Where Everything Points To Him
(an excerptBy Dr. K. Deddens and Translated by Theodore Plantinga)

Dr. K. Deddens A Brief Biography

With permission from, Inheritance Publications

Chapter 11

Psalms and Hymns

The individual and the community

When the songs of the church are sung during the worship service, each individual sings by himself; yet at the same time, the people together sing praises to the LORD for the salvation of His people and the destruction of the enemy. We encounter these themes in one of the oldest songs of the church - the song of Moses (Ex. 15). The same theme of God's wrath over His enemies and the triumph of His people comes up in Revelation 15, where John hears the song of Moses and the Lamb being sung.

This theme is characteristic of all the songs we find in the Bible. In the songs of the church there is to be no individualism, but neither is there "depersonalization." All the songs are personal in that every member feels drawn in and involved; yet the songs are not personalistic or individualistic expressions of what "the soul" has experienced. The battle undergone by the church is lived and fought as a personal battle, and every one who sings feels caught up in the promised victory. In the Old Testament this was already done responsively, as in the case of Miriam and the song of Moses that was sung on the shore of the Red Sea.

Later, during the great feasts that were held in Jerusalem, cries of joy were uttered and songs of praise were sung. On such occasions the people would be urged on by the king or the priests. "Hallelujah" and "Amen" were used as cries of joy, as we see from 1 Chronicles. We also find this pattern reflected in the book of Psalms.

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Such an occasion would usually begin with an invitation to sing God's praises. This invitation would be directed by the worship leader to the choir or to the people; sometimes the invitation would go out more broadly to the nations, the heathen, the dwellers of the heavens, or to the entire cosmos. Such an invitation would be accompanied by a specific motivation: the deeds and virtues of the LORD needed to be praised - His goodness, His greatness, His victories. There was also variation in the way He was praised. Such terms as sing, praise, glory, thank, exalt, bless, and confess were used to describe what was going on.

In and through all of this, the basic activity remained collective in character. J. C. Sikkel writes:

The psalm was not only for the individual singer but for Israel: it was for Israel in mankind, for Christ, God and man, the Mediator between God and man; it was for the congregation of God in the world, the Congregation of God that has true human life; it was for mankind. The psalms were not only of and for David but for Israel. David thought of them in such terms himself, and in conceiving their unity he was caught up in the idea that the Spirit of the LORD was speaking through him and that the words of the LORD had been on his lips. The psalms were given to the sanctuary, to the choir leader, to Israel. They were the property of the Christ; through Him, they, together with the Scriptures, were the property of the congregation in the world. They were her psalms in the world of men, which she would sing in communion with her Head, Jesus Christ. In this way, all the psalms are bound to Israel and to Christ. In this sense they are all Messianic, just as all prophecy in the Old Testament and all the history of Israel was also Messianic.[48]

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We should not think in terms of a distinction between Messianic and kingly psalms, on the one hand, and individual laments and songs of thanksgiving, on the other hand. Borrowing a few words from A. Janse, I would point out that nowhere do we find "the individual being exalted in and by himself'' The psalms, Janse assures us, are not "songs about the religious life of people. They are songs that stand in the midst of the church's life. And this is the glorious thing about the psalms, that our full life in its entirety is not to be seen as something by itself; we always sing about it in the context of God's covenant. [49]

Early New Testament times

It should not surprise us that the use of the psalms was not limited to the period of the old covenant. In the new covenant era we find Christ singing as "the author of His own psalms," to use an expression of K. Schilder. He joined His disciples in singing the "Hallel" (Psalms 113-118) when they celebrated the Passover together as their last meal.

From the very earliest New Testament times, we see the believers singing the psalms. When Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi, it seemed obvious to them to use wellknown psalms to sing God's praises (Acts 16). The apostle Paul urged the churches at Ephesus and Colosse to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, whereas James writes: "Is any [one among you] cheerful? Let him sing praise" (James 5:13). The music in the synagogue also stemmed in large measure from that of the temple and therefore included a very important place for the psalms.

