Psalm 119: The Music (part 5)

We continue our look through the blue Psalter Hymnal‘s treatment of Psalm 119 by looking at selections #250-254:

250, “Deceit and Falsehood I Abhor

The fifteenth stanza of Psalm 119, consisting of verses 113-120, is a prayer of righteous anger.  I’m sure we’ve all heard sermons about the differences between sinful anger and godly anger – the type of anger that caused Jesus to drive the money-changers from the Temple in the Gospels and Paul to reprimand Peter publicly for his fear of man.  This is the prayer of a zealous follower of God, ready to drive sin out of the Temple, out of his friends, and out of his life.  For more on this stanza, read THIS meditation at Ascribelog.

Selection #250 makes a few interesting choices.  First of all, they change the tone of this stanza from being directed personally at “the double-minded” (verse 113) and “you evil-doers” (verse 115) to being directed at “deceit and falsehood” in general.  Stanza three returns some vague statements about “froward” and “wicked” men, but for the most part, the direction of the psalmist’s anger is changed.

This seems drastic at first, but I am willing to stand behind the Psalter Hymnal‘s decision.  Even though this is an interpretive spin, it does make the selection more accessible for modern Christians in North America.  After all, how often do you come directly into opposition with wicked men in such a way as to sing an angry song at them?  But how often do you come into contact with “deceit and falsehood” in your own life and generally in the world around you?  Changing the focus of the psalm is an application, not a versification, but one that is biblically sanctioned (Ephesians 6:10-20) and profoundly applicable.  Of course, one could wish for two selections for Psalm 119:113-120 – one that remained strictly faithful to the text and then this one, but as it is, we have a selection that is applicable to battling sin in our lives and the culture around us.

The other interesting choice this selection makes is the tune, STELLA.  It’s a very lovely tune, as most old English tunes are, but its flowing, almost pastoral melody seems like a strange fit for what is an angry section of the psalm (it seems better suited to Psalm 23).  Part of me would like to suggest an alternate, but part of me is sad that this is the only place in the Psalter Hymnal that this tune appears.  However, the tune does add an interesting spin to the words, especially if you focus on stanza 2.  The tune makies it more a heartfelt prayer for sanctification, rather than a battle-song against sin.

These interesting choices leave us with a song that is well-suited for confession of sin and desire for holiness, perhaps another good selection to sing after the reading of the Law or as a prayer of repentance and renewal.

251, “I Have Followed Truth and Justice”

Psalm 119:121-128 is another prayer for deliverance from oppression, a companion piece to verses 113-120.  Read more about this section HERE.

Selection #251 does an excellent job of versifying this section of the psalm with its short and simple two stanzas.  The tune, ROBINSON, is elegant and expresses this prayer for vindication with dignity unmixed with pride.  I remember as a boy being intrigued by the chromatic slide in the bass at the end of the first line.  I still don’t quite know what to make of it, but it is certainly memorable and doesn’t hurt the tune.  Also, I’ve always had somewhat of a difficult time finding the right tempo at which to play this song.  You want to find that happy medium – dignified, but not dragging; flowing, but not rushing.

This is a good song to sing on behalf of the persecuted church, to accompany meditation on the antithesis present in our world, or to sing simply to increase your love for God’s Law and your hatred of sin.

252, “Thy Wondrous Testimonies, Lord”

The closer we grow to Christ, the longer we walk with Him, the more we come to cherish His Word and commandments (John 14:15).  Psalm 119:129-136 is a passionate song celebrating the Christian’s love of God’s Word.  As our friend Glenda Mathes points out in her comments on verse 131 (read it HERE), God’s Word should “steal our breath away.”

Both in tune and in text, selection #252 reflects that longing well.  Throughout this week, we’ve noticed how some of the Psalter Hymnal‘s Psalm 119 selections do not reflect the rich metaphors and images found within the psalm text, making the songs somewhat repetitive and less colorful than they could be.  Thankfully, selection #252 maintains the “thirst” and “steady steps” imagery from verses 131 and 133, making this a more memorable and faithful selection than some others we’ve seen.

The reflection of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:23-27) in verse 135 might make this selection an excellent song to sing as we leave our worship services, reflecting on the wonders of God’s Word and our desire to be taught “all Thy ways to keep.”  Although not what could properly be used as a doxology, selection #252 could be a nice postlude or somehow added before or after the benediction.

