by David T. Koyzis

The biblical Psalms were meant to be sung. At the time of the Reformation in central Europe Christians sought to recover a place for the laity in the liturgy of the church. The best way to do this, they believed, was to render the biblical Psalter in the language of the people set to singable tunes. This blog and associated pages are devoted to one of the greatest of the sixteenth-century psalters, compiled over several decades, completed in 1562 and used in the city of Geneva as the principal liturgical book among the Reformed Christians there. The Genevan Psalter was the product of a collaborative effort among several people, most notably Louis Bourgeois, Claude Goudimel, Théodore de Bèze and the French court poet Clément Marot. Marot and Bèze's original French versifications of the Psalms have stood the test of time in the francophone world. The Psalms would eventually be translated into German, Dutch, Hungarian, Czech, Italian and, much later, Afrikaans, Indonesian and English.

The chief liturgical book of God’s people

For millennia the biblical psalter has been the chief liturgical book of God’s people of the old and new covenants. The Psalms are unique in that they simultaneously reflect the full range of human experience and reveal to us God’s word. In them we hear expressions of joy and lament, cries for revenge against enemies, confession of sin, acknowledgement of utter dependence on God, recitations of his mighty acts in history, and finally songs of praise and adoration. With the rest of the Old Testament, Christians share the biblical Psalter with the Jewish people, with whom it originates. Many of the Psalms are ascribed to David himself, and there is even a tradition making him the author of the entirety of the book. While there is no certainty to the ascriptions traditionally prefacing each psalm, it is likely that many of them do indeed originate with the revered founder of the Judaic dynasty. If the latest of the psalms were composed during the Persian and perhaps even into the Hasmonean eras, then the Psalter was compiled over the better part of a millennium of Jewish history before being finalized sometime during the second temple period. Translated into Greek as part of the Septuagint, the Psalms naturally found their way into early Christian usage as well.

The New Testament writers see in several of the Psalms, for example Psalms 2, 8, 22, 41, 69, 110 and 118, a foretaste of the coming Messiah. The early church fathers added to this number, seeing Jesus Christ, not only in several other individual psalms, but in the whole of the Psalter itself. Thus the psalms of lament came to be seen as describing, not merely the miseries of the human authors, but the very sufferings of Christ. Further, the imprecatory psalms were no longer cries for vengeance by a hurting and oppressed people, but invocations of the very judgement of Christ against the enemies of his coming kingdom.[1] While there is nowadays a certain reluctance to see too many gratuitous references to Christ in a prechristian liturgical collection, nevertheless insofar as the Psalms partake of the larger redemptive-historical narrative of Scripture, we are fully justified in seeing in Christ the ultimate fulfilment of the salvation spoken of in these poetic stanzas. Thus in some Christian communities the singing of a psalm is ended with a trinitarian doxology.

The Psalms were, of course, meant to be sung, as they in fact were from ancient times by God’s people. Exactly how they were sung we can only speculate.[2] Psalm 136 at least was meant to be sung antiphonally, perhaps between a cantor and the assembled congregation. This is implied by the structure of Hebrew poetry, which proceeds, not according to the strict rhyme and metre familiar to especially protestant Christians, but by means of parallelism and repeated stresses in the parallel lines. The ancient Hebrew psalmists delighted in repeating a thought twice, but in different words. And contrary to the strict metrical structure of modern Christian hymnody, that of the Hebrew psalms is much closer to the “sprung rhythm” of our children’s nursery rhymes in that, while the basic rhythm is repeated in successive lines or groups of lines, the number of syllables varies from one line to the next.[3] A recent attempt to recover something of this original poetic flavour can be seen in Gelineau psalmody, invented in the 1950s by the French priest, Fr. Joseph Gelineau.[4]

In many Christian traditions the singing of Psalms has been eclipsed by hymns of more recent vintage. This is a phenomenon common to Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and the various forms of protestantism. All the same, many of the church’s most famous hymn-writers, such as Martin Luther and Isaac Watts, turned their efforts to the versification of the biblical Psalter. The former’s A Mighty Fortress is a christological rendition of Psalm 46. The latter’s O God, Our Help in Ages Past is a free paraphrase of Psalm 90. Yet many churches today go through an entire Sunday worship service without singing even a single psalm. Thankfully, this is being rectified in most traditions, as psalmody is increasingly reincorporated into the liturgies of Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist and other churches. Many of these have opted for metrical versifications of the psalms. Moreover, there are still a few churches, such as the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America and the Free Reformed Churches of North America, which, as a matter of principle, sing only the Psalms in the liturgy.

