A Look at Liturgy: The Decalogue

The Decalogue

Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at some characteristic elements of the Reformed worship service. Today’s post brings us to perhaps the most distinctive feature of Dutch Reformed liturgy: the reading of the Ten Commandments (decalogue, “ten words”) in the service.

In theory, there is a basic theological rationale for the use of the decalogue in worship: “it testifies to the Calvinist respect for the unity of the covenant” (Report of Liturgical Committee, Psalter Hymnal Supplement 100)—though even Calvinists do not always agree on the nature of the covenant. In practice, however, this justification leaves some questions unanswered. For instance, why do the Ten Commandments not appear in the worship of other Protestant churches that uphold the unity of the covenant of grace?

The answer to this question is mostly one of history and tradition. It was John Calvin who “planted the decalogue in the liturgy” without leaving much explanation why, and it had come to be a fixture in Dutch Reformed worship by the time of Abraham Kuyper in the 19th century. “By that time,” the Liturgical Committee comments, “the law seemed liturgically inexpendable, and liturgically undefined.”

In West Sayville’s liturgy the Ten Commandments fall under the heading of “God’s Will for Our Lives,” and occasionally they are replaced in the worship service with another Scripture reading that urges us onward in “the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 33, Q&A 88). Following the reading of the decalogue or an alternate passage, our pastor offers a prayer of confession and reads another text as the “Assurance of Pardon,” and then the congregation sings a penitential psalm or hymn. Presented as God’s will for his people, the reading of the decalogue prompts us to confess how drastically we fall short of its perfection, but also to recognize Christ’s fulfillment of the law and go forth in grateful obedience to him.

This use of the Ten Commandments in worship, which I have to assume is fairly typical in United Reformed churches, reflects all three of the functions of the law listed in the Liturgical Committee’s report:

  1. “It could serve as a catalyst to confession.…It is the holy finger of God pointing to ‘me’ as the one who fails in his life to reflect the character of God.”
  2. “It could serve as a summons to the life of gratitude.”
  3. “It could also serve as a reading from Scripture…[that] consistently stresses instruction in the obligations of the Christian.”

While it is important to pinpoint the purpose of the decalogue in worship, the Liturgical Committee also provides an important qualification: “[W]e must remember, of course, that the Lord is free to use His law, at any moment, to achieve whatever purpose He wishes. If He wills to use His law of a given Sunday morning to convict one worshipper of sin, summon another to obedience, and at the same time inspire another to a grateful hallelujah, no liturgical definition of the law’s function will inhibit him.”

So should Reformed churches keep the decalogue in their worship services? In my experience, at least, the weekly reading of the Ten Commandments helps to anchor our worship in the blazing light of God’s holiness. If it is to have this effect, however, the decalogue must never be separated from the message of the gospel. Apart from confessing our sin, rejoicing in Christ’s salvation, and filling our lives with grateful obedience, the Ten Commandments become a highway to moralism and works-righteousness. Treat the decalogue as a checklist or one of those ubiquitous online quizzes (“I scored 8/10 this past week!”), and your life in Christ will wither. But respond to God’s law by confessing your natural misery and taking refuge in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and the Ten Commandments will spur on what the Catechism so beautifully describes as “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to” (Q&A 90).

O blessed Lord, teach me Thy law,
Thy righteous judgments I declare;
Thy testimonies make me glad,
For they are wealth beyond compare.
Upon Thy precepts and Thy ways
My heart will meditate with awe;
Thy Word shall be my chief delight,
And I will not forget Thy law.

–MRK

–quotes from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement are from pp. 100, 101

A Look at Liturgy: The Votum

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth

“Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

If you attend a United Reformed church, it’s likely you hear these words from Psalm 124 every week at the opening of morning worship. Although this is a common way to begin worship in our churches, it’s actually fairly unique to the Dutch Reformed tradition. What are the origins of this statement (often called the “votum”), and what does it mean?

