Archive for February, 2013



Psalm 136: His Steadfast Love

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

–Psalm 136:1-3 (ESV)

If after reading Psalm 136 you scratch your head and say, “I can’t figure out the theme here,” you’re obviously missing something.  This psalm is unique for its repetitive style and its refrain, “For his steadfast love endures forever,” which occurs a whopping 26 times.  In its opening verses, Psalm 136 bears considerable similarity to Psalm 118, while the rest of the psalm echoes other historical selections such as Psalms 104 and 105.  Regarding the refrain, the ESV Study Bible comments, “Perhaps the psalm was to be sung responsively, with a priest leading with the first line of each verse, and a Levitical choir or the whole congregation replying with the refrain.”  If it strikes you as monotonous to repeat “For his steadfast love endures forever” 26 times, just remember how quick we are to forget what the Lord has done for us, and how great his steadfast love truly is.

Today we consider the Psalter Hymnal’s two versifications of Psalm 136.

283, “Now May All in Brotherhood”

After plenty of studying and comparing hymnals, I simply can’t figure out why this psalm setting was created.  It comes neither out of the Genevan/Dutch Psalter nor the 1912 Psalter; it was created specifically for the blue 1959 Psalter Hymnal by Harry Mayer and Johannes Dirk Plekker.  What’s even more confusing is that the 1912 Psalter and the 1934 Psalter Hymnal both contain a setting of Psalm 136 in the very same meter, with an almost identical refrain (“For His mercy doth endure,/Ever faithful, ever sure”)—but the texts are very different.

“This one has ten verses rather than six, so maybe it’s more complete and accurate,” I thought, but that conclusion proved to be wrong as well.  True, the old version “Praise Jehovah for His Love” has 36 lines in total, whereas “Now May All in Brotherhood” has 80—yes, eighty.  Yet I found that this versification was less accurate, more archaic, and more cumbersome than its predecessor.  Why did the editors of the blue Psalter Hymnal feel the need to rewrite a perfectly good psalm setting?  Why did they decide to repeat each refrain twice, breaking up the flow of thought between the stanzas even more?  Perhaps I’ll never know, but at the very least I’d suggest that you take a second look at “Praise Jehovah for His Love,” which I’ve copied in its entirety below.

 "Praise Jehovah for His Love"

With a monotonous rhythm and a pedestrian melody line, REMEIN (the tune used with number 283 in the blue Psalter Hymnal) is far from perfect.  Again I’ll point you to the tune of “Praise Jehovah for His Love,” BETTER LAND, which is much more uplifting and suitable for these words.  Perhaps an even better and more familiar choice would be DIX, the tune of “For the Beauty of the Earth” or “Safely Through Another Week” (#320).

While it’s not my intent to completely tear apart this particular Psalter Hymnal selection, it just seems to be a shame that our songbook doesn’t give better treatment to such a jubilant psalm of praise.

284, “Give Thanks to God, for Good is He”

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

Thankfully, my complaints are far fewer with regard to the Psalter Hymnal’s other version of Psalm 136, “Give Thanks to God, for Good is He.”  This is a limited paraphrase, treating only verses 1-9 and 23-26, but it successfully summarizes the main themes of the psalm.  The alternating refrains at the end of each line (“His grace abideth ever” and “His mercy faileth never”) closely replicate the structure of the original text, and might lend themselves to some kind of counterpoint setting.

The tune CONSTANCE was composed by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).  It powerfully bears along the text of Psalm 136, including its short but memorable refrain.  For church musicians, I’d suggest that the tune be lowered to E-flat to avoid the high F in the last line.  I’d also like to call your attention to the rest at the end of each line, and suggest that a contrasting organ registration be used for the refrains.  With these stylistic nuances, number 284 will shine!

He helped us in our deepest woes,
His grace abideth ever;
He ransomed us from all our foes,
His mercy faileth never.
Each creature’s need He doth supply,
His grace abideth ever;
Give thanks to God, enthroned on high,
Whose mercy faileth never.

