Archive for March, 2013

A Good Friday Meditation

As a child I never could figure out why we called it Good Friday.  The story of Jesus’ crucifixion seemed anything but good; in fact, it seemed absolutely horrible.  My reaction tended to be similar to the response someone might have to a tragic secular narrative: “Did it have to end this way?  Oh, if only Jesus and his disciples hadn’t gone to the garden of Gethsemane the previous night!  If only Judas hadn’t betrayed him!  If only Pilate hadn’t condemned him!”

It shames me to admit this now, because I was clearly missing the story of salvation, the entire reason why Christ came into the world.   The apostle John counters this notion with parenthetical notes in his Gospel that Jesus knew “all that would happen to him” (18:4) and “that all was now finished” (19:28).

One of the themes throughout John’s gospel is “that you [the reader] also may believe.”  After he describes Jesus’ death, John comments:

He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.  For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken.’  And again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on him whom they have pierced.’

–John 19:35-37 (ESV)

Here the apostle clearly shows that nothing about Jesus’ arrest, condemnation, and crucifixion was accidental; each event transpired to fulfill all of the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.  In the gospel of Luke, the risen Christ explains the fulfillment of these prophecies to his despairing disciples:

‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’  Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.’

–Luke 24:44-48 (ESV)

What is amazing about this passage is that Christ himself explicitly refers to the psalms as prophecies about the Messiah.  As we remember the Lord’s death today, I’d like to point you to one of the most powerful messianic passages in all of Scripture: Psalm 22.  As you read the excerpts below, think back to the events of the Crucifixion.  Seeing these prophecies so powerfully fulfilled, we ought to be inspired to declare with the centurion, “Truly this was the son of God!” (Matt. 27:54).

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O Lord, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!

None of us can come close to fully comprehending the suffering Christ endured, and the wrath of God he bore for us.  At the same time, however, Psalm 22 looks forward to deliverance—to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and our redemption and eternal life.

I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.

It has been pointed out, very appropriately I think, that the very last phrase of Psalm 22—“he has done it”—was paralleled in Jesus’ final words on the cross: “It is finished.”  This moment was the climax of history, the culmination of God’s incomprehensible plan of salvation.  As the Heidelberg Catechism explains it in Q&A 37:

This he did in order that,
by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice,
he might set us free, body and soul,
from eternal condemnation,
and gain for us
God’s grace,
righteousness,
and eternal life.

As we commemorate Good Friday, then, may our grief never stem merely from Christ’s suffering on the cross; may it grieve us more that it was our sins that put him there.  But although we may grieve, this should also be an opportunity for us to offer our humble thanks to God for bringing about our salvation.  In the powerful words of the old hymn:

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior,
‘Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever;
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love to Thee.

–MRK

Lord’s Day 13: To Be His Very Own

Catechism and Psalter

As the Apostles’ Creed progresses through the key tenets of Christianity, the Heidelberg Catechism moves slowly and steadily behind it, asking and answering thoughtful questions such as, “What do you believe…?”  “Why is he called…?”  “What does it mean…?”  “How does this benefit you…?”

Today’s installment of URC Psalmody’s 2013 Heidelberg Catechism series brings us to Lord’s Day 13, in which the Catechism expounds upon the Creed’s references to Jesus Christ as God’s “only begotten Son” and “our Lord.”

33 Q.  Why is he called God’s “only begotten Son” when we also are God’s children?

A.  Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God.
We, however, are adopted children of God—
adopted by grace through Christ.

34 Q.  Why do you call him “our Lord”?

A.  Because—
not with gold or silver,
but with his precious blood—
he has set us free
from sin and from the tyranny of the devil,
and has bought us,
body and soul,
to be his very own.

Suggested Songs

To further the goal of increasing Psalter Hymnal literacy in parallel with our study of the Catechism, I’ve tried to avoid referring to the same song more than once in this series.  In Lord’s Days like this, where Psalms 2 and 72 come to mind almost immediately, keeping to this regimen can be difficult.  However, I did discover three unique psalm settings from the Psalter Hymnal that pretty well cover the entirety of these two questions and answers.

277, “Gracious Lord, Remember David” (Psalm 132)

(Sung at Synod 2012)

“Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God.”  Once we recognize that Christ, as the Son of David, fulfills the roles ascribed to the Israelite king in the psalms, selections like Psalm 132 suddenly begin to carry a deeper and more permanent meaning.  This song begins by recounting the king’s devotion to the Lord and commitment to build him a house, but then it moves on to declare the Lord’s promises to this ruler and his line:

Let the king behold Thy favor
For Thy servant David’s sake,
Unto whom a sacred promise,
Sure and faithful, Thou didst make.
If his children keep Thy covenant
And Thy testimony own,
Then, as Thou, O Lord, hast promised,
They shall sit upon his throne.

In the fifth stanza, the Psalter Hymnal once again capitalizes the pronouns referring to the Lord’s anointed.  The messianic implications here are clear.

I will cause the might of David
Ever more and more to grow;
On the path of Mine Anointed
I will make a lamp to glow.
All His enemies shall perish,
I will cover them with shame;
But His crown shall ever flourish;
Blessed be His holy Name.

