Archive for November, 2012

Psalm 130: That You May Be Feared

But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

–Psalm 130:4 (ESV)

The RYS East Coast Retreat grounds

The RYS East Coast Retreat grounds

I’ve just returned from the annual Reformed Youth Services East Coast Retreat, held at the Mont Lawn Camp in Bushkill, PA.  Every year, the general revelation of God’s breathtaking creation and the special revelation of his written Word converge during this weekend of fun, fellowship, and pointed discipleship.  This year’s featured speakers were Rev. Kevin Hossink of the Hudson Valley URC in New York and Rev. Jeremy Veldman of the New Haven URC in Vermont.  For his text, Rev. Hossink focused on James 4:1-10, a passage with a powerful punch.  “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

On Sunday morning, however, Rev. Veldman chose a different text for his sermon: Psalm 36.  In three beautiful stanzas, this psalm sets forth the key difference between the righteous and the wicked: One fears God, the other doesn’t.  The fear of the Lord, Rev. Veldman pointed out, leads to eternal life.  Fearing nothing can only end in damnation.

With this convicting sermon fresh in my memory, I studied the words of Psalm 130 with awe.  Nowhere else in the book of Psalms, one might argue, is the crisis of mankind set forth more simply.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

–Psalm 130:1,2

While many psalms describe “depths” of misery caused by persecution and affliction, Psalm 130 focuses on the dire straits of the soul overwhelmed by sin.  One thinks of the terrible death-knell echoing in the words of Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 4, Question & Answer 10:

Will God permit such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished?
Certainly not.  He is terribly angry about the sin we are born with, as well as the sins we personally commit.  As a just judge he punishes them now and in eternity.

In horror at this prospect, the psalmist cries, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (v. 3).  “God’s justice demands it,” declares the Catechism in Question & Answer 16.  “Man has sinned, man must pay for his sin, but a sinner cannot pay for others.”

Then, in Psalm 130, there is a crucial word: “But.”

But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

–Psalm 130:4

“But with you is forgiveness!”  Here the entire gospel message is poignantly conveyed in five simple words.  God provided the human race with a mediator, says the Catechism—“our Lord Jesus Christ, who was given us to set us completely free and to make us right with God” (Q&A 18).  The only One who could stand under the burden of our sins was God’s only begotten Son, who took upon himself human flesh to redeem us.

The psalmist of the Old Testament saw merely the shadows of this redemption, and in longing he writes,

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

–Psalm 130:5,6

Standing on the frosty dock at 5:45 am during the Regional Retreat (see the picture below), I could grasp this imagery of expectation as never before.  Despite his historical setting before the coming of the Messiah, however, the psalmist portrays for us a perfect example of true faith, “a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true” (Q&A 21).

O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.

–Psalm 130:7

[True faith] is also a deep-rooted assurance, created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel that, out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ, not only others, but I too, have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation.

–Catechism Q&A 21

Psalm 130 ends with a clarion note of confidence:

And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.

–Psalm 130:8

The crux of the matter is this: The deliverance God has wrought should instill in our hearts a saving godly fear.  This fear inspires us to declare “that I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” (Q&A 1).  This fear compels us to believe “everything God promises us in the gospel” (Q&A 22).  And this fear motivates us “to confess his name, to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks, [and] to strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil in this life” (Q&A 32).

Psalm 130 is the story of salvation in a nutshell.  Listen for its echoes in this last rich passage from the Catechism (Q&A 60):

How are you right with God?
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.  Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments and of never having kept any of them, and even though I am still inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.  All I need to do is to accept this gift of God with a believing heart.

“Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you.”


The camp chapel just before sunrise

The camp chapel just before sunrise

Introducing “The Chinese Psalter”

Earlier this year I posted about the landmark significance of the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter. Here is a fascinating article which describes the creation of a Chinese version of this songbook! Praise God for making such an endeavor possible!

The Three R's Blog

Patron: “I see you have books in German and Dutch, and I know you carry books on Hebrew and Greek here at the Seminary library. But do you have any books in Chinese?”

Librarian: “As a matter of fact, we do. It came in late this summer, and it is a unique and wonderful treasure. It is “The Chinese Psalter” and it truly is entirely in Chinese. And God is using it to fill a void in the worship of Chinese Christians. It is an exciting book!”

