Archive for the 'Words' Category



Doxologies from the Psalms

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How many doxologies can you sing?

I say “doxologies” because the category is far broader than the traditional “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” that usually comes to mind. “Doxology” is derived from the Greek words doxa (“glory”) and logia (“saying”); thus, a doxology is simply a “saying of glory” or a statement of praise, often in poetic form. In much of English hymnody, this statement of praise appears at the end of a hymn and references the three persons of the Trinity. Even the traditional “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” was originally the last stanza to a much longer hymn by Thomas Ken.

So while “the Doxology” does fit the trinitarian form commonly associated with hymn doxologies, so do these last stanzas of other hymns. Both are from the blue Psalter Hymnal—do you recognize them?

To the great One in Three
Eternal praises be
Hence evermore.
His sovereign majesty
May we in glory see,
And to eternity
Love and adore.

All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son, and Him who reigns
With them in highest heaven,
The one eternal God,
Whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.

Although references to the Trinity have become commonplace in sung doxologies, it’s not necessary for these references to be explicitly present. Think, for instance, of the last stanza of “By the Sea of Crystal” (#469). Thus, a doxology can be adequately described as any succinct yet powerful statement of praise to God, often occurring at the end of an element of worship.

Given the topic of this blog, you can probably imagine where this particular conversation is headed. If we’re looking for succinct yet powerful statements of praise to God, how can we neglect the divinely-inspired riches given to us in the Book of Psalms? In fact, I must confess that for the hundreds of times I’ve heard “The Doxology” sung at the end of worship, the number of times I’ve heard a psalm setting in that position is relatively small.

As it turns out, the Book of Psalms contains its own internal doxologies that divide the five subsections of the Psalter: Psalms 41:13, 72:19-20, 89:52, and 106:48. Most of these simply urge the people to “Bless the LORD!” and are followed by an “Amen.” In addition, one thinks of the five psalms that close the Psalter, each of which begin and end with “Hallelujah” or “Praise the LORD!” The blue Psalter Hymnal’s topical index lists some of these passages under the “Doxologies” heading: #73 stanza 6; #135 stanza 4 (and #488, from the same passage); #171 stanza 8; #211 stanza 23; and #309-310. But it would be foolish to limit our repertoire of psalm-based doxologies to these passages. To whet your appetite, here are four other Psalter Hymnal psalm settings that (though paraphrased) would be excellent choices for a doxology at the end of worship.

36, “The ends of all the earth shall hear” (Psalm 22)

(Sung at Synod 2012)

Psalm 22 opens as one of the most poignant laments of the Psalter, foreshadowing Christ’s suffering on the cross. But the latter half of this psalm opens up into an exultant declaration of praise, with references to the generations that will come to fear the Lord because of the mighty things he has done. The author of Hebrews interpreted this psalm as being sung by Jesus himself (“He is not ashamed to call them brothers,” Hebrews 2:11), and one can’t help but think of how suitable it is for Christians, those who have been purchased by Christ’s blood, to join in singing Jesus’ own statement of praise. This doxology would be especially suitable after a presentation from a visiting missionary (“The ends of all the earth shall hear”) or after celebrating the Lord’s supper.

The Lord’s unfailing righteousness
All generations shall confess,
From age to age shall men be taught
What wondrous works the Lord has wrought.

All earth to Him her homage brings,
The Lord of lords, the King of kings.

105, “O God, Be Merciful to Me” (Psalm 57)

Because of its strong themes of lament, Psalm 57 may seem like an unusual choice for a doxology. David cries out for God to be merciful to him amidst the “storms of destruction” and enemies that long to devour him. Yet in the middle of these pressing dangers he breaks out twice in a passionate exclamation of praise: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!” (vv. 5, 11). The last stanza of the Psalter Hymnal’s setting would be a fitting and sensitive doxology even after a worship service filled with confession and lament.

Yea, I will early wake and sing,
A thankful hymn to Thee will bring,
For unto heaven Thy mercies rise,
The truth is lofty as the skies.
Be Thou, O God, exalted high,
Yea, far above the starry sky,
And let Thy glory be displayed
O’er all the earth Thy hands have made.

