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.


4 Responses to “Psalm 125: So The Lord Surrounds His People”

  1. 1 Kevin McNamara September 24, 2012 at 10:22 am

    “KNOWHEAD is a perfectly suited tune. There’s something about 6/8 meter melodies that conveys confidence exceptionally well.”

    I respectfully disagree. While compound meter can convey a sense of strength, it typically does not. When used for congregational singing, melodies in compound meter are too easily prone to take on the lilting, “sing-songy” feel that is inherant in the meter itself. As such, the melody is better suited to a roller rink or barn dance rather than conveying the confidence we have in God. In this regard, the grey PH version in simple meter is a mild improvement.

    More importantly, however, this discussion touches on the broader topic of how music communicates in the first place – a topic which is typically absent from discussion of church music and one that, I belive, is critical to any discussion of a “well-ordered church music.” (with apologies to J.S. Bach) I could on at some length if I don’t restrain myself, so at this point, I’ll simply encourage further dialogue on the topic.

    Kevin McNamara

    • 2 Michael Kearney September 24, 2012 at 5:29 pm

      Mr. McNamara,

      Thanks so much for sharing these comments. Your response prompted me to reconsider why I came to such an immediate conclusion about 6/8 time signature, which is certainly a good thing.

      First off, I’d heartily agree that “this discussion touches on the broader topic of how music communicates in the first place.” As I see it, there are (at least) three crucial factors in determining the suitability of particular music for worship:

      How it’s written. Piano concertos, ragtime tunes, rock ballads–these are a few examples of music that’s unsuitable due to its very composition.

      How it’s played. Any psalm or hymn tune can be played in a style that is completely irreverent and unsuitable for worship. Rock adaptations of old hymns as well as carnival-esque organ renditions of psalm tunes like this are equally objectionable, regardless of the composition of the original music.

      How it’s heard. No matter how simply it’s written or how reverently it’s played, “Happy Birthday” is not appropriate for worship. Popular tunes like “O Danny Boy” and “Auld Lang Syne” are also questionable at best–because when the congregation hears this music, they will automatically associate it with secular ideas rather than spiritual.

      These points might be good material for a future blog post, so I apologize in advance if I end up repeating myself. But with these general ideas in mind, I thought I’d try to evaluate number 267 more thoroughly.

      How is number 267 written? Perhaps this is where we disagree. I don’t believe there is anything inherently carnal or worldly about the composition of a 6/8 psalm or hymn tune. The danger in this time signature, as I see it, is the connotation it conveys through how it’s played and heard. Then again, it should be noted that other time signatures could have distinctly non-liturgical connotations too. 2/4 or 4/4 time might be associated with a march. 3/4 time is often considered a waltz meter. Now I’m sure we’d agree that neither marches nor waltzes are appropriate for a church service. But the Psalter Hymnal contains dozens of selections in these time signatures–why aren’t they equally objectionable?

      Instead of ruling out 6/8 tunes as unacceptable, I’d rather point out the need to play them reverently and watch for ungodly connotations. On these points we would probably agree. But since KNOWHEAD is a properly-composed tune created specifically for the Psalter, I believe it has a definite advantage over much of our other church music.

      My position is far from dogmatic–I’m only beginning to understand some of the theory behind creating acceptable church music, and it’s only as a result of your comments that I really gave this topic some serious thought. Even if I’m not completely correct, it’s a good opportunity for further discussion. Again, thanks so much for sharing.

      S. D. G.,


  2. 3 Reita Julien September 24, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Excellent, Michael! And I disagree with Mr. McNamara. I think it could be “jazzed up” if the organist doesn’t introduce it right but it our congregations have always sung it as intended. Also, some of the Psalter songs should have the keys lowered but that is not one of them.

  1. 1 Psalm 134: Two-Way Blessings « URC Psalmody Trackback on January 28, 2013 at 7:05 am

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