Archive for July, 2012



Psalm 119: The Music (part 3)

Psalm 119 week continues.  As we continue examining the Psalter Hymnal‘s treatment of Psalm 119, I feel the need to state what is perhaps the obvious: I am far less qualified to comment on the music of these psalm versifications than Michael is.  I’ve been a church accompanist for 10 years now, but am far surpassed in musical knowledge by my cohort on this blog.  So, what I’m saying is: feel free to interact and add your own opinions.  This is, after all, designed to be a forum for discussion and we’d love to hear what you have to say about the plethora of selections of Psalm 119 versifications that our beloved Psalter Hymnal has.

That said, let’s continue with Part 3:

241, “Thy Promised Mercies Send to Me”

Read a heartfelt meditation on Psalm 119:41-48 HERE on Glenda Mathes’ blog.

As pointed out in the link above, this section of Psalm 119 is the psalmist’s prayer for “the only antidote” to Satan’s taunts: the promised mercies of God.  This is a song that expresses an intense craving, a craving for God’s love and for the written Word that teaches us that love.  It’s a  joyful song that shows a Christian’s anticipation of “walking in a wide place” (verse 45).  It’s a song of jubilant hope and confidence, even amidst taunts (verse 42) and and threats of shame (verse 46).  It expresses bold, even brash, confidence to “speak of Your testimonies before kings” (verse 46).

For that reason, the tune, SARAH, is well placed, for it wonderfully captures the longing with its flowing lilt and the confidence with its sometimes “bouncy” rhythm.  It’s really a delightful tune to reflect a delightful sentiment – longing combined with confidence, for all of these pleas are founded in truth and hence can be counted on.  The words do a great job of summarizing the content and flow of the psalm.

This really strikes me as a great song for young people, since it combines the joy, idealism, hope, passion, and confidence that often accompanies young adults.  This song would fit well at a Profession of Faith, the baptism of a new Christian, or at a missionary send-off.

242, “Lord, Thy Word to Me Remember”

Psalm 119:49-56 is a prayer of confident hope in the midst of great affliction, a song “in the night” (verse 55).  For more on this stanza, read HERE.

To be honest, this selection somewhat baffles me.  The tune, WILMOT, is overwhelmingly joyful.  It’s a good tune, but is it really befitting of a song sung “in affliction” (verse 50), amidst “derision” (verse 51), and “sojourning” (verse 54)?  Especially stanza 3, which expresses the singer’s anger over the sins of the wicked (verse 53), seems strange when sung to this tune.  I suppose a case could be made that this choice of tunes reflects the Christian’s overwhelming confidence in the face of danger, but even then, I judge this tune to perhaps be a bit much for these words.  It really is a good tune, but perhaps misplaced in Psalm 119:49-56.

This tune/word combination is unfortunate, especially since selection #242 does a really excellent job at paraphrasing the biblical text.  I’ve always been attracted to the pilgrim/sojourner imagery of the Bible, and this portion of Psalm 119 (along with verses 17-24) is a beautiful “pilgrim’s prayer.”  Setting these words to a different tune would adorn these words far better.

243, “Thou Art My Portion, Lord”

Dwight L. Moody used to say that “every Bible should be bound in shoe leather.”  When we are truly convicted by the truth of God’s revelation, we respond not with our words or thoughts, but with our feet – we become doers of the Word.  Psalm 119:57-64 captures this idea of doing, of walking, of turning “my feet to your testimonies” (verse 59).  Read more about this stanza HERE.

Selection #243 does a good job of versifying this stanza, and so would make a great song of application to sing after reading the Law or a sermon on the 10 Commandments.  I do wish that stanza 2, which versifies verses 59-60, would make the “feet” image of verse 59 more explicit.  Instead it skips to verse 60 and says, “With earnest haste, and waiting not, to Thy commands I turned,” which does capture the image, but not as tersely and vividly as the psalm text.

The tune, CARLISLE, might not be the most familiar, but it really befits this text.  It’s a lovely, memorable tune with a lot of flowing movement, and the rising passage in the second half really captures the emotion of the singer earnestly desiring to “hasten an not delay to keep Your commandments” (verse 60).  Overall, this is a really beautiful selection and deserves more “air time” than I’ve seen it get.

244, “Thou, Lord, Hast Dealt Well with Thy Servant”

Psalm 119:65-72 is an interesting prayer, for it gives thanks for affliction.  It seems that the psalmist had “gone astray” (verse 67) but in the end was brought back, through affliction, to a life of obedience.  As the ancient Greeks said, “Suffered things are learned things.”  Read a thoughtful meditation on treasuring affliction in Psalm 119 HERE.

