Archive for August, 2012

Studying the Psalms: Devotional Helps

I’d like to take a few minutes today to share some resources that I find particularly helpful in my devotional study of the psalms.  Perhaps we’ll have some recommendations for scholarly study in another post someday, but these are all sources meant to be read on a more daily basis.  For that reason, I have chosen works divided into short, quick reads.  We’ll save commentaries for another day.  Each of these sources has led me to love, learn, and listen to the Psalms in a much deeper way.

I’ve divided (somewhat arbitrarily) the sources into the categories based on how I use them.  Just click on the book title to be taken to the publisher’s site to learn more about the book (or to purchase it).

Prayer: Prayers on the Psalms from the Scottish Psalter of 1595

(published by Banner of Truth, 2010)

This tiny booklet is part of Banner of Truth’s “Pocket Puritan” collection, making it very affordable and very portable (it literally does fit into a pocket with ease).  As the title suggests, the book is simply a collection of prayers, one based on each biblical psalm, taken from the Scottish Psalter of 1595.  The prayers are each only a few sentences long and elegantly summarize the prayerful thrust of each psalm.  These prayers are eloquent and explicitly Christian and can guide us to see how each psalm can and should be prayed by the New Testament Church as well as the Old.  The prayers make Christ explicit and can be a good way to “get the juices flowing” in our own private prayers.

Exegesis: The ESV Study Bible 

(published by Crossway Bibles, 2008)

Since its publication, I have been very pleased with the ESV Study Bible.  It does a particularly good job with the psalms.  Each psalm is introduced with a succinct summary and outline, including not only exegetical insights but also a few seeds of application to the Christian reader as well.  This makes the ESV Study Bible an excellent way of overviewing the psalm, providing guidance and wisdom in personal application.

Christology: Christ in the Psalms by Patrick Henry Reardon

(published by Conciliar Press, 2000; revised 2011)

This is a recommendation that could be a bit controversial.  This is a book written by an Eastern Orthodox theologian and is written explicitly from that perspective.  So if these books were being given ratings like movies, it might be a “PG-13” book for United Reformed folk – reader discretion advised!  What I mean is that this book needs to be read with wisdom.  And yet I still put the book on the list because I think it is an invaluable resource.

The book provides a simple two-page meditation for each psalm (including the apocryphal Psalm 151 – one reason for the “PG-13” rating).  These meditations are well-written, quickly getting to the heart of each psalm.  What’s beautiful about these meditations is Reardon makes a conscious attempt to show each psalm explicitly in the light of Christ.  For that reason, this book is a treasure trove for meditation.  Reardon has a beautiful writing style and shows each psalm off in its New Testament fulfillment.

Now there are cautions, as I mentioned before.  The most jarring difference is the numbering system.  The Greek Old Testament used by Eastern Orthodox churches numbers the psalms differently.  They combine Psalms 9 and 10 into one Psalm.  They do the same with Psalms 114 and 115 and divide Psalm 116 into two.  This makes their entire numbering of the Psalms quite confusing.  But do not be afraid – Reardon places the traditional numbering system (the one used in most English Bibles) in parentheses after the Greek number.

There are several places where Reardon goes on tangents that might seem foreign to our Reformed ears.  Unfortunately, he uses one or two psalms as soapboxes to attack certain perceived flaws in Protestant theology.  That is why this is a “PG-13” book.  But I want to again emphasize that this book is a tremendous help.  The very concept and existence of this book is a challenge – to set out to see each psalm as beautifully pointing us to Christ.  Reardon’s short, precise, and Christ-centered looks at the psalms are a wonderful way to open up the psalms and show off all their Christological facets.

Application: Praying with the Psalms by Eugene Peterson

(published by HarperCollins, 1993)

Eugene Peterson is well-known for his pastoral insights, and this book is no exception.  This book was meant as a daily devotional, working through the psalms.  But I ignore that and just read the entry for whatever psalm I’m studying.  Sometimes he just has one entry for an entire psalm, sometimes several.

