Archive for September, 2012

Sing a New Song, Chapter 4: Wesley, Watts, and Worship Wars

Although it’s not entirely according to schedule, we return today to our ongoing study of Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio.  Today we discuss Chapter 4, by the well-known OPC scholar and historian D. G. Hart, entitled “Psalters, Hymnals, Worship Wars, and American Presbyterian Piety.”

JDO: Darryl Hart’s chapter is fairly technical, tracing the change from exclusive psalmody to mixed psalms and hymns in Presbyterian churches. He focuses heavily on two hymn-writers, Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, and shows that their hymns were a major influence in the change in Presbyterian, and by extension our own Dutch Reformed, tradition.  Our own blue Psalter Hymnal includes eight selections by Charles Wesley and seven by Isaac Watts, which is substantive proof that this is a conversation not just for Presbyterians, but for us in the URCNA.

MRK: Hart begins with the question, “What is the appropriate psalm to sing for a Christmas Eve service?” This question drives right to the center of the conflict in Reformed worship.  Churches that sing the Psalter usually don’t observe the liturgical calendar.  Churches that observe the liturgical calendar don’t usually sing the Psalms.  Hart uses this thought-provoking example to make the case that “Reformed worship has traditionally been a tapestry of mutually reinforcing convictions and practices” (p. 61).

JDO: What Hart is getting at, and what he unpacks in the rest of the chapter, is that our worship styles and our systems of doctrine must be linked in order to make sense.  This isn’t necessarily a judgment on exclusive psalmody or Christian holidays, but Hart’s main point rings true: If you’re going to be biblically-based in one area, carry it through.

And so Hart begins the discussion, as any discussion of worship should begin, with the regulative principle of worship.  He says, “The gravity of worship and the fear of blasphemy made Presbyterians cautious about all elements of worship” (p. 63).  This idea is consistent with Presbyterian and Continental Reformed doctrine, and is echoed in our own Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 96).

MRK: Hart describes two different philosophies of worship music during the Reformation.  One view was held by Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, who outright forbade music in the church because of its “destructive power” and because they found no scriptural warrant for it.

JDO: That might strike us as outrageous, but you have to realize the context in which they lived.  Music was associated with the inaccessible and overly complicated mass, sung exclusively by trained choirs in a language and style that was not understandable by the congregation.  In addition, Zwingli and Bullinger realized the truth behind the old adage, “Heretics sing hymns.”  The singing of hymns was commonly practiced by heretics in the early church as a method of teaching false doctrine to the common folk.  The singing of non-biblical hymns was associated with false doctrine, and hence would be too dangerous to risk.  In a period where hymnody was oft-misused, it would be easy for them, in their desire for restructure and reformation, to toss out the baby with the bathwater.  While I don’t agree with their conclusions, I can at least respect their reasoning.

MRK: Calvin, however, seems to have reached a better (and more Biblical) balance.  As Hart puts it, “Believers should really sing, both with voice and heart” (p. 64).

JDO: Yes.  Calvin (like Augustine before him) understood congregational singing to be a form of corporate prayer, an easy way to facilitate corporate praying.  His solution to the problem of heretical hymnody was to look to the psalms as a source for music—which makes sense, because the Reformation’s return to the Bible should naturally be accompanied by a return to Biblical music.  Like Hart said, doctrine and practice and worship all should logically fit together.

MRK: While Calvin’s general pattern of worship continued for centuries in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, exclusive psalmody as the hallmark of Reformed worship did not last long.  In America hymns were first introduced in 1729, in the form of a songbook published by Benjamin Franklin. Its title: The Psalms of David Imitated by Isaac Watts.

JDO: I have that book sitting right in front of me now.  And looking through it, it’s easy to see how hymns subtly infiltrated worship.

MRK: With a name as innocent-sounding as The Psalms of David Imitated, what was so revolutionary about Watts’s work? And why is he widely credited (for good or no) with the introduction of extra-Biblical hymns into worship?

JDO: The most familiar example would be Psalm 72.  There are two versions here.  The first is a fairly accurate paraphrase; some liberties were taken for rhyming and meter, but it’s as good as, or better than, many selections in our Psalter Hymnal.  The second version of Psalm 72, on the other hand, takes significant liberties with the psalm text in order to make its Christological applications more explicit.  This version is the familiar song “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun.”

