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Voicing God's Psalms: How to hear God talking, live, to anyone who will listen

Calvin Seerveld says that Christians take the Psalms for granted. He urges believers to fall in love again with the Psalter. A feature story exploring the importance of the Psalms.

Now and then the biblical psalms make the news. Most North Americans have heard how Todd Beamer recited Psalm 23 with a cell phone operator-before storming the cockpit of the plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.

Some people also know the story of Horst Bienek, a German author who was arrested in East Germany as a young man, declared a spy, and sentenced by a Soviet military tribunal to 25 years of forced labor.

"During his daily silent walks in the prison courtyard, a Russian inmate who always walked behind him whispered psalms in German. Bienek said that these whispered words saved his life," says Barbara Carvill, who teaches German language and literature at Calvin College.

Carvill first noticed the life-giving quality of Calvin Seerveld's psalm translations in 1969, when she and her late husband took classes from Seerveld at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. She heard Seerveld read his psalm translations when he preached in local churches.

"In 2000, he gave a keynote address to a North American Christian Foreign Language Association conference. At the end he read the psalm dearest to him-Psalm 39. I said, 'Before you die, you have to produce a CD.'  

"If I read his translations, I can hear his voice. He has just a way of reading the words. He speaks with so much force and power that you know it is the Word of God," Carvill says.

Seerveld's newest book, Voicing God's Psalms, includes 37 biblical psalms and several psalmic passages (from both testaments), as well as versifications of several psalms. The accompanying CD features group readings, readings by the author, and psalm tunes played on recorder or saxophone.

Say them together

"God's psalms are dynamite. They need to be spoken aloud and sung, until they are stamped on our communal mind," says Calvin Seerveld, an author, composer, and emeritus aesthetics professor. So that readers of Voicing God's Psalms would take a fresh look at God's words, he translated the passages from the original Hebrew and Greek languages into idiomatic American English.

As he explains in his introduction, Seerveld hopes this book and CD will help people "start reading and listening to God talking live." His translations are clustered into nine themes: Torah, Melchizedek, enemies, repentance and forgiveness, wrestling with the Lord, comfort, trusting God, God-promises, and hallelujah.

Seerveld's translation of Psalm 6:2-5 captures David's desperate agony:

     Deal gently with me, LORD, because I am fragile, petering out,
     Heal me, O LORD, for my very bones are caving in,
     my deepest self is horribly disturbed-
     and you, LORD, how long will it be before..

     Please turn around, LORD God, pull my life up out of its mess;
     set me free! simply because of your covenantal mercy,
     because no one remembers you if they are dead!
     In the grave, who can give you praise?

As vice president and editor-in-chief at Eerdmans Publishing, Jon Pott has time to edit only one manuscript a year. He says that working on these translations reconnected him with his student years at Trinity Christian College, where Seerveld "was an overwhelming and inspirational presence" in the classroom and chapel.

"All of us who heard him read some of the translations that are in his new book were startled and often gripped by their power and freshness-even daring, accustomed as we still were in those days to the time-honored cadences of the King James," Pott says.

Seerveld arranged several psalms so that speakers and hearers more clearly understand the passage's intent. He suggests reading Psalm 8 as a chorus, except for verses 3-4, which are best spoken by a single voice. ("When I look at the night sky, the work of your finger, When I look at the moon and the stars, held there by your hand.")

He uses simple, direct language so readers will catch what he calls the "spoken-word character of the Bible." As he wrote about how to read the Bible in a long-ago magazine article, "God's Word is a red-hot goad and a tender hug. The point is to actually hear God's voice-not just scan the scripted words-and meet the Lord's ongoing, connected, and promising deeds happening now."

Sing them together

Seerveld is convinced that singing psalms together is another way to stamp them on the communal mind. Since the days of John Calvin, Reformed Christians around the world have sung from the Genevan Psalter.

When he was a boy in West Sayville, New York, Seerveld wasn't drawn by psalms sung slowly and in harmony. Fifty years ago, as a graduate student in the Netherlands, he was impressed that Dutch congregations knew psalm texts by heart, but their slow singing tempo failed to move him.