284, “Give Thanks to God, for Good Is He” (Psalm 136)

(Sung at Synod 2012)

Psalm 136 is notable because each of its twenty-six verses concludes with the phrase, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” This magnificent poem surveys how the Lord’s covenant love was displayed to Israel throughout redemptive history, and how he continues to “remember us in our low estate” today (v. 23). Although it is a fairly free paraphrase, the last stanza of the Psalter Hymnal’s setting of Psalm 136 nicely sums up the doxological thrust of this psalm:

He helped us in our deepest woes,
His grace abideth ever;
He ransomed us from all our foes,
His mercy faileth never.
Each creature’s need He doth supply,
His grace abideth ever;
Give thanks to God, enthroned on high,
Whose mercy faileth never.

303, “O Sing Ye Hallelujah” (Psalm 147)

You may recognize Psalm 147 as one of the Psalter’s concluding statements of praise (Psalms 146-150). As far as singing goes, however, Psalm 147 probably has one of the lesser-known text and tune combinations in the blue Psalter Hymnal. This psalm is a marvelous exposition of the Lord’s power in providing for his people. He fills them with the finest of the wheat (v. 14), but he also does something far better: he gives his statutes to Israel (v. 19), something no other nation has enjoyed. For us who have been grafted into the true Israel, the last stanza of this psalm setting reminds us what a privilege it is to be called into the presence of God himself for worship. (If a more familiar tune is needed, try LANCASHIRE, #364.)

His statutes and His judgments
He makes His people know;
To them as to no others
His grace He loves to show;
For matchless grace and mercy
Your grateful praises bring;
To Him give thanks forever,
And Hallelujah sing.

What are your favorite psalm doxologies? Share them in the comments below!

–MRK

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Our Five-Year Review

1976 Psalter Hymnal

A happy New Year to all! Though it’s hard to believe, this new year also marks URC Psalmody’s fifth anniversary—our first post was on December 30, 2011. And while I don’t want to engage in the obsessive navel-gazing that entraps too many bloggers, I do want to take a moment to thank you all for your continued readership.

From the very beginning, URC Psalmody’s primary purpose has been discussion, and thanks to the lively and regular interaction of our readers, that goal has been accomplished. Although it is difficult to verify just how many site hits are from real human readers, WordPress tells me URC Psalmody received visits from more than 86 countries in 2016, with about 10,000 views coming from the United States and 2,600 coming from Canada. And in the last five years we’ve received more than 750 comments, which—again—are where most of the real action occurs. So thanks to all of you who take time to read and share your thoughts. You’ve kept this blog alive!

I also want to thank the contributors who have stepped up at various times to offer articles, devotionals, and other materials on the psalms. Rev. Jim Oord (Community URC, Schererville, IN) contributed more than thirty posts while studying at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, many of which are still among our most viewed articles. Thanks, Jim! More recently, Rev. Nick Smith of the United Reformed Church of Nampa, ID, and Rev. Peter Holtvlüwer of the Spring Creek Canadian Reformed Church in Tintern, Ontario, have also offered some thoughts for publication here, and I hope to invite more contributors in the future as well.

Personally, I can say I’ve learned a lot from blogging on the psalms. I’ve gained a broader perspective on the landscape of Reformed worship and established stronger connections to the church through the conversations here. My own opinions have been shaped, refined, and sometimes outright changed as well, to the point where I’m embarrassed to return to some of URC Psalmody’s early posts. But this means that your comments have sharpened and deepened my faith and my love for the psalms—so thank you!

More broadly, the past five years have witnessed a rise in enthusiasm for psalm-singing across many Reformed and Presbyterian churches. We’ve seen the recent release of great books on psalmody like Beeke and Selvaggio’s Sing a New Song and LeFebvre’s Singing the Songs of Jesus, in addition to books that integrate the study of psalms into other worthy topics, like David Murray’s Jesus on Every Page. It also seems that more churches are hosting conferences on Reformed worship; I’ve enjoyed opportunities to lead classes on psalm-singing for URC, OPC, and RPCNA audiences, and I know that others far more qualified than myself are participating in similar seminars. And the news about the forthcoming Trinity Psalter Hymnal is fueling renewed interest in why our churches sing the psalms to begin with. I don’t think URC Psalmody spawned the wave of fresh enthusiasm for psalm-singing, but we are more than happy to ride it!

And, as I write this on the eve of my final semester at Geneva College, I can’t help but express my deepest appreciation for that institution and its surrounding community, which for so many years has encouraged students to integrate the psalms into their walk with Christ individually and together. Because of Geneva’s weekly chapel services, there are psalms whose texts and melodies will probably be implanted in my mind for the rest of my life.