MRK: Yes—Psalms 72 (“Jesus Shall Reign”) and 90 (“O God, Our Help in Ages Past”) probably exemplify some of Watts’s most dramatic alterations to the Biblical texts.  For the record, both are in our Psalter Hymnal.

JDO: So you can see that as songs like these easily began to sneak into psalters, the door opened to including hymns not even remotely inspired by the psalms.  Now as I said last week, I have a love-hate relationship with Watts.  His work is commendable.  Recognizing the continuing value of the Old Testament, he brought out its relevance and Christ-centered significance.  But the effect of his psalm-hymns on the psalm-singing tradition is regrettable.

MRK: Now that brings me to a more immanent matter.  In the forthcoming URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal, should paraphrases like “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” be kept in the psalm section, or should they be moved to the hymn section?  Or, if they detract from true psalm-singing, should they be omitted entirely?

JDO: I’ve thought about that a bit, but every answer I come up with is overly complicated.  Most of these psalm paraphrases are still good and biblically helpful to sing, but they can’t in all fairnes be called psalm settings.  What if we marked “looser” psalm settings as 72-HYMN, for example, or printed them in a different color?  Or what if we stuck a psalm-hymn cyborg area between the existing psalm and hymn sections?

MRK: Right.  Presenting the Psalter Psalm-Hymn Hymnal.  Seriously, though, I’m sure there are many ways to approach the problem, and I’m sure it will be handled wisely by the Songbook Committee.  But I think the take-home message would be that we need to prioritize good, literal psalm settings, even if they’re not as familiar as some of these paraphrases.  If we have a good base of psalmody in our worship, hymns and “imitations” like the work of Isaac Watts will fall into their proper place.

JDO: Now in Watts’s wake, hymns from many different perspectives began to creep into the repertoires of the Church.  Among them were the works of Charles Wesley.

MRK: And whatever Wesley may have been, he was certainly prolific—writing over 6000 hymns, compared to Watts’s 700.

JDO: But now we return to what we’ve mentioned before: the importance of matching practice with theology.  Hart points out that for Presbyterian and (by extension) Reformed churches to sing Wesleyan hymns is “a theological and liturgical oddity that has not generated sufficient comment” (p. 71).  Seriously, hasn’t this ever struck anyone as odd before?

MRK: Perhaps it’s just something we don’t think about too often.  Many people, including me, couldn’t tell you who wrote “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” off the top of their head.  We tend to accept familiar hymns as familiar, without giving any thought to their authors—and that’s a very detrimental oversight, in my humble opinion.  While we don’t want this to become an exposé of Charles Wesley, we do have to admit that his beliefs were not in line with orthodox Reformed theology.

JDO: Yes.  Hart describes the combination of Presbyterian doctrine and Wesleyan piety as an “unstable compound” (p. 72).  As we’ve pointed out before, what you sing affects what (and how) you think—and the easiest way to spread change (good or bad) is to get people to sing it.

MRK: Exactly.  The first alarm should be going off in our minds as soon as we realize that Wesley’s hymns were designed primarily to evangelize the unchurched and unsaved.  Thus, Wesleyan hymnody was created to appeal to the general public, with emotional and fairly shallow content.  Upon further thought, it occurs to me that this very same mentality has shaped the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) movement: “Win them with the music, and then they’ll turn to Christ.”

JDO: That’s completely backwards.  Paul’s injunctions to sing are to the end of glorifying God, “making melody in your heart to the Lord.”  The Psalms speak the same way.  Songs are not meant to draw people in, like some third key of the Kingdom.  While the Holy Spirit is entirely free and able to use a variety of means, the preaching of the gospel is his modus operandi (Romans 10:14-17).  So to purposely create songs to function as means of salvation seems to go against the Scripture’s very basis for singing.

MRK: Not only are Wesleyan hymns “me-focused,” but they’re often so individualistic that they simply can’t apply to the whole body of Christ.  The alarming part is that, as Hart says, “Presbyterians in America had no intrinsic objections of principle to the evangelistic purposes or experiential piety involved in Wesley’s hymns” (p. 73).  Their songs became inconsistent with their doctrine, and they didn’t seem to mind one bit.

