Archive for April, 2013

Featured Recording: Meet the Korean-Genevan Psalter!

Featured Recording

When I think of the Genevan Psalter, I usually imagine its contents being sung in medieval French, or Dutch, or English.  I wasn’t expecting to find a set of YouTube recordings of Genevan psalms being sung in Korean.  Until now, I didn’t think the Korean language was even compatible with the structure of Western music!

Today’s Featured Recording comes from the Samyang Presbyterian Church in Seoul.  It’s a recording of the congregation singing Genevan Psalm 68, which corresponds to number 124 in our blue Psalter Hymnal.  Sadly, I don’t know much about the church, the hymnbook they’re singing from, or the uploader of the video.

Thankfully, knowing all the details isn’t necessary in order to appreciate the beauty of this recording.  Obviously the congregation is very familiar with the Genevan Psalter, because they sing this selection with confidence.  If you browse through the 128 other videos on this uploader’s channel, you’ll find psalm after psalm rendered in just the same way.  Some of the more recent uploads include the English translation of the lyrics for easier following along.

What can we conclude from the fact that a church in South Korea sings the timeless words of the psalms in their own language to a collection of tunes composed in 16th-century Switzerland?  Honestly, I’m not sure.  But if nothing else, at least this recording serves as a reminder that God’s church is, as the hymn puts it, “Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.”  I can’t help but think of the closing words of Psalm 68 as we sing them from the Psalter Hymnal:

Ye kings and kingdoms of the earth,
Extol Jehovah’s matchless worth
With psalms of adoration.
Praise Him whose glory rides on high,
Whose thunders roll through clouded sky
With mighty intonation.
Ascribe ye strength to God alone,
Whose worth in Israel is known,
For whom the heavens tremble.
O Lord, our strength, to Thee we bow,
For great and terrible art Thou
Out of Thy holy temple.

–MRK

(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

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Works of Power and Grace: The Reformation of 1857

The Christian Reformed ChurchThe October 15, 2012, issue of The Standard Bearer, a magazine of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, bore a surprising title: “The Reformation of 1857.”  Of course most Christians are aware of the Protestant Reformation whose beginning we commemorate as October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.

There was indeed another reformation of sorts in 1857.  It transpired on a much smaller scale and in a much shorter timeframe.  But its key motivation was no different: the desire to return Christ’s church to a system of Biblical, confessional, God-glorifying worship.  And for many of us in the United Reformed Churches in North America, we owe the very existence of our congregations to it.

Henry Beets devotes the fifth chapter of his historical account, The Christian Reformed Church, to an explanation of this “Reformation of 1857.”  It’s a complicated story, and its ramifications have continued right up to the present day.  I’ll do my best to summarize Beets’s chapter here.

By the early 1800s, it is safe to say that the Dutch in the Netherlands were practically oblivious of the existence of their kinsmen who had settled in America in the preceding centuries.  Even the fact that Van Raalte and Brummelkamp’s letter to America was addressed “to the Believers in the United States” demonstrates their ignorance as to the existence or condition of the Reformed churches there.

By God’s providence, however, this letter made it into the hands of Rev. I. N. Wyckoff of Albany, New York, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church (RCA), and he diligently spread the word about the Hollanders’ desire to immigrate and made preparations for their arrival.  It was he who fraternally sent on the immigrants to their new homes in Michigan and Iowa, as Beets related in his last chapter.

In June of 1849, Rev. Wyckoff (a fluent Dutch speaker) paid a visit to the settlement in Holland, Michigan, on behalf of the Board of Domestic Missions of the RCA.  The settlers there were certainly desirous to enter into ties of unity with the true Reformed church wherever it existed in the new continent, but they also expressed concerns about uniting with the Dutch Reformed Church (RCA).  Wyckoff himself recorded their reservations in his official report on the meeting:

At the classical meeting it was soon made known that the brethren were a little afraid of entering into ecclesiastical connection with us, although they believe in the union of brethren, and sigh for Christian sympathy and association.  They have so felt to the quick the galling chains of ecclesiastical domination, and have seen with sorrow how exact organization, according to human rules, leads to formality on the one hand, and to the oppression of tender conscience on the other, that they hardly know what to say.  I [Wyckoff] protested, of course, that it is furthest from our thought to bring them in bondage to men, or to exercise ecclesiastical tyranny over them.  And I stated that they would be perfectly free, at any time they found an ecclesiastical connection opposed to their religious prosperity and enjoyment, to bid us a fraternal adieu, and be by themselves again.

