New International Version. The Committee also included the verse numbers of the psalm within the text, which is helpful.

I applaud the effort to avoid breaking the Psalms up into several sections, a practice which has long plagued the RPCNA psalters. Each psalm is a complete unit in itself, its meaning dependent on each constituent part, so to only sing a portion would do the divine Poet a disservice and may lend itself toward misunderstanding.

Equally helpful is the recognition that not all psalm selections are made equal. Those that are only parts of Psalms are designated “partial” at the bottom of the page; likewise those that are paraphrases. As explained in the preface, if a psalm has more than one selection, the first is the full psalm in a literal version, followed by any partials or paraphrases in subsequent selections (except for Psalm 119, which is divided according to the acrostic stanzas in the original text). In my personal judgment, the 1912 Psalter is overrepresented in these partials and paraphrases, and many of the selections chosen from it belong rather in the hymn section. However, it is this Psalter which is most widely known to Presbyterians and Reformed alike; the previous Trinity Hymnals and CRC Psalter Hymnals contained many of its Psalm versions as well.

A note on the The Psalter of 1912. In many instances, the translation is perfectly serviceable, and represents well the text of the Psalm; but in other cases, The Psalter simply omits material, especially when it might run up against the refined tastes of modern people. As an example, here is a link to a comparison of Psalm 83 in several psalters, with the KJV as a representative prose translation. The 1912 Psalter is lean compared to the fullness of the other translations, especially regarding this psalm’s imprecations against the enemies of God. 

The TPH is a marked improvement on the 1912. Every verse of every psalm is present as far as I can tell, except for some compression (see for example 106A, verses 41-42, 44-45) and the usual omission of the word “Selah” and the verse “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended” that closes Psalm 72.

I find, however, that the choice of tune for some psalms (especially the lengthier psalms) could have been better. For example, it would take special mental effort to make it through all 11 stanzas of 104A to “Ode to Joy”; equally disappointing is 104B’s 17 stanzas to “Lyons,” better known as “O Worship the King.” At this point, the wise pastor may choose to break the psalm into smaller sections and spread them throughout the service, so that the whole psalm is still sung, but in more manageable pieces. The music, after all, is meant to serve the words, and not vice versa. 

On that same note (pun intended), I wish that the committee had not used so many familiar hymn tunes for the psalms. I understand why they did this (musical familiarity tends toward easy adoption by congregations, especially among those churches for whom psalm singing is a new practice). But I long for the day when each psalm has its own discreet tune, such that when that tune is played, the words of the psalm come to mind, and not the words of the more familiar hymn, nor the secular associations of tunes like “Thaxted” or Parry’s “Jerusalem”. (Basically, we should just go back to the Anglo-Genevan Psalter.)

Overall, I find the psalter portion of the TPH to be most adequate on its own merits. In part two, I’ll look at the hymnal portion and offer some closing remarks.

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