The Genevan Psalter 

The Genevan Psalter was a project that began in the late 1530s as part of an effort to make available to the newly reformed congregations a way to sing the biblical Psalms, initially in Strasbourg and later in Geneva. How were they to be sung? Up to that point the western church had chanted the psalms in Latin according to the method ascribed to Pope Gregory I the Great (c. 540-604). The chanting of Psalms in course over a specified period of time had developed in the monasteries under the influence of the Rule of St. Benedict, shaping into what is known as the Divine Office or Daily Office. Rooted in ancient Jewish usage (see, for example, Psalm 119:164 and Daniel 6:10), the Daily Office consists of regular prayer offices said or sung throughout the day at approximately three-hour intervals (cf. Acts 10:9). In the Orthodox Church the Psalter is divided into twenty kathismata, or sittings, during which the entire Psalter is sung in course.

The Daily Office survived the Reformation in some places, but not everywhere. In England the Book of Common Prayer combined the two offices of Matins and Lauds to make up Morning Prayer, and joined together Vespers and Compline to form Evening Prayer, or Evensong. In the Lutheran tradition, where there was an attempt to incorporate monastic piety into the daily lives of ordinary Christians, the Daily Office continues to survive in some fashion.[5]  However, it did not continue in those places influenced by such non-Lutheran reformers as Zwingli and Calvin. Nevertheless, the singing of the psalms was retained, to be incorporated into the ordinary Lord's Day worship service.

Clément Marot

What would eventually become the Genevan Psalter began in Strasbourg when Aulcuns pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant were published in 1539 at Calvin's direction during his sojourn in that city. This small collection contained 19 metrical psalms, 13 of which were set to verse by the French court poet Clément Marot and six others by Calvin himself, as well as three canticles from elsewhere in scripture, viz., the Decalogue, the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis) and the Creed, thereby making a total of 22 texts used by the French-speaking congregation there. These psalms were not sung as plainchant; rather the texts were reworked into poetic form to be sung in the language of the people set to fresh tunes composed explicitly for this purpose by Matthias Greiter (c. 1495-1550) (Psalm 36/68), Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510-1560), and a certain Maistre Pierre.[6]  In these early partial collections of psalms, including Aulcuns pseaulmes, La forme des prieres et chantz ecclesiastiques (1542) and Cinquante psaumes en françois (1543), the number of psalms increased with each subsequent edition. This meant that some psalms were versified before others. John Witvliet takes note of the relative absence of the psalms of praise with which we ourselves would likely begin if we were to undertake a similar project. Instead the first psalms to be sung at Strasbourg included those emphasizing confession and forgiveness, wisdom/law and protection from foes.[7]  Witvliet concludes that “Genevan spirituality was formed primarily by psalms of penitence and lament.”[8] Moreover, as it turns out, if the Daily Office proper was not exactly retained in its traditional form at Geneva, Strasbourg and elsewhere, the discipline of congregational psalm-singing was not altogether dissimilar to that practised in Benedictine monasticism.[9]

The Genevan Psalter would come to exert a considerable influence on the liturgical life of Reformed churches elsewhere as well. A Reformed minister in the Low Countries, Petrus Dathenus (Pieter Datheen, 1531-1588), in addition to translating the Heidelberg Catechism, versified the psalms in the Dutch language only four years after their publication in French. Thereafter his rhymed psalms became the dominant liturgical psalter until a new, Enlightenment-influenced version was introduced in 1773 by the States General of the United Netherlands.[10]  This was despite the fact that it was translated directly from Marot's and Théodore de Bèze's French text rather than from the Hebrew. To this day some 30 Reformed congregations in the province of Zeeland hold fast to Dathenus' version.[11]

Not quite a dozen years after the publication of the Genevan Psalter, the legal scholar Ambrosius Lobwasser (1515-1585), who had heard the psalms sung by the Huguenots during his sojourn in the Berry region of France, published a German translation primarily for private use directly from the French text, something for which he was roundly criticized by his fellow Lutherans. The Lobwasser Psalter was published in 1573 and would eventually find its way into the public worship of the Reformed Churches in, for example, Zürich.[12] The Lobwasser Psalter would in turn serve as the model for Czech and Hungarian versifications of the Genevan Psalms. 

