Archive for February, 2013

Lord’s Day 9: My God and Father

Catechism and Psalter

We’ve been progressing through the Heidelberg Catechism here on URC Psalmody since the beginning of this year, and now we come to two of the most powerful and beloved Lord’s Days in the entire confession.  Lord’s Day 9 explains what it means to believe in God the Father; Lord’s Day 10 goes on to consider God’s creation and providence in more detail.  Today, the first of these.

26 Q.  What do you believe when you say: “I believe in God the Father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth”?

A.  That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who out of nothing created heaven and earth
and everything in them,
who still upholds and rules them
by his eternal counsel and providence,
is my God and Father
because of Christ his Son.

I trust him so much that I do not doubt
he will provide
whatever I need
for body and soul,
and he will turn to my good
whatever adversity he sends me
in this sad world.

He is able to do this because he is almighty God;
he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

Suggested Songs

Where can we find more fitting words for this wondrous confession than in the psalms?  Countless verses from the psalms, like the Catechism, connect the objective reality of God’s existence with our personal awareness of him as Creator and Father—think of phrases like “O LORD, our Lord” (Psalm 8:1) and “O God, you are my God” (Psalm 63:1).   Here are just a few selections from the Psalter Hymnal that echo the themes of this Lord’s Day.

183, “O Come before the Lord, our King” (Psalm 95)

“[I believe] that the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them…” Psalm 95, one of the most familiar songs of praise in the Psalter, brings out many of the points of Lord’s Day 9, but most specifically God’s might as manifested in creation:

Almighty power the Lord maintains,
Exalted over all He reigns,
He holds the valleys in His hand,
He makes the mighty mountains stand;
To Him belong both land and sea,
Creator of the world is He.

The natural response to our realization of God’s greatness is a call to worship.

O come and let us worship now,
Before our Maker let us bow;
We are His sheep and He our God,
He feeds our souls in pastures broad;
He safely leads us in the way;
O come and heed His voice today.

260, “To the Hills I Lift Mine Eyes” (Psalm 120)

(Sung on YouTube)

“…[He] still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence…”  Appealing to God’s power as manifested in creation, Psalm 121 assures its singers that the Lord is our ever-watchful Guide and Helper.

To the hills I lift mine eyes;
Whence shall help for me arise?
From the Lord shall come mine aid,
Who the heaven and earth has made.
He will guide through dangers all,
Will not suffer thee to fall;
He who safe His people keeps
Slumbers not and never sleeps.

102, “O God, Give Thou Ear to My Plea” (Psalm 55)

“I trust him so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul…”  The footnote in the Catechism itself points us to Psalm 55 as a prooftext for this bold statement, and for good reason.  The third and fourth verses of this setting afford the believer unspeakable comfort:

Nay, soul, call on God all the day;
The Lord for thy help will appear;
At eve, morn, and noon humbly pray,
And He thy petition will hear.

Thy burden now cast on the Lord,
And He shall Thy weakness sustain;
The righteous who trust in His word
Unmoved shall forever remain.

244, “Thou, Lord, Hast Dealt Well with Thy Servant” (Psalm 119)

“…and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world…”  Due to its length, perhaps we aren’t always as familiar with Psalm 119 as with the other psalms.  But if we take the time to study it, we’ll find that this mammoth “wisdom psalm” brims over with sage words for the growing Christian.  This selection, from verses 65-72, sets forth in simple language some of the benefits of divinely-ordered affliction in stanzas 2 and 4.

Before my affliction I wandered,
But now Thy good Word I obey;
O Thou who art holy and gracious,
Now teach me Thy statutes, I pray.

Affliction has been for my profit,
That I to Thy statutes might hold;
Thy law to my soul is more precious
Than thousands of silver and gold.

137, “In Doubt and Temptation” (Psalm 73)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“He is able to do this because he is almighty God.”  The latter half of Psalm 73 counters the weakness and faithlessness of our human nature with the constancy and steadfastness of our mighty God.  This versification captures the idea beautifully with a well-chosen refrain: “My God, I will extol Thee and ever bless Thy Name; each day will I give thanks to Thee and all Thy praise proclaim.”

In doubt and temptation I rest, Lord, in Thee;
My hand is in Thy hand, Thou carest for me;
My soul with Thy counsel through life Thou wilt guide,
And afterward make me in glory abide.

