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.