JDO: I do want to point out that not all Wesleyan hymns are, well, blatantly Wesleyan.  For instance, I love “And Can it Be” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”  I think these songs are appropriate and beneficial for corporate worship.

MRK: Yes—one should be careful, Zwingli in mind, not to throw the hymnological baby out with the bathwater.

JDO: But I guess the lesson to learn is that we mustn’t be afraid to question the hymns we sing.  It’s so easy just to let songs slip into our worship without thinking about their implications.  Take, for instance, Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.”  I hope I don’t get into trouble here, but notice how the words are so personal, so autobiographical, so specific to me.  I’m not necessarily saying that we need to throw that song out of the Psalter Hymnal, but I would definitely recommend caution.  Let’s always make sure to balance songs like that with songs that focus on God and His glory.  For every “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” it’d be wise to sing a decent handful of “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”s.

MRK: And, of course, a bunch of psalms.

JDO: Absolutely.  With the psalms, you’re guaranteed to get the balance right.  They are, after all, inspired.  And even when the psalms sing of personal experience, it’s to the end of glorifying God.

MRK: Back in Sing a New Song, Hart mentions one other extremely influential hymn writer: Horatius Bonar (1808-1889), who’s been called “the greatest of Scottish hymnwriters” (p. 74).  Bonar’s four selections in the Psalter Hymnal are “O Love of God, How Strong and True” (329), “Not What My Hands Have Done” (389), “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” (413), and “Fill Thou My Life” (449).  Now I do love many of Bonar’s hymns, including “Not What My Hands Have Done” and “Fill Thou My Life.”  But the same Wesleyan emphasis on personal experience can be traced through many of Bonar’s works.

JDO: There’s no doubt that our churches today are still reeling from the effects of experience-based, me-focused, results-oriented forms of Christianity.  And those ways of thinking creep in through music.  Catchy, memorable, beautiful songs are the quickest way to spread ideas.  That’s precisely why we at URC Psalmody, like Hart, are so passionate about a return to psalm-singing (if not exclusively, at least primarily).  More importantly, we need to love the psalms.  Wouldn’t it be great if a love for the psalms could spread in the same way as a love for Wesley’s experiential hymnody?

MRK: After his detailed hymnological study, Hart spends the last three pages of his chapter reflecting on the importance of psalm-singing.  Again and again he brings out the need for Presbyterian and Reformed Christians “to be discerning about the common idiom of American culture” (p. 76).

JDO: Sadly, I often see people who are bored by psalm-singing, but flock to shallow revivalistic gospel songs or flimsy repetitive choruses.  Now Hart is careful to point out that psalm-singing is not a “cure-all” that will fix everything in our churches.  But it is an important step toward a God-centered, Christ-glorifying worship practice.  In other words, it’s a way to make sure that our practice matches our theology.  Hart concludes his chapter with a profound evaluation:

Presbyterians and Reformed Protestants may have a valuable remedy for resisting the novelty, emotional excess, and disorder that characterizes so much worship in the contemporary church—a return to the Psalter.  It is certainly not a magic cure-all that will suddenly cause teenagers to be attentive and put an end to worship committees’ desire to experiment with new forms of worship.  But…if Presbyterians are jealous for singing the right songs in worship, debates over the regulative principle, questions about spontaneity, and worries about bored children and confused visitors may actually fall into their proper place.

Next time: Chapter 5, by Rowland S. Ward, on “Psalm Singing and Scripture.”

Until then,

–JDO/MRK

Introducing the Psalmodifier

Have you ever sat down with a psalm and a hymn and compared them?  It’s not a hard exercise, and it can be eye-opening.

Actually, I only began this practice quite recently.  As I explored the hymn sections of the Psalter Hymnal and Trinity Hymnal, I picked some of the most popular selections and studied them against comparable psalm texts (“Under His Wings” with Psalm 91, for example).  I was astonished at the contrast; while some of the hymns offered a unique Christological perspective, the psalms always had the upper hand with regard to beautiful poetry, depth of emotion, and well-rounded texts.