Selection #244 does an excellent job not only of summarizing this stanza of Psalm 119, but also of tracing this theme of “good affliction” through the entire song.  This ties the song directly to Romans 8:28 (that all things, even suffering, work together for our ultimate good – to bring us back to God) and also to the parable of the Prodigal Son.  This song could be sung as a statement of faith during a time of affliction or as a celebration of lessons learned after coming through such a time.  The words are simple, the grammar is understandable, making this a very accessible selection.

The tune, JANET, is the familiar tune used for #281, “O Praise Ye the Name of Jehovah.”  The familiar tune makes this selection very singable, but one could wish for perhaps a more solemn tune.  After all, this is the song of someone who has just come through affliction.  Until such a tune is found, as accompanists, we can reflect the movement of this song by not playing too brightly or joyfully, especially in stanzas 2 and 4.  Don’t make it a dirge – you are praising God for His providence, after all – but maintain a bit of thoughtfulness (or find or write a new tune).

245, “Thou, Who Didst Make and Fashion Me”

Read an excellent examination of Psalm 119:73-80 HERE.

Selection #245 picks and chooses which aspects of the psalm to dwell on, greatly shortening the imprecatory verse 78.  The words are a bit clunky and disjointed.  The result leaves a bit to be desired when compared with the rich psalm text, since this stanza of Psalm 119 is such a multi-faceted and complete prayer.  However, #245 is a worthy song to sing, especially since it is our only version of Psalm 119:73-80.  Reading through it, it strikes me that these words would be beautiful to sing on behalf of a child just being born or baptized, since the prayer covers many aspects of the Christian life.

The tune, HUMILITY, is also a bit lackluster, but since it is Long Meter (LM), there are many alternates to chose from.  I might suggest GERMANY (#222, “O Give the Lord Wholehearted Praise”) for its familiarity and hopeful tone.

246, “My Soul for Thy Salvation Faints”

Psalm 119:81-88 is the song of a Christian who realizes that he has lost sight of his “first love” because of the cares and trials of this world (Revelation 2:4); he’s lost the energy that accompanies our conversion and youthful passion for Christ.  He memorably compares his soul to a wineskin that has become shriveled in the smoke (verse 83).  For more ruminations on this passage, check out Ascribelog, HERE.

Although noticeably lacking any reference to wineskins or smoke, selection #246 does a good job of summarizing this portion of scripture and capturing the desperation of the psalmist.  The tune, BELMONT, is particularly poignant.  The melody is a simple yet expressive lament, while the upward trend of the bass notes bespeak of the hope of healing that the Christian still has in the midst of being “almost consumed.”

This is a particularly emotional and personal song.  Among counselors, it’s often said that admitting your problem is the first (and large) step to recovery, and brings with it a large amount of hope.  Psalm 119:81-88 and its accompanying song is that first step, that admission of fainting, of being “almost consumed” and yet hoping still.

Affliction has been for my profit,
that I to Thy statutes might hold;
Thy law to my soul is more precious
than thousands of silver and gold.

-JDO

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

Psalm 119: The Music (part 1)

Having briefly examined the overarching themes and ideas of Psalm 119 on Monday and taken a cursory glance at the Psalter Hymnal‘s treatment of the psalm yesterday, we now embark on our customary look at the selections found in the Psalter Hymnal.

235, “How Blessed are the Perfect in the Way”

Selection #235 is the Psalter Hymnal‘s attempt to capture all of Psalm 119 in one song.  It is definitely what we would call a “Psalm-Hymn,” that is, a very loose thematic paraphrase of a psalm.   Every now and then you’ll know where the lyrics are coming from (stanza 1 echoes verses 1-8, stanzas 3-4 approximates verses 9-16), but the hymn sporadically jumps around in the text of Psalm 119, sometimes taking poetic liberties with the text (for instance, the word and concept of God’s “Spirit” appears nowhere explicitly in the Psalm, yet features prominently in stanza 2).

This is not to condemn the song or the concept of a psalm-hymn, but merely to point out that if you want textual accuracy, #235 is not your best bet.  It is however, a fair summary of the concepts found in Psalm 119, and references most of the familiar “highlights” along the way.

The text of #235 seems wordy and slightly archaic, but as Genevan tunes go, ROYAL LAW is fairly accessible and learnable.

236, “How Blest the Perfect in the Way”

The first stanza (verses 1-8) of Psalm 119 opens this grand psalm with a jubilant declaration of the blessedness and joy of responding to God’s revelation with a “whole heart” (verse 2).  Read more about the text HERE, courtesy of our friend Glenda Mathes.