This qualification appeased the fears of the Michigan settlers, and they agreed to join the Dutch Reformed Church.  In 1850 the General Synod ratified their membership in the denomination as a distinct entity, the Classis of Holland, but—and this is where the misunderstanding began—the provision Rev. Wyckoff had promised to the colonists was apparently overlooked.

There was an ominous rumbling in this diplomatic fumble, but Classis Holland continued in the Dutch Reformed Church and attempted to learn more about the denomination it had just joined.

Soon, however, the rumbling began to grow louder.  An increasing number of settlers began to feel and express that they believed the decision to join the RCA had been a wrong one.  Why was this?  Beets explains (pay close attention!):

Charges were made, and to our mind substantiated, that the Reformed Church in the East was not displaying the ‘marks’ our fathers had attributed to the faithful Church.  These charges included specifically the neglect of preaching on such fundamental doctrines as election, and limited atonement; the practice of private baptisms and open communion; the toleration of Free Masons as members in good standing; the use of 800 hymns, crowding out the Psalter; neglect in Catechism preaching and teaching and family visiting, as required by the Church Order, was evident.

The dissenters presented their concerns by way of the proper avenues at consistorial and classical meetings, but for the most part, their arguments fell on deaf ears.  It would be but a small group that would withdraw from the Dutch Reformed Classis of Holland—a very small group.

Rev. K. Vanden Bosch

Rev. K. Vanden Bosch

On April 8, 1857, the Classis met in Zeeland, Michigan.  Only four consistories had sent in notices of withdrawal: the churches of Graafschap, Polkton, Noordeloos, and Grand Rapids.  And these four churches were served by only two pastors, the Revs. Koenraad Vanden Bosch and H. G. Klyn.  The seceding group held their first classical meeting shortly thereafter, “and ratified as their Standards, subject to the Word of God as supreme law, the Creed, Catechism and Canons of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, its liturgy and Church Order.”  This was the official beginning of the group of churches that would come to be called the Christian Reformed Church.

Lest the founders of the CRC be condemned as divisive schismatics, Beets is careful to emphasize the purity of their motives.  In fact, their heartfelt desire was that their brothers and sisters in Classis Holland would share their convictions and reunite with them.  As the Graafschaap congregation expressed it, “Brethren, we rejoice that nearly the entire congregation again stands on the platform on which our fathers enjoyed so much joy.…O, we should rejoice still more if the King of the Church would persuade you that it is the duty of all.”

Although this is where Beets’s chapter ends, it ought to be noted that this confused union and division between the RCA and the CRC has complicated relations between the two denominations ever since.  Only recently have the RCA and CRC begun to seriously talk about reuniting, and this, I must conclude, is due more to the increasing liberalization of the CRC than to a desire to return to the orthodox Reformed faith on the part of the RCA.  It’s an intricate story, of which I’ve only barely scratched the surface.

Close parallels could also be drawn between the secession of 1857 and the secession of the 1990’s.  Like those four churches in Michigan, it was the desire of the founders of the URCNA to return to a confessional, Biblical, historic Reformed view of worship, doctrine, and life.  It is only with the profoundest sorrow that we can behold the liberalization of the broader church, as we say with the Graafschaap church of 1857, “[W]e rejoice that nearly the entire congregation again stands on the platform on which our fathers enjoyed so much joy.…O, we should rejoice still more if the King of the Church would persuade you that it is the duty of all.”

