Archive for April, 2013



Featured Recording: The Depths of Psalm 88

O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.

–Psalm 88:14, 15 (ESV)

Featured Recording

Let’s not kid ourselves: Psalm 88 is shocking.  It is a lament of laments.  Charles Spurgeon said of Psalm 88 that “this sad complaint reads very little like a song, nor can we conceive how it could be called by a name which denotes a song of praise or triumph; yet perhaps it was intentionally so called to show how faith ‘glories in tribulations also.’  Assuredly, if ever there was a song of sorrow and a Psalm of sadness, this is one.”

Lord willing we’ll consider the contents of Psalm 88 when we arrive at it in our progression through the Psalter.  Today, though, I’d like to ask a tough question: How do we sing Psalm 88?  How can a musical arrangement be crafted to adequately reflect the darkness and despair of this text?

The valuable vaults of the World-Wide Web give us a glimpse into historical attempts to set this psalm to music.  The Genevan Psalter of 1562 includes a sufficiently doleful tune in the Dorian mode, though I believe this recording is much too fast.  Of course, Psalm 88 was versified in a host of other historic Psalters, but recordings of the music used there are much more difficult to find.

What of our own Psalter Hymnal?  How does it treat Psalm 88?

About a year ago, a member of a United Reformed Church in Iowa and a friend of my co-author James Oord posted some thoughts on this psalm setting on her blog, Free Indeed.  Tierney lamented, and rightly so, that the version of Psalm 88 in the Psalter Hymnal is (or, at least, is often rendered as) “an atrocity.  How can you possibly sing words written from the depths of a soul so utterly desolate and torn apart, to a tune that belongs at a carnival—and really mean what you’re singing? It’s a musical lie, and borders on making a mockery of the text.”

Along with a few other readers, I commented on this post, and a thoughtful (and, I think, very profitable) discussion followed.  Both of us saw the same problems with this versification of Psalm 88—a weakly paraphrased text set to a jarringly jolly piece of music.  Tierney’s solution was to create a new and beautiful minor tune to be used to the words in the Psalter Hymnal; mine was to play around with varying harmonizations and stylistic approaches to try to redeem the original tune.  Along the way we shared thoughts about some of the notorious issues that plague any set of psalm paraphrases—scriptural accuracy, tune choices, and songbook loyalty, among others.  (If you’ve got a few extra minutes, I’d humbly encourage you to read the comments!)

That’s a rather roundabout way to introduce today’s Featured Recording here on URC Psalmody.  The very same day I commented on Tierney’s post, the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir uploaded a video to their YouTube channel with a new arrangement of Psalm 88.  They had kept the original tune, IRVING, and they had kept its original harmonies—but it was the most hauntingly appropriate rendition of Psalm 88 I’ve ever heard.  As I re-listen to it now, the power of this recording almost transcends description.

I’d encourage you to give some thought to Psalm 88 and how it ought to be sung.  Does this rendition convince you as fully as it convinced me?  Do you instead prefer Tierney’s alternate tune, or maybe my own rather sloppy arrangement?  Your wisdom, thoughts, and comments are always appreciated.

As we conclude this post, it might be helpful to call attention to Spurgeon’s further words on Psalm 88.  He points to a single but permeating “ray of comfortable light which shines throughout the psalm.”  Whatever the troubles of the psalmist may be, he still addresses his prayer to the God of his salvation.  “The writer has salvation, he is sure of that, and God is the sole author of it.  While a man can see God as his Saviour, it is not altogether midnight with him.  While the living God can be spoken of as the life of our salvation, our hope will not quite expire.”  Indeed, even in the valley of the shadow of death, we can rest assured that the Lord remains our Savior.  It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that the Christian can sing Psalm 88.

–MRK

(Click here for our last Featured Recording, posted three weeks ago)

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Lord’s Day 16: All the Way to Death

Catechism and Psalter

As we continue our series on the Heidelberg Catechism here on URC Psalmody, we arrive today at a particularly beautiful set of questions and answers.  While Lord’s Day 15 explains the nature and details of Christ’s suffering and death, Lord’s Day 16 brings the truth of the gospel into focus for the individual believer.  What wisdom, assurance, and comfort are contained in these words!

