Archive for October, 2012

“Reformation Day”

God is our refuge and our strength,
a helper ever near us;
We will not fear though earth be moved,
for God is nigh to cheer us.

Happy “Reformation Day,” readers.  October 31st is affectionately named thus because on this day in 1517, Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  This action is lauded by many as the official spark of the Protestant Reformation, in which tradition all Reformed Churches stand.

Luther’s popular hymn “Ein’ Feste Burg” (“A Mighty Fortress”) is his paraphrase of Psalm 46.  The blue 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal used by most URCNA churches includes not only the popular translation of “A Mighty Fortress” (#444) but a more faithful versification of Psalm 46 to the same tune, #85, “God is Our Refuge and Our Strength,” which is also attributed to Luther.

Martin Luther wrote in his Manual of the Book of Psalms,

I believe, for my part, that there is no book under heaven… to be compared with the Book of Psalms.  Wherefore, if it were right to ask of God… that all the greatest excellencies and most choice experiences of all true saints should be gathered and collected from the whole church… and should most briefly and appropriately be condensed into the focus of one book…such a book would be the Book of Psalms. For in the Book of Psalms we have not the life of one of the saints only, but we have the experience of Christ Himself, the Head of all the saints, for He is set forth in those Psalms.  We have, moreover, the feelings and experiences of all the faithful; both under their sorrows and under their joys, both in their adversity and their prosperity; how they conducted themselves towards God, towards their friends, and towards their enemies; how they acted in various perils and afflictions, in the midst of temptations, and under the greatest necessities.

…The Book of Psalms ought to be more dearly and highly prized by us on this account: because it contains such clear prophecies concerning the death and resurrection of Christ, and holds forth such great and gracious promises concerning the Kingdom of Christ, the spread of the Gospel, and the state of the whole Church.  So that you may truly call the Book of Psalms, “A Little Bible,” for in it, all things that are contained in the whole Bible are given to us in the most wonderfully sweet and brief manner, and condensed into a most beautiful manual.

Here is a link to a digital version of Martin Luther’s Manual of the Book of Psalmshttp://archive.org/details/amanualofthebook00luthuoft

Here are a few more items for meditation on this “Reformation Day”:

  • What was Martin Luther’s favorite psalm?  Find out HERE.
  • Did you know that German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote a “Reformation Symphony” (it was his fifth symphony)?  Mendelssohn is one of my favorite composers and I can’t help but share that fact with you today.  Look it up!  Here a link to the last movement, which happens to be an extended meditation on “Ein’ Feste Burg”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_n2t3BbnLnM

Thank God for His faithful servant Martin Luther and other men and women like him.

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper He, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.

-JDO

Though Foaming Waters Roar

God is our refuge and our strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

– Psalm 46:1-3 (ESV)

Our prayers are with all those facing the devastation of “superstorm” Sandy.  May the God who “plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm” keep His children safe and protected as the eastern coast of the United States witnesses the fury of the storm.

I got a text from Michael (who resides on Long Island, New York) this afternoon, who reported that 90% of Long Island is without power and there is a lot of damage, with flooding “of biblical proportion,” but that Michael and his family are safe, albeit without power.

Keep Michael, his church, and all those on the East coast in your prayers.

As “the foaming waters roar,” may we all be reminded, in the words of the Psalter Hymnal‘s versification of Psalm 46 (#84), to

Be still and know that I am God,
o’er all exalted high;
the subject nations of the earth
My Name shall magnify.
The Lord of hosts is on our side,
our safety to secure;
the God of Jacob is for us
a refuge strong and sure.

-JDO

Psalm 60: Doing Valiantly

O God, Thou hast rejected us,
And hast afflicted sore;
Thou hast been angry, but in grace
O once again restore.

Psalm 60 opens with a cry for a renewed outpouring of God’s blessing, as the psalmist brings his complaints before the Lord.  “You have made the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair its breaches, for it totters” (v. 2).  But like many other psalms of lament, this song is penetrated by  unshakable confidence:

You have set up a banner for those who fear you,
that they may flee to it from the bow.

–Psalm 60:4 (ESV)

The psalm goes on to repeat God’s declaration that all lands belong to him.  Verses 6-8 (repeated in Psalm 108:6-13) establish God’s ownership of both the territory of Israel (v. 7) and the kingdoms of the Gentiles (vv. 6, 8).  Then the psalmist David asks a piercing question:

Who will bring me to the fortified city?
Who will lead me to Edom?

–v. 9

Since God has deserted the cause of his people, says David (“You do not go forth, O God, with our armies,” v. 10), their military endeavors are futile.  In response to this truth, the psalmist ends his lament with an echo of his opening plea:

Oh, grant us help against the foe,
for vain is the salvation of man!
With God we shall do valiantly;
it is he who will tread down our foes.