Abraham Kuyper suggested reading the 10 Commandments in the evening service, after the sermon, as one of the last elements of worship before leaving the Sabbath rest and entering back into the worldly week.  This practice, he thought, would encourage the congregation to respond in gratitude to the gospel they just heard by meditating and following God’s Torah.  Selection #252 has that sort of ring to it – a continuing meditation on the wonders of God’s Word throughout the week.  So it’s a song well-suited to worship, but also to daily singing, or to sing at prayer meetings and Bible studies during the week to keep our hearts and minds focused on God’s Word and His blessing.

253, “O Lord, Thy Perfect Righteousness”

At the beginning of this Psalm 119 endeavor, I made the comment that one of the major themes of Psalm 119 was the I-Thou relationship we have with God.  Here ins Psalm 119:137-144, that is made explicit.  The focus is somewhat changed.  Instead of praising God’s Torah, the psalmist turns and directly worships God for His attributes, the attributes that are shown in His Torah.  Read a meditation on this stanza HERE.

LAMBETH is a very simple tune.  It’s singable and learnable, as long as we accompanists remember that it is in cut time (once again, I could share some frightening stories of this song being played in some 6/4 alternate universe, making the middle line a veritable slough of despond).  The simplicity of the tune reflects the humility expressed by the psalmist in verse 141.

Personally, though, I might suggest changing the tune.  The gist of this song is that we’re praising our righteous God for condescending to reveal Himself to us in His Word, and because of it, “my zeal consumes me” (verse 139).  We’re meditating on God’s special revelation and then praying to the same God to condescend again to save us.  The text gets that idea across well, but the tune is perhaps too simple (and unfamiliar to most congregations).  What we need is a great tune.  I might suggest ST. ANNE (“Oh God our Help in Ages Past”), which is familiar, majestic, and befits these words nicely.

This is a great song to sing while meditating on God’s act of special revelation and inspiration.  Both the psalm and the text of this song make it clear that God’s very nature is reflected in His revelation.  The righteousness and glory that He has so clearly shown us in His Word is the reason for our song.

254, “O Lord, My Earnest Cry”

I once read an interesting debate between Eastern Orthodox monks and Roman Catholic monks concerning whether to sing selections like Psalm 119:145-152 at their daily morning worship at dawn or at their nightly worship, for this stanza references praying “before dawn” (verse 147) and during “the watches of the night” (verse 148).  I’d say that no matter when you sing it, this stanza models something beautiful about our relationship with God – we can (and should) pray at all hours of the day, for He will hear us.  That’s one thing that the monks got right – they established a pattern of praying at all hours of the day and night.  Read more about the text of Psalm 119:145-152 in a heartfelt meditation HERE.

Selection #254 reflects the earnest prayer of the psalmist.  This is a song we can sing when we are troubled, when we can’t sleep, when we are desperate in our need of God.  It reflects all of this and grounds it in the confidence that God’s Word gives us – “Thou, Lord, art near to me/and true are Thy commands/of old Thy testimonies show/Thy truth eternal stands.”

The end result is really an excellent lyric that reflects the psalm text faithfully with much beauty – both poetically and doctrinally.  It’s really an excellent selection.

The tune, WELCOME VOICE, is the tune of an old revival hymn, “I Hear Thy Welcome Voice,” which the compilers of the Psalter Hymnal took over for this selection.  So it has that feeling of 1850’s sentimentality, but joins it with solid words.  The tune is emotional and old-fashioned, so it depends on how you feel about this sort of tune.  Personally, I think it works.  The excellent text makes sure the emotion of the tune is grounded in truth, and the tune definitely reflects the emotional mood of this prayer.

Perhaps a reboot that reflects a more timeless style is needed, but for now, I think WELCOME VOICES is a good fit.  The 1850’s haven’t completely died out in our churches (in many cases, that’s a bad thing), so the tune is still accessible.  And not all sentimentality is necessarily a bad thing – as long as it’s grounded in solid truth, as this song clearly is.

Delight amid distress and pain
do Thy commandments give;
Thy Word is righteous evermore,
teach me that I may live.

-JDO

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