In glory Thou only my portion shalt be,
On earth for none other I long but for Thee;
My flesh and heart falter, but God is my stay,
The strength of my spirit, my portion for aye.

All they that forsake Thee must perish and die,
But near to my Savior most blessed am I;
I make Thee my refuge, my Lord and my God;
Thy grace and Thy glory I publish abroad.

205, “The Tender Love a Father Has” (Psalm 103)

(Sung on YouTube)

“He desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.”  No psalm speaks more eloquently of the fatherhood of God than Psalm 103.  Psalter Hymnal number 205 focuses specifically on this section:

The tender love a father has
For all his children dear,
Such love the Lord bestows on them
Who worship Him in fear.

The Lord remembers we are dust,
And all our frailty knows;
Man’s days are like the tender grass,
And as the flower he grows.

The flower is withered by the wind
That smites with blighting breath;
So man is quickly swept away
Before the blast of death.

Unchanging is the love of God,
From age to age the same,
Displayed to all who do His will
And reverence His name.

Those who His gracious covenant keep
The Lord will ever bless;
Their children’s children shall rejoice
To see His righteousness.

What a glorious assurance is ours!  How great are the riches of God’s mercy toward us, as this Lord’s Day describes!  How marvelous it is that the almighty Lord of creation “is my God and Father because of Christ his Son”!

–MRK

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Psalm 64: Deadly Shafts

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
preserve my life from dread of the enemy.
Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
from the throng of evildoers,
who whet their tongues like swords,
who aim bitter words like arrows,
shooting from ambush at the blameless,
shooting at him suddenly and without fear.

–Psalm 64:1-4 (ESV)

While Psalm 64 is a lament (or, as it calls itself, a “complaint”), its author is far from hopeless.  David petitions the Lord to protect him from the evil plans of wicked men.  He describes their bitter words as arrows, and their malicious actions as “shooting from ambush.”  But he further states, in keeping with the metaphor, that God will also shoot his arrow to destroy the wicked.  When the Lord’s vindication is made manifest, “then all mankind fears; they tell what God has brought about and ponder what he has done” (v. 9).  The psalmist ends with a declaration of praise and trust:

Let the righteous one rejoice in the LORD
and take refuge in him!
Let all the upright in heart exult!

–Psalm 64:10

113, “Hear, Lord, the Voice of My Complaint”

The Psalter Hymnal contains only one version of Psalm 64: “Hear, Lord, the Voice of My Complaint.”  It’s not as thorough as could be desired, but it’s hardly inaccurate or softened; in fact, I think it preserves the original meaning and flow of thought of Psalm 64 quite well.  The first stanza is particularly notable for its similarity to the  ESV text.  Overall, a first-rate versification!

Although the tune MONORA might be fitting for the last stanza of Psalm 64, I’m not convinced of its appropriateness for the more imprecatory stanzas 1 and 2.  I might be tempted to play around instead with the tunes of Psalter Hymnal #100 (VOX DILECTI) or #161 (AUDITE AUDIENTES ME), which combine a somber minor section with a more uplifting major section.  There exists a dizzying array of C.M.D. tunes from which to choose.

Like most of the imprecatory psalms, Psalm 64 is helpful for just about any situation in which a Christian suffers oppression at the hands of unbelievers—from workplace problems to physical persecution.   It speaks especially of the caustic words of hate and mockery with which so many of us are acquainted.  Even in situations like these, however, the believer can be assured that God will soon vindicate him.

The just shall triumph in the Lord,
Their trust shall be secure,
And endless glory then shall crown
The upright and the pure.

–MRK

Featured Recording: You’re in Providence

In the midst of our weighty discussions here on URC Psalmody, there comes a point when a spot of comic relief is inescapably needed.  If you’re at all familiar with the psalmody of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), this video just might hit the spot.  It’s a tongue-in-cheek promotional infomercial for the Book of Psalms for Worship.  URCNA members too should be able to get a chuckle out of the creative hyperbole in these scenarios and testimonials!

And thus, with no further comment, I present the Book of Psalms for Worship Infomercial.

–MRK

(Click here for last week’s [more serious] Featured Recording)

Works of Power and Grace: The Reformation

As I was planning the posting schedule for URC Psalmody in 2013, I decided that creating a number of regularly-posted series would keep me more accountable than blogging spontaneously.  That’s why you may have noticed the appearance of several new series, yet a relatively small number of stand-alone posts.