“Gracious Lord, Remember David” was stunningly rendered at Synod 2012:

49, “O Lord, Regard Me When I Cry” (Psalm 27)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“We, however, are adopted children of God—adopted by grace through Christ.”  The opening words of Psalm 27—“The Lord is my light and my salvation”—are well-known to many, but this psalm also contains a striking emphasis on God as our heavenly Father.

O Lord, regard me when I cry,
In mercy hear me when I speak;
Thou bidst me seek Thy face, and I,
O Lord, with willing heart reply,
Thy face, Lord, will I seek.

Hide not Thy face afar from me,
For Thou alone canst help afford;
O cast me not away from Thee
Nor let my soul forsaken be,
My Savior and my Lord.

Though earthly friends no pity take,
Yet Thy compassion knows no end;
E’en though my father shall forsake,
E’en though my mother’s love shall break,
The Lord will be my Friend.

My heart had failed in fear and woe
Unless in God I had believed,
Assured that He would mercy show
And that my life His grace should know;
Nor was my hope deceived.

201, “O My Soul, Bless Thou Jehovah” (Psalm 103)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“Not with gold or silver, but with his precious blood, he has set us free from sin and from the tyranny of the devil, and has bought us, body and soul, to be his very own.”  Psalm 103 is rich with soteriological truth, portraying God as our merciful Savior, Father, and Lord.

O my soul, bless thou Jehovah,
All within me, bless His Name;
Bless Jehovah and forget not
All His mercies to proclaim.
He forgives all thy transgressions,
Heals thy sicknesses and pains;
He redeems thee from destruction,
And His love thy life sustains.

As the heavens are high above us,
Great His love to us has proved;
Far as east from west is distant,
He has all our sins removed.
As a father loves his children,
Feeling pity for their woes,
So the Lord to those who fear Him
Mercy and compassion shows.

–MRK

Psalm 139: Too Wonderful for Me

O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.

–Psalm 139:1-3 (ESV)

It is with words of incredulous awe that Psalm 139 opens.  Indeed, this could easily be classified as one of the most personal, even intimate psalms in Scripture.

I was first introduced to the rich depths of Psalm 139 in a sermon that Rev. Rich Kuiken of Pompton Plains Reformed Bible Church delivered at West Sayville back in 2010.  This was the first exposition of a psalm I had heard in sermon form (or maybe just the first one I was truly paying attention); perhaps it could even be said that this sermon sparked my desire to learn more about the divinely-inspired songbook.

In any case, Rev. Kuiken pointed out the basic structure of Psalm 139: the awestruck psalmist David marvels with both head and heart at God’s omniscience, his omnipresence, and his omnipotence.  Of God’s transcending knowledge, David says, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (v. 6).  Of his limitless presence, the psalmist asks in incredulity, “Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (v. 7).  And, reflecting on the Lord’s marvelous work even in creating his own body, David confesses, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (v. 14).

The psalmist pauses to reflect on the greatness of his God:

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

–Psalm 139:17, 18

This revelation of the Lord’s might serves as a double-edged sword.  It affords joy and comfort to the believer, but to the unrepentant it affords little of either.  David complains to God of those who “speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain” (v. 20).  Righteously he calls upon the Lord to judge the wicked.

Then comes the conclusion of Psalm 139, which contains possibly some of the most poignant words in the entire Psalter.  This is where David’s head knowledge becomes heart knowledge, where theology becomes practice, where doctrine becomes life.  For him, there is only one possible response to God’s greatness:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

–vv. 23, 24

It must be nearly impossible for any songbook to do justice to Psalm 139.  Nevertheless, I believe the Psalter Hymnal does a nearly flawless job.

288, “Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me”

(Sung by West Sayville Reformed Bible Church on Long Island, New York)

I referred to this Psalter selection not too long ago in one of our Featured Recording posts.   Psalter Hymnal number 288 is straightforward, beautiful, and easy to sing—all qualities of a great psalm-song.  In the few places where it deviates from following the Scripture literally, “Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me” still resonates with poetic beauty:

My words from thee I cannot hide,
I feel Thy power on every side;
O wondrous knowledge, awful might,
Unfathomed depth, unmeasured height!

Although the tune of “Just as I Am, without One Plea” may conjure up images of Billy Graham crusades, its heartfelt inflections and connotations are perfectly put to use here.  Even the musical climax of the verse, at the end of the third line, coincides with the key words of each stanza.

289, “All That I Am I Owe to Thee”

(Sung by West Sayville Reformed Bible Church on Long Island, NY, and Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“All that I Am I Owe to Thee” picks up where number 288 left off, versifying Psalm 139:13-24.  This section of the psalm is treated a little less literally than the first part, but it remains serviceable.  For instance, the first stanza versifies “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” as,

All that I am I owe to Thee,
Thy wisdom, Lord, has fashioned me;
I give my Maker thankful praise,
Whose wondrous works my soul amaze.