–MRK

Featured Recording: An Introduction to the CanRC

In Wednesday’s post on Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism, I pointed you to a video recording of the Genevan setting of Psalm 138 as sung by a Canadian Reformed Church in Langley, BC.  This song is nearly identical to Psalter Hymnal number 287, “With All My Heart Will I Record.”  For today’s Featured Recording, I’d like to call your attention back to this video and examine it in a bit more detail.

The organist is Frank Ezinga, who has a YouTube channel, a personal website, and a website on Reformed church music from the Canadian Reformed perspective.  First of all, I give anyone credit who can prepare their registrations and open their songbook while simultaneously playing a well-crafted introduction to a psalm.  After this rousing opening, the congregation begins to sing in unison.  Ezinga’s accompaniment throughout the psalm is rhythmically steady, harmonically interesting, and melodically supportive.  In the second stanza he uses a reed solo stop which, although it may sound strange at first, blends perfectly with the voices of the congregation.  The third and fourth verses contain a gradual building-up of sound, until he wraps up with a brilliant concluding cadence at the end of the versification.  If you’re unfamiliar with the worship style of our brothers and sisters in the Canadian Reformed Churches, this video serves as a perfect introduction.

All in all, I greatly admire Ezinga’s accompaniment style, and I’d encourage you to check out his other videos and his websites for more insights into the world of Reformed music.

–MRK

(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Works of Power and Grace: The Early Church

The Christian Reformed ChurchLast week I introduced you to a new book series here on URC Psalmody.  The book I chose, for a variety of reasons I explained in that post, was Dr. Henry Beets’ text The Christian Reformed Church.  Although Beets’s writing style is a little thick, many of his insights and commentaries are brilliant, which is why I’d like to start each post simply by summarizing some of his best points.  Indented paragraphs with quotes are taken basically from the text of the book, though I’ve attempted to simplify and clarify some passages.  Beets divides each chapter into numbered sections, which I’ve preserved here.  In fact, I’ll probably divide up some chapters into multiple blog posts to avoid skipping any opportunities for discussion.

In Chapter 1, Beets begins by explaining the words “Christian” and “Reformed” in the title of this denomination.

First and foremost in the name of the denomination whose history we relate in this book stands the name ‘Christian.’  That signifies that it claims to be part and parcel of the visible Church of the New Testament, described in the Bible as ‘the body of Christ’ (Eph. 1:23), and defined in the Creed of the Reformed Churches as ‘a holy congregation of Christian believers.’  That word ‘Christian’ carries us back to the days of the Apostles, when the disciples of Christ were first called ‘Christians’ in Antioch  around A. D. 45 (Acts 11:26).

But next to the name ‘Christian’ in the title of this denomination stands the word ‘Reformed.’  This indicates that it claims to be re-formed—formed again, made over, renovated, purified.  That term takes us back to the sixteenth century, when a mighty religious movement called the Protestant Reformation took place in western Europe.  That movement was designed to bring out a re-formation and purification of the Christian Church, because it was considered to have become de-formed and impure in many respects.

In Section 1, Beets says that “the Christian Church of the New Testament dates from Pentecost, A. D. 30, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles and other disciples assembled in Jerusalem.”  Next, in Section 2, he points out some of the defining characteristics of the early church:

  • To begin with, there was sound, constant preaching and faithful witnessing as Christ had commanded.
  • There was the proper administration of the two New Testament sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s supper.
  • Proper Christian discipline was administered to those who erred in doctrine or life.
  • The worship services were markedly simple, as the believers taught and admonished one another “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16).
  • The early Christian church possessed democracy in the good sense, in the leadership of elders by the selection of the congregation, and in the Christian love expressed between members.
Section 3.

