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.


1 Response to “Introducing the Psalmodifier”

  1. 1 Reita Julien September 28, 2012 at 9:56 am

    Excellent, Michael!

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