In the Psalter Hymnal Supplement the Liturgical Committee of the Christian Reformed Church comments on the term “votum,” “No one is quite sure how this awkward Latin word crept into and managed to stay in a Reformed liturgy that otherwise kept itself clean of Romanist vocabulary.…The word itself seems to mean a ‘wish’ or ‘desire’ and so, perhaps, is roughly similar to an invocation.”

What makes the story of the votum even more unusual is its history. According to the Liturgical Committee, this verse (Psalm 124:8) was originally recited whispered privately by the priest during the Roman Catholic mass. “Thus, it was not the beginning of the people’s worship; it was part of the priest’s private preparation for worship. The words were taken over by Calvin to begin the morning worship for all the people. He did not tell us why he used the words; our liturgical rationale is, in a sense, after the fact.” And today Reformed churches differ widely with regard to the votum; many replace or combine it with a “call to worship” or an “invocation.” In West Sayville our morning service opens with a call to worship from an appropriate passage of Scripture, followed by a song of praise, then the votum and God’s greeting.

So what justifies the use of the votum in opening public worship? This explanation comes from the Agenda for Synod 1920 of the Christian Reformed Church: “This ‘Votum’ is not meant to be a prayer for divine aid, but rather a solemn declaration that God is in the midst of His people with His saving grace.”

The scriptural context of the votum sheds some light on its application to Christian worship. Psalm 124 is a song of Israel’s deliverance, opening with a vivid picture of the fate that would have befallen them “if it had not been the LORD who was on our side”:

then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

–vv. 3-5 ESV

Instead of leaving them to their destruction, the Lord mightily delivered his people, freeing them from their bondage in Egypt. With joy and relief they could exclaim, “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped!” (v. 7)—proceeding to state their continued dependence on the Lord in the words that have become our votum.

We, too, lay in bondage in a spiritual Egypt of sin and death. We deserved the torrent of God’s righteous judgment to sweep us away and the punishment of sin to overwhelm us. But he delivered us, even more mightily than he delivered the Israelites, by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. The Lord was on our side, and he deserves all our praise!

For the church of Christ, stating that “our help is in the name of the LORD” acknowledges our profound need and complete dependence on our heavenly Father. We do not come into his presence in our own strength or because of our own merit, but because of his saving grace and only with his sustaining help. We are gathered not as the righteous, but as the sinners the Son of Man came to call to repentance. Yet despite our unworthiness, we appear in God’s courts with confidence. He has no need of our worship, but he delights in it. The almighty Creator of the universe is present wherever his people gather in his name—and thus we can say, not only in acknowledgment of our need but also in joyful assurance, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

And that, perhaps above anything else, is reason enough to keep the votum in Reformed worship.

–MRK

–quotes from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement are from p. 92

Psalm 34: Taste and See

Fire Island Lighthouse

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.

–Psalm 34:5 ESV

When I returned from my college choir’s three-week international tour at the beginning of June, I was already anticipating fatigue, jetlag, and the general malaise that accompanies any experience of such magnitude. However, I was not prepared for a strange set of lingering psychological side effects from the anti-malarial medicine that had been administered to the choir members for our trip. For several weeks I experienced lightheadedness, confusion, sleeplessness, bouts of depression, and sometimes even hallucinations. Investigating these side effects revealed that they are indeed known to occur when taking this particular medication, and the only remedy is to wait; the drug takes weeks or even months to dissipate out of one’s system.

I share this affliction not to elicit pity—I’m already feeling much better—but because this experience opened my eyes at least in a small way to the daily battles faced by those who struggle with depression or other psychological ailments. Depression is a strange animal that appears in a variety of ugly manifestations, but it is perhaps most palpable simply as a dark cloud hanging over one’s head. Going about everyday activities becomes as difficult as trying to breathe through a wet towel. Thought patterns become tangled up in irrational knots of anxiety, guilt, or despair. Life looks bleak. I knew this from the accounts of others, but never before had I experienced it myself.