–MRK

Lord’s Day 17: He Has Overcome Death

Catechism and Psalter

“Up from the grave he arose,” proclaims Robert Lowry’s gospel hymn, “with a mighty triumph o’er His foes!  He arose a Victor from the dark domain, and He lives forever with His saints to reign.  He arose!  He arose!  Hallelujah!  Christ arose!”

After commemorating the death of our Savior on Good Friday, what a joy it is to celebrate his resurrection on Easter Sunday.  Lest our worship be merely a time of superficial festivities, however, it is well to realize the critical importance of the resurrection and its impact on each of our lives.  That’s the task undertaken by the Heidelberg Catechism in the single question and answer of Lord’s Day 17—our focus in today’s installment of this URC Psalmody series.

45 Q.  How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?

A.  First, by his resurrection he has overcome death,
so that he might make us share in the righteousness
he won for us by his death.

Second, by his power we too
are already resurrected to a new life.

Third, Christ’s resurrection
is a guarantee of our glorious resurrection.

Selected Songs

For today’s study I’ve selected four songs, which roughly correspond to the three parts of the Catechism’s answer (two songs for the second part).  Although many excellent Easter hymns could be noted here—my own personal favorite being Psalter Hymnal #358, “The Strife Is O’er”—I’ve chosen to build today’s collection from the inspired words of the psalms.

267, “All Who, with Heart Confiding” (Psalm 125)

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

“First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, so that he might make us share in the righteousness he won for us by his death.”  It is hard to reconcile the psalms that speak of “the righteous” with the knowledge of our human depravity, until we realize that the righteousness being spoken of is ultimately Christ’s.  Thus, it makes sense that Psalm 125 should praise those who “trust in the LORD” as those who are truly upright in heart.

All who, with heart confiding,
Depend on God alone,
Like Zion’s mount abiding,
Shall ne’er be overthrown.
Like Zion’s city, bounded
By guarding mountains broad,
His people are surrounded
Forever by their God.

No scepter of oppression
Shall hold unbroken sway,
Lest unto base transgression
The righteous turn away.
Thy favor be imparted
To godly men, O Lord;
Bless are that are purehearted,
The good with good reward.

The men who falsehood cherish,
Forsaking truth and right,
With wicked men shall perish;
God will their sin requite.
From sin Thy saints defending,
Their joy, O Lord, increase,
With mercy never ending
And everlasting peace.

125, “O Lord, Thou Hast Ascended” (Psalm 68)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“Second, by his power we too are already resurrected to a new life.”  Its first line might seem to place it more squarely within the category of Christ’s ascension, but this excerpt from Psalm 68 illustrates with stunning clarity of the new life to which we have been raised.

Blest be the Lord who daily
Our heavy burden bears,
The God of our salvation,
Who for His people cares.
Our God is near to help us,
Our God is strong to save;
The Lord alone is able
To ransom from the grave.

All glory, might, and honor
Ascribe to God on high;
His arm protects His people
Who on His power rely.
Forth from Thy holy dwelling
Thine awful glories shine;
Thou strengthenest Thy people;
Unending praise be Thine.

160, “Lord God of Hosts, in Mercy”

Unable to choose between Psalter Hymnal 125 and 160 to match this portion of the Catechism, I ultimately decided to include both.  Number 160, an excerpt from Psalm 84, is chock-full of beautiful imagery as it portrays the transcending comfort of the Christian life.

In Thy blest courts to worship,
My God, a single day
Is better than a thousand
While far from Thee I stray.
Though in a lowly station,
The service of my Lord
I choose above all pleasures
That sinful ways afford.

A sun and shield forever
Is God, the Lord Most High,
To those who walk uprightly
No good will He deny.
His saints, His grace receiving,
Shall soon His glory see;
O Lord of hosts, most blessed
Are they that trust in Thee.

24, “Lord, Hear the Right” (Psalm 17)

“Third, Christ’s resurrection is a guarantee of our glorious resurrection.”  At first glance Psalm 17 might seem like an unlikely choice for a resurrection-themed song.  Although it begins as a desolate lament, however, it ends with the assurance only believers can possess: Our citizenship is in heaven.  The Psalter Hymnal’s versification of this passage is especially poignant:

Defend me from the men of pride,
Whose portion is below,
Who, with life’s treasures satisfied,
No better portion know;
They, with earth’s joys and wealth content,
Must leave them all when life is spent.