Each entry is only a paragraph, once again just a quick read.  But that paragraph is perceptive, revealing, and challenging.  It cuts me right to the heart every time!

He ends each entry with a short and personal prayer based on the psalm, meant to help us apply the lesson of the psalm to our lives.

Praise: The Book of Psalms for Worship

(published by Crown and Covenant, 2009)

I just can’t tell you often enough just how much I love this Psalter!  But I’ve done it before, so I won’t repeat it here (read my past review HERE).

In connection with the topic of praising God through the singing of the Psalms, I would like to give you a heads-up about one other resource, and that is the excellent book Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century, a collection of essays on psalm-singing edited by Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio.  It is really a great resource, showing the history of psalm-singing, the biblical call to psalm-singing, pastoral need for psalm-singing.  Michael and I have been reading through this book together and intend to share some of our reflections on the book starting next week.  So look forward to that, but as Levar Burton always used to say, “You don’t have to take our word for it!”  Check it out, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.  But more on that next week.


Of course, no book about the psalms is going to magically bring us closer to God.  These books are merely recommended as tools to help hone us in our devotional reading of the book of Psalms.  Any study of the book of Psalms, if approached with prayer and a heart blessed by the Spirit and focused on Christ, will glorify God and bless our walk with Him.  This is true of a devotional study done with or without “helps.”  But these books are meant to help facilitate our growth.  They have certainly helped me and I pray that perhaps they can help some of you.

Have you read any of these books and found them helpful?  What books have you used in your study of the psalms?  What recommendations would you add to this list?  Respond in the comments section below.


William Gurnall on the Imprecatory Psalms

A few weeks ago, I had the enjoyably awkward experience of being asked to read Psalm 58 out loud in public.  If you’re not familiar with Psalm 58, I’m not really surprised.  It’s certainly not one that lends itself to daily application in the life of a Christian.  It contains such prayers as:

  • “O God, break their teeth in their mouths” – verse 6.
  • “[Let them be] like the stillborn child who never sees the sun” – verse 8b.
  • Or my personal favorite, “Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime” – verse 8a.

Whoa there!  Psalm 58 is one of the imprecatory psalms.  The denotation “imprecatory” comes from the word “imprecation,” which the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language (one of my favorite books in my library) defines as “the act of invoking evil on any one; a prayer that a curse or calamity may fall on any one.”

There are actually quite a few imprecatory psalms.  Psalm 109 is another blatant example, as well as Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139, 143, and others.

During the course of any conscientious reading of the psalms, each Christian is bound to wonder exactly what place these psalms hold in the Christian life.  Believing, as we do, in the infallibility and timelessness of Scripture, we know that we can’t simply throw them out. And yet they seem so angry, so blatant, so hateful.  Perhaps they just applied during the Old Testament, back in the days when God’s people were commanded to wage holy war on physical enemies.  Perhaps they are merely artifacts of a long-gone time in redemptive history, merely to be read as a curiosity.

Or perhaps there is a way in which Christians can and should still make use of these psalms in our prayers and meditations.  But how?  To answer that question is the subject of many books, articles, sermons, and blog posts.  I’m sure that we will return to this question again and again in our meditations and discussions here on URC Psalmody.

But for today, I would like to present one helpful resource on the question of imprecatory psalms.  William Gurnall was an English pastor who lived from 1616-1679.  He is best known for his book The Christian in Complete Armor, a 1100+ page examination of spiritual warfare, using Ephesians 6 as an outline.  It’s an excellent resource.  Of interest to our topic today are his comments on Ephesians 6:18, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”  In this section, Gurnall discusses various types of prayer, including imprecatory, “wherein the Christian imprecates the vengeance of God upon the enemies of God and His people.”

