Archive for December, 2012



Singing Luke’s Christmas Carols

A URC Psalmody ChristmasYesterday I introduced the three “Lukan canticles”—the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon—and reflected on their appropriateness for Christian worship.  Today I’d like to approach these same songs from a practical and musical perspective by considering their versifications in the Psalter Hymnal.

THE SONG OF MARY – 332, “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord”

The text of Mary’s song can be found in Luke 1:46-55.  The Psalter Hymnal’s adaptation by Dewey Westra is exceptionally literal and accurate, without sacrificing poetic integrity.  My only quibble—and it is indeed a tiny one—is that the term “my Savior” is not used in the versification of v. 47.  Other than that, this text is pristine, and its accompanying tune, PENTECOST, is quite solid as well.

THE SONG OF ZACHARIAS – 333, “Blest Be the God of Israel”

“Blest Be the God of Israel” is another Dewey Westra gem.  The text (Luke 1:68-79) is amplified just a bit to fill this setting’s four irregular stanzas, but it is absolutely solid in beauty and Scriptural accuracy.  Its tune goes by various names, including BENEDICTUS and AN WASSERFLÜSSEN BABYLON.  Composed in the 16th century separately from the Genevan Psalter project, this is the traditional tune for the Song of Zacharias (as far as I know).  A different version is found in the 1987 gray Psalter Hymnal, but both settings are grand and fitting, even if they seem a bit difficult at first.  The structure of BENEDICTUS seems to demand strong rhythmic accompaniment; in my head I can imagine a piano and organ duet rendering this tune very nicely.  Below is a remarkable Dutch improvisation.

THE SONG OF SIMEON – 334, “Now May Thy Servant, Lord”

The text of “Now May Thy Servant, Lord” (also by Westra) isn’t quite as literal as the previous two selections; nevertheless, I believe it renders Simeon’s song in Luke 2:29-32 adequately and faithfully.  The tune, NUNC DIMITTIS, comes straight out of the Genevan Psalter, even including Claude Goudimel’s original 1564 harmonization.  Although it might be unfamiliar, the melody is quite straightforward, and with adequate accompaniment, it should be singable by just about any congregation.

I’ve heard that “Now May Thy Servant, Lord” has traditionally been used as a closing song in Dutch Reformed churches.  Honestly, this puzzles me, since Simeon’s song uses the term “depart” to refer to death (cf. Luke 2:26)—not the close of a worship service.  Still, the doxology of the second stanza is worth singing at any time, so I wouldn’t be too hasty to strike Simeon’s song from the Psalter Hymnal.  The best route, as always, is simply to sing it with conviction and understanding.

A Dutch version of the Song of Simeon is embedded below.

–MRK

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Luke’s Christmas Carols

A URC Psalmody ChristmasLong, long ago, in a blog series far, far away, I tried to summarize and evaluate some different positions regarding appropriate music for Christian worship.  The first is exclusive psalmody—the view that the Book of Psalms is the complete and sole songbook for the church.  On the other end of the spectrum is a position known either as “inclusive psalmody” or “inclusive hymnody” (depending on one’s focus), whose adherents support the use of non-inspired extra-Biblical songs in worship.  Between these two views lies a lesser-known middle ground.  To my knowledge it doesn’t have any widely accepted name, so I’ll call it “exclusive Scriptural hymnody.”  According to this view, we ought to sing only the songs of the Bible, but these include canticles outside the Book of Psalms—usually the three songs recorded for us in Luke chapters 1 and 2, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon.

What’s particularly interesting about exclusive Scriptural hymnody is its prominence in our own Dutch Reformed tradition.  Since I’m fairly sure none of our readers remember the Christian Reformed Church in the 1930s, this excerpt from the foreword to the 1934 Psalter Hymnal explains the previous practice of our former denomination:

Up to the present time our Church has always adhered faithfully to its purpose to sing only the Old Testament Psalms in public worship, barring a few exceptions mentioned specifically in Article 69 of the Church Order. This article, until its revision in 1932, read as follows: ‘In the Churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the Sermon, shall be sung.’  In our American speaking congregations even these few hymns were not all in use since only three of their number were found in The Psalter, namely, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon.