Selection #236 especially picks up on the biblical metaphor of walking in God’s paths from verse 3 and extends it throughout the whole song (notice stanza 2 and the addition of the word “Guide” in stanza 4). Although this requires the author to massage the text a bit, it makes for a cohesive, unified song that remains fairly faithful to the text of Psalm 119:1-8.

The tune, APPLETON, is written in a bright key and has somewhat of a declarative fanfare-ish sound to it, making it well suited to introducing Psalm 119 and proclaiming the blessedness of those who walk with God.  I’d suggest reflecting that happiness with brighter stops, perhaps with some brassy stops to highlight the fanfare nature of the tune and its words.

237, “How Shall the Young Direct their Way?”

Read about the text of Psalm 119:9-16 HERE.

I’ll be honest, this has always been one of my favorite selections in the Psalter Hymnal.  As a child, I enjoyed the fact that it was about “the young,” and as a developing singer, I loved the running bass line in measures 5 and 13.  This tune, DUANE STREET, has real movement to it, as long as it is played at a decent tempo.  The evenness of this tune (all the notes have the same value) suggests a touch of solemnity and promise, making it quite fit to match the vow-like nature of Psalm 119:9-16.

The text is linguistically accessible and reflects the psalm fairly faithfully, making #237 a really excellent selection, especially for Sunday School or Profession of Faith Sundays.  It is a beautiful prayer for the Christian to use for rededication and a prayer for true heart sanctification, echoing the prayer of Mark 9, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

Sincerely I have sought Thee Lord,
O let me not from Thee depart;
To know Thy will and keep from sin
Thy Word I cherish in my heart.

-JDO

The Psalm 119 Psalter Hymnal Cheat Sheet

Psalm 119 week continues (all the action and twice the fun of “Shark Week!”).  Today it’s just a brief post, but hopefully a helpful one.  We’ve mentioned before how difficult the numbering system of the blue Psalter Hymnal is when it comes to the psalms.  (It’s important to note that in this article we refer to the blue 1959/1976 edition used in most URCNA churches).  And nowhere is this more annoying than Psalm 119.  The Psalter Hymnal has 23 selections for Psalm 119, and there’s really no way of knowing which selection comes from which part of the psalm until you pull out your Bible and cross-reference the content.

I’ve known a number of pastors who have written in the references in the margins of their Psalter Hymnals, but if you haven’t done that yet, help is on the way, for we gladly present to you today “The Psalm 119 Psalter Hymnal Cheat Sheet.”

The Psalter Hymnal‘s treatment of Psalm 119 is very systematic, with one overarching paraphrase of Psalm 119 followed by one selection for each of Psalm 119’s stanzas.  As per tradition, we’ll be looking at each individual selection in detail later this week, but for now we provide you with this simple chart (formatted as best as I can):

Psalm 119………………………………235 – “How Blessed are the Perfect in the Way”

“Aleph” (verses 1-8)………………236 – “How Blest the Perfect in the Way”

“Beth” (verses 9-16)………………237 – “How Shall the Young Direct Their Way?”

“Gimel” (verses 17-24)……………238 – “Thy Servant, Blest by Thee, Shall Live”

“Daleth” (verses 25-32)…………239 – “My Grieving Soul Revive, O Lord”

“He” (verses 33-40)………………240 – “Teach Me, O Lord, Thy Way of Truth”

“Waw” (verses 41-48)……………241 – “Thy Promised Mercies Send to Me”

“Zayin” (verses 49-56)……………242 – “Lord, Thy Word to Me Remember”

“Heth” (verses 57-64)………………243 – “Thou Art My Portion, Lord”

“Teth” (verses 65-72)………………244 – “Thou Lord, Hast Dealt Well”

“Yodh” (verses 73-80)………………245 – “Thou, Who didst Make and Fashion Me”

“Kaph” (verses 81-88)………………246 – “My Soul for Thy Salvation Faints”

“Lamedh” (verses 89-96)…………247 – “Forever Settled in the Heavens”

“Mem” (verses 97-104)……………248 – “How I Love Thy Law, O Lord”

“Nun” (verses 105-112)……………249 – “Thy Word Sheds Light upon My Path”

“Samekh” (verses 113-120)………250 – “Deceit and Falsehood I Abhor”

“Ayin” (verses 121-128)……………251 – “I Have Followed Truth and Justice”

“Pe” (verses 129-136)………………252 – “Thy Wondrous Testimonies, Lord”

“Tsadhe” (verses 137-144)………253 – “O Lord, Thy Perfect Righteousness”

“Qoph” (verses 145-152)…………254 – “O Lord, My Earnest Cry”

“Resh” (verses 153-160)……………255 – “Regard My Grief and Rescue Me”

“Sin and Shin” (verses 161-168)…256 – “Though Mighty Foes Assail Me, Lord”

“Taw” (verses 169-176)………………257 – “O Let My Supplicating Cry”

-JDO

Psalm 119: Relating to God through His Word

Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.

