Psalm 115

Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!

–Psalm 115:1 (ESV)

This declaration is one of the most humble and yet one of the most inspiring statements in all of Scripture.  With simple earnestness it admonishes each of us to trust in the LORD with all our hearts.  And the entirety of Psalm 115, like this opening verse, revolves around the same theme: total reliance on God.

The first half of Psalm 115 contains a drastic comparison: the idols of men, inert and helpless, versus the God of heaven, all-knowing and almighty.  Expressing the reaction of God’s children to the power of their Father, vv. 9-11 contain this thrice-repeated exhortation:

O Israel, trust in the LORD!
He is their help and their shield.
O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD!
He is their help and their shield.
You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD!
He is their help and their shield.

The rest of Psalm 115 (vv. 12-18) focuses on God’s blessings on his people and their response of praise.

The heavens are the LORD’s heavens,
but the earth he has given to the children of man.
The dead do not praise the LORD,
nor do any who go down into silence.
But we will bless the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore.
Praise the LORD!

–vv. 16-18

Today, as is our custom, we’ll consider the two versifications of Psalm 115 found in the blue Psalter Hymnal.

226, “Not unto Us, O Lord of Heaven”

The most significant drawback of number 226 is that it is an extremely condensed version of Psalm 115—a light summary rather than a full psalm setting.  The list of idols’ flaws in Psalm 115:4-8 is not completely represented in this setting, and vv. 9-13 are unapologetically smashed into a single stanza, with significant chunks of the original text missing entirely.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to deny that the poetry of “Not unto Us, O Lord of Heaven” is some of the best in our songbook.  With regard to poetic beauty, the second and fifth stanzas are my personal favorites:

The idol gods of heathen lands
Are but the work of human hands;
They cannot see, they cannot speak,
Their ears are deaf, their hands are weak;
Like them shall be all those who hold
To gods of silver and of gold.

The heavens are God’s since time began,
But He has given the earth to man;
The dead praise not the living God,
But we will sound His praise abroad,
Yea, we will ever bless His Name;
Praise ye the Lord, His praise proclaim.

The melody of number 226 is a fine one.  From what I can tell, GAIRNEY BRIDGE was composed by Ernest Kroeger in 1901 for the United Presbyterian Board of Publication—the creators of the 1912 Psalter.  Thus, it has the unique characteristic of being specifically tailored for this psalm setting.  Two accusations that could be legitimately leveled at the tune are its high key (it could be reasonably re-set in D-flat or D) and its unusual chromaticism (especially in mm. 6 and 8-10).  Personally, I haven’t found that these flaws significantly impede congregational singing, so I wouldn’t be quick to suggest a tune change.  If both of these aspects are concerns at your church, however, you might consider the different harmonization and lower key of gray Psalter Hymnal number 115.

In conclusion, number 226 is a fine song.  However, I think it is best utilized as a psalm-hymn rather than a strict versification.  I’d be content with this as a secondary psalm setting in the URC Psalter Hymnal, but I would also be very interested to see if a more accurate version might be used in its place.

227, “The Lord Who Has Remembered Us”

“The Lord Who Has Remembered Us” is merely an excerpt from Psalm 115, but it’s not a bad selection.  The chief merit of number 227 is that it provides a complete and accurate versification of Psalm 115:12-18 rather than skimming over key points.  The tune, ST. ANNE, is very appropriate since it is often associated with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”  I am happy to see it here in a time signature of 4/2 rather than 4/4, since this meter lends itself to a fittingly meditative chorale rather than a bumpy common-time melody (as it is too often played).  Thankfully, no tune change is necessary here!

Although I can claim nearly every psalm in the Bible as my favorite, Psalm 115 stands out from the rest for its simple honesty and humble expressions of praise.  This passage provides a much-needed perspective adjustment for all of us as we sojourn in this idolatrous world yet follow our heavenly Father.

Not unto us, O Lord of heaven,
But unto Thee be glory given;
In love and truth Thou dost fulfill
The counsels of Thy sovereign will;
Though nations fail Thy power to own,
Yet Thou dost reign, and Thou alone.

–MRK

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