Psalm 113

(My sincere apologies for the dormancy of URC Psalmody over the past week.  I’ve been enjoying a much-needed vacation, including an exciting visit to our church plant in Washington, DC.  But more on that later…)

Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
praise the name of the LORD!

–Psalm 113:1 (ESV)

Psalm 113 is one of six psalms in a collection that is often called the Egyptian Hallel or the Egyptian Hallelujah.  The Jewish liturgical year featured Psalms 113-118 prominently, especially during the season of Passover.  In fact, it is entirely possible that the hymn Jesus sang with his disciples in Matthew 26:30 was taken from this set.

The cover of one of the oldest hymnals in my collection, proclaiming the command of Psalm 113:3: "From the rising up of the sun to the going down of the same, the Lord's name is to be praised."Psalm 113 opens with a rousing thrice-repeated command to praise the LORD.  In vv. 2 and 3, this praise is extended through all of space and time.  The rest of the psalm gives us two reasons for praising God: because of who he is (vv. 4-6) and because of what he has done (vv. 7-9).  For a short poem of nine verses, this psalm is one of the most powerful exhortations in all of Scripture to worship and adore our God.

224, “Praise God, Ye Servants of the Lord”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

For such a beautiful and powerful song, I believe Psalm 113 is slightly underestimated in the blue Psalter Hymnal.  One might argue that the fault originates in the 1912 Psalter and the 1934 Psalter Hymnal, which devote only a single woefully incomplete setting to Psalm 113—equivalent to the first four stanzas of this version.  The older versification simplifies v. 7, then completely skips v. 8 and the majority of v. 9.  It ends instead with an elaborate repetition of the closing command to praise the LORD.

In this respect, we can be thankful to the editors of the blue Psalter Hymnal for including a fifth verse to complete the text.  Even with this solution, however, the flow of thought of the psalm is interrupted, and the rhyming scheme of the last stanza (A-B-A-B) clashes noticeably with the scheme of the first four (A-A-B-B).  Although Psalm 113:1-6 is versified well enough in Psalter Hymnal number 224, it seems to me that the fourth and fifth stanzas (vv. 7-9) would need a minor overhaul in order to properly represent this majestic text.

The tune, ANDRE, also has its drawbacks: it is both repetitive and unnecessarily high.  Though I tend to be a stickler for preserving the original keys of tunes, even I must admit that ANDRE would be much better suited in the key of E-flat or F.  Although my aversion to this setting is admittedly subjective, it does seem that a much better tune could be implemented for number 224.  With the abundance of long-meter (8.8.8.8.) tunes available within the Psalter Hymnal as well as in other books, a replacement shouldn’t be hard to find.  Some possibilities that immediately come to mind are numbers 35 (PARK STREET) or 170 (WINCHESTER NEW).

You might point out that regardless of whether or not we approve of the blue Psalter Hymnal version of Psalm 113, we’re simply stuck with it for now.  That’s partially true; the average United Reformed congregation isn’t going to tear out pages of the old blue hymnbooks to replace them at will.  However, even for small, budget-conscious churches, there are a number of plausible solutions to the problem of substandard psalm versifications.  One such resource, which I don’t often recommend, is the gray Psalter Hymnal.

While retaining the overall form of “Praise God, Ye Servants of the LORD,” the Gray version (number 113) includes a much better versification of vv. 7-9 in the fourth stanza, as well as a decidedly better tune.  Even the modernization of the words in this case doesn’t significantly detract from the text.  If your church doesn’t own copies of the gray 1987 Psalter Hymnal, you might be able to use a digital version of this selection, available on Hymnary.org.

Meanwhile, readers, are any of you aware of other Psalm 113 settings that are solid, both Biblically and musically?  I’d love to hear your comments below, as it would be a great help to be able to compare multiple renditions of this text.  For in the case of Psalm 113, as in all of our worship, we ought to strive towards the best possible offering of praise to God.  “Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time forth and forevermore!”

–MRK

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