– Psalm 119:97 (ESV)

This is going to be a different week at URC Psalmody.  Michael is gone at the RYS Convention in Georgia; meanwhile, we’ve come in our weekly rotation of examining the psalms to Psalm 119.  We discussed how to handle Psalm 119 in depth and decided to treat it all in one fell swoop, like we do all the psalms, but to extend that “swoop” over an entire week.

So this week, we will be examining Psalm 119 and its representation in the blue Psalter Hymnal.  As usual, we will start out with a brief meditation on the content of the psalm.  There is benefit in treating the psalm in a cursory overview, as it allows us to get a glimpse of overarching themes and ideas, but of course such a treatment will miss out on a lot of the details of this glorious psalm.

For a more in-depth examination of Psalm 119, we recommend Ascribelog, the blog of our friend Glenda Mathes, who last year embarked on a excellent series of thoughtful meditations through Psalm 119.  HERE is a link to her first meditation in the series (we’ll be linking the entire series as the week progresses).

Literary Form

It is well known that Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem.  There are 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Each stanza has eight verses, and the first word of each of those verses begins with the stanza’s letter.

On the one hand, it could be said that such a format limits the author – he can’t necessarily write what he wants to unless it starts with the right letter.  This might keep the author from developing a consistent thought and ending up with disjointed stanzas.  When we read Psalm 119, however, this is not what we find, for on the other hand, the very form of Hebrew acrostic poetry speaks volumes.

A well-crafted acrostic, such as Psalm 119 or portions of Lamentations, communicates completeness of thought.  An acrostic is a poetic catalog of thought, specifically ordered from “A to Z.”  Such a structure encompasses everything.  Lamentations, for example, is a complete catalog of Jerusalem’s suffering.  It’s complete, it’s full.

Psalm 119, then, is a complete celebration of God’s revelation in the Torah (the Law, Hebrew for “instruction”).  It is a full, well-ordered, and structured catalog of God’s condescension to His people in Special Revelation.  Psalm 119 is a tool for God’s people to use to make God’s Torah their “meditation all the day” (verse 97) and to praise God “seven times a day” (verse 164).

Perhaps Christians complain that “my prayers all end up sounding the same,” or that our praise can “become too repetitive.”  Psalm 119, in its very form, is an antidote for boring prayers and praise.  It teaches us to fully catalog and vary our worship, specifically on the topic of God’s Law.

Content

Much has been made in Sunday Schools and Bible Studies that almost every single verse of Psalm 119 contains a synonym for God’s “Law.”  “Testimonies,” “precepts,” “commands,” “statutes,” “words,” “rules,” etc.  The ESV Study Bible points out that “except for ‘precepts’ (which appears only in the Psalms), all of these words can be found in Deuteronomy and denote God’s Word, focusing on its role in moral instruction for His people.”  God’s revealed Word in the Torah is blatantly the theme of this psalm.  Psalm 119 celebrates God’s gift of the Torah and teaches us how to use it to relate to God.

Relating to God is the other major theme of Psalm 119.  Eastern Orthodox commentator Patrick Henry Reardon has pointed out that “almost every line also, if one looks closely, is structured on an I-You polarity.”  That is, if you look, almost every verse of Psalm 119 contains a first-person singular pronoun referring to the author (“I,” “me,” “my”) and a second-person singular pronoun referring to God (“You,” “Your”).  Noticing this as you read, pray, and sing through Psalm 119 adds a remarkable personal aspect, revitalizing the longest chapter of the Bible with an intensely intimate I-Thou relationship focus.

So use Psalm 119 to celebrate God’s Word (both the Torah and also the entire Scriptures), use it to teach us how to better relate to God through His Word, and above all use it to celebrate Jesus Christ who is the Word become flesh (John 1:14), who fulfills God’s Law and makes the I-Thou relationship possible.

I long for your salvation, O LORD,
and your law is my delight.
Let my soul live and praise you,
and let your rules help me.

– Psalm 119:174-175 (ESV)

-JDO


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