Jiří Strejc (also known as Georg Vetter, 1536-1599) was born in the Moravian village of Zábřeh and became a minister in the Unity of the Brethren, also variously known as the Unitas Fratrum, the Bohemian Brethren and Moravian Brethren, who were heirs of the pre-reformer Jan Hus (c. 1369-1415). Strejc spent some time in the Prussian city of Königsberg, where Lobwasser was teaching. Whether the two met I have been unable to determine, but Strejc was sufficiently impressed with the Lobwasser Psalter that he undertook to translate the German text directly into the Czech language in 1587.[13]  It was still being used as recently as the turn of the last century.

The Calvinist Reformation spread also into Hungary, especially the eastern parts of that country under Ottoman Turkish control and thus exempt from the Habsburg enforced Counter-Reformation. Shortly after the turn of the 17th century, the widely-travelled Reformed pastor Albert Szenci Molnár published his own translation of the Lobwasser Psalter to be sung to the Genevan tunes. Molnár's psalms would come, along with Gáspár Károly's 1590 translation of the Bible, to influence the development of the Hungarian literary language.

In his famous Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton Seminary in 1898, the Dutch statesman and polymath Abraham Kuyper discusses the Genevan Psalms in his lecture on “Calvinism and Art.” Here he manages to pass on to his hearers two misconceptions about the Psalter's tunes. First, he repeats the now-discredited view of Orentin Douen that they were not original to the Psalter, but were taken from existing songs already familiar to the people.[14] Second, he surprisingly avers that

It was this same [Louis] Bourgeois who had the courage to adopt rhythm and to exchange the eight Gregorian modes for the two of major and minor from the popular music; to sanctify its art in consecrated hymn, and so to put the impress of honor upon that musical arrangement of tunes, from which all modern music had its rise [emphasis mine].[15]
The first misconception has been cleared up since Kuyper's day, as Hendrik Hasper recounts: “It is the great merit of Emmanuel Haein to have consigned the views of Douen to the realm of fancy. . . . ”[16] The falsity of the second misconception would not have been obvious to Kuyper and his contemporaries, who knew the Psalm tunes according to their 19th-century arrangements, which suppressed their original modal flavour. In fact, the melodies of the Psalter were indeed based on the gregorian modes, as reflected in 20th-century Dutch Psalters, which indicate the modes (Jonisch, Phrygisch, Dorisch, &c.) above the tunes. Because the tunes were fresh compositions and thus not familiar to the people, Calvin urged that they be taught first to the children, who would then teach them to the rest of the congregation.[17]

Perhaps the most surprising development of all was the 17th-century translation of several Genevan Psalms into Turkish, the language of a predominantly muslim country. Wojciech Bobowski (1610-1675) was a musically-gifted Polish-born Reformed Christian who had the misfortune to be kidnapped as a young man by Tatars and sold as a slave to the Ottoman Sultan. However, what began in slavery turned out, as with the biblical Joseph, to be very nearly a smart career move. He became translator, treasurer and court composer for the Sultan, converting (at least nominally) to Islam and changing his name to Ali Ufki. Among his many impressive achievements, he translated the Bible into Turkish and versified the first 14 Psalms in that language, enabling them to be sung to their proper Genevan melodies. This small collection was published in 1665.[18]

Reception in the English-speaking world

Except for a very few tunes, the Genevan melodies largely failed to take root in England and Scotland, where psalm-singing took on a somewhat different flavour. Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins published The Whole Booke of Psalmes in 1562, the very year that saw the completion of the Genevan Psalter. This metrical psalter would dominate the English church until the end of the 17th century, when it was supplanted by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady's so-called “New Version” Psalter. It was bound into copies of the Geneva Bible, along with Miles Coverdale's prose psalter from the Book of Common Prayer. Tate and Brady’s Psalter was itself bound together in a single volume with the Book of Common Prayer.[19]  With this collection began a tradition of metrical psalmody relying on a very few metres, with one metre dominating, known variously as iambic heptameter, ballad metre or common metre (CM), with a metrical structure of 86 86. This pattern was carried into the Scottish Psalters of 1635 and 1650, as well as into Tate and Brady in 1696. So regular were the metres for these psalters that the 1929 edition of the Scottish Psalter has split pages, enabling worshippers to mix and match tunes and texts easily.[20]