When the Roman ruler Constantine the Great openly sided with Christianity beginning in A. D. 313, the church was faced with an immense influx of unconverted people.  This necessitated efforts to codify Christian truths to protect against heresy, leading to the creation of the so-called ‘ecumenical creeds’ of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), as well as the Apostles’ Creed which developed over the course of time.  Indeed, great battles had to be fought to keep and defend, to augment and systematize the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

Sadly, the Roman church over the course of time became disloyal to the gospel as delivered by the Bible, the creeds, and the church fathers.  Each of the points mentioned above that had so clearly characterized the early church began to decay.  Witnessing became a task just for the ordained ‘clergy,’ not the laity.  The number of sacraments was increased from two to seven.  Christian discipline was either sadly neglected, or exercised in some cases in an arbitrary and often harsh manner.  The simplicity which marked the early Christian services was crowded out by elaborate ceremonies conducted by priests in ornate attire borrowed from Old Testament ceremonial law, and the congregational singing of the early church was replaced by trained choirs.  [We’ll return to this point!] Instead of the early democracy there arose a vast priestly hierarchy led by the Popes, many of whom revealed themselves as ungodly men.

The entire Roman system had so mixed merit and grace, work and mercy, as to cause the degeneration of Christianity into a yoke of bondage to law and ceremony.  The adoration of saints and statutes and pictures had become God-provoking idolatry, explaining to some degree the rise and progress of Islam, which wiped out many churches around the Mediterranean during the early centuries of the Middle Ages.

For DiscussionI’ll stop here for now, since Dr. Beets has given us plenty to chew on already.  Chapter 1 continues to discuss the circumstances leading up to the Reformation and the men who promoted its central doctrines, including Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.  For now, though, here are some thoughts to apply this discussion to us here in the United Reformed Churches in North America:

  • (Section 1) Whatever else we may be, we are first and foremost the Christian church.  This truth is a double-edged sword; it warns against allowing unbiblical practices to infiltrate the body of Christ, yet it also reminds us that we should never be Reformed to the exclusion of being Christian.  May our goal always be to preserve the truth, but may we never rally around a denominational banner while forgetting whose army we are in!
  • (Section 2) How do the marks of the true church which Beets describes here encourage us?  For me, it was refreshing to realize that the principles we uphold in our doctrine, worship, and life did not arise merely from the “Reformed” branch of Christianity, but rather from the apostolic church itself.
  • (Section 2) More germane to this blog, the congregational singing of psalms and Scripturally-sound hymns is a key characteristic of the simple, sincere worship practiced in the early church.  We can be thankful that the URCNA, along with other orthodox Reformed churches, upholds this practice.  Reflecting on the mention of church music in Section 3, how is the practice of congregational singing compromised in many churches even today?
  • (Section 3) While we may automatically think of the Roman Catholic Church as the violator of these principles of Biblical worship, are we alert for the signs of this decay in other denominations as well, including mainstream “evangelical” churches?  It’s not hard to see the parallel: in many of today’s churches, the pastor is the sole “evangelist”, the sacraments are omitted or distorted, church discipline is nonexistent, worship services become showy performances, and the elders are supplanted by monarchical ministers.  Are we prepared to respond to this ecclesiastical malnourishment among our Christian friends and neighbors with the glories of true, sincere worship according to Biblical principles?  And are we prepared to defend against such decay should it someday appear in our own churches?

Feel free to respond with your own reactions, thoughts, and answers to these weighty questions.  I look forward with you to continuing Chapter 1 of The Christian Reformed Church next week, Lord willing.

–MRK

Lord’s Day 7: True Faith

Catechism and Psalter

Once again it’s Wednesday, and here on URC Psalmody that means it’s time for another installment of our Heidelberg Catechism series.  Today we focus on Lord’s Day 7, which explains the Christian’s salvation, our faith, and our joyful confession.