Gurnall’s comments (found on pages 444-448 of volume II of the Hendrickson edition) are invaluable.  In them, he offers 4 warnings and guidelines to the Christian who is praying an imprecatory prayer.  These 4 guidelines, I believe, are excellent words of advice for us as we read, pray, and sing any imprecatory psalm.

1. “Take heed thou dost not make thy private particular enemies the object of thy imprecation.”  In other words, do not pray an imprecatory psalm about any specific enemy you may have (or think you have).  Christ calls us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).  If we are tempted to pray such a psalm about a specific person, we are acting out of hate.

2. “When thou prayest against the enemies of God and His church, direct thy prayers rather against their plots than person.”  So instead of praying such a psalm about a particular person, pray such a psalm about evil plans and designs.  Gurnall calls our attention to the example of the Apostles in Acts 4:29 – they pray against the threats and plans of the Council rather than against the Council members themselves.

3. “When praying against the persons of those that are open enemies to God and His church, it is safest to pray indefinitely and in general.”  Gurnall points out that we do not know the eternal fate of particular people.  Even the vilest persecutor of the church may repent and turn to Christ – look at Saul/Paul!  So rather than praying against specific persons by name, pray these psalms against the the enemies of God in general.  Pray these psalms about movements that are actively attacking the church, but not against the individual members of the groups – pray rather for their conversion.

4. “In praying against the enemies of God and His church, the glory of God should be principally aimed at, and vengeance on them in order to that.”  Examine your heart.  Are you praying this psalm because you want to glorify God, to have His name glorified, to have blasphemous words and actions removed?  Or are you merely seeking comeuppance, vengeance, and your own peace?

If all of these warnings are taken to heart, then as Christians we may read and pray and sing the imprecatory psalms.  If they are read in such a way, Gurnall points out that these psalms can bring (1) comfort to the persecuted church and (2) a warning to the wicked of the eternal consequence of their actions.

The imprecatory psalms are a part of our Christian Scripture.  As such, they should not be skipped, rushed over, or ignored.  But, in order to read them properly, in a distinctly Christian way, guidelines and advice such as Gurnall’s are invaluable.


The complete text of Gurnall’s book is accessible online, HERE.

The specific section on imprecatory prayer is found in THIS SECTION, near the bottom (look for “Third Kind of Petitionary Prayer – The Imprecatory”).


Tunes (Part 7)

At long last we’ve arrived at the other end of URC Psalmody’s “Tunes” series safe and unharmed.  From my first article on the music of the Hebrew psalms, we’ve blazed through the topics of meter, time signature, rhythm, accent, and key.  Along the way, I introduced an obscure setting of Psalm 118 from the 1912 Psalter on which to apply the principles described in these posts.

By the end of our last installment, we had narrowed down the possible tunes for “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above” to five choices: OLD HUNDREDTH (Psalter Hymnal number 280), TRURO (122), CREATION (282), NAZARETH (300), and SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER (105).  Each of these possibilities possesses the qualities we wanted in each area of study.  So where do we go from here?

At some point in the process of selecting a tune, musical intuition must take precedence over musical theory.  Although a deeper study of the nuances of this text might reveal a few more clues, musicians (and hymnbook editors) are eventually left to make an educated choice.  Often the decision is made through trial and error, playing and singing each combination of text and tune in succession.

Also, the final choice will often vary based on personal preference.  For instance, I like either TRURO or CREATION as the tune for “Give Thanks and Praise to God Above.”  However, our faithful reader Mrs. Julien, who surpasses me by several decades in musical experience, prefers APPLETON—a tune that I had ruled out fairly early on in my selection process.  Is one of us wrong?  Possibly—and if so, it’s probably me.  But there’s room for personal opinion in choosing church music, just as there’s room for personal opinion in many other minor aspects of worship.

(As an interesting side note, however, I should mention that the 1912 Psalter includes two tunes for this setting.  One is an unfamiliar entry, STONEFIELD.  The other–to Mrs. Julien’s credit–is APPLETON.)