Dr. Henry Beets

Dr. Henry Beets

With that introduction, I’d like to return to our recently-begun Thursday series on URC Psalmody, in which we consider Henry Beets’ work The Christian Reformed Church and discuss its applicability to the United Reformed Churches in North America.  Last week we left off midway through Chapter 1; Beets had summarized the history of the Christian church from the time of the New Testament to the Middle Ages.  He defined several key characteristics of the early church and contrasted them with the unbiblical excesses that gradually arose in the Roman Catholic tradition.  We left off somewhere in the midst of the Middle Ages.

By the time of the sixteenth century, it was clear that something needed to change if the Church were to survive.  But our Lord Jesus Christ never commissioned his followers to build the Church themselves; he said, “I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  In Section 4, Beets describes the “Reforming Councils” of the Roman church that met during the end of the Middle Ages, whose purpose was to try to reform the Church, but which mostly ended up condemning the true reformers like Wycliffe and Hus.  He proceeds with these poetic words:

But as it is often is darkest during the hour preceding the dawn, so it was to be with the Church.  The set time of the Lord to revive and favor His Zion was about to come and usher in the Reformation—from which we derive the name ‘Reformed.’

What follows is a paraphrase and simplification of the rest of Beets’ chapter.

Section 5.

This Reformation, however, was not a sudden, unheralded and cataclysmic event.  There had been a preparation for this, as there had been long ago to bring about what the Bible calls the ‘fulness of time.’  The Lord, in His gracious providence, arranged all kinds of circumstances, arrayed various forces, and called several persons, to restore something of the pristine glory of the early Christian Church, to make us thankful for the Reformation, and proud of the name ‘Reformed.’

The preparatory factors and individuals included Wycliffe in England and Hus in Bohemia, the faithful Waldenses in Italy, and ‘the Brethren of the Common Life’ of the Netherlands (Gerard Groote, Radewijnsz, Zerbolt, Gansfort, and Thomas à Kempis).  There were other secondary factors and forces at work too, such as the Crusades, the Black Death, and the invention of the printing press.  But most importantly, there was growing in many a hunger and thirst after righteousness which refused to be satisfied with the mixture of grace and works offered by Rome. There was in some a longing for certainty of forgiveness of sin and of an inheritance of the saints in light, over against the soul-harrowing uncertainty on these subjects engendered by Rome’s teachings.

Section 6.

The usual date given for the beginning of the Reformation is October 31, 1517, when the German monk Martin Luther protested publicly against the sale of indulgences and other unbiblical practices of the papacy.  Luther became the heroic and much beloved father of the Lutheran Reformation, and the leader of countless hosts of Christians who gratefully call themselves after his name.  Particularly he emphasized the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the supreme authority of Scripture, and the universal priesthood of all believers.  He wrote many stirring hymns, including the famous and beloved ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.’

Section 7.

Even before the work of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli was bringing about the Reformation in the neighboring country of Switzerland.  While he was less impulsive and less in the limelight than Luther, he was a man of many talents and a great man of God.  In contrast to the Lutheran movement, Zwingli laid the foundations of what would later be known as the <i>Reformed</i> Reformation.  He disagreed with Luther regarding the nature of the Lord’s Supper, but like Luther he upheld the supreme authority of Scripture for faith and life, the forgiveness of sins through Christ without intermediation of the Virgin or any saints, and the futility and fraudulence of indulgences.  He too wrote hymns, including ‘Guide, O Lord, Thy Chariot Now’ [which, though I’ve never heard of it, Beets describes as “famous”].

Section 8.

Although Zwingli laid the foundations of the Reformed Reformation, it was the Frenchman John Calvin who built on his foundations and erected an impressive and lasting structure.  Luther has been described as the hero of the Reformation, and Zwingli as one of its scholars, but Calvin is justly noted as its genius.  [Beets quotes a Dr. J. I. Good who gives four reasons for this claim:] First, he was the great theologian of the Reformation, publishing his Institutes of the Christian Religion at age 26.  Second, he was a most excellent commentator.  Third, he was the greatest teacher of ethics in the Reformation.  Fourth, he carefully laid the foundation of the Presbyterian church government of the Reformed.