So how should we view these Lukan canticles today?  Do they merit a place in our worship?  This is a question that has puzzled many scholars over the centuries.  Rowland Ward, for one, answers “no.”  In Chapter 5 of Sing a New Song, he says:

Mary’s song (the Magnificat) has at least nine references and allusions to the Psalms, and the Song of Zacharias at least eight…I have always found it surprising that one should argue for their regular use in public worship given that it is so obvious that they are unique songs for unique personal situations.  However, they certainly demonstrate that the Psalter was woven into the spiritual life of ordinary pious people.

While Ward opposes including the Lukan canticles in worship, at the same time he points out an important facet of these songs: They are built on the foundation of the Psalms.  As you can see from the online ESV Bible, for instance, every verse of the Song of Mary is linked to at least one passage from the Psalter.

At the same time, it is essential to realize that these canticles are not simply “New Testament psalms.”  Since the Psalter was the songbook of God’s people, its contents—though they may have been tied to a particular situation in the life of the psalmist—are always applicable to any believer’s life.  These New Testament songs are beautiful doxologies (praises to God), but their purpose is to express the thoughts and reactions of their original singers, not necessarily the whole of Christendom.

Thus, if we sing the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon in worship, I believe we ought to do so only with the understanding that they are not ordinary psalms or hymns.  So the line “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed” needs to be explained and understood as the words of Mary which we are repeating in praise to God; the same with the words of Simeon, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.”

Nevertheless, all three of these songs contain concise yet powerful messages of redemption which, I believe, deserve a spot in our worship, especially during the Advent season.  My all-around favorite is the Song of Zacharias, which I’ve quoted in full elsewhere on URC Psalmody; it expresses the culmination of centuries of promise and prophecy in one exultant poem of praise.

I ought to mention that the 2010 URC Hymn Proposal, in line with the orthodox Dutch Reformed tradition, contains all three of these canticles.  But whether or not we agree that the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon ought to be sung in church, we can study them with gratitude in our hearts for their beautiful descriptions of God’s unfolding redemption plan.

–MRK

Christmas Psalms: Psalm 72

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor!

–Psalm 72:1-4 (ESV)

In the aftermath of the tragic school shooting in Newtown, CT, last Friday, the variety of emotions and opinions expressed has been astounding.  Facebookers and newscasters alike are demanding everything from better psychiatric care to tougher gun control.  Reactions have varied from abounding compassion to unrestrained outrage.

Amidst all of the chaos, one word rises above all the others: “Why?”  What could motivate a human being to kill twenty young children who had done nothing to hurt him?  How could a good God allow such an atrocious act?

Psalm 72 happens to be the subject of the next installment in this “Christmas Psalms” series.  While it’s surpassingly appropriate for Christmas, Psalm 72 can also impart Scriptural clarity to the perplexing muddle surrounding this tragic story.

From its inscription we learn that Psalm 72 is “Of Solomon,” which, according to the ESV Study Bible, could mean that it was composed either by or about Solomon.  In either case, this is a royal psalm which describes the glorious rule of the Lord’s anointed ruler while foreshadowing the arrival of the ultimate Son of David—Jesus Christ.

One important thing Psalm 72 shows us is that Christ’s kingdom is not limited to the people of Israel.  “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!…May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” (vv. 8, 11).  Jesus’s coming is good news for the entire world, because in his days “the righteous [will] flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more!” (v. 7).  It’s not hard to hear echoes of the angels’ chorus in Luke 2: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Yet these idyllic promises seem to clash horribly with the events we see in the world every day.  As Jim described the state of the world in his meditation on Psalm 9, “We look around and see injustice, hate, and oppression.  We look inside and see idolatry, pride, and greed.  And in despair, we bow our heads.  There’s no hope for salvation anywhere in the human race.  There’s no hope for ultimate peace or goodwill anywhere on this earth.”

In light of the Newtown shooting, which transpired more than a week after Jim wrote these words, Psalm 72 seems even more distant:

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor!  (v. 4)

For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
and precious is their blood in his sight.  (vv. 12-14)

“Why,” arises the cry, “did God allow this to happen?  Where was he when those twenty innocent children were brutally murdered?”

