Psalm 144: Such Blessings

Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
who trains my hands for war,
and my fingers for battle;
he is my steadfast love and my fortress,
my stronghold and my deliverer,
my shield and he in whom I take refuge,
who subdues peoples under me.

–Psalm 144:1, 2 (ESV)

1867 Dutch Reformed Church, Sayville, NY

1867 Dutch Reformed Church, Sayville, NY

The theme of Psalm 144 is hard to pin down.  Is it a song of praise, of triumph, or of petition?  Is it a lamentation, or a prayer for blessing?

In truth, Psalm 144 is a little bit of all of these things, and perhaps it is fittingly placed here, right before the Psalter’s final six songs of praise, as a summary and conclusion of each genre.

This psalm opens with David praising God for giving him victory over his enemies, with phrases that strongly resemble Psalm 18.  Yet David quickly turns his attention to a theme he first expressed back in Psalm 8: “O Lord, what is man that you regard him, or the son of man that you think of him?” (v. 3).  The fourth verse, likewise, echoes Psalm 39 in its description of man’s brevity.

Psalm 18 is once again referenced in the following four verses, mingled with a shout of praise from Psalm 33 (“I will sing a new song to you, O God; upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you”).  But the last section of Psalm 144 is a unique composition, a call for God’s rich blessings upon his covenant people.  Concluding the psalm is a refrain from Psalm 33: “Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord!”

May our sons in their youth
be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars
cut for the structure of a palace;
may our granaries be full,
providing all kinds of produce;
may our sheep bring forth thousands
and ten thousands in our fields;
may our cattle be heavy with young,
suffering no mishap or failure in bearing;
may there be no cry of distress in our streets!
Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall!
Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord!

–vv. 12-15

Today we’ll briefly consider the Psalter Hymnal’s two versifications of Psalm 144.  I recently uploaded to YouTube a piano improvisation (albeit a sloppy one) on these two tunes, which is embedded below.

296, “Thrice Blest Be Jehovah”

Psalm versifications from sources other than the 1912 Psalter or the Genevan Psalter are a rare sight in our blue songbook.  This full text of Psalm 144 was adapted by Harry Mayer in 1940, but despite its fairly recent composition date, it is unnecessarily archaic and often downright clunky.  (Alas, I had similar complaints regarding Mayer’s other Psalter Hymnal versification back at Psalm 136.)  Even in the early twentieth century, who really used expressions such as “thrice blest,” “nerves” (as a verb), “foemen,” “fleeteth,” “whelm him in woe,” “their tongues speak me falsely,” “grown apace,” “garners be brimming,” “then thousandfold yield”?  My spell-checker itself balks at some of these obsolete phrases!

If there’s one redeeming aspect of number 296, it’s the cheery and confident tune ST. DENIO, often associated with the hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”  Surprisingly, the key is not too high, and overall the tune is quite an appropriate choice—if only the text were a little less reminiscent of the sixteenth century.

297, “O Happy Land, Whose Sons in Youth”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

It’s definitely quirky, and perhaps a little overdramatic, but “O Happy Land, Whose Sons in Youth” has a special place in the Psalter Hymnal.  This is a versification of Psalm 144:12-15 which conveniently applies the statement of the last verse (“Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall!”) to each of the preceding statements (“O happy land, whose sons in youth…”).  Although it’s a paraphrased summary of the last part of this psalm, the text leaves little to be desired—and its language is noticeably less obsolete than that of number 296!

I have to be honest: I just love the tune SHORTLE.  It’s bright and energetic, and could even be described as “rollicking.”  The meter 8.8.6.8.8.6.6. puts a special twist on an otherwise common 8.8.6.D. tune.  Make the most out of the ever-rising lines, the perky eighth notes, and the offset repeated line at the end (“The PAL-ace of a king, the palace OF a king”).  Sing it with triumph!

After all, that’s what Psalm 144 is in its most basic form–a song of triumph.  David extols the Lord for deliverance from his enemies, unmerited honor, and God’s steadfast love, and the collective church raises a song of praise to God for the blessings he showers upon them in this life and in the world to come.

O happy people, favored land,
To whom the Lord with liberal hand
Has thus His goodness shown;
Yea, surely is that people blest
By whom Jehovah is confessed
To be their God alone,
to be their God alone.

–MRK

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