Besides these qualities, Calvin was an eloquent preacher, faithful pastor, inspiring teacher, talented educator, keen philosopher, able legislator, and far-sighted statesman.  He was a man of ecumenical vision, longing for a united front of Protestantism—a never-fulfilled ideal that was most closely reached during the historic Synod of Dordrecht, which we’ll discuss in Chapter 2.

Section 9.

Calvin agreed with the basic doctrines of his fellow reformers, but he went further by taking as his great leading principle that of God’s sovereignty and his ultimate glorification.  Many of these Calvinistic views have found their way into the Church of England, Baptists and Congregationalists, and particularly the standards of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches around the world.  Today [in 1946], the total number of adherents of the Reformed faith is estimated at fifty million people.

Section 10.

The Reformers have often been bitterly assailed and unmercifully criticized.  No doubt both had their faults, shortcomings, and limitations.  But such men should not be judged by the shadows they may have cast, but by the light they have helped to shed.  Calvin, in particular, was more than a dry intellectual; he also possessed a loving heart and a true missionary spirit.  In fact, a hymn in our Psalter Hymnal (number 432, “I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art”) is attributed to him.

Calvin’s life and life work is well explained by his motto <i>Coram Deo</i>, the goal of living as in God’s presence, before His face.  May it become ours as well.

And so, in conclusion, it is because of the great principles, worthy achievements, and splendid objectives of this Reformation to restore and re-form the Church of Christ, that we, whose family name is Christian, have in our denominational title added to this the name Reformed.

Thoughts for Discussion

  • For Discussion(Section 4) While Beets’ summary of church history is excellent, I found myself a little uncomfortable with some of his language that seemed to draw unjustifiable parallels between the restoration of Old Testament Israel and the Protestant Reformation.  We ought to remember that the most important restoration occurred neither in the Old Testament nor in the Middle Ages, but on a hill with a cross where Jesus died.  Readers, what is the best and most balanced view of the Reformation we can have?
  • (Section 5) Beets says, “There was in some a longing for certainty of forgiveness of sin and of an inheritance of the saints in light, over against the soul-harrowing uncertainty on these subjects engendered by Rome’s teachings.”  Here in the 21st century, one could all-too-easily apply this sentence to mainstream evangelical churches in addition to Roman Catholicism.  The same works-based, man-centered doctrine of salvation is being taught in both places, though in different forms and different ways.
  • (Section 9) Have you ever been accused by non-Reformed Christians of worshiping Calvin?  Believe it or not, this is a charge I’ve heard.  We are not Calvinists in that we blindly follow this Reformer as our spiritual leader; we are Calvinists in that we agree with his summaries of biblical teaching.  First we are Christians; then we are Reformed, and specifically we support Calvin’s teachings.
  • (Section 10) Beets says in the original, “Such men should not be judged by the shadows they may have cast, but by the light they have shed.”  Certainly this is true, but let us never forget the Source of that light.  Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin were not three men who came along at a particular point in history and suddenly proposed a new way of thinking.  Their aim was merely to return the church to the truths of the Bible.  As Beets emphasizes, they were only instruments, used mightily by God for his glory.

In Chapter 2, Beets focuses his attention on the progress of the Reformation in the Netherlands and explains the Secession of 1834.  We hope to see you then!

–MRK

Lord’s Day 8: How God Has Revealed Himself

Catechism and Psalter

Here we are once again in our Wednesday series on the Heidelberg Catechism.  In the last Lord’s Day we were introduced to the Apostles’ Creed, the summary of the gospel every Christian must believe.  Lord’s Day 8, our focus for today, briefly explains the structure of the Creed and introduces us to a basic doctrine contained therein: the Trinity.

24 Q.  How are these articles divided?

A.  Into three parts:
God the Father and our creation;
God the Son and our deliverance;
God the Spirit and our sanctification.

25 Q.  Since there is but one God, why do you speak of three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

A.  Because that is how
God has revealed himself in his Word:
these three distinct persons
are one, true, eternal God.

Suggested Songs

We may automatically assume that the Old Testament psalms, written before the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit, contain nothing related to the doctrine of the Trinity.  This notion, though it may be widespread in the Christian church, is downright incorrect.  Today I’d like to consider just three psalms that speak of each Person of the Godhead.