The problem lies not with God, but within man’s own heart.  Psalm 14 provides a grave description of our true nature: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.”  The Bible presents us with a terrible truth, as hard as it may be to receive: The fundamental reason for Adam Lanza’s senseless rampage is present in all of our hearts.  It was present even in the hearts of the unoffending victims of his attack.  It’s called sin.  And sin leads to death—not just for the murderer and those he murdered, but for the entire human race.

But at this point, we must stop—Psalm 72 begs to be read again with new eyes.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor!

For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
and precious is their blood in his sight.

In his abounding love and mercy, Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, defends the cause of the poor in spirit.  He gives ultimate deliverance to the children of the needy by crushing the real oppressor—Satan.  He delivers our needy souls from their bondage to sin.  He has pity on the all-too-weak human race, and saves his chosen ones from the power of death.  From oppression and violence he redeems our lives!  Precious is our blood in his sight—so precious that he sheds his own to ransom it!  This is the message of the Christmas season, which shines brightly as the sole beacon of hope in this dark world.

Readers, are you trusting in this Messiah, this Son of David, this Jesus Christ, for your salvation?  If not, though you may not suffer the agony of brutal murder, you will eventually suffer the far greater agony of eternal damnation—eternal separation from God, eternal punishment for your sins.  This is not exaggeration.  It is not hyperbole.   It is the truth of the Bible.  The prophet Malachi described it this way:

For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.

–Malachi 4:1-3

And who is this Sun of Righteousness but Jesus Christ, the one who will be worshiped “while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations” (Ps. 72:5)!  Those who humble themselves before this mighty God will surely be redeemed from sin and death.  Faced with the promise of eternal life in God’s presence, the violence and oppression we must endure on this earth begin to seem light and momentary.  Even the children among God’s elect who died in Newtown are now enjoying an everlasting life infinitely better than anything they could have had on this earth.  Psalm 72 is completely correct—the Lord has redeemed their lives from oppression and violence.  Fear God and take refuge in the work of Jesus Christ, so that you too may “be blessed in him”!

But you, my fellow Christians!  I urge you not to sit back in your chair and absently nod as you read this familiar gospel message; Psalm 72 calls you to action as well.  How will the desert tribes, the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands, the rulers of Sheba and Seba, and the peoples of all the nations come to know Jesus Christ?  It is your duty and mine to proclaim his gospel to the ends of the earth!  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isaiah 52:7).  Make no mistake, it is the Lord who changes hearts and grants eternal life.  Yet he calls all of us to be his ambassadors to a despairing world.

Whatever may come along with it, the Christmas season offers an unmatched opportunity to share the good news of salvation with our friends and family.  The Newtown tragedy has multiplied the need for this gospel sevenfold.  Might God, through your diligent service to him, save twenty children you know from an eternal fate worse than that of these victims?  Might he use your words to bring even one soul to salvation?  May it be so!

Because we know that our God is sovereign, we can be sure that Christ’s name will endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun.  People will be blessed in him; in fact, all nations will call him blessed.  At the final judgment, oppression and violence will be overturned, and, as Isaac Watts wrote in his paraphrase of Psalm 72:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run,
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Until then, the solution to this world’s problems can never be found in heavier government involvement, readier psychological care, or tougher restrictions.  Our only hope is focused on a Child who was born in a stable about two thousand years ago—one perfectly innocent Child who would die the most excruciating death in history, and rise to life again, to save His people from their sins.

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory!
Amen and Amen! (Psalm 72:18-20)

–MRK

A Christmas Guide to the Psalter Hymnal

What I’ve decided to share with you today isn’t much more than a collection of personal reactions to the Christmas section of the blue Psalter Hymnal (numbers 331-346).  Enjoy, and feel free to comment with your own thoughts!

The Advent Carols – 331, 335

A URC Psalmody ChristmasThe distinction between “Advent” and “Christmas” has always been somewhat blurry.  Here’s a fairly simple definition: The Latin verb advenio means “to come”; thus, Advent carols are songs that speak of Christ’s coming as a future event.  There are only two such selections in the Psalter Hymnal: #331, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and #335, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”  Both of these songs are some of my favorite carols because they are thoroughly rooted in the promises and prophecies of Scripture.