20 Q.  Are all men saved through Christ just as all were lost through Adam?

A.  No.
Only those are saved
who by true faith
are grafted into Christ
and accept all his blessings.

21 Q.  What is true faith?

A.  True faith is
not only a knowledge and conviction
that everything God reveals in his Word is true;
it 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.

22 Q.  What then must a Christian believe?

A.  Everything God promises us in the gospel.
That gospel is summarized for us
in the articles of our Christian faith–
a creed beyond doubt,
and confessed throughout the world.

23 Q.  What are these articles?

A.  I believe in God, the Father, almighty,
maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary;
suffered under Pontius Pilate;
was crucified, dead, and buried;
he descended into hell;
the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from thence he shall come
to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit;
I believe a holy catholic church, the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.

Suggested Songs

Once again, the plenitude of psalms that speak of God’s plan of salvation and the believer’s faith in him make it nearly impossible to choose the perfect songs for this Lord’s Day.  In particular, just about anything from Psalm 119 (Psalter Hymnal numbers 235-257) says something about salvation, faith, or God’s Word.  Nevertheless, I’ve endeavored to pick out a few shining examples below.

250, “Deceit and Falsehood I Abhor” (Psalm 119)

“Only those are saved who by true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his blessings.”  While many portions of Psalm 119 contrast the paths of believers and unbelievers, number 250 (which versifies Psalm 119:113-120) also points to the centrality of God’s Word and the truth of salvation sola fide, by faith alone.

According to Thy gracious Word
Uphold me, Lord, deliver me;
O do not let me be ashamed
Of patient hope and trust in Thee;
O hold Thou me, and I shall stand
And ever follow Thy command.

The froward Thou hast set at nought,
Who vainly wander from the right;
The wicked Thou dost count as dross;
Thy just decrees are my delight;
For fear of Thee I stand I awe
And reverence Thy most holy law.

256, “Though Mighty Foes Assail Me, Lord” (Psalm 119)

“True faith is…a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true.”  Number 256 (Psalm 119:161-168) builds on number 250 by pointing to the unshakable foundation of the Christian’s faith—the inerrant, infallible Word of God.  The second stanza declares joyfully:

Great peace has he who loves Thy law,
Unmoved, he safely stands;
For Thy salvation I have hoped
And followed Thy commands.
Thy testimonies I have kept,
They are my chief delight;
Observant of Thy law and truth,
I walk before Thy sight.

228, “I Love the Lord, the Fount of Life and Grace” (Psalm 116)

(Sung by Grace URC in Dunnville, Ontario)

“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 been granted salvation.”  Psalm 116 is a masterpiece describing the wondrous truth of our salvation and the faith that accompanies it.  The psalmist (as adapted by William Kuipers) opens by declaring, “I love the Lord, the fount of life and grace,” then goes on to describe his sore bondage (“The cords of death held me in deep despair”) and his redemption by the Lord (“Jehovah heard; I pledge Him my devotion”).  The fifth and ninth stanzas render these truths gloriously:

Thou, O Jehovah, in Thy sovereign grace,
Hast saved my soul from death and woe appalling,
Dried all my tears, secured my feet from falling.
Lo, I shall live and walk before Thy face.

I am, O Lord, Thy servant, bound yet free,
Thy handmaid’s son, whose shackles Thou hast broken;
Redeemed by grace I’ll render as a token
Of gratitude my constant praise to Thee.

55, “How Blest Is He Whose Trespass” (Psalm 32)

“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.”  When he sought to describe the “righteousness that is by faith” to the saints in Rome (see Romans 4), the apostle Paul quoted Psalm 32—and for good reason.  This is undoubtedly one of the clearest depictions of redemption in all of Scripture.

So let the godly seek Thee
In times when Thou art near;
No whelming floods shall reach them,
Nor cause their hearts to fear.
In Thee, O Lord, I hide me,
Thou savest me from ill,
And songs of Thy salvation
My heart with rapture thrill.