URC Psalmody has never had a stated mission other than to foster discussion, but if we did it would be summarized in these three words: Sing more psalms! We realize that worship is a topic about which Christians care deeply, yet also a topic about which sinful people like us are very, very unqualified to speak. As a result, our goal is to point above the flaws and foibles of earthly worship to the ultimate goal: that of drawing near to God and becoming more like his Son. I hope this blog will continue to be a place where we can humbly converse, courteously argue, curiously investigate, and earnestly pursue that vision.

–MRK

Sing Joyfully: Getting the Most out of the Book of Psalms

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(The following is adapted from a workshop delivered by Michael Kearney and Dr. David Kenneth Smith to high schoolers at the 2016 Reformed Presbyterian International Conference on July 26, 2016.)

Thanks for giving us a little slice of your busy schedules during this convention. As two non-Reformed-Presbyterians, we are really enjoying the chance to get to know so many of you along with your friends, family and fellow church members this week—we’ve been invited to participate in something really special, and it’s great to be here!

We want to talk to you today about something the majority of you have probably experienced for your entire lives—psalm-singing. We’re going to leave aside theological or historical arguments for psalm-singing, which you’ve probably already heard countless times and which you can probably explain better than we can. Rather, we want to speak to you about the psalms as they fit into the theme of RPIC’s high school program, “Exploring Life in This World: Adulthood Is upon You.” In this workshop we want to suggest that the psalms are a divinely-given resource to help us make sense of the ups and downs of life. There are three main ways in which the psalms do this.

First, the psalms help us make sense of the world through their role as a spiritual discipline. I’m sure you know the passage in Ephesians where the apostle Paul commands the church to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19). But look at the context surrounding this command. The command to sing psalms doesn’t arise out of thin air; it appears in the middle of a list of activities that are really very countercultural. And I’m sure that many of your friends, whether believers or unbelievers, would be kind of surprised to hear that you gather in church or in your home during the week to sing psalms. In our current culture, singing—and especially singing Scripture—is a strange practice.

In Ephesians Paul describes how Christians are to “be imitators of God” rather than imitators of the world. And a lot of his commands have to do with what fills our minds and mouths. Is it crude joking, or thanksgiving (v. 4)? Is it empty words (v. 7), or the wisdom from God (v. 15)? Is it drunkenness, or Spirit-filled speech (v. 18)? Indeed, now more than ever we are surrounded by empty and foolish talk on so many sides that cultivating heavenly wisdom takes serious effort. Spiritual disciplines are called disciplines because they take a lifetime of strenuous dedication to establish in our lives. But singing the psalms is one way we can grow in the wisdom and maturity that we are called to when we follow Christ.

Second, the psalms help us make sense of the world by teaching us about living in harmony within the church. Paul’s list of instructions to the church in Ephesians 5 begins with the words “walk in love, as Christ loved us.” We often think of psalm-singing as a way to obey God and build up our own hearts. But do we think of psalm-singing also as an expression of love toward our fellow believers?

Congregational singing is an excellent picture of building one another up, especially when we sing in harmony. A song that contains only one musical line can be very shallow and boring. That’s why our psalters are written with four parts that rise and fall independently, but intermingle to form a beautiful and harmonious whole. Some people have lower or higher voices than others, but all can find a part suited for them in the church’s music. The fact that we sing in harmony rather than unison seems to be a great picture of the Christian life, especially since not everyone in the church “plays the same part.” We each have different strengths and weaknesses in different areas, but God uses those differences to help us grow as the body of Christ. In the case of singing, we work together to imprint divine vocabulary on each other’s hearts. We learn to speak like Jesus!

The third and final way in which the psalms help us make sense of the world is that they fill us with joy in the face of opposition. When asked why we Reformed believers sing the psalms, we are often quick to respond with the fact that it’s divinely commanded—and that’s true. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we also sing the psalms because it’s a joyful activity for the redeemed soul. Paul lists singing as an expression of love and thanksgiving, not a tedious obligation.

I can say to you, even as someone who’s just a few years older than you are, that the experiences I’ve had so far have taught me to treasure the psalms more than I did in high school. There have been mountaintop experiences (literal as well as spiritual) where the psalms have filled me with new heights of praise, and there have also been dark valleys where the laments and prayers of the psalter have been some of my only comforts. I suspect the same has been or will be true for most of you as well as you go forth into this world. And as the psalms help you to make sense of the apparent chaos and absurdity in the world, they will also help you share God’s perspective with your friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances. The psalms can help them make sense of the world too!