There is a nearly inconceivable variety of possible stanzas for “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and the assortment given here is quite decent.  However, I often wonder if these verses ought to be re-ordered, perhaps with v. 5 inserted between verses 1 and 2.  (Incidentally, this isn’t the only instance in which I think the Psalter Hymnal gets the order of stanzas muddled up—see also #480, whose second stanza should actually be the fourth.)  Also, since it lacks a pause after the first line and before the last line of the refrain, this version of the tune VENI EMMANUEL is slightly atypical.

I have much less to say about #335.  My only caution would be to guard against playing the stout tune STUTTGART too rapidly.

The Lukan Canticles – 332, 333, 334

Song of Zacharias“Lukan canticles” is just a fancy name for the divinely-inspired songs recorded in chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospel of Luke—the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon.  I hope to unpack these brimming treasure chests sometime next week, but for now, suffice it to say that all three are excellently versified in the Psalter Hymnal (#332-#334).  While the tunes of #333 and #334 might initially seem daunting, they are very rewarding for an ambitious congregation or choir.  Additionally, these three selections are unique as the only Scriptural paraphrases in the Christmas section of the Psalter Hymnal.  Use them liberally!

The Chorales – 336, 344

How Bright Appears the Morning StarAlong with the Lukan canticles, the Psalter Hymnal’s two chorales, “How Bright Appears the Morning Star” and “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light,” set it apart among modern hymnals.  Both originated in the 16th/17th centuries and were later arranged by J. S. Bach, who imparted to them stunning (and challenging) four-part harmonies.  It may be overambitious to expect a typical congregation to manage all four parts, but these chorales would make breathtaking choir pieces!  Although not directly derived from Scripture, the texts of #336 and #344 are solid and memorable—especially the second stanza of #336:

Though circled by the hosts on high,
He deigned to cast a pitying eye
Upon His helpless creature;
The whole creation’s Head and Lord,
By highest seraphim adored,
Assumed our very nature.
Jesus, grant us,
Through Thy merit to inherit
Thy salvation;
Hear, O hear our supplication.

The Psalm Paraphrase – 337

It’s not commonly known that “Joy to the World!” is actually Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 98:4-9.  Nor is it commonly known that the tune ANTIOCH was supposedly adapted from various melodies of Handel’s Messiah!  Although it’s certainly not literal enough to merit a place in the psalm section of our songbook, “Joy to the World” (this version, at least) is firmly rooted in Scriptural truth.  Some debate exists over an additional stanza which is omitted from the Psalter Hymnal:

No more let sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

Once again the Psalter Hymnal throws modern hymn-singers a curveball by omitting the usual pause at the end of the second line (“Let earth receive her King…”).   This takes some getting used to, but ultimately results in a better flow.  The antiphonal repeat on the last line (“And heaven and nature sing”) is always fun—but then again, so is the entirety of this tune!

The Narratives – 338, 345, 346

The Psalter Hymnal contains three Christmas songs that more or less follow the account of the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20.  These are the familiar carol #338, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night”; Luther’s hymn #345, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”; and the sizable selection #346, “Christians, Awake, Salute the Happy Morn.”  Since the first two are basically paraphrases of Scripture, their texts are quite trustworthy.  “Christians, Awake” includes some extrabiblical words of application in the fifth and sixth stanzas; its language can be somewhat obtuse, but not at all unusable.  All three tunes are straightforward and singable.

The Classics – 339, 340, 341, 342

Not much needs to be said about these four familiar Christmas carols—“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “Silent Night.”  Sometimes I get a little fidgety when addressing the angels in #340, or singing lines like “Light and life to all He brings” and “With the dawn of redeeming grace” (an idea we discussed last week).  Nevertheless, I’m not ready to argue that these carols should be altogether removed from the Psalter Hymnal.

The tunes for these classics are the same as always, in the conventional harmonizations and keys (except for #341, which is a bit high).  I appreciate the adaptations made to the text of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to make its meter consistent.  Personally, I would much prefer a Christmas repertoire rooted in the psalms and songs of Scripture than only in these ever-present carols, but I do believe they can be utilized properly and effectively.