As humans, our coping mechanisms for mental ailments aren’t that good. We try to bury our affliction under gaudy layers of distractions and amusements, we try to coach ourselves to feel better, or we resort to that disgusting cliché, “It’s all in your head.” The statement is true, of course; mental illness is “all in your head” just as much as a broken arm is “all in your arm” or blindness is “all in your eyes.” But if you can’t command your arm to heal itself or your eyesight to return, you shouldn’t expect success in telling your brain to fix itself either. And so dealing with the problem of depression degenerates into a downward spiral of futility, marked chiefly by a desperate and often hopeless longing to once again be in control of one’s thoughts and emotions.

As I sought to process this temporary new reality, the Old Testament story of David’s encounter with the king of Gath came to mind. I Samuel 22 relates how David, in flight from Saul, went to the court of Achish (or Abimelech), the king of Gath, and there feigned madness to save his life. I had to wonder how David felt. His situation had little in common with mine, to be sure; medical side effects and pretended insanity are very different things. But surely he too felt that desperate desire to escape from circumstances out of his control that were forcing him to act out of his mind.

One day in the midst of these ponderings I happened to turn to Psalm 34.  As I began to read I was astonished to find this inscription: “Of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” Here was the answer to the very question I had been asking; David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, had recorded his thoughts and emotions for me here. With a new sense of awe I read statements like the following:

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the LORD delivers him out of them all.

–vv. 18, 19

The LORD redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

–v. 22

Here was the song of a man whose situation had become so desperate that insanity seemed the only option left to him, and here was his record of how the Lord delivered him. Here was his response to his many afflictions: not a cry of despair, as one might expect, but a song of praise. Here was a proven remedy to broken hearts and crushed spirits!

For one thing, Psalm 34 taught me a lesson in pride and humility. The world tries to comfort the depressed by pointing out what good people they are (think of how Clarence saves the suicidal George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life). The Bible, however, teaches that not a boosted ego but a broken heart obtains God’s favor, and that those who possess it will be blessed. This psalm is addressed to the humble, not the proud (v. 2). And strength or confidence or what we think of as inherent goodness will prove powerless to deliver anyone from the gnawing pain of life and the lurking presence of death. David writes that even “the young lions”—the very symbol of virility and vigor—“suffer want and hunger.” In contrast, “those who seek the LORD lack no good thing” (v. 10). In Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

Another lesson I gleaned from Psalm 34 was the reminder that suffering for the believer in this fallen world is neither abnormal nor shameful. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” writes David in verse 19. Not every evil is a punishment for sin or a symptom of demonic oppression. God in his providence uses the suffering we undergo for many purposes, but the source of it all lies in the curse that was laid on this universe as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin. But there is hope. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, yes. “But the LORD delivers him out of them all” (v. 19). Christ came, the truly Righteous One who “keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” (v. 20; see Jno. 19:36), and suffered the ultimate penalty to redeem us from the power of sin and death. It is through him that “the LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (v. 22).

Finally, Psalm 34 emphasized to me the futility—no, the sheer stupidity—of trying to combat a problem within ourselves with a solution within ourselves. David did not merely acknowledge that there was a problem in his head; he knew there was a problem in his heart—a deep and impenetrable problem that could not be alleviated except by divine intervention. “This poor man cried,” says David, “and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles” (v. 6). He boasts not in his self-sufficiency but in his utter dependence on God: “My soul makes its boast in the LORD” (v. 2). Navel-gazing can only prove fatal, but “those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed” (v. 5).

Have you experienced the bitter frustration of mental ailments, the biting pain of depression, or simply the dull despair that accompanies living in a fallen world? David would not be surprised. Our minds are stained by sin just as much as our bodies; even the best of us cannot trust our senses or emotions. But Psalm 34 offers the troubled soul one thing it can sense and know with certainty: “Taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (v. 8).

May you, too, taste and see that the Lord is good, and through all the joys and struggles of life may you be able to confess with the psalmist,

I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.