The above conversation did not actually take place, but it does help me introduce to you this unique volume that was entered into our Seminary library this past summer. Let me tell you the story of it briefly along with some pictures I took of it (click on to enlarge). Earlier this year I was informed through our PRC website by a Dutch…

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Sing a New Song, Chapter 9: Redemptive-Historical Psalm-Singing

Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) is a well-revered name in Reformed biblical theology.  His greatest contribution was the redemptive-historical concept of studying the Scriptures, tracing the growth, development, and unity of the plan of salvation throughout history.  His teaching thus does much to show how the entire Bible is not a disparate collection of stories, but one unified tale of the salvation of God’s people, centered on Christ.  In Chapter 9 of Sing a New Song, entitled “Psalm Singing and Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutics,” Anthony Selvaggio looks at one of Vos’s lesser-known articles, “Eschatology of the Psalter.”  We’ll be evaluating Selvaggio’s chapter as part of our ongoing series on Sing a New Song.

At the very beginning, Selvaggio acknowledges that psalm-singing and the redemptive-historical approach might seem to be mutually exclusive.  Not so! he claims. In simpler terms, Selvaggio’s point is to show that psalm-singing wasn’t just for the Old Testament people of Israel—it’s equally applicable for the Christian church today.  After summarizing and unpacking Vos’s essay, Selvaggio argues that the singing of psalms is a remarkably redemptive-historic and Christ-centered enterprise.

As we begin discussing this chapter, Selvaggio’s theological language may seem a bit daunting.  But it’s important to realize that tough words like “eschatology” and “soteriology” have quite simple definitions.  Eschatology is the study of the last things (the second coming of Christ, the end of the world, &c.), covering not just Revelation but the teachings of the entire Bible.  Soteriology is the study of salvation, from justification to sanctification to glorification, and so forth.

MRK: Vos’s article referenced by Selvaggio begins with a comment about the practice of printing New Testaments with the book of Psalms at the end.  Vos’s point isn’t to comment on the ordering of the canon of scripture; he merely wishes to point out “that the book of Revelation and the Psalms have much more in common than we might at first think,” as Selvaggio says (p. 150).

Vos was concerned about the low view of the psalms as mere devotional material prevalent in his day; his thoughts still ring true these many decades years later.  In powerful language, he writes that he desires to “shake us out of this habit and force us to take a look at the Psalter’s second face.”  Hence his thesis, as summarized by Selvaggio: “that the theology of the Psalter is predominantly eschatological [pertaining to the end times] in nature.”  This focus shapes the rest of Vos’s article on psalmody, which is divided into six main points.

JDO: Vos’s first point concerns what Selvaggio calls the “Subjective/Objective Dynamic.”  The Psalms are a heartfelt, personal way for God’s people to react to the facts of his work in history.  And just as God’s purpose is expanded and clarified as time goes by, the psalms themselves develop and become more specific and pointed.  The common thread in all the psalms is a looking forward to the future coming of Christ.

MRK: Vos also points to the “dynamic/static” pattern within the psalms.  God’s mighty acts of redemption, condemnation, and consummation are “intrusive, violent, and disruptive” events in history, while the eternal state of the Christian is peaceful rest in God’s presence.  Both concepts are thoroughly present in the Psalter, because the dynamic break-ins of God allow for the static peace of his people.

JDO: The Psalms also serve as a teaching tool for God’s people, according to Vos.  The psalms teach us how to live appropriately in light of the future (eschatology).  The psalms give us confidence, not fear; expectation, not ignorance; and a model for living godly in this age, not focusing too heavily on merely the present or the future.  In short, the psalms balance and temper our view of eschatology.

MRK: As someone who’s beheld both short-sighted worldliness and what Selvaggio calls “end-times silliness” in various churches, I can especially relate to the importance of the Psalter as a tempering tool.

Vos’s fourth point is also particularly relevant to our discussions here on URC Psalmody: the Psalter powerfully attests to our fundamental unity with the nation of Israel, the church of the Old Testament. Whereas Biblical prophecy states this connection objectively, the psalms allow us to realize it subjectively.  As Selvaggio summarizes it, “Because of the Psalter’s eschatological limberness, it transcends the limitations of the old covenant” (p. 153).

JDO: Fifth is another point we often discuss: the Messianic element in the psalms.  “The Psalter forces the saints of both [testaments] to recognize their mutual dependence on the redemptive work of the Messiah” (p. 154).

MRK: Vos’s sixth point is kind of a “three-in-one” deal: he mentions the Psalter’s use of history as a basis for its view of the end-times, its central focus on God, and its emphasis on the coming kingdom.  All three of these elements testify to the Psalter’s appropriateness for God’s people in every age.