The One in a Different Language – 343

It’s strange that Reginald Heber, the author of such a lucid and familiar hymn as “Holy, Holy, Holy!” (#318), is the source of the impenetrable lyrics of “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning.”  I find it equally puzzling that this song earned a place in our Psalter Hymnal; besides its nearly unintelligible text, the fact that it addresses a star raises some significant concerns.  Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s a synopsis of the lyrics in modern English:

  • Verse 1 requests the brightest star in the sky to “dawn on our darkness” and lend us its aid by guiding us to the resting place of the infant Jesus.  (An additional omitted verse describes Christ in poetic detail lying “low…with the beasts of the stall” with cold dew-drops on his cradle.)
  • Verse 2 questions whether we should show our devotion to Christ by bringing him rare and costly gifts as the Wise Men did.
  • Verse 3 answers this question by stating that these gifts are vain to secure the Lord’s favor; richer and dearer to God are “the heart’s adoration” and “the prayers of the poor.”

The tune, MORNING STAR, is pretty much unique to this text.  It may be unfamiliar, but it flows quite predictably and is not hard to learn.  Perhaps “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning” can be sung intelligibly and reverently in the proper setting, but all in all, I must confess I wouldn’t shed tears if number 343 were dropped entirely.  The Psalter Hymnal contains plenty of excellent Christmas content anyway.

–MRK

Psalms 117 & 118

Sing a New Song: Summary Thoughts

It was during this past summer that Jim and I became aware of a new and particularly well-acclaimed book on psalmody, entitled Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).  This collection of essays from prominent Reformed scholars, edited by Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio, evaluates various aspects of psalm-singing—its history, its biblical warrant, and its pastoral importance.  With excitement we both obtained copies of Sing a New Song and began reading it in parallel.

Soon we realized that this would be an excellent book to discuss in depth on URC Psalmody.  For the first chapter we tried a new interview-style post format, which worked so well that we continued it through the rest of the book.  At one point we were providentially able to produce a video version of one of these interviews (Chapter 8), filmed on the campus of Mid-America Reformed Seminary!

Our weekly discussions on Sing a New Song spanned the fall of 2012; we just completed the very last chapter last Thursday.  It’s been a fascinating, fun, and educational few months; I truly hope you’ve enjoyed these studies as much as we have.  As we look back on the main points of Sing a New Song, I thought I would attempt to summarize the highlights of each chapter.

We began by discussing Chapter 1, “From Cassian to Cranmer,” by Hughes Oliphant Old and Robert Cathcart.  Using well-chosen examples of ancient monastic piety, the authors showed that the psalms are matchless as material for daily devotions.  Whether they’re used in a personal morning and evening routine, a time of family prayer, or a weekday church gathering, the psalms ought to be learned and appreciated for their relevance to all of life.

Picking up from the point where Chapter 1 left off, Joel Beeke traced the practice of “Psalm-Singing in Calvin in the Puritans” in Chapter 2.  From the examples of John Calvin and the Puritans, Beeke provided great insight into the many benefits of psalm-singing.  Among these, psalm-singing is a profound source of comfort for the believer; it encourages us to cultivate Christian piety; and it is a powerful means by which we can glorify God from the heart.

Terry Johnson widened the lens in Chapter 3, “The History of Psalmody,” which traced the story of psalm-singing from the time of the early church right up to the present day.  Reflecting on this progression, Jim and I explored the possibility that the current “worship wars” in the Christian church are actually the result of psalmody’s decline.  If that’s the case, I said, “then the solution to the problem is merely to restore the psalms to their rightful place!  So let’s obey God—let’s sing the psalms.  And let’s watch for the multitude of blessings that will result!”

One of my favorite discussions dealt with Chapter 4, “Psalters, Hymnals, Worship Wars, and American Presbyterian Piety.”  Jim and I talked about the work of three surpassingly influential hymnwriters of the 18th and 19th centuries: Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Horatius Bonar.  As we reflected on the effects of these popular worship songs, Jim said, “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 [chapter author D. G.] 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?”