The sorrows of the wicked
In number shall abound,
But those that trust Jehovah
His mercy shall surround.
Then in the Lord be joyful,
In song lift up your voice;
Be glad in God, ye righteous,
Rejoice, ye saints, rejoice.

72, “Before Thy People I Confess” (Psalm 40)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“What then must a Christian believe?  Everything God promises us in the gospel.”  Another song of redemption is found in Psalm 40, where the psalmist recounts the Lord’s faithfulness to him.  A natural result of our regeneration is our public profession of faith: “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:10 ESV).

Before Thy people I confess
The wonders of Thy righteousness;
Thou knowest, Lord, that I have made
Thy great salvation known,
Thy truth and faithfulness displayed,
Thy loving-kindness shown.

Let all who seek to see Thy face
Be glad and joyful in Thy grace;
Let those who Thy salvation love
Forevermore proclaim:
O praise the Lord who dwells above,
And magnify His Name!

287, “With All My Heart Will I Record” (Psalm 138)

If there is any one song that adequately summarizes the contents of Lord’s Day 7, it is this rousing Genevan versification of Psalm 138.  The psalmist praises God’s truth and grace, recounting his wonderful works to mankind and personally to himself.  He exalts the Word of God as the key to our salvation, and he ends with the unshakable confidence that “Thou wilt finish perfectly/What Thou for me hast undertaken.”  I’ll end with the complete text of this setting, along with this excellent congregational recording from a Canadian Reformed Church in Langley, British Columbia.

With all my heart will I record
Thy praise, O Lord, and exaltation.
Before the gods with joyful song
Will I prolong my adoration.
I worship toward Thy holy place
And for Thy grace and truth extol Thee.
Above Thy Name, Thou, Lord Most High,
Didst magnify Thy Word so holy.

O God, whene’er I cried to Thee,
Thou heardest me and didst deliver;
For by Thy strength, when sore afraid,
My soul was stayed, O gracious Giver.
The kings of earth in one accord
Shall thank Thee, Lord, with praise unbroken,
When over all the earth is heard
The wondrous Word which Thou hast spoken.

They all shall sing in joyful lays
And laud Thy ways with jubilation,
For great is God in majesty,
The Lord is He of all creation.
Jehovah looketh from on high
With kindly eye upon the lowly,
But knoweth those from far who hide
In sinful pride their ways unholy.

Lord, though I walk ‘mid troubles sore,
Thou wilt restore my faltering spirit;
Though angry foes my soul alarm,
Thy mighty arm will save and cheer it.
Yea, Thou wilt finish perfectly
What Thou for me hast undertaken;
May not Thy works, in mercy wrought,
E’er come to nought or be forsaken.

–MRK

Psalm 135: The Lord Is Good

Praise the LORD!
Praise the name of the LORD,
give praise, O servants of the LORD,
who stand in the house of the LORD,
in the courts of the house of our God!
Praise the LORD, for the LORD is good;
sing to his name, for it is pleasant!
For the LORD has chosen Jacob for himself,
Israel as his own possession.

–Psalm 135:1-4 (ESV)

"He makes the vapors to ascendIn clouds from earth's remotest end..."

“He makes the vapors to ascend
In clouds from earth’s remotest end…”

If you’re a listener of classical music of any kind, you’re probably familiar with pieces like sonatas, concertos, or symphonies.  One of the most popular formulations for these compositions from the classical era is to divide a big piece into several movements.  The first movement, usually the “Allegro,” presents a few musical themes and begins to explore them.  In the second movement and any additional movements, more new themes might be introduced, but much of the music is built on the motifs given in the first movement.  Then comes the last movement, the “Finale,” which brilliantly ties all of these themes together and ends with a triumphant cadence.

I explain this because Psalm 135 strikes me as the beginning of the Psalter’s “Finale.”  Emerging from the Songs of Ascent, we find ourselves less than twenty psalms from the end of the book.  While I haven’t yet studied each psalm in this section in depth, a cursory reading seems to reveal a host of themes from earlier psalms, all reframed and expanded.  Both structurally and thematically, Psalm 135 includes both excerpts and echoes from many places in the Psalter.