40 Q.  Why did Christ have to go all the way to death?

A.  Because God’s justice and truth demand it:
only the death of God’s Son could pay for our sin.

41 Q.  Why was he “buried”?

A.  His burial testifies
that he really died.

42 Q.  Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?

A.  Our death does not pay the debt of our sins.
Rather, it puts an end to our sinning
and is our entrance into eternal life.

43 Q.  What further advantage do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?

A.  Through Christ’s death
our old selves are crucified, put to death, and buried with him,
so that the evil desires of the flesh
may no longer rule us,
but that instead we may dedicate ourselves
as an offering of gratitude to him.

44 Q.  Why does the creed add: “He descended into hell”?

A.  To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation
that Christ my Lord,
by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,
especially on the cross but also earlier,
has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.

Suggested Songs

190, “Sing a New Song to Jehovah” (Psalm 98)

(Sung by Grace URC in Dunnville, ON)

“God’s justice and truth demand it; only the death of God’s Son could pay for our sin.”  God’s plan of salvation has a twofold impact: not only does it reveal his mercy to the elect, it also proclaims his justice to the nations.  Psalm 98, and particularly this versification in the blue Psalter Hymnal, calls attention to these twin results.

Sing a new song to Jehovah
For the wonders He has wrought,
His right hand and arm most holy
Triumph to His cause have brought.
In His love and tender mercy
He has made salvation known,
In the sight of every nation
He His righteousness has shown.

Truth and mercy toward His people
He has ever kept in mind,
And His full and free salvation
He has shown to all mankind.
Sing, O earth, sing to Jehovah,
Praises to Jehovah sing;
With the swelling notes of music
Shout before the Lord, the King.

Seas and all your fulness, thunder,
All earth’s peoples, now rejoice;
Floods and hills, in praise uniting,
To the Lord lift up your voice.
For, behold, Jehovah cometh,
Robed in justice and in might;
He alone will judge the nations,
And His judgment shall be right.

91, “Dust to Dust, the Mortal Dies” (Psalm 49)

(Sung in altered form by the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir)

“Our death does not pay the debt of our sins.  Rather, it puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life.”  Perhaps it could be added that while our death does not pay the debt of our sins, as the catechism says, death is nevertheless a continuing effect of sin, and is an inevitable event for all of us (save that the Lord returns).  Death remains an unnatural and dreadful phenomenon.  But for the believer, its power is vanquished by the assurance that it does indeed put “an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life.”  Psalm 49 emphasizes the contrast between the elect and the reprobate as they face death.

Dust to dust, the mortal dies,
Both the foolish and the wise;
None forever can remain,
Each must leave his hoarded gain.
Yet within their heart they say
That their houses are for aye,
That their dwelling-places grand
Shall for generations stand.

O’er them soon shall rule the just,
All their beauty turn to dust;
God my waiting soul shall save,
He will raise me from the grave.
Let no fear disturb your peace
Though one’s house and wealth increase:
Death shall end his fleeting day,
He shall carry naught away.

293, “To God My Earnest Voice I Raise” (Psalm 142)

(Sung by the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir)

“Through Christ’s death our old selves are crucified, put to death, and buried with him, so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer rule us, but that instead we may dedicate ourselves as an offering of gratitude to him.”  The first part of Psalm 142 comes from the depths of a soul afflicted by numerous enemies, either external or internal.  The “evil desires of the flesh” mentioned in the Catechism are just such internal enemies to us.  But the latter portion of this psalm expresses confident hope and a joyful response to God’s salvation:

O Lord, my Savior, now to Thee,
Without a hope besides, I flee,
To Thee, my shelter from the strife,
My portion in the land of life.

Be Thou my help when troubles throng,
For I am weak and foes are strong;
My captive soul from prison bring,
And thankful praises I will sing.

The righteous then shall gather round
To share the blessing I have found,
Their hearts made glad because they see
How richly God has dealt with me.

38, “The Lord’s My Shepherd” (Psalm 23)

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

The creed assures me “in times of personal crisis and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.”  As we read these words, it’s not hard to hear echoes of Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  Not only is Christ with us to guide and uphold us, but it was he who passed through the valley of the shadow of death, even to death itself, to bring us salvation.

The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green; He leadeth me
The quiet waters by.