By contrast, one could hardly do this with the Genevan Psalms, which boast a wide variety of metres, thereby making each tune very nearly unique. In this respect, there is a close family connection between the Genevan melodies and the 16th- and 17th-century German chorales, with the former having some influence on the latter. As one example, the tune Mit Freuden Zart (whose German text was written by the same Jiří Strejc whom we met earlier) bears more than a passing resemblance to the Genevan tune for Psalm 138, a relationship made more obvious in the Dutch-language Liedboek voor de Kerken.[21] Furthermore, the tune to which the German Advent hymn, Tröstet, tröstet meine Lieben (Comfort, Comfort Ye My People), is sung to the proper melody for Psalm 42. It is by no means coincidental that the one Genevan tune best known to English-speaking Christians is in Long Metre (LM, 88 88), the second most frequent metre in the English and Scottish psalters. This is the tune to Psalm 134, renumbered as Psalm 100 (“OLD HUNDREDTH” in the back of our hymnals) in the Scottish Psalter of 1650. Some Genevan tunes do share the same metres, for example, Psalms 12 and 110 (11 10 11 10), and Psalms 100/131 and 134 (LM). Yet many more have unusual metres that appear to have been created especially for certain texts. Such include 988 95 (Psalm 5), 10 11 11 10 4 (Psalms 14 and 53) and the quirky 98 98 66 56 65 (Psalms 33 and 67). Some have very long stanzas, such as Psalm 19 (666 666 667 667), which would make them difficult to replicate elsewhere.

There are two exceptions to this tendency towards regular metres in English-language psalters. First, Henry Ainsworth's Psalter was published in Amsterdam in 1612 and was brought to America by the Pilgrims in 1620. It contained at least 12 Genevan tunes, assigning them to at least 62 psalms, but not necessarily to the ones with which they were associated at Geneva.[22] This collection did not long endure. Just as the Pilgrims' settlement at Plymouth was overshadowed by the Puritan colony at Massachusetts Bay, so also did the latter's Bay Psalm Book of 1640, with its characteristically regular metres, supplant the Ainsworth Psalter, with its continental roots and irregular metres.[23] Second, a translation of the complete Genevan Psalter into English was published in 1632 under the lengthy title, All the French Psalm tunes with English Words BEING A COLLECTION OF PSALMS Accorded to the verses and tunes generally used in the Reformed Churches of France and Germany.[24] The verses therein are not especially poetic, and they ultimately failed to catch on in the English-speaking world, having little if any influence on subsequent collections. Here is the first stanza of Psalm 150, which appears to be translated directly from the original French version:

Let vs all Gods praise expres,
Praise him in his holines.
Praise him in the firmament
Of his povver [power] permanent,
And his high magnificency.
Praise him in his greatnes shevved [showed?],
In his goodnes multitude,
VVitnessing his excellency.

Why did the Genevan tunes have so little impact among English-speaking churches? There are a few factors to be considered. To begin with, metrical psalmody itself requires paraphrasing a text so as to fit a somewhat artificial metrical and rhyming scheme – a scheme obviously foreign to the ancient Israelite authors of the Psalms. Lobwasser, Dathenus, Strejc and Molnár translated their own versified Psalms from French or German, and not from Hebrew. The Bay Psalm Book was created at least in part because of the Puritans' belief that Sternhold & Hopkins’ metrical psalms were too paraphrastic and insufficiently close to the biblical text. Yet, given the limitations of the metrical and rhyming schemes, any attempt to remain faithful to the original will tend to yield verse that violates the rules of English syntax and is difficult to understand, much less to sing. This literary factor may account in large measure for the decline in Psalm-singing in protestant churches by the end of the 18th century.

Given the parallelism of ancient Hebrew poetry, could it be that English versifiers judged the even-numbered lines of Common Metre better suited to convey this pattern than the sometimes odd-numbered lines of the Genevan tunes? Or might it be that the feminine (that is, unstressed) endings of so many lines in the Genevan tunes were deemed less suited to a language in which masculine (that is, stressed) endings tend to dominate? Whatever the truth of the matter, English-speaking Reformed Christians became accustomed to singing Psalms in sometimes monotonously regular metres – something their descendants eventually abandoned in favour of noncanonical metrical hymns of better literary quality. The appeal of Isaac Watts’ and Charles Wesley's great hymns is felt even today. Small wonder they were attractive to worshippers then.