We titled this workshop “Getting the Most out of the Book of Psalms” because we believe the psalms have a tremendous wealth of benefits to impart to the believer. In order for the psalms to help you make sense of the world, of course, you also have to work hard to make sense of the psalms as you sing them. That takes place by meditating on the text, letting the words shape the way you sing, and striving to make music to the best of your ability. When you exert this effort, whether individually or in a congregation, we are sure your life will begin to reap some of the many fruits the psalms offer.

How Every Delegate Should Vote Next Week

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It’s an unwritten rule of church relations: If you want to get into an argument as fast as possible, question a brother or sister’s favorite song. The rule applies to every church tradition from a cappella psalm-singing to contemporary worship music, including the URCNA.

Synod 2016 meets in Grand Rapids next week, and I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s going to be a difficult meeting. Decisions related to the Psalter Hymnal are by no means the only issues of importance on the agenda, but they will be painful nevertheless. A new book means some of our most beloved psalm settings and hymns may end up on the chopping block—and let’s admit it now: that hurts.

Our federation-wide sensitivity to the topic of church music has been revealed to me in several communications I’ve received from URC pastors, elders and members in recent weeks. I’ve heard opinions ranging from the overwhelmingly positive to the astonishingly critical, and I’m glad to listen to and learn from all of them.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if we’ve adopted a double standard in evaluating the new book. Although we may examine its lyrics and music with a magnifying glass, we often fail to consider the new book as a whole. By contrast, we have a very positive overall view of the blue Psalter Hymnal, yet we may have lost sight of some of its specifics. And I’m afraid that many songs from the blue book would fail under the careful scrutiny so quickly applied to the proposal.

To give an example, I’ve heard allegations that the new songbook contains hidden strains of universalism and Roman Catholicism—a shocking claim which, if true, would give us great cause for concern. Supporting evidence is drawn from hymns that include lines like “died to save us all,” or from a communion hymn translated by a priest, John Mason Neale, exhorting us to “take by faith the body of the Lord.” Now, in context these lyrics can easily be explained Scripturally: the “us all” refers to the church, and the “body of the Lord” merely echoes Jesus’ own words in Matthew 26. I don’t think heresy is implied in either case.

More concerning, however, is the tendency to elevate the blue Psalter Hymnal as the gold standard to which other songbooks must attain. In this case, no mention is made of some of its own hymns that could be interpreted in the very same light. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” contains the line “Light and life to all He brings,” while “Faith of Our Fathers” was written by a Roman Catholic priest to commemorate Catholic martyrs. I’m not judging the merit of either of these hymns. I merely want to point out that by this line of reasoning, we would have to conclude that the blue Psalter Hymnal too is a corrupted seedbed for unreformed heresy.

Most of all, though, I’m surprised that this conversation is coming to a head at such a late date. We’ve had 19 years to think about this project, to recommend our favorite songs, to share our concerns, to overture our consistories and classes and synods as to what shape the new book should take. We might have even appealed the very decision to pursue a new book. We’ve had access to a complete psalm proposal and two complete hymn proposals. We’ve had every opportunity to participate in the project with a spirit of mutual edification and constructive criticism.

Yet 19 years later—and one week before what may be the last vote on the book—we are still asking and answering questions about why the “old blue” won’t remain in print forever, why working together with another denomination is to our advantage, and “why we need a new Psalter Hymnal anyway.” Rather than acknowledging this as a monumental task that requires the active involvement of every concerned member, we apparently prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize. We criticize the distant and unknown—the motives of the Songbook Committee, the traditions of the OPC—in contrast to the familiar, the good, the safe.

Brothers and sisters, let’s remember one thing: the new book is corrupted. It’s corrupted because we are. And the blue Psalter Hymnal is corrupted too—because we were corrupted back then as well. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought,” said Paul, and much less do we know how to sing as we ought. Even the most staunchly Reformed songbook would still bear the marks of our sin and imperfection before God.

And that’s why we’re commanded to sing: because we’ve been promised redemption from this corruption, and because the experience of congregational singing builds us up together as the body of Christ. As we fill our hearts and mouths with the words God has given us in the psalms, as well as the words of godly men and women of old—slowly, imperfectly, through thee’s and you’s, Jehovah’s and Lord’s, archaic verbs and clumsy rhyming schemes—still, we learn to speak like Jesus. That heavenly accent we pick up is one not of arrogance and confusion, but of humility and peace.

If you’re preparing for next week’s synod, I trust that you won’t base your decision on the new book merely on my words or the words of others, but that you are even now prayerfully considering the question of our songbook for yourself. I humbly urge you to meditate on Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 as refreshing reminders of the context in which our redeemed singing must occur.