In Chapter 5, “Psalm Singing and Scripture,” Rowland S. Ward skillfully guided us through a tour of the Scriptural bases for psalm-singing.  Personally, I must admit that this chapter drastically altered my view of the relationship between psalms and hymns.  “Honestly,” I said, “Ward’s excellent biblical analysis was like a bucket of cold water in the face.  It dawned on me as never before that the Psalms—not hymns—are the origin, the pattern, the very basis of congregational singing.  What a change in perspective!”

“The Hymns of Christ: The Old Testament Formation of the New Testament Hymnal,” Chapter 6 by Michael LeFebvre, examined the progressive history of the Book of Psalms during the Old Testament period.  Central to LeFebvre’s explanation was the idea that all of the psalms—not just scattered messianic prophecies—point to Christ.  As Jim summarized it, “This was a carefully chosen, precisely organized hymnal put together with the sole purpose of preparing the way for Jesus, the coming heir to the Davidic throne.”

David Murray devoted the Chapter 7, “Christian Cursing?” to the difficult topic of imprecatory psalms.  Pastorally and practically, Murray debunked several erroneous views of these songs and provided a gospel-centered perspective on how to view and sing them.  “In closing,” we said, “perhaps we can summarize the Christian’s proper response to the imprecatory psalms in one word: Maranatha—Lord, come quickly.”

With Chapter 8, URC Psalmody broke ground in the area of a new form of media: a video discussion.  While on the campus of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Jim and I discussed Malcolm Watt’s daunting essay, entitled “The Case for Psalmody, with Some Reference to the Psalter’s Sufficiency for Christian Worship.”  This chapter probably presented the most overt exclusive-psalmist arguments in Sing a New Song, but we attempted to show that all Christians, regardless of their views of uninspired hymns, can apply its truths to their worship.

Next came Chapter 9, entitled “Psalm Singing and Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutics” and written by Anthony Selvaggio, who skillfully explored the relationship between the psalms and Biblical history as set forth by the great Reformed theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949).  Singing the psalms keeps our focus on the mighty acts of God, saturates us with a Biblical understanding of the last times, reminds us of the unity of God’s plan of history, and enables us to see the glory of Christ in new ways.  As Jim put it, “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?”

In the penultimate Chapter 10, Derek W. H. Thomas set forth the themes of the psalms as a guide for pastoral theology.  Thomas said, “The Psalms, then, are a portion of Scripture with which Christians should be familiar.  Digging from these mines will yield treasures of inestimable value.  Whatever the issue may be—loneliness, bitterness, helplessness, melancholy, anger, frustration, joy, contentment, faithfulness, or a hundred other issues—the Psalms address them all.  Calvin was correct: they are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.”

Finally, in Chapter 11, J. V. Fesko interpreted the psalms as an “all-season school of prayer.”  Jim and I discussed the erroneous notions of worship so prevalent in today’s churches, contemplated the problem of not knowing how to pray, and examined Fesko’s concluding “action points”: We need to understand the proper role of congregational singing, sing the psalms with Christ as their center, and use the psalms as the groundwork for our own private worship.  In a piercing final query, Fesko asked, “If we do not know how to pray, could it be that we know not because we sing not the Psalms?”

It’s probably an understatement (and I think Jim would agree with me) to say that we both learned a lot from Sing a New Song.  Summarizing the entire theme of this little book is easy in some ways, yet surprisingly difficult in others.  I suppose I’d put it this way:

We are sinful human beings called to worship a thrice-holy God.  Even our best attempts at worship are pitiful.  Using the latest worship styles in a Sunday service won’t make worshippers’ experiences more real, nor will following the most popular devotional plan cause us to grow by leaps and bounds in our personal walk with the Lord.  But we do have access to one immeasurably important resource—a divinely-inspired collection of songs, prayers, lessons, and devotional material.  This book can help to ensure that our worship remains faithful to God’s commands.  It can give voice to our joys and provide relief for our sorrows.  It can more clearly reveal our Savior and teach us to be more like Him.  It’s called the Book of Psalms.

–MRK

(Links to the entire series are now available on our Sing a New Song page.)


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