Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits…
Psalm 103:1,2 (ESV)
With these familiar words of praise from Psalm 103, we begin the “Thoughts” category of the URC Psalmody blog. In this area, my aim is to review a handful of Psalter Hymnal settings regularly, with general information about texts and tunes, and also to offer a few suggestions on how they could be used in worship. Let’s start with this majestic psalm, as represented in numbers 200-205 in the Psalter Hymnal.
200, “O Bless the Lord, My Soul, with All Thy Power”
This is one of the longest Genevan psalm settings in the Psalter Hymnal, adapted by Dewey Westra in 1931. The nine stanzas represent the entirety of Psalm 103, unlike the other settings whose texts are more summarized. In general, the text is flowery, but not to excess. We might not be acquainted with a few of the three- and four-syllable words, such as “ministration” and “asunder,” but for the most part, the lyrics are understandable and accurately reflect the language of the psalm. This may be one of the best stanzas:
(5) Like as a father looketh with compassion
Upon his children, lo, in such a fashion
The Lord doth look on them that fear and trust.
He knoweth that our frame is weak and humble;
How void of strength, how prone we are to stumble!
And He is mindful that we are but dust.
Number 200 is a Genevan psalm setting not because of its text, but because of its tune. This tune, BLESS JEHOVAH or GENEVAN 103, appeared in the Genevan Psalter of 1539. It appears in various forms in different Psalters; my favorite setting for congregational singing is the version in the 1934 Psalter Hymnal, though the 1959/1976 version makes a nice chorale. Though the tune may be a little unusual to modern ears, it’s certainly one of the better Genevan pieces. Why not play it for a meditative prelude or offertory one Sunday?
201, “O My Soul, Bless Thou Jehovah”
202, “Mindful of Our Human Frailty”
203, “In the Heavens the Lord Almighty”
These three selections are all from one 12-stanza metrical setting of Psalm 103, an 184.108.40.206. meter. The texts originated in the 1912 Psalter, and the tunes are the same as in that book. The poetry of these settings is beautiful and fairly accurate, and the tunes are simple and easily sung. The tune of number 201 (AUTUMN), in particular, carries a great deal of emotion in its rising and falling melody line. Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, Michigan, makes available .mp3 recordings of their congregation’s singing; this song, “O My Soul, Bless Thou Jehovah,” is one of their best. In summary, these three selections are well-written and congregation-friendly, worthy to be in any church’s regular repertoire.
204, “O Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord”
This song is a favorite at West Sayville, and I would venture to guess it is regularly sung in many other URC churches as well. Again, the text comes from the 1912 Psalter, and the tune (TIDINGS or TUNBRIDGE) is a familiar one (often sung as the hymn “O Zion, Haste”). The well-suited tune, combined with the stanza-and-refrain format, make this psalm setting uniquely cohesive. Consider having the congregation sing the first half of v. 4 (“We fade and die…”) a cappella, and start to bring the organ back in softly during the second half (“But evermore the love of God is changeless…”). On the final stanza (“High in the heavens…”), the rising melody in the third line is a perfect opportunity to bolster the congregation with a big crescendo, ending with full organ on the last refrain. I would rank “O Come, My Soul” as my personal favorite, especially for congregational singing, out of the Psalm 103 settings in the Psalter Hymnal. Singing God’s Word doesn’t get much better than this.
During the 2011 Reformed Youth Services international convention, I had the incredible opportunity to play the pipe organ at Dordt College for the talent show. I could think of no better psalm to play than this one. With all 800 attendees singing along, the sound was otherworldly. I’ve posted the recording of this piece on YouTube here (note that this setting is the slightly altered version from the gray 1987 Psalter Hymnal).
205, “The Tender Love a Father Has”
A simple, concise excerpt from Psalm 103, this setting could be used in many situations in worship. The text is a fragment of another complete metrical version in common meter (220.127.116.11.) from the 1912 Psalter (see numbers 277-280 here). Some of the lyrics are a bit obscure, and some might even elicit a few giggles from younger singers (“The wind that smites with blighting breath”); but overall, the text is simple and sound. For the tune, AVONDALE, either E or E-flat is a suitable key. In service music, a few stanzas of this tune could be a very fitting offertory; for the congregation, it wouldn’t hurt to sing it now and again.
Well, this brings us to the end of the post. As always, your thoughts and comments are not only welcome, but desired! These Psalm 103 settings from our Psalter Hymnal just might be some of the best selections in the whole book. I hope something I’ve mentioned may be helpful to fellow musicians as we continue to serve God through song. After all, how can we ignore these majestic commands to praise our Heavenly Father?
Psalm 103:20-22 (ESV)
Bless the LORD, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
Bless the LORD, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
Bless the LORD, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul!
- The Psalter of 1912 (available on Google Books) contains original settings of Psalm 103 referenced here.
- Cornerstone URC, Hudsonville, Michigan: Recording of congregational singing of number 201, “O My Soul, Bless Thou Jehovah.”
- YouTube video: Michael Kearney on Dordt College pipe organ playing number 204, “O Come, My Soul.”