–vv. 11, 12

The ascription of Psalm 60 refers to striking down “twelve thousand of Edom in the Valley of Salt,” probably connecting this song to the events recorded in II Samuel 8:1-14.  The ESV Study Bible notes that the campaign referenced here “brought several Gentile kingdoms under David’s rule” and suggests that “this psalm, with its air of lament, would thus represent the prayers of the people before the campaign had been completed.”

Had I not read this psalm’s ascription, however, I would have assumed Psalm 60 was composed sometime after Israel’s exile.  And it’s interesting to note how it fits that model equally well.  Mourning over the desolation of their land, the captive Israelites could still pray this psalm and look with expectation to the renewal of God’s blessings.

Through the work of Jesus Christ, Psalm 60 comes to take on an even deeper meaning.  It’s not hard to see messianic fulfillment in phrases such as “You have rejected us” (v. 1), “You have made your people see hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us stagger” (v. 3).  Christ also fulfills the psalmist’s cry for God to “give salvation by your right hand and answer us” (v. 5).  And the rest of Psalm 60 only makes sense when understood in light of the Great Commission: “With God we shall do valiantly” (v. 12).  Thus, Psalm 60 is completely suited to the life and mission of the Christian church.

108, “O God, Thou Hast Rejected Us”

Number 108 in the Psalter Hymnal is a mixed bag.  In fact, its quality varies from stanza to stanza, and sometimes even from line to line.  The first verse is excellent.  The second is fairly accurate, but the reference to “judgments dread” carries a connotation not present in Psalm 60.  The third stanza sacrifices the psalm’s messianic references to condense the text.  The fourth is an accurate versification, but uses the “old” translation of Psalm 60:4 found in the KJV (see the ESV footnote).  Stanza five is solid.  Stanza six, in a glaring oversight, obliterates the distinction between the regions of Israel (v. 7) and the “heathen lands” mentioned in vv. 6 and 8.  The seventh stanza takes some similar liberties with vv. 9 and 10.  And the final stanza, like the first, is fine.

The tune of “O God, Thou Hast Rejected Us” is notable as the Psalter Hymnal’s only contribution (or possibly one of the only contributions) from the Scottish Psalter of 1615. With a beautifully simple structure, DUNFERMLINE exhibits classic Scottish four-part harmony.  The melody line carries the psalm’s impressions of mourning and petition with an unwavering air of confidence.  It’s a perfect match; the alternate tune CLINTON is probably viable, but certainly unnecessary.

Give Thou Thy help against the foe,
For help of man is vain;
Through God we shall do valiantly,
The victory He shall gain.

–MRK

“Thank You for Your Patience”

Preakness Valley URC

Preakness Valley URC

Loyal readers of URC Psalmody may notice that the blog has been sitting on the proverbial back burner for a little while, at least as far as my contributions are concerned.  That’s certainly not because my life has lately become quiet and unexciting!  Rather, it’s mostly due to a nine-day road trip that took my family from the fall 2012 meeting of Classis Eastern United States to the suburbs of Chicago and back again.  Along the way we had the chance to visit the Preakness Valley United Reformed Church in Wayne, NJ, and worship with the saints at Community United Reformed Church in Schererville, IN.

There are plenty of things to fascinate the Reformed mind in the area around Schererville.  There are lots of United Reformed congregations in the area.  There’s Mid-America Reformed Seminary in nearby Dyer.  And there’s Jim Oord.

Over the weekend Jim arranged for the two of us to accompany the morning worship service at Community URC on organ and piano—a fantastic experience since both instruments were top-notch.  We enjoyed creating arrangements of Psalter Hymnal numbers 48, 49, 160, and 287 on the fly for service music, and accompanying the congregation in singing well-chosen psalms and hymns was incredibly uplifting.

Practicing at Community URC

Practicing at Community URC

Even more incredibly, Jim invited me to give a presentation during Community’s adult Sunday school session on “Psalms for a New Generation.”  This was the first of its kind, and I was truly apprehensive.  By God’s grace, however, I managed to present the material without losing my sanity, and from the feedback I got it seems to have been well-received.  Recordings of the class should be available online in the near future, via YouTube or even SermonAudio.com.

On Tuesday I sat in on a few classes at Mid-America, enjoyed lunch with one of the faculty members, and got to catch up with some friends from synod and RYS.  Jim joined me there in the afternoon, where we recorded a special video version of our ongoing discussion series on Sing a New Song.  Awaiting editing, that presentation should also be up within a week or so.

