1 Sep 2004

The Genevan Psalter

Les Pseaumes de David, Mis en rime Françoise, par Clément Marot, & Théodore de Bèsze

Those who know me well are aware that I have a considerable affinity for the Psalms. I am reluctant to admit that I have a favourite book of the Bible, since that would seem to have me sitting in judgement on the scriptures. Nevertheless, I freely admit that the Psalms speak to me as does no other part of the Bible. My own daily prayer regimen has me reading a psalm or two per day, which means that I read through this book far more frequently than any of the other books. I love the Psalms for two reasons.

First, they cover a broad emotional range and carry the believer through times of joy and sorrow alike. Much of contemporary liturgy -- at least in protestant churches -- remains at one level. We easily sing God's praises and shout for joy in our worship services. But we rarely complain or lament or call down judgement on the wicked, perhaps because these things are not deemed politically (or should I say liturgically) correct. When was the last time any of us heard Psalm 88 or 137 used in the course of worship?

Second, I love the Psalms because they were meant to be sung. It is often claimed -- at least in some circles -- that, although the Bible prescribes what we are to believe and how we are to live our lives, it does not tell us how we are to worship or prescribe specific liturgical rites. This is only partly true. In fact, the nucleus of the church's liturgy should be the biblical Psalter itself. Yet there are many churches that sing everything but the Psalms, which is not as it should be.

In the 16th century the Reformers sought to render the Psalms in a form that would make them easily singable by ordinary congregations. Thus was born the metrical psalm, which all heirs of the Reformation sang until Pietism and the Enlightenment made Christians slightly embarrassed by the Psalter's typically earthy expressions. One of the more famous of the metrical psalters of the era was the Genevan Psalter, which went through more than one incomplete edition until all 150 Psalms appeared in metrical form in 1562. Some two decades ago I became fascinated by the Genevan Psalter and decided to versify as many of the English texts as possible and arrange their proper melodies so that the Psalms could indeed be sung. Thus far I have completed 50 psalm texts and tunes, which I posted three years ago on a website specially devoted to it. At some point I hope to get this partial collection published so that Christians can actually sing them. Click here to find out more.