Another phenomenon that surprised me was that many of the hymns shared a great deal of content with a particular psalm.  “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” brought to mind Psalm 84, and as I read “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord,” I couldn’t help but think of Psalm 122.  I started to wonder if this principle could be tested on a broader basis.  Could I find matching psalm texts for any number of popular hymns?

That was my challenge to myself.  For starters I decided to pick three familiar hymns dealing with God’s glory in creation, which I would then pair with the most appropriate psalm texts I could find.  The results of this preliminary “psalmodification” project are below.

“All Creatures of Our God and King” with Psalm 148

If I had to sum up the theme of “All Creatures of Our God and King” (1990 Trinity Hymnal #115) in 20 words or less—“All God’s creation, earth, animals, and humans, are commanded to praise their Creator.”  The five stanzas of this hymn focus on (1) all creatures, (2) wind and clouds, (3) water and fire, (4) men, commanded to forgive others and cast their cares on God, and (5) all things.  And there really isn’t much else to it.

Psalm 148 seems like the closest match for this hymn, including passages that cover each of the five stanzas listed above: all creatures (well, the entire psalm really), wind and clouds (v. 8), water (v. 4) and fire (v. 8), men (vv. 11, 12), and all things (again, the whole psalm).  The hymn’s repeated alleluias mirror the psalm’s continual injunctions to “Praise the LORD!”

But Psalm 148 goes even further than “All Creatures of Our God and King” because it provides a reason for praising the Lord: “for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven.  He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him” (vv. 13,14 ESV).  In this wonderful conclusion God is extolled not just as Creator but Redeemer as well.  How much more could you want in a simple song of praise?

“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” with Psalm 135

The theme of “Immortal, Invisible” in 20 words or less: “God is praised by his humble servants for his eternal, infinite, and immutable attributes.”  This hymn’s first verse ascribes several adjectives to God: immortal, invisible, only-wise, blessed, glorious, almighty, victorious.  The second verse seems to blend the properties of light with the first law of thermodynamics by describing the Lord as “unresting, unhasting” and not “wanting, nor wasting.”  It further praises God’s justice and his “clouds which are fountains of goodness and love”; the third verse combines the praise of men with the praise of the angels, ending with the clinching phrase, “‘Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.”

While I couldn’t find as close a match as in the first case, Psalm 135 seems to fit the bill for this hymn pretty nicely.  Just about all of the descriptions in stz. 1 are included or implied somewhere in this text.  God’s omnipotence in the second stanza are reflected in this passage: “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.  He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (vv. 6-7).  And the combined praise of men and angels is featured at either end of Psalm 135, in vv. 1-3 and 19-21.

I must confess that I find this hymn’s impersonal view of God and its obsession with the “Father of light” rather disturbing.  Wherever the author of “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” got the idea that the Lord is “silent as light,” it certainly wasn’t from Scripture (see Ps. 104:32).  Thankfully, Psalm 135 eliminates this mystical component and replaces it with stronger expressions of praise to God.

“How Great Thou Art” with Psalm 104

“How Great Thou Art” is a beloved song of praise to God for his work of creation (stanzas 1 & 2) and his work of redemption (stanzas 3 & 4).  This hymn’s refrain “Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee…” provides a passionate capstone for each verse.

Psalm 104 immediately earns a place alongside this hymn with its rousing call to “Bless the LORD, O my soul!  O LORD my God, you are very great!”  The words of “How Great Thou Art” can be traced in this text almost phrase-by-phrase: “all the worlds thy hands have made” (vv. 5, 19, 20), “the rolling thunder” (v. 7), “thy power throughout the universe displayed” (vv. 31, 32), “the woods and forest glades” (v. 16), “the birds…in the trees” (v. 17), “lofty mountain grandeur” (v. 8), and “the brook” (v. 10).  And the psalmist’s joyful response to the glory of creation—“I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being”—makes me wonder if this hymn’s author actually based his refrain on Psalm 104:33.

“How Great Thou Art” is clearer than Psalm 104 in one regard: its focus on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.  But even in this case, the psalm isn’t completely devoid of references to payment for sin: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more!” (v. 35).  And one might even look at v. 33 (“I will sing praise to my God while I have being”) as merely a more veiled reference to the final resurrection.  In any case, “How Great Thou Art” and Psalm 104 remain remarkably similar.