To be sure, the Genevan Psalms were eventually retranslated into English, though their use was largely restricted to those denominations with continental European roots. At the beginning of the 20th century the Rev. George Ratcliffe Woodward published Songs of Syon, subtitled, “A Collection of Psalms, Hymns, & Spiritual Songs set, for the most part, to their ANCIENT PROPER TUNES.”[25] It is an exceedingly comprehensive collection, containing plainsong melodies, metrical melodies of the 13th to 16th centuries, Lutheran chorales, “Old English and Scotch psalm-tunes” and old French psalms and canticles. Woodward himself put a few of the Genevan Psalms into English verse, though not necessarily set to their proper melodies. His versification of the first part of Psalm 150 follows:

Alleluya. Praise the Lord;
Be his holy Name ador’d:
Praise him in the firmament,
Mighty, great and excellent:
In his noble acts revere him:
Praise him on the harp and lute,
Praise him with the trump and flute;
Love, adore, and greatly fear him.

Although metrical psalmody once had a place within the liturgical life of the Church of England, Ratcliffe’s efforts to revive especially the Genevan collection fell short over the long term. Only a very few Genevan tunes remain familiar to English-speaking protestants, especially those for Psalms 42, 66/98/118 and 124, in addition to 134.

The only denomination that continues to sing from the complete Genevan Psalter in English is the Canadian Reformed Churches, a small group of some 57 federated congregations originating in a 1944 schism within the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland). The English versifications were largely penned by Americans and Canadians of Dutch ancestry, such as Dewey Westra, William Helder, William W. J. VanOene, and Wolter van der Kamp, in keeping with the rhyme schemes of the original French texts.[26] The Christian Reformed Church (CRC), which largely abandoned the Genevan Psalter when it embraced English as its liturgical language, has included a number of Genevan Psalms in successive editions of its Psalter Hymnal, although it is unclear to me to what extent they are still sung in worship. The 1987 edition brought back several Genevan tunes that had been omitted in the 1934 and 1957 editions. Those that had been in the previous editions and were sung isometrically were returned to their original syncopated rhythms. In 2013 a new hymnal, Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, was published as a collaborative effort between the CRC and the Reformed Church in America (RCA), whose members are even less familiar with the Genevan tunes. Increasing use of the Genevan Psalms does not look especially promising in the CRC and RCA. However, in 2014 the Canadian Reformed Churches published a revision of their 1984 Book of Praise, in which the Genevan Psalms continue to claim pride of place.

Nevertheless, despite the relative lack of familiarity with the Genevan Psalms among most English-speaking Christians, they are holding their own elsewhere in the world, as reflected in a number of recent recordings, some of which come out of surprising places, such as Japan, not usually associated with the Genevan tradition. A perusal of YouTube videos, for example, indicates that the Genevan Psalms, with Molnár’s versifications, continue to have a firm place in the Hungarian choral repertoire. Because of their ready availability virtually around the globe through internet sources, these new media resources are already reviving interest in the Psalms in North America at least.

For love of the Psalms

It is appropriate to recount something of my own experience with the psalms. I grew up in an Orthodox Presbyterian Church congregation, where we were accustomed to singing the psalms, although I rarely knew we were doing so, since the OPC’s Trinity Hymnal scattered the psalms among the other hymns.[27] Those psalms we did sing came largely from the 1912 Psalter. In my youth our family began worshipping in a non-Reformed church which sang from a nondenominational hymnal heavily oriented towards the revival songs of Ira Sankey, Charles Gabriel and Fanny Crosby. Needless to say, there were almost no psalms in this collection, except possibly the Scottish Psalter’s ubiquitous 23rd Psalm, which has managed to find its way into most hymnals. In short, in moving from one denomination to another, we had lost the singing of psalms, yet I did not feel this loss, because I was never aware of our having sung them to begin with!

In my undergraduate and graduate student years I began to discover the liturgical practices of the most ancient of the Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic and Orthodox, many of which survived within the Anglican and Lutheran churches. My initial introduction to this tradition came in the form of a little volume purchased at the bookstore of Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota: Herbert Lindemann, ed., The Daily Office: Matins and Vespers, Based on Traditional Liturgical Patterns, with Scripture Readings, Hymns, Canticles, Litanies, Collects, and the Psalter, Designed for Private Devotion or Group Worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 1965).[28] It is a marvellous book, filled with all the riches of the Christian ages, some of which were familiar to me but much of which were not. Since I was not part of a community that worshipped in this way, I privately followed the pattern of the Daily Office prescribed in its pages for perhaps a year or two, before making other discoveries that would further enrich my devotional life.