–MRK

Eight Reasons Why We Should Still Be Using Psalters

DSC02858

A blog post entitled “15 Reasons Why We Should Still Be Using Hymnals” has been gathering a lot of attention in the Christian blogosphere lately. Its author, Jonathan Aigner, presents a list of musical, practical, and symbolic/theological justifications for the continued use of hymnals in modern churches.

Most of his musical and practical points revolve around the fact that a hymnal places everything needed for worship in the hands of the congregation, setting an objective standard and showing who the true participants of worship should be.  Hymnals don’t require an up-to-date audio-visual system, they aren’t subject to technological glitches, and they don’t distract worshipers with bright colors and animations. These affirmations are a refreshing change from the increasingly stale world of contemporary Christian music.

I was most interested, however, in Aigner’s eight points of symbolic/theological relevance and their connection to a Reformed psalm-singing model of worship. If these are reasons to keep a hymnal, what should be our reasons to keep the psalter? I’ll offer a few thoughts in response to each of the author’s reasons below.

“1. Hymnals are a theological textbook.”

If the hymnal is good, this is true. But it’s just as easy to find a theologically bad hymnal as to find a theologically bad set of PowerPoint lyrics. Even the blue Psalter Hymnal contains some lyrics that don’t make it an entirely sound “theological textbook.” The experiential focus of #374 comes to mind, in which God “speaks to me everywhere”; or the lyrics of #478, which seem to confuse America with the new Israel; or especially #379 with its boldfaced Arminian plea, “Lord Jesus, Thou seest I patiently wait.” No, hymnals aren’t reputable repositories of flawless and systematic doctrine, and treating one as a “theological textbook” will likely lead to trouble.

A psalter, on the other hand, is a theological textbook. It proclaims the excellencies of God (Psalm 147), the beauty of creation (Psalm 8), the ramifications of the Fall (Psalm 14), the nature of God’s covenant (Psalm 78), the wonder of redemption (Psalm 130), the glory of God’s word (Psalm 119), the kingship of Christ (Psalm 110), and the life everlasting (Psalm 16)—just to mention a few themes of the psalms. And the text of a psalter is from the inspired Word of God itself, so (barring an unfaithful translation) all of its doctrine is true! What more “reliable sources of theological information” could there be?

“2. Hymnals involve tactile action.”

Aigner claims that holding a hymnal “engages you in the activity more than staring at a screen ever could.” To me, the virtue of a physical songbook is not so much in validating engagement but rather in validating authority. In contrast to PowerPoint lyrics that could have been thrown together from any number of sources, a printed songbook holds itself accountable for the source of its contents. In the case of a psalter, that source is the Word of God itself.

“3. Hymnals are not particularly distracting.”

Screens, as Aigner points out, can easily lose worshipers “in the colors, backgrounds, and movements.” This is a worthy point. Reformed worship has always been characterized by remarkable simplicity (more on that below), and a book containing only the words and notes to be sung powerfully emphasizes that simplicity.

“4. Hymnals preserve the aesthetics of the Sanctuary.”

Reformed churches have never focused much on visual beauty or ornate architecture. Our idea of “aesthetics” is governed chiefly by one principle: the centrality in worship of the Word and sacraments. In the sanctuary, these elements of worship are represented by the pulpit, the baptismal font, and the communion table.

By excluding distracting projection systems, printed songbooks help to preserve the proper focus in the aesthetics of the Reformed sanctuary. However, if our idea of sanctuary aesthetics is contingent on whether or not we see rows of attractive-looking hymnals in the pew backs, we’re starting in the wrong place.

“5. Hymnals confront us with ‘new’ songs.”

Aigner’s point here is that hymnals stretch congregations to learn unfamiliar songs. This is true, and how much more so for the Book of Psalms! Not only does the psalm-singer continually find new, unfamiliar passages as he explores this collection of inspired texts, but he will be confronted by new depth even in familiar passages as the Holy Spirit applies the Word to his heart.