I can’t claim to present you with any definite conclusions as a result of this exercise.  Perhaps the results could be used to show that hymns and psalms are fundamentally compatible.  Perhaps they could show how easily certain psalms and hymns can be swapped in a worship service.  But maybe the simplest application we can obtain from this brief study is that hymns can be good—but psalms can be ever so much better.

–MRK

“Dutch Door” Psalters

A few months ago, I wrote about mini-psalters, the handy take-along size of many popular psalters.  Today, I want to take a few moments to share about another fun branch of psalter history, the “Dutch door” psalter.

The “Dutch door” psalter, also known as a split-leaf psalter, is so called because its pages are reminiscent of the Dutch doors common in so many fairy tale cottages – where the top and bottom halves of the door swing separately.  So too with these psalters.  The pages are split down the center so that you can turn the bottom and top halves of the page separately.

“Dutch Door” Psalters in action

In most “Dutch door” psalters, the tunes are printed on the top halves and the texts on the bottom.  Each text, on the bottom halves, indicates what meter it follows, either CM (Common Meter), LM (Long Meter), SM (Short Meter), or a series of numbers.  Each tune, on the top halves, also indicates which meter system it follows.  Usually, the tunes are arranged in such a way that similar meters are grouped together.  Otherwise, there are substantial indexes indicating which tunes follow which meters.  In other cases, like the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland’s The Psalms in Meter (1957) have suggested tunes listed along with the text.  Some “Dutch door” psalters, such as The Scottish Psalmody (1650), made sure that all the psalms were set to CM tunes, making all the tunes and psalm texts interchangeable (meaning one could, I suppose, sing all 150 psalms to one tune, if so desired).  If you’re still a bit rusty on how meters work in various psalters, Michael explained the process very well in part 2 of his “Tunes” series.

Perhaps this seems confusing.  Perhaps you’re wondering how or why this would ever be used in a worship service.  I’ve only attended one church where “Dutch door” psalters were used, and it was really an uncomplicated process.  The worship leader simply called out the psalm number followed by the tune number.  For instance, if using the aforementioned Irish Psalter, he might call out, “Psalm 108, sung to St. George, 103.”  The congregation would then find Psalm 108 in the bottom half, then turn to tune number 103 in the top half.

Psalm 108 in the Irish Psalter

“Dutch door” psalters are still used by many churches in a variety of denominations.  To most of us in the URCNA, “Dutch door” psalters are merely a historical curiosity.  To be honest, I wrote this post merely because I find these psalters interesting and thought our readers might, too.  I love the few “Dutch door” psalters that I own, they’re fun to use and help me feel connected to my psalm-singing brothers and sisters throughout history and around the world.  But upon further thought, there are a few advantages to the “Dutch door” psalter that are worth some meditation:

  • In many “Dutch door” psalters, there is only one text entry per biblical psalm.  Provided it’s an accurate and complete versification, could there not be some pedagogical benefit to this?  That is, when we sing Psalm 108, we always sing the same versification, helping us to memorize it more efficiently.  I know the Trinity Psalter (1994) shares this philosophy.
  • In addition, this feature (one text selection per biblical psalm) encourages congregations to sing psalms in their entirety, rather than just selections.
  • The split level allows you to sing the same psalm to multiple different tunes.  This could be a downside (causing confusion), but it could also help unpack more meaning.  Different tunes can help emphasize different points.  Last week, my church sang “I will Sing of My Redeemer” (usually sung to the rollicking, revivalistic tune found in the blue Psalter Hymnal number 439) to the more reverent and meditative HYFRYDOL.  For me, personally, the tune change made the words “come home” in a way that they haven’t in a while, because I had grown so “used” to the tune used in 439.

Just food for thought.  In addition, I’d be interested to know, have any of you ever used “Dutch door” psalters at home or in worship?  What did you think?

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

Resources:

-JDO

Psalm 125: So The Lord Surrounds His People

Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
so the Lord surrounds his people,
from this time forth and forevermore.

–Psalm 125:1, 2 (ESV)

Confidence is a recurring theme in the Songs of Ascent.  “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2)…“Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8)…“He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing the sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:6)…“I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Psalm 130:5).