"The Genevan psalms came alive for me in the 1960s, when I used to speak for the beleaguered Christian Labour Association of Canada. There I heard the Genevan psalms sung in unison, at tempo, with syncopated organ play, by Dutch immigrant congregations, who were much less affluent than U.S. Christian Reformed folk.

"Hearing psalm singing at labor rallies helped me imagine how the Welsh miners may have sung going down to the pits, or as slaves' hollers took place (I've heard this on documentary videos) on Southern plantations," Seerveld says.

In Voicing God's Psalms, he includes 20 versifications, along with suggestions on which psalm tunes to use. Most of the tunes are Genevan, Welsh, or German compositions.

Calvin Stapert, who plays the recorder on the accompanying CD, says the Genevan psalms have lasting power. "Their tunes are as simple and direct as Cal Seerveld's language. Their melodies are beautifully shaped out of simple, singable motifs. Their rhythms are built out of only three note-lengths, but within a great variety of metric structures.

"They're simple without being simple-minded, grand without being grandiose. They're sturdy and strong, and they fit John Calvin's requirement that the song should correspond to the magnificence of the subject," Stapert explains.

Express lament as well as joy

The psalms provide rich possibilities for Christians who want to use God's words to praise God. Seerveld notes that biblical praise is a response to specific blessings, such as God's compassion in dealing with our sins (Psalm 103:8-18) or grace in giving a child (1 Samuel 2:1-10).

Besides offering translations of several praise psalms and passages, Voicing God's Psalms also includes Seerveld's "A Congregational Paean," set to the Genevan melody for Psalm 89. Its verses give words to praise God for particular blessings, such as unexpected healing or a late marriage or remarriage in the Lord.

Of course, while some of us are singing praises to God, others in the congregation might be grieving. As Seerveld explained in a Reformed Worship article, we need ways to "openly express our private pain in a public liturgical setting." Here's where the Bible's so-called "hard psalms," such as Psalms 3, 5, 22, 39, 51, and 86, give voice to our pleas, woes, confessions, and doubts.

Seerveld says you get the full impact of a psalm by hearing, speaking, or singing the whole psalm. But there are many ways to sink a psalm into worshipers' hearts and minds. Consider several ways to convey confession:

  • "It's true, I was born perverted. When my mother conceived me, I was already crooked. I know, you want truth in the gut: quietly now teach me that wisdom deep down, O God" (Psalm 51:5-6, Seerveld).
  • "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place" (Psalm 51:5-6, NIV).
  • "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom" (Psalm 51:5-6, KJV).
  • Sing a versification of the whole Psalm 51 to a sturdy Genevan Psalter tune.
  • Choose hymns based on a single verse, such as "God, be merciful to me" (Psalm 51:1) or "Whiter Than Snow" (Psalm 51:10).

Bring them out into public

Certain that God's psalms are "good for believers and unbelievers, for celebrating life and facing death," Seerveld often suggests ways to bring them alive outside church walls.

During his 1950s stint in Europe, Seerveld heard French pastors and old Dutch believers tell tales of French Huguenots chained together, lurching through the streets, trusting God more than fearing their captors-and singing Genevan psalms.

Wouldn't it be wonderful, he rhetorically asks, if Psalm 110 would become as well known as "We Shall Overcome." Picture U.S. congressional chaplains praying Psalm 110 at national prayer breakfasts or before legislative sessions. (Seerveld translates Psalm 110:6 as "My Lord shall set things straight in the nations filled with corpses. My Lord shall shatter those who are head over most of the earth."

Imagine, he suggests, how lonely people might respond to a nightclub singer wailing versifications of Psalm 56:8, "God Keeps My Tears in a Bottle," or Psalm 92 ("The Lord enjoys a hot guitar, with drums and sax to cook it."). Seerveld composed bluesy tunes for both versifications; they're on the CD.

He believes that bringing the psalms back into public life would remedy the current "weakness of biblical consciousness. There is so little, if any, common song (much less Psalms!) among followers of Christ. 'Amazing Grace,' the doxology, and 'Silent Night' are probably about the most Christians could muster to sing impromptu without printed notes (not counting the Bible choruses).

"We need to start way back and have leaders fall in love with the psalms, get current language, recite certain psalms, exercise certain tunes, and then-after a generation?-they may begin to live in our voices," Seerveld says.