When I in righteousness at last
Thy glorious face shall see,
When all the weary night is past,
And I awake with Thee
To view the glories that abide,
Then, then I shall be satisfied.

With what better words could we end this post than those of Paul in I Corinthians 15:50-57 (ESV)?

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  Behold! I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’  ‘O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?’  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

–MRK

URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal Update

Hymnological Math

Our local news station likes to pat itself on the back by calling viewers’ attention over and over to the fact that they saw a particular story “First on 12.”  Sometimes it’s a particularly boring piece of news that no other station could be expected to cover.  Then they’ll brag that it’s a story you’ll see “Only on 12.”

The update I’d like to share with you today is neither mundane enough to be something you’ll read “Only on URC Psalmody,” nor recent enough to be something you’ll read “First on URC Psalmody.”  Had I been unencumbered with a host of other obligations, maybe this post would have gone up a little earlier.  Nevertheless, here it is: a summary of the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee’s latest report.

Read the entire press release here.

If you’re not familiar with the URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal project, this page provides some helpful background information.  As of last November (the date of their last report), the committee had tentatively chosen settings for all 150 psalms.  This report of their March 5-6 meeting includes a substantial amount of overlap, but also some new information.

By now the committees have completed a provisional “Psalm Proposal,” which includes one full metrical version of each psalm (except for Psalm 119, which is divided into its twenty-two large stanzas).  “In all, there are about 235 complete metrical Psalm songs included in the proposal. In addition to these metrical versions, there are about 40 partial or paraphrase Psalm songs that have been agreed upon.  Most of these partial or paraphrased Psalms are from the blue Psalter Hymnal (PH), as a fair percentage of selections in the PH are either partial or paraphrased Psalms.”  This seems to indicate that the Psalm Proposal will be only slightly smaller than the psalm section of the blue Psalter Hymnal (with 310 psalm-songs), and it is my guess that the evaluation process will tend to add more selections to the list.

The URCNA committee reports:

Sensitive to issues of continuity and familiarity, our committees have retained many full metrical or partial/paraphrase selections from the PH in several ways: either as is, or with updated words (e.g. ‘thee’ to ‘you’), or with fuller or more scripturally accurate texts (e.g. a partial text in the PH has been converted into a complete metrical version).

One of the most controversial characteristics of the Hymn Proposal was its extensive modernization of the lyrics of the hymns; the committees will have to address this issue as they tweak the Psalm Proposal as well.  Whatever course of action they decide upon, there are bound to be strong opinions throughout our churches.  Thus, we ought to pray for God’s wisdom and guidance for the committee members, especially as they try to sort out these sticky matters.  May the discussions and the final decision be to his glory.

Pocket Psalter HymnalI am very excited about the committee’s decision to expand some partial texts from the Psalter Hymnal into full ones.  One example they give is Psalter Hymnal #282, “Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim.”  In the blue book this setting only treats vv. 1-7 and 19-21, but the report notes that it has been converted into a full versification in the Psalm Proposal.  Recently I even experimented with completing a setting of Psalm 63 in a similar fashion.  To me, this seems to be an excellent way to preserve the familiarity and heritage of our psalter, while also improving its quality and Scriptural accuracy.

Once again the committee emphasizes, “By retaining many well-known tunes as well as adding some excellent new ones, we hope that our churches will be able to robustly sing all of the Psalms in the collection.”

Now, what of the future?  It has taken the committees nearly two years to complete the Psalm Proposal; beginning this summer, they plan to begin work on a “new and improved” Hymn Proposal.  Meanwhile, the Psalm Proposal is expected to be released online sometime after the OPC’s General Assembly in early June of this year.  “There will be an online system for churches from both of our communions to submit feedback.  After considering this feedback, we hope to have the Psalm Proposal ready for recommendation in 2014 to both the URCNA Synod and the OPC General Assembly.”  Work will continue on the Hymn Proposal, which the committees hope to present to synod and the General Assembly in 2016.  “Upon approval, the final editing, publishing, and printing of the entire songbook would then commence in the Fall of 2016.”