“6. Hymnals give validity to new hymns.”

I must confess I’m not entirely sure what Aigner means by this statement. He comments, “The fact that these [new] songs are now sandwiched in between hymns like ‘Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty’ and ‘Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,’ adds to their validity.”

Is a song’s position in a hymnal a good criterion by which to judge its validity? Finding “In the Garden” (to use the author’s whipping-boy) across the page from “How Firm a Foundation” doesn’t give me a higher opinion of it—nor should it.

A psalter, however, does validate psalms we might be tempted to skip over—for example, abject laments like Psalm 137 sandwiched between psalms of praise like Psalms 136 and 138. By its composition, a complete psalter reveals a broad spectrum of attitudes of prayer and praise which are appropriate for worship.

“7. Hymnals make songs less disposable.”

In contrast to “text on a screen” that “is there one second and gone the next,” “hymnals are symbols of consistency.” True, but hymnals get regular makeovers too. I remember a comment by the CRC and RCA’s new songbook committee to the effect that a typical hymnal has a lifespan of only about 25 years. In contrast, the psalms form a complete and unchanging songbook for the worship of God’s people. While psalters, too, need periodic revision to ensure clarity and faithfulness to Scripture, the permanence of their contents far surpasses that of a hymnal.

“8. Hymnals give congregational singing back to the people.”

“Holding hymnals symbolizes the fact that the voice of the congregation is the primary instrument in corporate worship,” says Aigner. Amen! Everything about corporate worship, as we’ve been considering in recent posts, revolves around the holy dialogue between God and his people. Congregationally sung, the psalms are an unsurpassable manifestation of that conversation as we sing God’s Word back to him.

All in all, Aigner says hymnals “are important symbols for worshiping congregations,” chiefly because they set an objective standard for congregational worship while reclaiming it from the control of the projection system or worship team. How much more are psalters essential symbols for worshiping congregations! They symbolize our desire to worship God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, in a manner he has commanded, and with the words he has given us.

Sing to the Lord, sing His praise, all ye peoples,
New be your song as new honors ye pay;
Sing of His majesty, bless Him forever,
Show His salvation from day to day.

–MRK

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A Look at Liturgy: The Beginning of Worship

Today’s post is an extended quote from pp. 90, 91 of the Report of the Liturgical Committee in the Psalter Hymnal Supplement.  Here the committee presents an excellent and thorough explanation of the attitude that should characterize the opening of a Reformed worship service.

How any meeting begins is settled, generally, by the character or office of the participants.  God Himself defines the nature of this meeting.  He graciously calls His people into His presence, welcomes them into His fellowship, speaks His Word to them and listens to their words.  Two things about God and His call to worship stamp the character of our weekly meeting with Him.

The Psalter Hymnal SupplementHe is the Holy One.  However close He tabernacles with us in the Incarnation, the Word, and the sacraments, He remains the God who is Holy.  He is the Awful One.  Sinners neither stroll nor storm into the Holy Mountain; they come tremblingly, by royal invitation.  The response to the Holy One is awe, wonder, fear and trembling.  We begin our meeting with Him, if we begin it fittingly, with a liturgical act with betrays that we know we are meeting with the Holy One of Israel.

He is the Holy One who has come to us in redemptive intimacy.  He did something; He entered a covenant with us, made us His covenant partner.  He divided the waters.  He came down “for us sinners and our salvation.”  He destroyed the power of the Devil.  He opened up the gateway into His Kingdom for us.  “He Arose!”  And His Christ “dwells in us.”  He has given us something to celebrate; the fact of Easter defines our meeting with God as truly as does His holiness.  Therefore the liturgy ought to reflect jubilation—the beginning ought to suggest something of its excitement, its festivity.  Entering worship on a Lord’s Day morning is an anticipation of entering the “new creation.”  And we ought to show it.

The fact of salvation defines the opening; but the character of the Holy One still qualifies it.  We meet God in jubilation; but the God we meet is still the Holy One.

–MRK


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