But among these fifteen Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), Psalm 125 stands out in confidence, if only for the vivid imagery and concrete comparisons quoted above.  Imagine an ordinary Israelite family toiling up the road to Jerusalem, marveling at its near-impregnable perch and the surrounding barricade of mountains.  Imagine them singing this song as they traveled, realizing with awe that the Lord was their Protector even more surely than these natural defenses guarded Mount Zion.  “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore.”

Psalm 125 packs a powerful punch into five concise verses.  Verse 3 promises that “the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous, lest the righteous stretch out their hands to do wrong.”  As the ESV Study Bible notes, this does not mean that wicked rulers will never have dominion over the righteous—but through the psalmist’s phrase “shall not rest” we are assured that God will not allow this oppression to continue indefinitely.  The Psalter Hymnal paraphrases this statement beautifully: “No scepter of oppression/Shall hold unbroken sway…”

The fourth and fifth verses contain a direct prayer to God: “Do good, O LORD, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in their hears!  But those who turn aside to their crooked ways the LORD will lead away with evildoers!”  This parallels the promise of v. 3—God will ultimately justify the righteous and condemn the wicked.  And the final exclamation of Psalm 125—“Peace be upon Israel!”—is an even more simplified restatement of the entire psalm’s theme.  There will certainly be peace upon God’s people as he fulfills his everlasting promises.

267, “All Who, with Heart Confiding”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

If any musical psalm setting in the Psalter Hymnal can radiate confidence, number 267 fits the bill.  The text strikes a near-perfect balance between literality and poetry.  Perhaps the solid feel of “All Who, with Heart Confiding” is due in part to the consistent rhyming scheme and powerful verb choices (confiding, abiding, bounded, surrounded, cherish, perish, and so on).  It is also remarkable that this setting includes just about every idea from Psalm 125, from the “abiding” of v. 1 to the “everlasting peace” of v. 5.  Although the creators of this versification had to expand the third stanza slightly to fill the meter, their additions accurately reflect the theme of the psalm:

From sin Thy saints defending,
Their joy, O Lord, increase,
With mercy never ending
And everlasting peace.

KNOWHEAD is a perfectly suited tune.  There’s something about 6/8 meter melodies that conveys confidence exceptionally well.  In fact, it’s interesting to note that while the Psalter Hymnal doesn’t include all that many 6/8 tunes, many of its other instances share this sense, including 13, “Lord, Our Lord, Thy Glorious Name”; 137, “In Doubt and Temptation”; and 300, “The Lord Upholds the Faltering Feet.”

The fact that KNOWHEAD was created specifically for this psalm by gospel hymn composer Charles Gabriel imparts two additional advantages.  First, the tune is custom tailored, as it were, for the message of Psalm 125.  Second, it’s gained a unique association with this text; if you play KNOWHEAD, your congregation will (hopefully) recognize it right away.

As to musical suggestions, play number 267 with a strong 2-beats-per-measure rhythm, and don’t let the eighth notes get “stuck.”  (The editors of the gray Psalter Hymnal made the completely unwarranted decision to lower the key to G and change the meter to 4/4.  Don’t buy it for a minute!)  Regarding the tempo, there’s probably more danger of playing KNOWHEAD too slowly rather than too quickly.  The singers should be able to moderate the tempo pretty well themselves.  And don’t be afraid of a gradual crescendo from beginning to end, especially in the final stanza.  Let the glorious confidence of Psalm 125 spill over through this beautiful combination of text and tune.

All who, with heart confiding,
Depend on God alone,
Like Zion’s mount abiding,
Shall ne’er be overthrown.
Like Zion’s city, bounded
By guarding mountains broad,
His people are surrounded
Forever by their God.

–MRK

“Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah”: A YouTube Survey

Searching for Psalter Hymnal songs on YouTube is an unbelievably challenging task.  No matter how I phrase my search, I’m usually bound to come up with the same list of hymns and praise songs, related to the desired item only in some completely unhelpful way—the same title, for example, or the same number in a different songbook.  So I’ve learned not to expect much when it comes to finding a psalm video on the web.

