Psalm 119: The Music (part 2)

12 hours ago, we looked at the first three selections of Psalm 119 in Part 1 (covering 235-237); now, we continue our look at the Psalter Hymnal‘s treatment of Psalm 119:

238, “Thy Servant, Blest by Thee, shall Live”

This selection covers Psalm 119:17-24, which is the psalmist’s prayer for Bible-based wisdom during our perilous pilgrimage on this earth.  This section tells us that when we pray for wisdom, “it is not more knowledge that we require, but better vision to see what has already been revealed in Jesus Christ” (Eugene Peterson, emphasis mine).  For more on this section of the Psalm, read HERE, courtesy of Ascribelog.

The most perplexing aspect of selection #238 is its opening line, for it changes the grammatical mode of the psalm from a desperate prayer for wisdom to a statement of fact.  Instead of praying for God to “deal bountifully with your servant” (verse 17), the Psalter Hymnal merely states that “Thy servant, blest by Thee, shall live and keep Thy Word with awe.”  Although the request aspect of the psalm is picked up in #238’s cover of verse 18, the blatant change to the first verse leaves these lyrics a bit deflated of their biblical urgency.

Stanza 2 does well at picking up the pilgrimage metaphor of this part of Psalm 119.  Verses 20-23 are brutally abridged into stanza 3, but stanza 4 does a good job at tying the whole thing back together.  Although this selection does a somewhat sloppy job at capturing the psalm, the lyrics arestill understandable and biblically sound and definitely appropriate to Christian worship.

The tune, ST. MARTIN’S, however, is perhaps not the best.  I am definitely a fan of lilting, movement-ful, even jig-like tunes where appropriate, but this tune’s erratic use of dotted rhythms comes off sloppy, disjointed, and a bit sloppy, and certainly does not match the heartfelt prayer-like mood of the psalm.  For congregations not familiar with this tune, it could be rather confusing.

I would suggest an alternate tune, and since ST. MARTIN’S is in common meter, there are many to choose from.  The simple tune PRAYER (used for #138, “In Sweet Communion, Lord, with Thee”) might be a nice compliment to the words.  If your congregation is familiar with the Trinity Hymnal or English psalmody in general, the tune ST. COLUMBA (Trinity Hymnal #469, “How Sweet and Awesome is the Place”) would nicely return the prayer aspect of this psalm.

239, “My Grieving Soul Revive, O Lord”

Psalm 119:25-32 is the story of a man who was in despair, looks for salvation in God’s Word, and is not disappointed.  It moves from desperation (verses 25, 28) to hope (verse 26a) to dedication (verses 27, 29) to the joy of living in the light of God’s Torah.  Notice how the posture of the speaker goes from clinging to the dust in verse 25 to joyfully running in the way of God’s commandments in verse 32.    Read more HERE.

Sadly, the words of #239 do not reflect that metaphorical change of physical posture, focusing rather on the emotional state of the speaker (substituting “grieving” for verse 25’s “clings to the dust” and “in glad obedience I will live” for verse 32’s “run in the way of Your commandments”).  Putting that change aside, though, this text does do a fair job of reflecting the Psalm’s basic meaning and is a worthy addition to our Psalter Hymnal.  It could be used well in connection with the reading of the Law, as it reflects both the awareness of our own sin and misery as well as the desire to live an obedient life out of gratitude for salvation.

The tune, DALEHURST, is one of those wonderful tunes that can reflect both the plaintive sighs of stanza 1 as well as the dedicatory prayer of stanza 4.  The marking “quietly and earnestly” written above the music is indeed good advice, as this portion of the psalm is the prayer of a heart grieving over its own sin.  Additionally, it would behoove us as accompanists to reflect the change in the speaker’s mood as the song progresses, remaining reverent, but brightening as the stanzas progress.

240, “Teach Me, O Lord, Thy Way of Truth”

The fifth stanza of Psalm 119, verses 33-40, reflects both the prayer of the new convert and also the experienced Christian whose heart has been convicted.  It speaks simply and elegantly of our thirst for more and more knowledge of God, no matter where we are in our life’s journey.  Read more about it HERE, compliments of our friend Glenda Mathes.

Perhaps because of the earnest and eager nature of this portion of the psalm, #240 has always been a favorite in many URCNA congregations.  The tune is appropriately simple and the words are almost childishly clear, making this a very solid selection in the Psalter Hymnal.  This selection reflects the words of Psalm 119:33-40 excellently and the tune, BISHOP, appropriately matches the tone of the text, reflecting the childlike faith-ful quality of the words.

One note, though, that I cannot stress enough: remember that this tune is in cut time!  I am sad to say that I have witnessed several incidents of this tune being played as if it were written in 4/4 timing rather than in 2/2.  This makes the tune drag inappropriately, losing all the life, eagerness, and desire of this otherwise excellent selection.

A pilgrim in the earth am I,
Thy will to me reveal;
To know Thy truth my spirit yearns,
consumed with ardent zeal.

-JDO

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