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Very early in history, the Christian church was persecuted and oppressed; all the same, certain forms soon became fixed and consolidated as patterns in worship. Various customs from the synagogue seem to have been taken over in the Christian church. Among them, as we saw earlier, were Scripture reading followed immediately by prayer, but also the singing of songs, which alternated with the reading of passages from the Bible. The psalms were sung by a singer and had simple refrains which the congregation could sing. In this regard the early church worshiped in the same way as the synagogue, even though there were some differences in outward form.

The psalms were sung in unison using melodies which, as far as their musical character is concerned, could better be described as melody schemas than as melodies in the usual sense of the term. At the heart of such a schema was a single note which was introduced to make it possible to move up to a higher note or go down to a lower one. This way of singing represents a step on the road to the later Gregorian chants.

In the fourth century, Eusebius pointed to the agreement in this regard between the Christian church and the synagogue. He was talking especially about the Jewish sect known as the Therapeuts when he said that they worship in the same way as the Christians - one person sings and carefully keeps the rhythm, while the others join in at the end. Thus the synagogue was familiar with the cantor who would sing with his back turned to the congregation. The image used is that of a crowd which, when greeting the king, chose one person from its midst to serve as spokesman.

There are also similarities between the ancient church and the synagogue in some other respects. While there were a number of musical instruments in use in the temple, so that in a sense we could speak of a richly variegated orchestral music, this pattern was not continued in the synagogue. In this regard the church followed the synagogue. And so at the very outset there were no instruments to accompany the singing. The absence of musical accompaniment at the beginning of the history of the Christian churches was a factor that decisively influenced the nature of Christian singing and songs.

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Both Gerardus van der Leeuw and H. Hasper have shown that the way the psalms were sung in the synagogue was taken over in the ancient church.[50] While it can be said in general that the melodies in the synagogue were subject to change, they nevertheless remained the same in the most far-flung outposts. And there are some very striking similarities to be found between the songs sung in the synagogue and the Gregorian melodies. The melodies which had a passionate character were often interrupted by a Hallelujah song, and sometimes ended with one.

The synagogue had borrowed quite a bit from the services in the temple, and elements of these borrowings were in turn taken over by the ancient church. And so there is in fact a long tradition that runs from the temple, by way of the synagogue and the ancient church, all the way to us, after first passing through the Reformation era.

The psalms restored to honor

After this beginning there came a decline - slowly but surely. More and more, the church became silent in worship until there was only the one-sided song of the priests left. There were far too many "sequences" in the Gregorian chants - long refrains with strophic hymns which threw all moderation to the winds. After that came the "tropes" - interpolations, fillers with a popular character, which in turn formed the seed from which dramatic presentations in the church sprouted. All of these developments had the effect of derailing proper worship: the texts became ever more impudent and pedestrian.

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During the Middle Ages, scholasticism and mysticism also made an impact on the songs used for worship, especially in sacramental processions. The words were in church Latin. And so it came about that the church songs being used in worship at the beginning of the sixteenth century were incomprehensible to the people, on the one hand, and had been devalued and secularized, on the other.

It was a wonderful accomplishment on Calvin's part to recover the book of the Psalms from oblivion and to have the singing during the worship service transferred from the clergy to the church as a whole. He began this work of reformation in Strasbourg. During the time of his exile from Geneva, he published a small book with nineteen psalms set to music; the book also contained musical versions of the song of Simeon, the Ten Commandments, and the twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed. From the fact that Calvin published this psalter it is apparent that he opposed the other songs then in use; he greatly preferred that the psalms be used in the worship services.

In 1562 Calvin and his associates managed to publish a complete psalter in Geneva. This book, which contained some beautiful melodies that were previously unknown, is a unique possession of the church!

Theodore Beza (1519-1605), who was Calvin's right-hand man when he was working on his rhymed version of the psalms and later became his successor in Geneva, also put out a book of sacred songs based on passages of Scripture. (These songs are often called "Cantica.") But Beza's songs remained largely unknown in the Netherlands, even though the psalter prepared by Calvin soon appeared in an edition for Dutch use.

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Rhymed versions of the Psalms in the Netherlands

After 1566, the Reformed Christians in the Netherlands used a rhyming of the psalms that had been prepared by Petrus Dathenus. This version remained in use for about two centuries and is still sung here and there. The rhymed version prepared by the great poet Marnix of St. Aldegonde came off second best, even though it was much more poetic.