In the Episcopal Church’s revised 1979 Book of Common Prayer I discovered the Daily Office Lectionary, which takes the reader through much, if not most, of the Bible in the course of two years. It prescribed for each day of the church year, beginning with Advent, an Old Testament reading, one or more Psalms, a New Testament epistle reading and a gospel reading. At about the same time I began attending an Anglican church which followed a similar pattern for each Sunday of the church calendar, following the three-year ecumenical lectionary. This too prescribed a psalm to be said or sung between the Old Testament and epistle readings. It is no exaggeration to say that I fell in love with this rich pattern of going through so much of Scripture in the course of the liturgy. Although my present church community has not discovered this pattern for itself, I continue to follow the daily office in the course of my own personal prayer regimen, though I have sometimes abbreviated it as my own circumstances have changed. Several years ago, for example, I abandoned the Daily Office Lectionary and adopted a lectio continua through both testaments, reading through the New at morning prayer, the Old at evening prayer, and the Psalms every thirty days.

It was the use of the Psalms that most impressed me. The Lindemann volume took one through the Psalter at an exceedingly leisurely pace, prescribing at most two psalms per week. The Daily Office Lectionary guided one through the entire Psalter over a six-week period, with some variations due to the changing seasons of the church calendar and the occasional interruption of a feast day. I myself simply read through the Psalms in course, covering approximately two psalms a day. At other times I have followed a pattern covering the Psalter in four weeks. I have been rather less than legalistic about all this, sometimes going through long periods without the Psalms or even the remainder of scripture. Yet there they are, always ready to take me back and to sustain me through times of joy and adversity.

Everyone goes through tough times, and I am no different in this respect. During such periods I have found it deeply comforting to immerse myself in the Psalms, drinking in their praises, complaints, expressions of sorrow, and individual and corporate confessions of sin. Even the darkest of the psalms, Psalm 88, regularly takes my breath away when I read it. Who, after all, has not felt abandoned at some point in life? Who has not despaired of both present and future? And, even though we are loath to admit it, who of us has not wished to call down God’s wrath on someone who has crossed us in some way? I have sometimes joked that, had Prozac been around two and a half millennia ago, a third of the Psalms and the whole of Ecclesiastes and Job might not have been written! Yet the expressions found therein are part of the fabric of life – a life lived in a less-than-perfect, and sometimes horrific, world. But a life lived, all the same, in God’s presence. God’s love sometimes touches us by means of the very suffering that seems so vexing while we are going through it. But afterwards, that suffering has become such a part of us that we cannot imagine exchanging it for something else. Our trials become for us what Sheldon Vanauken aptly called God’s “severe mercy,” a mercy without which we would surely be lesser persons.[29]

At least since the Enlightenment many Christians have claimed to find the psalms something of an embarrassment. Even so indefatigable an apologist for the Christian faith as C. S. Lewis refers to some expressions therein as uncharitable and even “devilish.”[30] The great Isaac Watts once wrote: “Some of them are almost opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel: Many of them foreign to the State of the New Testament, and widely different from the present circumstances of Christians.”[31] In Dostoyevsky’s celebrated novel, The Brothers Karamazov, there is a scene in which the protagonist Alyosha’s recently deceased mentor, Father Zosima, is being memorialized prior to burial. Because Father Zosima was a “priest and monk of the strictest rule, the Gospel, not the Psalter, had to be read over his body by monks in holy orders.”[32] When I first read this part of the book, I couldn’t help pitying Father Zosima, because he was departing this life without the benefit of the Psalms. But, of course, the author’s point was that, for the mere monk not subject to such a strict discipline, the Psalms would have to suffice. I could not bring myself to accept this implied inferiority of the Psalter. Indeed, I and many others have found in the Psalms the very lifeblood of the believer.

St. Athanasius wrote of the Psalms that they are a kind of compendium of the whole of scripture. As each book of the Bible is like a garden bearing its own unique fruit, the Psalms bear all the fruit found in the other books.[33] Calvin famously labelled the Psalter “‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”[34] I hope and pray that these pages may help the larger church to recover the liturgical use of the Psalms. After all, the Psalms are simultaneously the most confessionally Reformed and the most ecumenical worship resource we have. First, the Genevan Psalms are the common heritage of the Reformed churches. Second, the Psalms themselves we share with our fellow Christians of virtually every tradition. Third, the Psalms we have in common with the synagogue, or, as Pope John Paul II called them, our Jewish elder brethren, even if we might interpret differently especially the messianic psalms.