JDO:  After summarizing Vos’s main ideas, Selvaggio goes on to discuss how they affect our singing of the Psalter.  As we just mentioned above, he wants to make it abundantly clear that singing the psalms does not make us out-of-touch with our present, post-Christ place in redemptive history.  The Psalms are not locked into their Old Testament setting; rather, they are able to bring us “an actual redemptive-historical advantage” (p. 155).  Selvaggio lists four specific ways this advantage plays out:

1.  Singing the psalms keeps our focus on the mighty acts of God.

MRK: The subjective experience of our faith only has its proper place as a result (a derivative, Selvaggio calls it) of the objective truth of God’s work of salvation.  And, consequently, “the Psalms remind us that our faith is about God, not about us” (p. 156).

Advocates of traditional hymnody often complain about the frequent use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my) in looser hymns and contemporary Christian music.  While this is often true, I’d like to clarify that this shouldn’t be our measuring line for a hymn’s quality.  After all, Selvaggio admits that the Psalter itself is “rife” with references to the singer.  We would do better to evaluate such songs in light of the overall themes of the psalms.  Do the words focus on the mighty acts of God, or merely the subjective reaction of the singer?  Are they sung for the glory of God or for self-encouragement?

JDO:  Yes.  There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the things God has done for you personally, even within corporate worship.  However, there is something wrong with doing it in a way that makes the song self-centered.  The psalms provide a model of songs perfectly balanced between subjectivity and objectivity.  So we ought to sing the psalms, and also use them as a template by which to ensure that our hymns are properly God-focused even when personally specific.

MRK:  Oddly enough, out-of-context passages from the psalms are often used as the basis for this kind of man-centered singing.  One might think of the popular chorus that goes like this:

I will enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart,
I will enter his courts with praise;
I will say, ‘This is the day that the Lord has made,’
I will rejoice and be exceeding glad.

Yes, this is a passage from Psalm 118, and yes, it contains plenteous personal pronouns.  But without providing a context for these words, this song becomes focused on self rather than God.  The solution here is simple—don’t take random snippets from the psalms!  After all, Psalm 118 begins and ends with the command to “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”

As Selvaggio summarizes, “the difference in the Psalms is that the subjective experience and response of the believer is always inextricably connected to, and subordinated to, the objective actions of God.  Psalm singers are equipped to be better able to maintain their theological equilibrium in this regard.  The psalm singer is compelled to keep the proper balance between God’s mighty acts and our worshipful response.”

2.  Singing the psalms saturates us with biblical eschatology.

JDO: As we mentioned above, “the psalms serve as a helpful corrective to [a] skewed mentality regarding the role of eschatology in our lives.”  Eschatology is all about looking ahead to the continuing work of God in this world.  “The Psalms hold before our eyes the reality that God has intruded, and will intrude, into history in cataclysmic ways, ultimately yielding everlasting peace and rest for His people” (p. 157).  Psalm-singing attunes us to these events in the past and excites us for the continuing works to come.

MRK: It’s interesting to note that few hymns treat Christ’s second coming in much meaningful depth.  Often they stop at the mere declaration that he is coming again—as if that were all we need to know.  That’s not to say we can’t sing such hymns; but we should recognize that the psalms go dramatically further and deeper into the plans that God has made for those that love him.  We need only read Psalm 16 or 17 to see that.

JDO:  Vos’s comments on the oft-referenced “new song” passages are also interesting.  He writes that the “new songs” commanded to be sung in the psalms are new not in content but in context: our songs are in response to new acts of salvation.  We sing the same psalms and hymns in fresh new ways in response to fresh new works that God is carrying out in our hearts.

3.  Singing the psalms reminds us of the unity of God’s people and plan.

MRK: I appreciated this point so much, I’ll just quote Selvaggio.  “The Old Testament is not about a different God who made different promises.  The Old Testament is also not about an entirely different church with entirely different salvific hopes and expectations.  Simply put, the old covenant saints are not so different from us.  Their hopes are our hopes.  Their longings are our longings” (p. 158).  Viewing the Bible from this perspective gives us a balanced and complete view of salvation history, and singing the Psalms enables us to realize that connection more fully.

4.  Singing the psalms enables us to see the glory of Christ in new ways.

JDO: Fourthly, finally, and most importantly, Selvaggio draws our attention to something we’ve stressed several times: singing the psalms grants us a special glimpse into the mind of Christ, our Messiah (as G. I. Williamson preached in a memorable sermon).  This is not limited to the messianic psalms like 2 or 110.  The entire book of psalms allows us to “grasp the innermost thoughts of the Messiah” (p. 159).  Vos wrote, “Our Lord Himself found His inner life portrayed in the Psalter.”

MRK:  In conclusion, Selvaggio returns to his opening challenge: Are the psalms compatible with a redemptive-historical view of the Scriptures?  His answer: Absolutely!  The Bible itself attests to this truth over and over.  As a single example, “Christ’s use of the Psalms at the first celebration of the Lord’s Supper demonstrates that the Psalter was constructed to be enduring and relevant.…This means the church can continue to sing them in a redemptive-historical manner in our own age” (pp. 160, 161.)