206, “My Soul, Bless the Lord” (Psalm 104)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

If you’re looking for a spectacular psalm regarding God’s creation, look no further than Psalm 104. This vivid poem opens with a fitting expression of praise:

My soul, bless the Lord! the Lord is most great,
With glory arrayed, majestic His state;
The light is His garment, the skies are His shade,
And over the waters His courts He has laid.

From this point on, the psalmist roughly follows the story of creation, from the founding of the earth (stz. 2) to the establishment of the waters and dry land (stz. 3) to the creation of plants, birds, and animals (stz. 4-6).

Now without a truly Biblical understanding of the work of the Trinity, what comes next is surprising:

Thy Spirit, O Lord, makes life to abound,
The earth is renewed, and fruitful the ground;
To God ascribe glory and wisdom and might,
Let God in His creatures forever delight.

We ought to remember that the Spirit is first mentioned not in the New Testament but in Genesis 1:2—“And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”  Both the Son and the Spirit played an active role in the creation of the world.  Charles Spurgeon goes so far as to make a soteriological connection from Psalm 104:30: “If we read the word spirit as we have it in our version, it is also instructive, for we see the Divine Spirit going forth to create life in nature even as we see him in the realms of grace.”

3, “Wherefore Do the Nations Rage” (Psalm 2)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, to an alternate tune)

I find it fascinating that just as the Holy Spirit is mentioned as early as Genesis 1:2, Jesus Christ as the Messianic King is explicitly mentioned just one psalm into the Psalter.  While this psalm’s primary meaning applies to the human king of Israel, it is nearly impossible to miss the Christological connection in Psalm 2.  The 1912 Psalter and our own Psalter Hymnal, in fact, capitalize all pronouns in this psalm that refer to the king, cementing this solidly Biblical interpretation.  Furthermore, the Catechism notes that the second section of the Apostles’ Creed focuses on God the Son and our deliverance, a theme also present in the closing lines of Psalm 2.  Here’s the full text:

Wherefore do the nations rage,
And the peoples vainly dream,
That in triumph they can wage
War against the Lord supreme?
His Anointed they deride,
And the rulers plotting say:
“Their dominion be defied,
Let us cast their bonds away.”

But the Lord will scorn them all,
Calm he sits enthroned on high;
Soon His wrath will on them fall,
Angered then He will reply:
“Yet according to My will
I have set My King to reign,
And on Zion’s holy hill
Mine anointed I maintain.”

This the word declared to me,
This Jehovah’s firm decree:
“Thou art My beloved Son,
Yea, I have begotten Thee.
Ask and have Thy full demands,
Thine shall all the heathen be,
Thine the utmost of the lands,
They shall be possessed of Thee.”

Dash them like a potter’s urn,
Thou shalt break them with a rod.
Therefore, kings and judges, learn
Anxiously to serve your God.
Kiss the Son and worship Him,
Lest ye perish in the way;
Blest are all who trust in Him,
Yea, supremely blest are they.

95, “Gracious God, My Heart Renew” (Psalm 51)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, and at Synod 2012)

While Psalm 51 is a song of confession, it is also a song of redemption and sanctification, as we’ve mentioned before here on URC Psalmody.  In fact, the three sections of Psalm 51 follow the “Guilt-Grace-Gratitude” motif of the Catechism remarkably closely.  Psalter Hymnal 95 versifies the latter half of Psalm 51, which appeals powerfully to the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s heart:

Gracious God, my heart renew,
Make my spirit right and true;
Cast me not away from Thee,
Let Thy Spirit dwell in me;
Thy salvation’s joy impart,
Stedfast make my willing heart.

Sinners then shall learn from me
And return, O God, to Thee;
Savior, all my guilt remove,
And my tongue shall sing Thy love;
Touch my silent lips, O Lord,
And my mouth shall praise accord.

Not the formal sacrifice
Has acceptance in Thine eyes;
Broken hearts are in Thy sight
More than sacrificial rite;
Contrite spirit, pleading cries,
Thou, O God, wilt not despise.

Prosper Zion in Thy grace
And her broken walls replace;
Then our righteous sacrifice
Shall delight Thy holy eyes;
Free-will offerings, gladly made,
On Thine altar shall be laid.

It’s hard to find more applicable and beautiful words with which to end this post than those from Reginald Heber’s great Trinitarian hymn (Psalter Hymnal 318, again sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI):

Holy, Holy, Holy!  Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy!  Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!

–MRK


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