My soul He doth restore again,
And me to walk doth make
Within the paths of righteousness,
E’en for His own Name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through death’s dark vale,
Yet will I fear no ill,
For Thou art with me, and Thy rod
And staff me comfort still.

A table Thou hast furnished me
In presence of my foes;
My head Thou dost with oil anoint,
And my cup overflows.

Goodness and mercy all my life
Shall surely follow me,
And in God’s house forevermore
My dwelling-place shall be.

–MRK

Psalm 66: What He Has Done for Me

Shout for joy to God, all the earth;
sing the glory of his name;
give to him glorious praise!
Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds!
So great is your power that your enemies come cringing to you.
All the earth worships you
and sings praises to you;
they sing praises to your name.’

–Psalm 66:1-4 (ESV)

Psalm 66 fits a variety of occasions.  It’s clearly a song of praise, as seen in v. 4.  It’s also a psalm of thanksgiving (vv. 13-15).  And at the same time, it contains elements of history and lamentation.  In summary, the reason the psalmist exhorts all the earth to “shout for joy to God” is his preservation and deliverance of his saints through many troubles.

Another fascinating characteristic of Psalm 66 is the overlap between God’s mighty deeds for the entire nation of Israel (vv. 8-12) and his acts for the individual soul (vv. 16-20).  This psalm wonderfully illustrates the individual believer’s membership in the Church, the collective body of Christ.  The Lord’s deliverance of his people as a whole profoundly impacts each Christian, and the individual, like the psalmist, can call on the church to praise God with him for specific blessings.

Come and hear, all you who fear God,
and I will tell what he has done for my soul.
I cried to him with my mouth,
and high praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
But truly God has listened;
he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
Blessed be God,
because he has not rejected my prayer
or removed his steadfast love from me!

The blue Psalter Hymnal includes three praiseworthy settings of Psalm 66.

118, “All Lands, to God in Joyful Sounds”

(A slightly different version on YouTube)

Slightly archaic but textually accurate, “All Lands, to God in Joyful Sounds” is a fine psalm setting.  It treats only verses 1-7; the versification is continued with number 119.  The only potential drawback for number 118 is its challenging tune, MILES’ LANE, sometimes used with the words of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.”  Even the tune is probably salvageable if the key is dropped to A-flat or A (to avoid the high F in the last line), but an alternate such as AZMON (#383) or CORONATION (#488) could easily be used.

119, “O All Ye Peoples, Bless Our God”

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

While number 119 is not entirely literal, some of its poetry is simply glorious.  This is one of my favorite metrical psalm texts because of its emphasis on the grateful reaction of the redeemed soul—“Here in Thy house I give to Thee/The life that Thou dost bless.”  The repetition of the first four lines at the end of the final verse also imparts an excellent sense of continuity and conclusion:

O let the Lord, our gracious God,
Forever blessed be,
Who has not turned my prayer from Him,
Nor yet His grace from me.
O all ye peoples, bless our God,
Aloud proclaim His praise,
Who safely holds our soul in life,
And stedfast makes our ways.

As if a solid text weren’t enough, “O All Ye Peoples, Bless Our God” also possesses a unique and beautiful tune, ANCYRA.  Simply put, it fits the words like a glove.  Even a small congregation should be able to pick up this tune with ease!

120, “Come, All Ye People, Bless Our God”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

Psalter Hymnal number 120 rides the line between versification and paraphrase, as evidenced by the fact that the URCNA Songbook Committee placed it in the proposed hymn section of the new Psalter Hymnal back in 2010.  (More recent reports seem to indicate that if this song is included, it will be moved back to the psalm section.)  Although it only treats vv. 8-10 and 13-20, I believe it is a worthwhile and valuable selection for its emphasis on the Lord who, “though our faith He oft has proved,/Upholds us in the strife.”  Charles Gabriel’s tune ADOWA might come across as a little bland; astute musicians may be interested in the re-harmonization given in the gray 1987 CRC Psalter Hymnal, number 242.

As we read, pray, and sing Psalm 66, may we be reminded of what a blessing it is to share in the Lord’s salvation, and to have a place among his people!

Come, hear, all ye that fear the Lord,
While I with grateful heart record
What God has done for me;
I cried to Him in deep distress,
And now His wondrous grace I bless,
For He has set me free.