But the other day, on a random whim, I decided to search YouTube for the versification of Psalm 148 known as “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” (blue Psalter Hymnal number 304).  And the results blew me away.  Actually, what I found was so unexpected that I’d like to share some of the highlights with you here.

The first result I got was this one—a simple a cappella rendition of the song.

What primarily surprised me was not the quality of the singing (which was excellent), but the fact that this recording appears to have originated from a clearly non-Reformed background!  The only other Psalter Hymnal selection that might be able to claim this honor is 94, “God Be Merciful to Me,” from Psalm 51.  I reflected a bit on this.  Then I watched the next video.

Not just another rendition of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” but a gospel version!  Sung a cappella, again, and with great gusto!  I began to seriously wonder, “What is it about this song?”

My jaw dropped further and further as I progressed through the rest of the search results.  Next in the list was a recording from a congregational singing workshop of a church in Cincinnati—again without accompaniment, and again with exuberance.  Number 304 was also rendered by two solo YouTube artists (1 and 2), who recorded over their own voices to preserve the harmonization.  Then there was this congregational recording from a channel entitled “ipohchurchofchrist,” and another from the Westside Church of Christ in Salem, VA.  “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” was also sung here at some kind of conference, although this recording is quite humorous since the song leader doesn’t quite seem to know the words.  In all of the above cases, there were no musical instruments whatsoever.  And it seems like there was no need for any.

Now, this wouldn’t be a balanced survey if I didn’t mention that there were some other—er, more instrumental versions of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” in the search results as well.  One worship team attempted, not very successfully in my opinion, to adapt the psalm to the contemporary Christian music genre.

Eagle Rock Community Church posted a similarly contemporized rendition of number 304, but their song leader gains some bonus points in my book for mentioning that “there’s actually a whole tradition of music-writing that is psalm-writing—and this is in that tradition.”

Whew—this is a weighty list of videos.  And these recordings comprise only a part of the first page of search results!  So, with my ears thoroughly flooded with the various sounds and styles used in the singing of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” I returned to my initial question.  Why did this seemingly ordinary Psalter Hymnal song “break through the lines” of Reformed worship and become a favorite among such a wide variety of denominations?

As in all such cases of hymnological research, I turned to the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship project known as Hymnary.org.  This website, quoting from the CRC Psalter Hymnal Handbook, informed me that “PRAISE JEHOVAH was composed by William J. Kirkpatrick (b. Duncannon, PA, 1838; d. Philadelphia, PA, 1921) and joined in the 1890s to this versification of Psalm 148, with the original seventh stanza becoming the refrain. The tune was published with an 1899 copyright date in Life Songs, a 1916 publication of the Mennonite Publishing House.”

Wow!  That came as a surprise.  Not only did “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” originate outside the Reformed tradition, but its first known appearance was in a Mennonite songbook!  Additionally, I discovered that this song isn’t even included in the 1912 Psalter, the source for the majority of the Psalter Hymnal’s content.  We put it into our songbook; other churches already had it in theirs.

But I still wondered what had made this song so popular in such a broad range of cultures and denominations.  In fact, it just might be the only complete (or very nearly complete) psalm versification I’ve ever heard sung outside a Reformed context of worship.  Why?  While we can’t know for sure, the following thoughts occurred to me:

  1. Both the words and the music of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” are simple and easy to learn.  This psalm is comparable to popular hymns like “How Great Thou Art” in terms of its basic structure and simplicity.
  2. The tune and format of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” place it squarely within the perennially popular gospel genre of Christian music.  With its simple part-writing, strong rhythmic structure, and exciting refrain, this tune is just plain fun to sing.
  3. “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” is perfectly suited for impromptu a cappella singing, leading to endless possibilities for its use in many different circumstances.
  4. The mere age of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” and its inclusion in such a wide variety of songbooks, has allowed it to sink into the ears and hearts of multiple generations of worshipers.

Now, with the above characteristics in mind, we must approach number 304 with a bit of caution.  As with many gospel-style hymns, there’s an underlying danger that we may sing “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” merely because it’s a fun song—not for its faithful versification of Scripture.  But I would like to hope that many Christians sing this selection with gusto mainly for its beautiful expressions of psalm-based praise to Jehovah.  In today’s self-centered worship culture, that would truly be a refreshing sight.

–MRK


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