In 1773 there appeared a selection of diverse rhymings of some of the psalms called the "Statenherijming."[51] This rhymed version is still in use today. But in our time there have been more and more objections against it. Abraham Kuyper criticized this rhymed version back in 1911, and Klaas Schilder sighed in 1927: "Our people must not be deaf to the complaint that the rhymed version of the psalms which we now use does not do justice to the revealed Word and sometimes even suppresses the Word. We have to get rid of our present rhymed version.[52]

After many years of preparation, a new psalter was published for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (lib.) in 1986, containing new rhymed versions of all the psalms. In North America a new rhymed version was made available for worship in English when the Book of Praise, which serves as the psalter of the Canadian Reformed Churches, was published in 1984.

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The ancient church sang psalms, but before long we also hear about the use of hymns in the worship services. Very early there were songs of confession, such as the "Te Deum" ("0 God, We Praise Thee . . ."). This song is based on the liturgy that is described in Hebrews 12:18-29, and its basic form goes back to the end of the second century in North Africa. A more finished form was given to it by Niceta (ca. 335-420), of Remesiana, who lived in the area that later came to be called Yugoslavia. Niceta was also the first one to insert into the Apostles' Creed the phrase "the communion of saints," which he took to be a reference to the whole church - in heaven and[53] on earth and of all times.

In the writings of Ephraem the Syrian (306-373), we find references to lyrical and didactic hymns in antiphonal form.[54] These became the model for the ancient Byzantine form of hymn that later came to be used in Constantinople and the Eastern rites. The nun Egeria, who came from Aquitaine, a territory on the border between the countries now known as France and Spain, heard hymns being sung in addition to psalms when she attended worship services in Jerusalem; many of the hymns were antiphonal in form.

Pg. 109

When we reviewed the degeneration that had taken place during the Middle Ages, the phenomenon of the singing priest and silent congregation demonstrated that song had also been secularized. Whereas Calvin dusted off the psalms and again gave the church people a psalter to sing from, it was especially Luther who advocated the "free" song. He himself composed songs based on Bible passages and spiritual songs (thirty-seven of them in total). Poets who were contemporaries of his, such as Speratus, Alberus, and Decius, did the same thing, while capable musicians wrote pretty melodies to go with these words.

Degeneration here too

It was not long before the language used in hymns and spiritual songs began to distantiate itself from Scripture. In the seventeenth century there was the figure of Paul Gerhardt (1607-76), a fiercely partisan Lutheran who was opposed to any prospect of union between Lutheran and Reformed Christians in Germany. He did not even regard Calvinists as Christians!

With the appearance of Gerhardt, we see pietism looming on the horizon in Germany. Gerhardt was under the influence of the mysticism of Johann Arndt (1555-1621).

There are striking differences between Luther and Gerhardt, as the following comparison once made clearly indicates: "Luther is the father of the German church songs, whereas in Gerhardt we see the personal element and one's own faith life occupying the foreground. Luther is the one who spoke for the congregation; in Gerhardt's hymns it is the individual member of the congregation who makes himself heard. Luther seizes the trumpet and gives the signal to assemble in preparation for marching; Gerhardt draws back from the hubbub and expresses his soul's desires in a simple flute melody."

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Gerhardt decked out the church year with his songs, and also composed many hymns about events in nature. Alongside him we see the pietist C. F. Richter appearing on the stage, and also P. F. Hiller. And then there was Johann Cruger, a composer who wrote many tunes for hymns; in his music the pietist emphasis on feelings and the individual comes through strongly. In the eighteenth century we have the figure of Gerhard Tersteegen (1697- 1769), a hymn-writer in whom we find mysticism mixed with pietism.

While Germany was the birthplace of the pietism that places the pious individual at the center, we must also consider the influence of Methodism, which arose a little later in England. Isaac Watts (1674- 1748) has been called the inaugurator of the rich English treasury of hymns. He developed the basic model of the English hymn - short strophic lines, intended for breathless but lively melodies. Unfortunately, these musical qualities tend to spill over into the words as well and come to expression as a sentimentality that parallels the lack of character in the melody.