–MRK

Works of Power and Grace: Michigan and Iowa

The Christian Reformed ChurchBack in 1978, the Christian Reformed Church had ten classes, 205 congregations, and more than 90,000 members.  In the state of Michigan.  Alone.

I apologize that these statistics are 35 years out of date; despite its spiffy new website, the Christian Reformed Church doesn’t make its congregational statistics readily accessible today.  The latest Yearbook I own dates from 1978.  Still, you get the picture: the CRC has a huge base in Michigan.

Why is Grand Rapids the hub of the Dutch Reformed world, the center of gravity of the entire Christian Reformed denomination—and why does it remain a key location even today among the United Reformed Churches?  Dr. Henry Beets offers at least a rudimentary answer to this question in the fourth chapter of his book The Christian Reformed Church.  It is to this chapter that we turn today.

In the previous chapter Beets described the first wave of immigrants from the Netherlands to the United States, who were primarily responsible for the settlements in modern-day New York and New Jersey.  These Dutchmen established the denomination known as the Reformed Church in America, but they had little to do with the founding of the Christian Reformed Church.  That denomination would not be formed until the second wave of emigration from the Netherlands, which would begin in the 1840s.

Primarily worldly reasons motivated the first Dutchmen to settle in New Amsterdam, but what were the motives of the second group of settlers?  Beets says, “We take pride in saying that our forefathers can, through grace, stand the comparative test between the two waves in these respects with favorable outcome.”  Although there were certainly economic factors at work in nineteenth-century Holland (Beets refers to a “paralyzing depression” and “general economic unrest”), much of the reason for emigration stemmed from the oppression and discrimination suffered by those who had seceded from the state church of the Netherlands.  “Moreover, and that is another side of the matter, in the case of Scholte and some of his followers, emigration was promoted by a sense of disgust in their hearts, created by the constant bickerings among the brethren about all kinds of things, from contention about the dress of preachers, and ‘second holidays,’ up to weightier matters of baptism, church government, and the petitioning of the government for liberty of worship.”  Two of the principal advocates of emigration, Revs. Brummelkamp and Van Raalte, expressed two more objectives for coming to America: “to have their children enjoy education in Christian schools, and to have an active part in the propagation of God’s truth among the heathen.”

The Hollanders who were interested in emigration began making plans to travel to America in groups, rather than individually.  Van Raalte and a group of about fifty reached New York on November 17, 1846, and from there began a trek westward to Michigan, where they settled with the aid of some Reformed brothers already in the States.  Scholte and his followers began a colony in Iowa, which they called “Pella” after the name of a city to which the early Christians had escaped just before the fall of Jerusalem in A. D. 70.  Other settlements sprang up in Wisconsin, Indiana, New York, and New Jersey; but, says Beets, “we are particularly concerned in this history with the followers of the Rev. A. C. Van Raalte in western Michigan, because their life and particularly their actions pertaining to church matters determined much of the history here sketched.”  Even at this early date, Michigan was becoming a home base of sorts for the new group of Christians!

Trials plagued the Michigan settlers—there was a shortage of money, food, and shelter, and an abundance of mosquitoes, disease, and weakness—but they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distresses.  Beets says of these dedicated men and women in Michigan and Iowa that “they had left Holland after seeking prayerful guidance at God’s throne, with the purpose of making our country the permanent home of themselves and their posterity.”

In 1848 the local churches formed the “Classis of Holland,” which assembled, like our modern classes, twice a year, and whose ministers met quarterly for mutual edification.  By 1849 the combined membership of the churches included 928 communicant members.  The prospects were bright.  As Beets puts it:

Surely, it looked for a time as if our people in Michigan and other settlements with a Reformed stamp, in Wisconsin and Illinois, had before them a wonderful opportunity to build up a Christian community after Calvin’s model of Geneva, as their special contribution to America, to develop and apply the great principles of Calvinism so sorely needed and to some extent so sadly forgotten in our land, and of erecting in the course of time a ‘Calvin University,’ to have proclaimed in every domain of life, ‘Pro Rege’: for the King.

Chapter 5, the topic of our next discussion, addresses these issues: “How and why our pioneers flung their own banner to the breeze in 1857.  The story of the return, to be ‘by themselves’; the motives and ideals of the day.”  Won’t you join us then?