In any case, what matters here is that we apply Biblical principles to all questions related to church music, and guide our decisions accordingly.  Using the criteria that music should be beautiful, orderly, and fitting, we narrowed down our choices by considering various tenets of musical theory.  If extra doses of humility and prayer are included, I believe this makes for a workable and God-glorifying method of selecting church music.

As I look back on these articles, I realize that a seven-part series on hymn tunes may beg the question, “Why?”  Should the average pastor or church member really care about these technicalities?  Are they really that important?

Music is often viewed as merely a carrier for text, as water is a carrier for chemicals.  If this is true, the tune of a congregational song is meaningless.  If this is true, pastors and accompanists need not concern themselves with the details of church music.  If this is true, sacred and secular music only differ in the words that each genre carries.

This erroneous notion permeates the Christian church of today, giving rise to a plethora of problems.  Careless worship practices, poorly edited hymnbooks, the notorious “worship wars” themselves—all are fueled by the basic idea that music doesn’t matter.  How far, how sadly far from the truth!

At the beginning of this series I described music as “the salt of our psalter.”  While that may be a bad pun, I am convicted that there is some truth in it.  Salt, unlike water, has a distinct flavor that inseparably permeates anything with which it comes into contact.  In the very same way, music is a permanent and powerful component of any and every kind of song.  The link between text and tune is so close that the Christian Reformed Church included this principle in the preface to the 1976 CRC Psalter Hymnal:

The music of the church should be beautiful.  Its religious thought or spirit should be embodied appropriately in the poetry as poetry, in the music as music, and in the blending of these in song.  It should satisfy the aesthetic laws of balance, unity, variety, harmony, design, rhythm, restraint, and fitness which are the conditions of all art.

Carrier or key component?  I submit to you that music is the latter.  And if this is true, our view of music matters tremendously.  Accompanists should learn all they can about music and its theory.  Pastors should choose songs with both text and tune in mind, their decisions guided by the same basic principles.  Even non-musical church members should be aware of the connection between words and music, seeking every opportunity to learn more about this crucial element of worship.

This is why we aim for a regular balance between textual and musical considerations here on URC Psalmody.  Whenever we examine a psalm, we try to examine the tunes that accompany it in the Psalter Hymnal.  It’s also why we endeavor to serve pastors and fellow church members through the Psalter Hymnal Resource Library and other avenues.  Indeed, this is why we’ve devoted a seven-part series to the topic of tunes!

I hope that through this study our appreciation and respect for the songs of the church can in some way be deepened.  God has given us the incredible gift of music; may we know and use it to his glory!

It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.

–Psalm 92:1-4 (ESV)


Psalm 57

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.

–Psalm 57:1 (ESV)

Both in the Scriptures and in the Psalter Hymnal, Psalm 57 has always resonated in my heart with its balance of petition and praise.  In fact, it possesses a remarkable similarity to Psalm 56; both are inscribed as “a Miktam of David” and associated with actual events in the psalmist’s life, specifically his flight from King Saul.  Even with his enemy bearing down upon him, David was able to assert,

I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me;
he will put to shame him who tramples on me.
God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!

–Psalm 57:2,3

One of my favorite aspects of this psalm is its refrain in vv. 4 and 11: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!  Let your glory be over all the earth!”  David’s confidence in God inspires him to sing to his Creator and Protector even through the storms of life.  In spite of the affliction described in vv. 4 and 6, he concludes Psalm 57 with exuberant expressions of praise.

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.

–Psalm 57:9,10

105, “O God, Be Merciful to Me”

There’s only one versification of Psalm 57 in the Psalter Hymnal, but that’s hardly a problem; this text is among the most beautiful and well-constructed settings in the entire songbook.