The real Methodist hymns begin with Charles Wesley (1707- 88), who was the brother of the great Methodist leader John Wesley and also exercised considerable influence himself He had been deeply influenced by the Herrnhutters and their leader, Count N. L. von Zinzendorf (1700-60). In his hymns we find a strong autobiographical element. Faith life revolves entirely around one's own salvation for Wesley, as we see individualism coming to the fore. We hear virtually nothing in his hymns about the broad calling of the believers in this life, or about God's kingdom, the covenant, and the church. Many of his hymns are tender and sentimental in content.

The English Methodists have had even more of an impact on the hymns in general use than the German pietists: the effect was that the songs and hymns that had long been used were neglected. And then came Ira Sankey (1840-1908) and Dwight L. Moody (1837- 99) with their gospel songs, which became widely popular in North America.

The upshot was that emotions came to dominate everything, and the song or hymn was a mere means used to reach and touch off emotions. The experiential side of worship became oriented toward physical, outward manifestations, as subjectivism began to rule the roost.

The hymn question in the Netherlands

In 1807, a collection of hymns called "Evangelical Songs" began to be used in the Netherlands. J. E. Voet, who was responsible for more rhymings of the psalms than any other person, had expressed the wish that "more Christian songs would be sung in our public worship services and fewer prophetic psalms of imprecation (cursing)."

It can be said that this collection of songs was in good measure an imitation of German models which had been developed under the influence of both pietism and rationalism. It is striking, observes Gerardus van der Leeuw, that original Dutch songs were not used and that the very best of the German songs were not taken as models either.

Although there was considerable opposition to these songs, there was also acceptance. One particular synod in Friesland decreed that every minister must choose at least one song from this collection for each worship service!

This collection played a role in the reformation that took place in our churches during the nineteenth century. We know that Rev. H. P. Scholte refused to use these songs in worship, and that Rev. Hendrik de Cock wrote an introduction to a brochure by Jacobus Klok directed against these songs. Later De Cock also wrote a brochure of his own: "The So-called Evangelical Songs, the Apple of the Eye of the Conquered and Misled of the Multitude in the Synodical Reformed (Hervormd) Church" (1835).

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In this brochure De Cock took up a position against Rhijnvis Feith, a poet who was also the mayor of Zwolle. Feith had contributed the following stanza as part of number 51 ("Our Destiny") in the new collection: "0 Mortal, feel your worth; how you grovel in the dust! Your heart is much too bigfor the earth; you are living for eternity."[55] In opposition to such sentiments, De Cock wrote: "These songs say: Mortal, feel your worth (song 51). Our Catechism says: Feel your unworth. For the sake of your salvation, you must first know how great your sins and misery are."

Kuyper later declared that the use of hymns in worship is not permitted under the Church Order: it is an Arminian idea in its origin. Therefore it is our duty to oppose it.

At the end of the nineteenth century another collection of such songs was published. In general this second collection is somewhat better in terms of its content or substance. In any event, an attempt was made to connect the second collection with the early church's traditions and with the Reformation.

All these developments paved the way for the publication of a collection of songs by the National Reformed (Hervormd) Church in 1938. And later in our century (1973) there was the Liedboek voor de kerken (Songbook for the Churches), a collection that included the so-called interdenominational rhyming of the psalms and was made up of 491 songs in all. In this latter collection there are unmistakable signs of the false ecumenism and horizontalism of which we see so much today.

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"A few Hymns"

The battles over hymns that have been fought in our churches contained some impure elements. On the one hand it was argued that the psalms reflect "only" the mindset of the Old Testament and that the church must leave room for New Testament songs. The first statement, of course, is not true: the psalms sing of Christ and are songs of the covenant. But this is not to say that songs based on the New Testament should be avoided in our worship services - far from it.

On the other hand it was argued that the psalms sung in church repeat the words of Scripture, whereas "free" songs do not. Therefore, if any songs other than the psalms are to be used, they must be "cantica," which are rhymed passages of Scripture - and not "free" songs.

Now, it is true that the "cantica" are indeed beautiful. Beza put out a collection of "Holy Songs" in addition to his rhymed versions of psalms, and they are worth rescuing from oblivion today. Marnix of St. Aidegonde also offered us rhymed passages of Scripture which, like his rhymed psalms, have great poetic value. Yet we should be on guard against going too far in our efforts to render Scripture passages poetic in English or Dutch or any other contemporary language. The quest for rhymes must not take precedence over the message of the text! Moreover, the melodies to which we attach these rhymings must be acceptable to the people and must lend themselves to congregational singing.