He hopes that the Voicing God's Psalms book and CD will inspire ordinary and younger believers to start reading the psalms for devotions, using them in Bible studies and outreach programs, and sharing the CD at hospitals, nursing homes, and on military bases.

"If believers ask their pastors to give attention to the psalms, and then if pastors and music leaders show they do take God's psalms to heart, not just as token items in a Sunday liturgy, then maybe the CD and careful translations will endear the psalms to God's people and the curious disbelievers," Seerveld says.

Translation, Paraphrase, Versification: What's the difference?

When you read the Bible in only one language, usually in a single version, you forget that though all Scripture is God-breathed, God did not directly speak each word of each language and version into someone's ear.

“Translations of Holy Scripture are not innocent or timeless. Translators have dated locations, commitments, and limitations,” Calvin Seerveld writes in his introduction to Voicing the Psalms. In this short video clip, he explains how to translate the Bible into a current idiom so today's people can hear God speak.

Seerveld says that translations stick closely to the “literary structure and historical strangeness” of the original language texts. He tries to faithfully translate the psalms by conveying the original speakers' messages, including their nuances.

Paraphrases aim more to get across the concepts of the original passages than to achieve a word-for-word transfer from one language to another.

Psalm versifications fit the ideas of one or more Psalm verses to a tune. Writers often vary phrases so they rhyme. Writers also tweak or rearrange sentences to match the tune's meter.

Consider this comparison of Psalm 23:1-2:

•  Translation : “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me by quiet waters” (American Standard Version).

•  Paraphrase : “GOD! my shepherd. I don't need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from” (The Message).

•  Versification : “My Shepherd will supply my need: Jehovah is His Name; In pastures fresh He makes me feed, Beside the living stream” (Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David, published 1719).

The International Bible Society has a helpful chart that arranges English language Bible versions on a continuum from word-for-word translations to paraphrases. The International Society of Bible Collectors posts an essay on the fascinations and pitfalls of paraphrasing psalms for singing. For a more in-depth study, check out Scott Munger's slim book on the foundations of Bible translation.

Learn More

Buy Voicing God's Psalms (CD and book) or a tape of Seerveld's plenary address (search by series [Symposium], look for #12474) at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship. Follow this rubric to read the complete Psalter in a month.

Calvin Seerveld has written many books, essays on Christians and the arts, and choral anthem texts.

You can buy recordings of psalms in many musical forms, from jazz to the Genevan Psalter, which has been recorded in many languages. Genevan Psalms have been sung for centuries by Christians in Hungary. Recently Christians in Japan have begun singing them as well. You can see the notes and English text for all Genevan Psalms and listen to many tunes.

Of course, there are other traditions (such as The Scottish Psalter and The Bay Psalm Book) of psalm singing, as explained in this concise history and this scholarly essay on psalm content in recent hymnals. Some churches still sing only psalms, no hymns or choruses.

More resources for integrating the psalms into corporate worship:

Start a Discussion

  • In a typical worship service, how many verses of Scripture are read, or how many minutes are devoted to Bible reading? What message does this convey about the importance of God's Word?
  • How often and in what ways do you use the Psalms in your worship services? What are the pros and cons of giving more attention to the Psalms than to other books of the Bible?
  • How well does your congregation "do" joy and praise? In what ways do your services help people voice their sorrows and confessions to God?
  • Which, if any, of these practices are common in your worship: listening to someone read an excerpt or whole psalm; listening to a dramatic reading of a psalm; memorizing and reciting a psalm together; "praying" a psalm; reading aloud together; responsive reading (alternate verses or litany of cantor and congregation); singing psalm versifications; singing psalm-based hymns.
  • In what ways could you begin to bring the psalms into public? What would this require of your congregation? What results might you hope for?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to embed the Psalms in your congregation's communal consciousness?

  • Did you find an effective way to help your congregation fall in love with the Psalms? If so, have you developed a way to share this method with other churches?
  • Do you train Scripture readers so that they understand how to reach, rather than distract, worshipers? Does your training also include a way to give Scripture readers feedback, so that they can improve their skills and feel their contributions matter?
  • If you started putting more emphasis on reading, speaking, praying, or singing God's psalms in worship, what happened? Which results or best practices would you recommend that other churches try?