First, Psalm 135 opens with a restatement and expansion of Psalm 134.  After commanding his hearers to praise the Lord, the psalmist says God’s greatness ought to be the motivation for this praise.  He then declares the Lord’s might as revealed in two ways: in creation (“Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps”) and in redemption (“The LORD has chosen Jacob for himself”).

Verses 5-7 hearken back to many of the creation psalms, such as Psalms 33 and 104.

He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
who makes lightnings for the rain
and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.

–v. 7

In verses 8-12, the psalmist summarizes the history of Israel recounted in Psalms 78 and 105.  Then, reflecting on God’s greatness, he exclaims:

Your name, O LORD, endures forever,
your renown, O LORD, throughout all ages.
For the LORD will vindicate his people
and have compassion on his servants.

–vv. 13, 14

The remainder of Psalm 135 is basically a repetition of Psalm 115:4-11.  The psalmist contrasts the futility of idols with the glory of the living God, and ends as he began: by exhorting God’s people to bless him.

The Psalter Hymnal contains two excellent versifications of Psalm 135, which we’ll consider below.

281, “O Praise Ye the Name of Jehovah”

(Sung by Grace URC in Dunnville, ON and Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“O Praise Ye the Name of Jehovah” is the Psalter Hymnal’s only complete versification of Psalm 135, and a solid one at that.  The beginning and end of Psalm 135, which are a bit repetitive in Scripture, are edited down a bit here, which meets no objection from me.  The rest of the psalm is versified simply, accurately, and beautifully.  I love the poetry in stanzas like these:

I know that the Lord is almighty,
Supreme in dominion is He;
Performing His will and good pleasure
In heaven and in earth and the sea.

His hand guides the clouds in their courses,
The lightning flames forth at His will,
The wind and the rain He releases
His sovereign designs to fulfil.

Since number 281 possesses a rather unique meter (the same as number 261, which we discussed here), its tune possibilities are few.  This one, JANET, fits the bill well.  It’s energetic, well-constructed, and easily singable, though it may be desirable to lower the key to A-flat instead of B-flat.  All in all, if you want to sing Psalm 135, you can’t go wrong with “O Praise Ye the Name of Jehovah.”

282, “Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim”

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

There’s no doubt about it, number 282 is a Psalter Hymnal favorite—and for good reason.  The combination of a jubilant text with a rousing tune makes this a fine selection of psalmody.  It ought to be noted that “Exalt the Lord” is only an excerpt from Psalm 135; it contains verses 1-7 and 19-21, with verses 1, 2 repeated at the beginning of the third stanza.  Perhaps this setting could be improved in the forthcoming Psalter Hymnal by adding more stanzas in this meter to round off the psalm.

The tune, CREATION, is an adaptation of a chorus from Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio of the same name.  Interestingly enough, this chorus sets to music the words of Psalm 19:1—“The heavens are telling the glory of God”—a theme that is plainly echoed here in Psalm 135 as well.  (You can listen to Haydn’s chorus here.)  The chief challenge in playing this tune is determining its proper tempo.  I tend to like it a bit quicker than it’s played in the recordings provided here (and a bit slower than the chorus linked above), but this is often simply a matter of personal taste.  On the piano, keep the rhythm clean and consistent, and feel free to add embellishments.  On the organ, belt it out, and have fun with the walking bass line!

Below is a recording of “Exalt the Lord” as sung at Synod 2012.

Exalt the Lord, His praise proclaim,
All ye His servants, praise His Name,
Who in the Lord’s house ever stand
And humbly serve at His command.
Forever praise and bless His Name,
And in the Church His praise proclaim;
In Zion is His dwelling-place;
Praise ye the Lord, show forth His grace!

–MRK


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