I agree immediately with the opponents of hymns when they maintain that there are a great many hymns in use that simply cannot stand up to the test of Scriptural criticism. Hymns that we can regard as faithful to both Scripture and the. confessions are few and far between!

Yet there is a false dilemma to be avoided here. It is wrong to argue that we may only use the Bible's own words in singing. First of all, because a rhymed version of a Scripture passage is always a text in which certain liberties have been taken, it cannot be contrasted so simply with a "free" song, as if there were a black-and- white difference between the two.

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The point is that a song is supposed to attach itself to what God proclaims and teaches in His Word and is to be used in worship as a response to the Word. But couldn't the same be said of our prayers? When we pray, we must also attach ourselves to what God has revealed and promised in His Word - yet no one maintains that only the precise wording of Scripture may be used in our prayers. After all, we do accept the idea of "free" prayers!

Both prayers and hymns are bound to the Word of God as norm. In this regard, neither are "free." But they are free to a limited extent if they are formulated in a believing way that takes the trouble to base itself on the Word of God. Calvin often mentions praying and singing in a single breath.. for him they are on the same level. Think also of Augustine's statement that when the believer sings, he prays in a double sense.

It is not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to all the hymns that are available for use in worship. We should be careful not to add hymns too freely to the list approved for worship services. On the other hand, we should not regard it as an impossible task to assess hymns.

Early in their history, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (lib.) faced this question. The Synod of Middelburg, which met in 1933, eleven years before the "liberation," had expanded the list of hymns approved for use in worship ("Enige Gezangen = a few hymns") from 12 to 29. After years of discussion, a new psalter was issued for the use of the churches. This psalter, published in 1986, included 41 hymns, but it dropped four of the hymns which the Synod of Middelburg had approved in 1933, and it also eliminated or changed some stanzas within hymns that were retained. The Book of Praise which was published in 1984 for use in the Canadian Reformed Churches contains 65 hymns.

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The place of singing

In the Roman Catholic mass we encounter the "Introitus," the singing before the actual service. This custom goes back a long way in history. In the liturgy of Jerusalem (second half of the fourth century), we already find the congregation singing as it awaits the coming of the bishop. But such singing preceded the service.

It is better to sing after the votum or the greeting, for then we avoid the possibility of the psalm falling outside the service. Moreover, we would do well to preserve the character of the psalm as an answer to the greeting, also in its spontaneity: the congregation can begin singing the psalm immediately, prompted only by a short introduction from the organ, provided that the minister has announced it as the intended response or has let this be known via the order of worship in the church bulletin. It is also important which psalm is chosen for this purpose: only certain psalms are suitable for serving as a response to the greeting.

Having the congregation respond to the Scripture reading by way of a psalm is also a very old custom. Such a response is possible for both the law (taken from Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5) and a later reading from the Old or New Testament. Because the psalms have always been songs of the covenant, they are to be understood as responses to the revelation in the Law and the Prophets. But we should not make it a rule that a psalm must be sung after every reading of Scripture.

We should not apply this approach to the confession of faith, for it is not on the same level as a reading from Scripture. There is much to be said for singing this confession, for it is itself a response of the people of God's covenant to the Word of the covenant.

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In some congregations it is customary to sing while the collection is being taken. To begin with, we should recognize that the collection, as the service of offerings, represents a separate part of the service. I do not believe that it is appropriate to sing while this is going on. Yet there is nothing wrong with having the organist play a more extensive introduction to the psalm or hymn to be sung after the collection. It is also possible to have another piece of music played while the collection is being taken. But the organist must see to it that the music he chooses for this point in the service is in line with the psalm or hymn to be sung after the collection. This demands something of the organist, who should not be playing simply to avoid dead silence or to kill time; the norm for the organist's task is that he is to lead the singing of the congregation. And if there is to be extra singing in connection with the collection, it is better to do it not before the sermon but after it. The collection may be announced, but other announcements should be kept as much as possible outside the service itself.