Originating in the 1912 Psalter, the text strikes a near-perfect balance between poetry and accuracy.  A few weak spots, such as the omission of “storms of destruction” in v. 1 and “among the peoples/among the nations” in v. 9, are atoned for by the simple beauty of the rest.  And the refrain in the second half of stanzas 2 and 4 is matchlessly rendered:

Be Thou, O God, exalted high,
Yea, far above the starry sky,
And let Thy glory be displayed
O’er all the earth Thy hands have made.

For this choice of tune, we must thank the editors of the CRC’s 1934 and 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnals.  In the 1912 Psalter this setting of Psalm 57 was split into two separate selections, to the tunes SELWYN and CHURCH TRIUMPHANT.  And while the first is still more or less fitting for the theme of this psalm, the second (to my ear at least) clashes horribly with it.  The decision to merge the two songs into one and set it instead to the familiar L.M.D. tune SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER was brilliant.  This melody is plaintive and passionate, simple and sincere—the epitome of this psalm’s message.

In my very biased opinion, nothing can compare with Dordt College’s rendition of number 105 on their album series Be Thou Exalted, Lord (arranged by the late Dale Grotenhuis).  But although I don’t have access to an online version of this recording, I can at least share a few interpretive suggestions from it that can be applied even to congregational singing.

First, it’s critical to set the mood of this tune with a slow 6/8 tempo with six beats (not two) to the measure.  It might have been beneficial if the editors of the Psalter Hymnal had converted SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER to 6/4 meter as in the case of number 91.  I like a tempo of about 60 bpm to the dotted quarter note (or, in layman’s terms, two seconds per measure); the Dordt choir sang even slower.

Second, consider using a contrasting style and/or registration for the two halves of each stanza.  The first half of stzs. 1-3 contain the psalmist’s complaints, whereas the latter half of stzs. 2 and 4 contain the psalm’s jubilant refrain.  This change of mood can be effected by encouraging the congregation to sing in unison for the first two lines (usually by the use of a solo stop on the melody, with very soft accompaniment) and harmony for the remainder (with a fuller organ sound).

Third, note the rising praise of the psalmist as expressed in the last part of v. 3 and the entirety of v. 4.  In recognition of this, Dale Grotenhuis added an organ interlude and a key change to E-flat—something quite feasible for a typical congregation.  And that very last refrain should burst out with unrestrained exuberance!

Be thou, O God, exalted high,
Yea, far above the starry sky,
And let Thy glory be displayed
O’er all the earth Thy hands have made.


Saxophone in the Sanctuary

When we think of the instruments most commonly associated with a traditional United Reformed worship service, organ and piano are usually at the top.  Smaller congregations might sometimes use an acoustic guitar.  And on special occasions, these accompanying instruments might possibly be joined by a trumpet, flute, or violin.  How about a saxophone?

For many of us, the mere mention of using a sax in worship makes our hair stand on end.  That’s because the genres of music inevitably associated with the saxophone are blues, jazz, and rock and roll.

If the instrument were only capable of playing those styles, traditional churches would have every reason to avoid utilizing it in worship.  But think again: Is it possible to play the saxophone beautifully and reverently, in a way that is entirely appropriate for the corporate worship of our God?  I submit to you that the answer to this question is a confident “Yes!”

In pop music, the saxophone is most renowned for its “wailing solos,” adding an often excessive level of virtuosity to the instrument’s remarkable resemblance to the timbre of the human voice.  But it’s that same unique similarity to the voice that enables the sax to play a psalm or hymn tune with emotion, depth, and beauty.  If you are so fortunate as to know someone who knows the saxophone, have them play a selection from the Psalter Hymnal one day; chances are you’ll be amazed at the sound you hear.  In stark contrast to its jazzy stereotype, a properly-played saxophone can add an extraordinarily unique color to the music of the church.