Liturgical use of the Psalms

How ought the Psalms to be used in the course of worship? There are at least three possibilities: (1) according to a lectionary prescribing a psalm of the day; (2) according to the theme of the scripture readings and the sermon based on them; and (3) according to the focus of a particular part of the liturgy, in which case more than one would be used in a single service. Lectionaries have an ancient lineage and are used even in Judaism where the reading of the weekly Torah portion leads the synagogue congregation through the five books of Moses in the course of a year. Most Christian lectionaries are oriented to the church calendar and the changing seasons from Advent to Pentecost. Those Christians critical of the use of lectionaries argue that they in effect constitute a canon within the canon – that they unduly limit the amount of Scripture we hear read in the course of the liturgy. Better perhaps is a lectio continua which would take a congregation through a single book over successive Sundays and cover most of both testaments in the course of a pastoral term of service. Yet most protestant churches follow neither a prescribed lectionary nor a lectio continua but have embraced the highly subjective approach of topical preaching. This means that, far from avoiding the “canon within the canon,” the congregation is simply exposed to their pastor’s own preferred internal canon. To be sure, the traditional one-year lectionaries of the Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and Anglicans were deficient in that they included little if any of the Old Testament and covered only a portion of the New. The adoption of the three-year lectionary by most of these churches (with the exception of the Orthodox) was meant precisely to expand and not to limit the amount of Scripture heard in the liturgy over the period covered. This would, of course, include the Psalms.

The Reformed churches have traditionally used the Psalms, not as appointed by a lectionary, but as expressions of a particular focus in a specific part of the liturgy. Thus the congregation might sing Psalm 95 or 150 as an opening psalm of praise where Roman Catholics or (more recently) Anglicans might sing the Gloria in Excelsis. Its members might similarly sing  Psalm 32 or 51 as a confession of sin where other Christians might sing the Kyrie eleison or recite the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer. The Reformed churches in Geneva sang Psalm 103 as a post-communion thanksgiving psalm, while the churches in Zürich sang Psalm 113 at this place. By contrast, Anglicans following an older version of their prayer book would sing the Gloria in Excelsis here. The disadvantage of this approach is that, just as the Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and so forth, became fixed elements of the liturgy in the western church, so have Reformed congregations tended to alternate among a very few Psalms from one Sunday to the next. If Psalm 51 suffices as a general confession of sin, why sing a different penitential psalm next week? The net result is that few of the Psalms are actually sung over time.

Perhaps the best alternative would bring together these approaches, which need not be mutually exclusive but can indeed complement each other. Psalms can be used to reflect the changing seasons of the church calendar, the developing themes of a single book read through in course as part of a lectio continua, and to reflect the different moments in the liturgy.

It is in the interest of encouraging, among other things, greater Christian unity, even in liturgical matters, that I am offering these pages to the churches. “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6)

David T. Koyzis, 2011, revised 2020



1. Recent examples of interpreting the Psalms as the prayers of Christ can be found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: the Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970), and Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms (Ben Lomond, California: Conciliar Press, 2000).

2. One intriguing theory has been proposed by Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura in The Music of the Bible Revealed, trans. Dennis Weber, ed. John Wheeler (N. Richland Hills, Texas: BIBAL Press, 1991). Here she proposes that the sublinear signs (te`amim) in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament were meant to serve as musical notations for singing the text. In line with her theory, she subsequently published Les 150 Psaumes dans leurs mélodies antiques (Paris: Fondation Roi David, 1991).

3. See “Characteristics of Hebrew Poetry,” in The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha: Expanded Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 1523-1529.

4. See The Psalms: A New Translation from the Hebrew Arranged for Singing to the Psalmody of Joseph Gelineau (New York/Ramsey: Paulist Press, 1963); and The Revised Grail Psalms: a Liturgical Psalter (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2010).

5. See, e.g., Herbert Lindemann, ed., The Daily Office: Matins and Vespers, based on traditional liturgical patterns, with scripture readings, hymns, canticles, litanies, collects, and the psalter, designed for private devotion or group worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 1965); and, more recently, Scot A. Kinnaman, ed., Treasury of Daily Prayer (St. Louis: Concordia, 2008). My own contact with the Lindemann volume as a young man had a decisive formative influence on my own subsequent prayer life.

6. Pierre Pidoux attributes the last tunes of the Psalter to Pierre Davantès l'ainé (1525-1561). See Pidoux, Le Psautier Huguenot: Les Mélodies, vol. 1 of Le Psautier Huguenot du XVIe siècle (Basel: Édition Baerenreiter, 1962), p. ix.

7. John Witvliet, “The Spirituality of the Psalter in Calvin's Geneva,” in Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding: windows into christian practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 208, n. 22.