Thankfully, unlike many songs in the Psalter Hymnal, number 289 does not shy away from  fairly treating the imprecatory section of this psalm:

The wicked Thou wilt surely slay,
From me let sinners turn away;
They speak against the Name divine,
I count God’s enemies as mine.

I have no complaints to make against the tune, FEDERAL STREET, except to comment that it seems rather boring and mundane for such a moving text.  Personally I am very fond of the tune ST. CRISPIN, which is used with this text in the 1912 Psalter.  Below is a recording of a Christian high school choir from Michigan singing “All that I Am” to this tune.

Actually, number 289 is one of the most frequently-occurring selections on Reformed YouTube channels.  Here are a few more enjoyable recordings (1 2 3).

290, “O Lord, My Inmost Heart and Thought”

(Sung on YouTube)

Although number 290 is only a partial versification of Psalm 139, it is a good one.  The text is fairly literal, and the tune, BINGHAM, fits it well.  I ought to mention, however, that my personal favorites will always be numbers 288 and 289.

Search me, O God, my heart discern,
Try me, my inmost thought to learn;
And lead me, if in sin I stray,
To choose the everlasting way.

–MRK

Singing Our Sadness

We’ve spoken in the past about how Christians ought to view psalms of lament and imprecation. Are these sentiments worthy of a believer’s lips? Rev. Daniel Kok of Grace URC in Leduc, Alberta, shares his thoughts on this matter, and emphasizes the unique value of the Psalter.

–MRK

Grace Reformed Church of Leduc

A wise elder in a congregation I once served told me that I should select the first song in worship to be a joyful song of praise. His concern was that I, having chosen a sadder song to begin our Sunday worship, would bring to mind and heart the feeling of a funeral service rather than the glad celebration it was meant to be. Thus the tone of the entire service would be ‘off’ from the very beginning. I appreciated his point and, to this day, have striven to follow this ‘rule’ for the order of worship. And clearly there are many  appropriate songs to choose that have aided me in doing so.

Since that time I have grown in my appreciation and reverence specifically for the biblical Psalms. One of the reasons for my attraction to them is their capacity to express a wide range of emotions that God…

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Featured Recording: Holy is He

Featured Recording

For some reason, I have always loved the structure and flow of thought in Psalm 99.  As a whole, it is a beautiful statement of the might and covenant faithfulness of our God.  More specifically, Psalm 99 is divided into three sections or stanzas, separated by the pointed refrain, “Holy is he!”  At the very end this refrain is expanded into a grand finale:

Exalt the Lord our God,
and worship at his holy mountain;
for the Lord our God is holy!

I’ve also developed a greater-than-usual fondness for the many versifications of Psalm 99.  I think I first heard Psalter Hymnal 194, “Jehovah Reigns in Majesty,” sung at an RYS convention.  This setting is paired with the familiar tune of “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” and preserves the stanza-and-refrain structure of the original text.  Recently, I also heard an awe-inspiring recording of the less familiar number 193, “God Jehovah Reigns.”  Although this is a challenging Genevan tune, it offers rich rewards to the adventurous congregation.  It is possible that I may have this recording uploaded to YouTube within a few weeks.

But I’ve lately discovered one other version of Psalm 99, whose absence from the Psalter Hymnal is surprising.  The 1912 Psalter contains a versification that goes like this:

God is King forever: let the nations tremble;
Throned above the cherubim, by all the earth adored;
He is great in Zion, high above all peoples;
Praise Him with fear, for holy is the Lord.

Merciful as mighty, He delights in justice,
For He reigns in righteousness and rules in equity;
Worship and exalt Him, bowing down before Him,
Perfect in power and holiness is He.

Holy men of old in Him alone confided;
He forgave their sins, although they felt His chastening rod;
In His holy temple worship and adore Him,
Faithful and holy is the Lord our God.

As you read these words, did you try to pair them with a tune in your head?  The only tune that matches this meter is NICEA, the majestic tune of Reginald Heber’s renowned hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  Indeed, the connection between these two songs is more than a mere musical similarity.  As the hymn peals, “Holy, Holy, Holy!   Merciful and mighty!” the psalm setting elaborates, “Merciful as mighty, He delights in justice,/For He reigns in uprightness and rules in equity.”  Heber writes, “All the saints adore Thee,/Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea,” while Psalm 99 exhorts, “Let the nations tremble;/Throned above the cherubim, by all the earth adored,/He is great in Zion…”  Not least among the parallels between these two songs is the fact that while the hymn contains a threefold declaration of God’s holiness at the beginning of each stanza, the psalm also states, “Holy is he!” three times.  The resemblance was clearly intentional, and, in my opinion, brilliant.

Today’s Featured Recording is a rendition of this psalm setting by a Grand Rapids Heritage Reformed congregation.  Unfortunately, “God is King Forever” dropped out of the blue Psalter Hymnal, even though it was included in the original red book, and hasn’t been seen in the CRC or URCNA since.  I, for one, would be thrilled to see it make a triumphant re-entry into the new URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal.  Even if it doesn’t, however, this version of Psalm 99 has still earned a place of honor in my mental library of psalmody.

–MRK

(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)


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