If you’re still not convinced, I’d like to recommend to you an album of hymns performed by an excellent saxophonist, James Steele, with the same title as this article: “Saxophone in the Sanctuary.”  When I first listened to the recording, I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing a sax.  Its rich, mellow tones gave each melody an exquisite quality possibly unparalleled by any other instrument.  Once you hear it yourself, you’ll know what I mean.

You might ask, “Why bother adding another instrument into our worship?”  Well, depending on the customs of your particular church, you might not have the opportunity (or the desire) for anything beyond simple piano or organ accompaniment.  However, numerous churches make regular use of solo instruments to accompany their congregational singing, for a variety of reasons.  Following are some primary rationales for this practice, along with Scriptural support:

  1. The Bible bursts with exhortations to praise God using a variety of instruments (Psalm 150).
  2. Many congregations possess members who are willing and able to serve the church through their gift of music (Romans 12:6); they are skilled enough to contribute to a worship service, and their instruments are capable of producing beautiful and God-glorifying music.  However, opportunities in the church are usually few and far between for musicians who play solo instruments like the sax.
  3. Utilizing the saxophone to accompany congregational singing provides a practical alternative to the idea of separate “special music” in worship, as the instrumentalist can assist the congregation in praise without drawing undue attention to himself or excluding his fellow worshipers (I Corinthians 14:26).

Practically, though, how can you introduce good saxophone music into your church?  First, of course, you have to find a saxophone player.  Just to ensure that this musician can handle the task, consider having a quick informal “audition” with him or her involving three or four easy hymn tunes.  Also find out what kind of saxophone your instrumentalist plays: there are several members in the family, including soprano, alto (the most common), tenor, and baritone sax.  And last but certainly not least, you’ll need to get approval from the leadership of your congregation.

Once you have established these important points, there are several possibilities for your first piece.  Below are a few of the approaches we’ve successfully used here at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church.

  • Play a simple, familiar psalm or hymn tune from the Psalter Hymnal with solo saxophone and simple accompaniment (preferably piano).  This is often harder for the pianist than the sax player, in fact; it’s especially important to keep the rhythm steady, provide a full but not overpowering accompaniment, and fill in the gaps between stanzas.  Since the tuning of saxophones is unusual (the C of an alto saxophone is our E-flat), your instrumentalist will probably need their melody line transposed.  You can do this yourself if your computer has music notation software like Sibelius or Finale, or you can purchase pre-transposed hymn arrangements designed specifically for woodwind players.  The finished piece could probably be best utilized as a special offertory.
  • Accompany a vocal piece or congregational singing with the sax.  If your saxophonist excels at solo pieces, he or she may be ready to tackle the additional nuances involved in accompanying vocalists.  The above comments apply here as well.  I would suggest assigning the sax a descant or other “accenting” part rather than burying it amidst the complex vocal harmonies.
  • Include saxophone in a larger instrumental ensemble.  At West Sayville, this has proved to be the most effective way to involve a large number of musicians in worship.  Just as in the case of a soloist, we select an easy, familiar psalm/hymn tune and create a basic system of piano and organ accompaniment.  We proceed to divide the instrumentalists into their various ranges (soprano: flute and trumpet; alto: clarinet and trumpet 2; tenor: saxophone; bass: piano).  Then we simply write out parts for each of the instrumentalists from the four-part harmony in the hymnbook, transposing keys if necessary.  There’s no more arranging involved; the ensemble just practices for a few weeks, and all its members are soon ready to play their piece as a prelude, offertory, or other instance of service music.

Due to its cultural associations, the saxophone as an instrument is often both misunderstood and underappreciated.  So long as the sax is separated from the secular style to which it is typically attached, I would heartily encourage you to consider the possibility of utilizing it in corporate worship.  If you are still dissuaded by well-grounded objections, please don’t hesitate to share them.  But I’m inclined to believe that once you fully explore this instrument’s tonal capabilities, you will come to discover that there is indeed a place—a beautiful, reverential, God-glorifying place—for saxophone in the sanctuary.


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