JDO:  The psalms are just as relevant to us today as they were to David when he wrote them, and as they were to the Old Testament church when they sang them.  What more could we desire in a songbook?  Vos writes,

Hence the Psalter has been at all times that part of Scripture to which believers have most readily turned and upon which they have chiefly depended for the nourishment of the inner religious life of the heart…[T]here is nothing in Holy Writ which in our most spiritual moments—when we feel ourselves nearest to God—so faithfully and naturally expresses what we think and feel in our hearts as these songs of the pious Israelites (p. 161).

Next time: Chapter 10, “Psalm Singing and Pastoral Theology,” by Derek W. H. Thomas.

Until then,


“Psalms for a New Generation”

While planning for our fall road trip, I intended to attend the meeting of Classis Eastern U. S., visit some colleges, worship with one of our sister congregations in Indiana, and spend a day at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.  I didn’t expect to lead a Sunday school presentation.  But that’s exactly what Jim Oord invited me to do.

The kind saints at Community United Reformed Church in Schererville, IN, allowed me to give a presentation on “Psalms for a New Generation,” in which I endeavored to guide them through the history and principles of psalm-singing and provide some practical advice for revitalizing it in the coming generations.

Now, along with the psalmody discussion Jim and I published last week, you can watch the video of this class on YouTube.  This was certainly a first for me, so forgive my faltering tongue.  I’ve also uploaded the “Study Guide” or whatever you’d like to call it as a PDF.  As I said in the notes, “Through this class I merely hope to share my own love and ever-deepening appreciation for the psalms, the songs of God’s people throughout the ages.”  Enjoy, and please share!


(Try this link if the embedded video doesn’t work.)

Psalm 129: Assailing, Not Prevailing

“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth”—
let Israel now say—
“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth,
yet they have not prevailed against me.

–Psalm 129:1,2 (ESV)

The careful reader will notice many similarities between Psalms 124 and 129.  Both eight-verse songs open with “Let Israel now say” and a repeated line—a unique structure in the psalms.  Both include a blessing at the end, although it is purposed differently.  More importantly, though, Psalms 124 and 129 both focus on affliction and deliverance for God’s people.

Psalm 124 speaks of times “when people rose up against us,” referring in particular to the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and their passage through the Red Sea.  Psalm 129 also hearkens back to this event as God’s people mourn, “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth” (v. 2).  Here the lament is not so specific; looking back over the centuries that have passed since the Exodus, Israel simply admits that “the plowers plowed upon my back” (v. 3).  Yet the psalmist quickly transitions to praise as he declares, “The LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked.”  For the people of God, affliction is not hopeless, for one reason: it was “the LORD who was on our side” (Ps. 124:1).

As with so many other passages, Psalms 124 and 129 rest in the implicit confidence that the LORD will one day vindicate the righteous and destroy the wicked.  Thus, the remainder of Psalm 129 paints vivid pictures of the sudden doom awaiting those who oppose Israel.  In a powerful yet surprising finale, the last verse snatches away all hope of the LORD’s blessing from the wicked.  Yet even this verse contains an implied blessing for God’s people, for it is based on the assurance that “our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8).

271, “Through All the Years, May Israel Say”

Honestly, I was surprised to learn that “Through All the Years” is a 1912 Psalter setting; it certainly has many of the marks of an Isaac Watts paraphrase.  The first two stanzas are fairly sound, although the vivid imagery of plows and furrows has been muted to “scars of conflict and distress.”  The third stanza merges v. 5 with some completely extraneous material (“Their wicked plans shall come to nought/And all mankind forget their name”), while skipping vv. 6 and 7 completely.  The final stanza, thankfully, ends on a better note.  Depending on your church’s psalm-singing practices, you may be completely comfortable with number 271 as a loose paraphrase that reads much like a hymn.  Or you could justifiably argue that a much better versification is needed in its place.

As to the tune HUMILITY, well…it’s humble.  There’s not much else to say; it works just fine with this psalm, but a wide variety of long-meter tunes could be substituted in its place if desired.

Psalm 129 could fill a variety of roles in the Christian life.  It could apply to the individual believer undergoing oppression from his sworn enemies, the devil, the world, and the flesh.  However, I like to think of it more directly as a song of the church.  When our congregations undergo suffering, fractures, or external pressure, we can turn again and again to these words of comfort:

Through all the years, may Israel say,
My bitter foes have oft assailed,
Have sought my hurt in fierce array,
Yet over me have not prevailed.


URC Psalmody on YouTube

Geneva College Benefit Concert

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