I’ll be honest: I remain on the edge of my seat as I wait to see what’s inside the Psalm Proposal.  Collecting beautiful, singable, familiar, and (above all) Scripturally accurate psalm settings into a reasonably-sized psalter is an incredibly arduous task.  There’s no doubt there will be disagreement amongst the members of our churches regarding which songs should be included and how much they should be modified.  And, like anyone in the URCNA, I need to be prepared for the fact that the Psalm Proposal will probably omit a number of my personal favorites.

But should these objections be allowed to bring our sixteen-year project to a grinding halt?  I hope and pray it may not be so.  I pray that our discussions and feedback to the committee will be well-measured, well-grounded, and well-intentioned for the good of our federation.  I pray that God will grant wisdom and good judgment to the members of the Songbook Committee as they continue their work.  Most of all, I pray that our efforts would be seasoned with grace and Christlikeness—for all our singing is in vain if it is not to God’s glory.

–MRK

Psalm 141: As Incense before You

O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me!
Give ear to my voice when I call to you!
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!

–Psalm 141:1, 2 (ESV)

The beauty of Psalm 141 is its balance of lamentation and self-examination.  Although the psalmist David calls for judgment on those who try to ensnare him, he turns directly to God to pray that his own heart and mouth might be kept pure.

O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me!
Give ear to my voice when I call to you!
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth;
keep watch over the door of my lips!

–vv. 3, 4

Another focus of Psalm 141 is the importance of righteous reproof.  Just as the proverb says, “Iron sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17), David exclaims:

Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it.

–v. 5

In short, Psalm 141 contains wise words on a variety of themes, and it’s to the Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of this psalm that we turn today.

292, “O Lord, Make Haste to Hear My Cry”

It ought to be acknowledged that Psalm 141 can be quite a challenge to interpret and paraphrase.  An ESV footnote comments that “The meaning of the Hebrew in verses 6, 7 is uncertain,” and even Charles Spurgeon, commenting on v. 6, admits that “This is a verse of which the meaning seems far to seek.”

That being said, in a few places I am equally puzzled as to the intents of the creators of this setting.  The first stanza is spot-on.  Verses 2 and 3, however, interpret a kind of “morning” vs. “evening” contrast into the second verse of the psalm, which I simply don’t see (the text merely refers to an “evening sacrifice”).  Similarly, the fifth stanza somehow manipulates Psalm 141:5 to read instead:

O righteous God, Thy chastisement,
Though sent through foes, in love is sent;
Though grievous, it will profit me,
A healing ointment it shall be.

As Spurgeon and the ESV indicated, verse 7 presents a real challenge to versifiers: “As when one plows and breaks up the earth, so shall our bones be scattered at the mouth of Sheol.”  Overall I suppose I am satisfied, if not thrilled, with the treatment of this verse in stanza 7 of number 141.  And there are no complains to make about the final stanza:

Themselves entangled in their snare,
Their own defeat my foes prepare;
O keep me, Lord, nor let me fall,
Protect and lead me safe through all.

As far as long-meter (L. M.) tunes go, QUEBEC (HESPERUS) is both a common standby and a beautiful selection.  The opening measure makes it easily confusable with tunes like MARYTON (#169), TRENTHAM (#276), and ST. CRISPIN (#252), but playing through a full stanza before singing should avoid any mix-ups on the part of the congregation.  Strangely enough, my only criticism of this tune is that it is surprisingly low for the blue Psalter Hymnal.  As I just sang through it I had trouble reaching the low F in the bass line; perhaps raising the key a bit would make the range more accessible.  Other than that, QUEBEC fits these heartfelt lyrics perfectly.

O Lord, make haste to hear my cry,
To Thee I call, on Thee rely;
Incline to me a gracious ear,
And, when I call, in mercy hear.

–MRK


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