SparkNotes for the Old Testament

A few weeks ago I found myself at a bonfire in the wilds of western Pennsylvania that featured food, fellowship, and (best of all?) singing from the blue Psalter Hymnal. Far removed from the possibility of any musical accompaniment other than ukulele, we sang a cappella and, to some extent, in four-part harmony. A handful of favorites were requested—378, “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace”; 317, “Come, Thou Almighty King”; 301, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.” Then someone requested number 211.

“Which verses?”

“All of them.”

Everyone groaned.

With its intimidating 23 stanzas, Number 211 holds claim to the dubious honor of being the longest song in the blue Psalter Hymnal. It’s a rather paraphrase-ish versification of Psalm 106, which is itself one of the more substantial entries in the Book of Psalms. In fact, although coming up with a precise number is difficult, my quick study of Psalm 106 identifies at least eight verses throughout the psalm that are not represented here in the Psalter Hymnal. In other words, this selection could have been even longer!

Why cram the entire text of this psalm into one musical arrangement? Why not, as the blue Psalter Hymnal often does, break the text into bite-size hymn-like chunks? Maybe, I often thought, it was just a compromise to keep the blue book’s number of psalm selections down. Maybe the editors just assumed no one would sing all 23 verses anyway.

But at this bonfire, one of the men identified a more fundamental purpose for this long song. He said, “Look! It’s a story!” And so it is.

Psalm 106 is one of only a few psalms categorized as “historical psalms.” Its purpose is to trace the history of God’s plan of redemption for his covenant people. And this psalm covers a huge swath of Old Testament history, beginning with Israel’s captivity in Egypt (v. 7), continuing through their arrival in Canaan (v. 34), and ending in the midst of their exile among the nations (v. 47). In my generation’s terms, it’s SparkNotes for the entire Old Testament. (In that case, 23 verses doesn’t sound quite so long anymore!)

The question remains, however: Why should we sing about Israel’s history? Simply put, because it is so closely interwoven with ours. In some ways, it is ours. In Israel’s wilderness wanderings, countless sacrifices, and recurring rebellions, we see echoes of our own stubborn disobedience and the need for a way to atone for man’s sin. But throughout this narrative we can also trace the character of a God whose “steadfast love endures forever” (v. 1), who promised to reconcile his people to himself, remaining faithful amidst our unfaithfulness. That promise is fulfilled, of course, in the death of Jesus Christ—“God, their Savior” made flesh (v. 22). Now we too, looking toward our eternal home, can sing,

Save us, O Lord, our gracious God,
From alien lands reclaim,
That we may triumph in Thy praise
And bless Thy holy Name.

As we stood around the fire that night, plodding away through all 23 verses of Psalter Hymnal number 211, I realized that I was enjoying this psalm more than I ever had before. Because Psalm 106 isn’t just any story—it’s our story.

Blessed be the Lord our covenant God,
All praise to Him accord;
Let all the people say, Amen.
Praise ye, praise ye the Lord.

–MRK

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