–MRK

Lord’s Day 15: He Shouldered the Curse

Catechism and Psalter

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, it’s all too easy to rattle off each clause without devoting our full attention to the words.  “Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell…”  The Heidelberg Catechism, however, reminds us that the Creed is a careful and thorough summary of the tenets of Christianity by carefully and thoroughly examining its contents.  Today in our URC Psalmody series on the Heidelberg Catechism we turn to Lord’s Day 15.

37 Q.  What do you understand by the word “suffered”?

A.  That during his whole life on earth,
but especially at the end,
Christ sustained
in body and soul
the anger of God against the sin of the whole human race.

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.

38 Q.  Why did he suffer “under Pontius Pilate” as judge?

A.  So that he,
though innocent,
might be condemned by a civil judge,
and so free us from the severe judgment of God
that was to fall on us.

39 Q.  Is it significant that he was “crucified” instead of dying some other way?

A.  Yes.
This death convinces me
that he shouldered the curse
which lay on me,
since death by crucifixion was accursed by God.

Suggested Songs

126, “Save Me, O God” (Psalm 69)

“During his whole life on earth, but especially at the end…”  It can be easy to forget that Jesus’ suffering did not begin in the Garden of Gethsemane; his entire life on earth, from his lowly birth in a stable to the moment he cried, “It is finished,” was a life of affliction and pain, both physical and spiritual.  As Psalm 69 says, it was Christ’s zeal for his Father’s house and its worshippers that caused this suffering.

Save me, O God, because the floods
Come in upon my soul,
I sink in depths where none can stand,
Deep waters o’er me roll.

It is for Thee I am reproached,
For Thee I suffer shame,
Until my brethren know me not,
And hated is my name.

It is my zeal for Thine abode
That has consumed my life;
Reproached by those reproaching Thee,
I suffer in the strife.

147, “I Thought upon the Days of Old” (Psalm 77)

“Christ sustained in body and soul the anger of God against the sin of the whole human race.”  Psalm 77 gives us just a glimpse of the wrath of God which Christ endured for our sakes.

My heart inquired with anxious care,
Will God forever spurn?
Shall we no more His favor see?
Will mercy ne’er return?

Forever shall His promise fail?
Has God forgotten grace?
Has He withdrawn His tender love,
In anger hid His face?

O God, most holy is Thy way,
Most perfect, good, and right;
Thou art the only living God,
The God of wondrous might.

34, “My God, My God, I Cry to Thee” (Psalm 22)

“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.”  Psalm 22 sets forth for us the agony of Christ on the cross, but it does not stop there; it also goes on to show the glories of salvation.

My God, My God, I cry to Thee;
O why hast Thou forsaken Me?
Afar from Me, Thou dost not heed,
Though day and night for help I plead.

My words a cause for scorn they make,
The lip they curl, the head they shake,
And, mocking, bid Me trust the Lord
Till He salvation shall afford.

Down unto death Thou leadest Me,
Consumed by thirst and agony;
With cruel hate and anger fierce
My helpless hands and feet they pierce.

O Lord, afar no longer stay;
O Thou My Helper, haste, I pray;
From death and evil set Me free;
I live, for Thou didst answer Me.

213, “Rebels, Who Had Dared to Show” (Psalm 107)

“This death convinces me that he shouldered the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was accursed by God.”  The previous three psalms reflect Christ’s experience, but what of ours?  What was the penalty we deserved, and how was it paid?  This section of Psalm 107 beautifully illustrates our plight and the deliverance wrought by God.

Rebels, who had dared to show
Proud contempt of God Most High,
Bound in iron and in woe,
Shades of death and darkness nigh,
Humbled low with toil and pain,
Fell, and looked for help in vain.

To Jehovah then they cried
In their trouble, and He saved,
Threw the prison open wide
Where they lay to death enslaved,
Bade the gloomy shadows flee,
Broke their bonds and set them free.

Sons of men, awake to praise
God the Lord who reigns above,
Gracious in His works and ways,
Wondrous in redeeming love;
Iron bars He breaks like clay,
And the brazen gates give way.

With these words in mind, we ought to find ourselves paying more attention next time we recite the part of the Apostles’ Creed that says Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell.”  This confession should motivate us to turn in disgust from our sins and cling rejoicing to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who suffered and died that we might live.

–MRK


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