As for a sung amen, not only the Scripture reading but also the sermon draws a response from the congregation, a response which functions as an "amen." (I will have more to say on this matter in Chapter 15.) The final song (sometimes called the doxology) serves as the conclusion of the service, as far as the congregation's actions are concerned, or in some cases it may serve as an introduction to baptism or the Lord's Supper, which then follows as part of the same worship service.

If these procedures are followed, there will be at least four occasions within the service when the congregation sings. In some congregations, it is - or perhaps was - customary to include a song (tussenzang) as a break in the sermon. This is not a practice to be encouraged, in my judgment. The proclamation of God's Word should be allowed to stand as a single whole.


Nor would I encourage a song before prayer as a sort of introduction to the prayer, for we should bear in mind that prayer has essentially the same character as song. If we follow the rules I am suggesting, the character of the congregation's response to the Word of God will come out more fully.

In many congregations, it is customary that only certain verses or stanzas of a psalm (especially a longer one) be sung. As we consider this practice, we should remember that in the days of the Reformation, the psalm as a church song would be sung in its entirety. For example, in Geneva and Lausanne, there was a schedule to see to it that in the course of half a year, the entire collection of 150 psalms would be sung during the worship services[56] There were five occasions for the congregation to sing during the service, and they provided opportunity for as many as nineteen stanzas.

The practice in the Netherlands can be determined in part from the advice given by the convent of Wesel in 1568, which suggested that there should be signs hanging in the church on which the psalms to be sung were announced. (We should bear in mind that in those days, worshipers were not handed a church bulletin.) Wesel recommended: "The purpose is that those who wish to consider in advance what they are to sing should be able to do so, and we regard it as best that the psalms be sung through in order from first to last; yet we leave to each congregation the freedom to determine the order in which she sings the psalms."

The emphasis on freedom is commendable. The freedom of choice, however, should be for singing psalms in their entirety - not for picking a favorite stanza here or there. Yet we should not make this an unshakable rule either.

It is interesting to note that the verbosity of the eighteenth century (there were no fewer than 1431 stanzas in the old Statenberijming) has been replaced by a more sober and concise approach in the twentieth century (there are far fewer stanzas in the latest rhyming of the psalms prepared for the Dutch churches). This reduction in stanzas makes it more feasible to sing psalms in their entirety, and it is therefore to be welcomed.

Pg. 118

It is also worth noting that the editions of the psalter in the sixteenth century included no division into stanzas: the congregation kept singing until the entire psalm was done! We should follow this example as much as we can. There are ways to deal with the objections, such as having to stand up for a long time while singing one of the longer psalms. As far as Psalm 119 is concerned, it is divided up into a number of parts, according to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The issue in all of this is the proper praise of the God of the covenant. Doesn't the LORD still take delight in His people's songs of praise?


48 [return] De Heilige Schrift en haar Verklaring (Amsterdam: "Holland," 1905).
49 [return] De heerlijkheid der Psalmen als liederen des verbonds (Culemborg: De Pauw, 1933), pp. 22, 23.
50 [return] For Hasper's discussion of this matter, see his substantial two-volume work entitled, Calvijns beginsel voor de zang in de eredienst, 1 (The Hague: Nijholf, 1955), 11 (Groningen: De Vuurbaak, 1976).
51 [return] The name indicates simply that this project was undertaken at the initiative of the government or "States (Staten) General of the United Netherlands." There was also a "Statenvertaling," a widely-used Bible translation that originated in this fashion.

52 [return] Bij Dichters e n Schriftgeleerden (Amsterdam: "Holland," 1927), p. 97.
53 [return] See my essay about Niceta (or Nicetas) in: Ambt en Aktualiteit: Opstellen aangeboden aan Prof Dr. C. Trimp ter gelegenheid van zijn afscheid als hoogleraar, ed. F.H. Folkerts e.a. (Haarlem: Vijlbrief, 1992), pp. 61-71.

54 [return] Antiphonal singing involves two or more parties or groups that sing in turn, responding to one another. Such singing will be discussed in the next chapter.
55 [return] "O sterveling! gevoel uw waarde; / wat u in 't stof nog vleit, / Uw hart is veel te groot voor d'aarde, / Gij leeft voor d'eeuwigheid."
56 [return] In Volume 2 of his standard work entitled, Calvijns beginsel van de zang in de eredienst, Hasper publishes such a roster or schedule.