Along the way, we had the chance to share our passion for the psalms with a wide variety of people.  I was immensely encouraged just by the instruction and encouragement I received during this trip, and by the unique fellowship that only Christians can share.  The journey had its setbacks, but it was nevertheless a time of much-needed growth.

All of this to say: I hope you’ll bear with me as I get back into the flow of things here on URC Psalmody.  Expect some more posts and our “regular features” to pop up over the course of the next few days.  I am excited to see how God will continue to use this humble little blog to bring glory to his Name.

But for now, I will continue to be haunted by the realization that the newest speaker on SermonAudio might be someone who’s not even old enough to vote.

–MRK

Psalm 128: The Prosperity of Jerusalem

Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the LORD.

– Psalm 128:4 (ESV)

As Michael commented last week, Psalms 127 and 128 form a duo of “household songs” within the Psalms of Ascent.  Psalm 128 is a short song celebrating the blessedness of “everyone who fears the LORD” (verse 1), focusing especially on how that blessedness shows itself in covenant family life.

Psalm 128 progresses simply from a brief statement of truth (verse 1) through colorful illustrations (verses 2-4) until it crescendos into an explosive coda (verses 5-6)… taking us from beatitude to blessing.

The first part, verses 1-4 could be classified as wisdom literature, much like the book of Proverbs.  It simply states facts: everyone who fears the LORD is blessed… and here’s how.

The second part, verses 5-6, is a prayer that these matter-of-fact blessings of verses 1-4 would be specifically applied to “you.”  I like to imagine the Hebrew pilgrims heading to Jerusalem for the feast gleefully singing the words of verses 5-6 to each other in the midst of their families.

Psalm 128 encapsulates what it looks like to live a blessed life.  It follows the typical chronological progression of a life lived within God’s covenant: vocational blessing (verse 2), marital blessing (verse 3a), filial blessing (verse 3b), all the way unto generational blessing (verse 5).

A few exegetical comments to add flavor:

  • Describing a wife as “a fruitful vine” (verse 3a) not only brings to mind fertility and sexual blessings, but also the joy of marriage and companionship, which gladdens the heart like wine.
  • Describing children as “olive shoots” (verse 3b) brings to mind the need for cultivation (they’re just shoots) but also the potential and excitement in watching them grow before you into strong and fruitful trees.

This is a picture of life with the right priorities.  The blessings don’t center on wealth, power, or fame.  There’s no promise of easy money or an early retirement (if any retirement at all); rather, there’s a promise of laboring with your hands (verse 2).  Yet this is the blessed life, for it is a life lived with God at the center.  The fear of the LORD (the reverent attitude that focuses on His glory) guides the blessed man’s life.

Someone who lives thus, with the fear of the LORD as his guide, has two great prayers that prompt the closing benediction: the prosperity of Jerusalem (verse 5) and to see his children’s children (verse 6).  Everyone who fears the LORD wants to see God’s Church thriving – and his own progeny thriving with and in it.

This is a positive psalm to read and sing at weddings, anniversaries, baptisms, at any family event.  But it also contains a challenge: what are your greatest desires?  How do you define a blessed life?  The answer isn’t money, ease, or high living.  Psalm 128 radically confronts our culture’s view of “the blessed life” and redefines it with an eye to worship and work, the Church and the family.  That’s the life of true peace and blessedness.

270, “Blest the Man that Fears Jehovah”

Overall, number 270 is a solid entry in the Psalter Hymnal.  The rousing and familiar tune (GALILEE/JUDE) well reflects the joy and contentment of Psalm 128.

It takes some liberties with the text.  For instance, verse 3a, “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house,” becomes stanza 2,

In thy wife thou shalt have gladness,
she shall fill thy home with good,
happy in her loving service
and the joys of motherhood.

Talk about poetic license!  Not only is any “vine” imagery missing, but there’s whole clauses of interpretation and commentary added!  On the other hand, it is a beautiful thought and reflects the application (if not the words) of the text decently.  With selections like this, I wish that we could have two selections for Psalm 128: one that faithfully represents the text of Psalm 128, and one like number 270, that is perhaps more whimsical in its paraphrasing.

One other sticking point is the awkward changing of “Blessed is everyone” to “Blest the man.”  Number 270 individualizes the application of the psalm to one representative man, whereas the text of Psalm 128 combines both a corporate and an individual sense.

Other than its excursus on motherhood in stanza 2, number 270 does stay quite faithful to the text of Psalm 128, even admirably keeping the “olive plants” imagery extant in stanza 3.  It really is an excellent selection overall, one that is well-loved by many and is quite suitable as a reminder and blessing for many occasions within the life and worship of the church and within the life and worship of our families.

–JDO


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