8. Ibid., p. 209.

9. Ibid., p. 211.

10. See Psalmen: De berijming van 1773 (Amsterdam: J. Brandt en Zoon, n.d.). Although no date is given for this volume, it was evidently used in the 20th century by the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland. The impact of the Enlightenment can be seen in the use of het Opperwezen (Supreme Being) for God in 16 psalms (7, 8, 21, 33, 38, 40, 68, 71, 77, 78,81, 96, 99, 102, 112 and 113). The 1967 Dutch versification of the Psalms almost entirely removes Opperwezen as a reference to God except for a single uncharacteristic reference in Psalm 68.

11. This was reported to me by my colleague, Dr. Harry Van Dyke, Emeritus Professor of History, Redeemer University College.

12. Die CL Psalmen Davids, durch D. A. Lobwasser in Teutsche Reimen ( Zürich: Bürgklicher Truckerey, 1770).

13. As recently as the turn of the last century, Strejc's psalms were published in Malý Kancionál (Little Hymnal) (Kutná Hora: Karel Šolc, 1900). A brief biography of Strejc is found on p. 783 of this volume.

14. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Peabody: Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2008), p. 152; referring to Orentin Douen, Clément Marot et le Psautier huguenot (Paris: l'Imprimérie nationale, 1878).

15. Kuyper, p. 152.

16. H. Hasper, Calvijns Beginsel voor den Zang in den Eredienst ('s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1955), p. 772; referring to Haein, “Le Problème du Chant Choral dans Les Églises Réformées et Le Trésor liturgique de la Cantilène Huguenote,” thesis, Faculté de Théologie Protéstante, Montpellier, 1926.

17. Calvin, “Articles concerning the organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva proposed by the Ministers at the Council,” 16 January 1537, in J. K. S. Reid, trans. & ed., Calvin: Theological Treatises, The Library of Christian Classics: Ichthus Edition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), p. 54.

18. I mentioned Ali Ufki to my Cypriot-born father who, somewhat to my surprise, immediately recognized his name and was well acquainted with his work, especially his Turkish translation of the Bible. For a brief biography of Ali Ufki, see Ali Ufki - a 17th century Al Jazeera.

19. See this copy published in 1800.

20. The Scottish Psalter 1929, Metrical Version and Scripture Paraphrases, With Tunes (London: Oxford University Press, 1929).

21. See hymn number 216, Laat groot en klein, where the tune is attributed both to the 1551 Genevan Psalter and, more speculatively, to the 1566 Kirchengesang, Prague.

22.  See Waldo Selden Pratt, The Music of the Pilgrims: A Description of the Psalm-book brought to Plymouth in 1620 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1921).

23. The Bay Psalm Book, Being a Facsimile Reprint of the First Edition, Printed by Stephen Daye At Cambridge, in New England in 1640 (New York: The New England Society, 1903).

24. All the French Psalm tunes, &c., perused and approved by judicious divines, both English and French (London: Thomas Harper, 1632).

25. Rev. G. R. Woodward, ed., Songs of Syon, 4th ed. (London: Schott & Co., 1923).

26. See Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter, Revised Edition (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, Ltd, 1984). This has now been replaced by Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter, 2014 edition (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, Ltd., 2014).

27. Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1961). This volume contains metrical versions of most, but not all, of the Psalms, the bulk of which come from the 1912 Psalter of the United Presbyterian Church in North America, one of the predecessor denominations of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

28. The Daily Office, or, more recently, the Liturgy of the Hours, is a form of prayer observed in the monasteries. These are spaced about three hours apart and, in the western tradition, include Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Each of these offices consists of the following items more or less in order: opening versicle (e.g., Psalm 51:15 or 70:1); followed by Psalm 95 (for Matins) or another canticle; one or more additional psalms; readings from Old Testament, Epistles and Gospels; another canticle (e.g., the Te Deum, the Benedictus or Magnificat); the Kyrie; petitions; the Our Father; collects; and a closing doxology or benediction.

29. Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy (New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 1980).

30. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1958), p. 25.

31. Isaac Watts, Preface to Hymns and Spiritual Songs (London: J. Humphreys, for John Lawrence, 1707), pp. iii-xiv.

32. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnet (New York: The Modern Library, no date), p. 393.

33. The Letter of Athanasius, Our Holy Father, Archbishop of Alexandria, to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms.

34. John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, “The Author's Preface,” translated by the Rev. James Anderson.

Icon of Prophet David courtesy of Holy Transfiguration Monastery

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