Above all, take comfort in this: it is in the very experience of disagreeing over the Psalter Hymnal project that we are being taught what brotherly love and self-sacrifice look like—if our eyes and ears are open.

–MRK

How Literal Is Literal Enough?

I greatly appreciated Rev. Nick Smith’s guest post last week on why Christians need to learn to “sing the whole psalm.” As he points out, we need to fill our hearts and mouths with the complete message of the Psalter, even when it feels strange or unseemly to us, because this is how we learn to speak and act like Jesus. We ought not to be afraid of texts that call for God’s judgment, especially with the benefit of New Testament passages such as Revelation that assure us this judgment will one day take place. When the psalms we sing in worship have been paraphrased, or their sharper edges have been sanded off, they rob the church of the “bold prayer” that God would utterly destroy the wicked.

Rev. Smith’s response reminded me of the topic of “psalm-hymns,” or psalm paraphrases, that we’ve talked about before. Every Christian ought to care about Scriptural faithfulness in the words they sing as well as the words they read. Consistories and congregations, especially, should carefully consider the question of Biblical accuracy before purchasing a new psalter. But if you’re not a Hebrew scholar (and most of us aren’t), is there any way to tell how accurate the psalm settings you’re singing are?

Although unfamiliarity with Biblical languages may be a hindrance, I don’t think it should stop us from at least beginning to think in terms of Scriptural accuracy. So here’s a rule of thumb that has proved for me to be a great starting point: Get a pencil and mark all the verse numbers in the song. If this sounds strange, allow me to give an example.

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A few months ago I was thinking about settings of Psalm 46 and decided to sit down with this version from the blue Psalter Hymnal to find out how closely it matched the prose psalm from the ESV. My goal, as mentioned above, was to identify all the verses from the prose psalm in this setting. You can see that it passed the test—Psalm 46 has eleven verses and I was able to locate all of them here (even though v. 11 is unmarked for some reason).

While this is a helpful way to establish that this psalm setting does in fact follow the pattern and flow of the original text, I went a step further. As you can see from this scan (click to enlarge it), I’ve developed a kind of shorthand to efficiently note weaknesses in the translation.

Parentheses ( ) designate words that roughly summarize the original text. You can see at the bottom of the second stanza I highlighted the word “fathers’,” which is close to the original term “Jacob’s,” but not quite the same thing. Whatever their reason may have been, the editors of this psalm setting decided to use a more generalized ancestral reference than one that named the nation of Israel directly. As far as Biblical accuracy, that’s a point against them.

Brackets [ ] designate phrases and concepts that definitely do not appear at that point in the prose psalm. For example, the third stanza contains references to “His wrath” and “His grace” which are not found anywhere in Psalm 46. In this particular passage we are not told whether God’s intervention to make wars cease to the ends of the earth is wrathful or gracious. An argument could be made for either. But in this case, it seems presumptive to incorporate these interpretive components into a psalm setting.

Finally, parallel vertical lines || appear where the versification has left out a concept or phrase from the original psalm. I combine most of these with a brief note in the margin as to what has been left out. In the middle of the second stanza, you can see that the portion of vv. 5-6 that mentions “when morning dawns” and “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter” is missing. These are vivid word pictures that bring Psalm 46 to light in the believer’s mind, like Rev. Smith suggested with Psalm 110.

All things considered, I could argue that this setting of Psalm 46 passes this simple inspection, though maybe not with flying colors. (In case you’re interested, I’ve since revised this text for Psalm 46, and the new setting is available here.) Unfortunately, if you apply this test to other songs in the Psalter Hymnal, some will fail miserably. If I tried to use the same principle to evaluate number 306 from Psalm 149, it would look more like this:

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As you can see, in the last two stanzas of this psalm setting, which are clearly intended to represent Psalm 149:5-9, I was only able to locate v. 5, part of v. 6, and an elaborated version of v. 9 that includes pieces of vv. 6-8 within it. These lyrics fail to mention anything resembling the “judgment,” “vengeance,” “punishments,” “chains,” and “fetters” of the psalm. That’s a tremendous loss for us as psalm-singers, and because this is the only complete setting of Psalm 149 in the Psalter Hymnal, it’s even more lamentable.

The point here is not to emphasize God’s wrath and judgment simply to gloat in gory language. Rather, we must understand that the Christian life is one of constant warfare against “the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 52, Q&A 127). As one hymnwriter put it, we must be able to see “how the powers of darkness/Compass thee around” (Psalter Hymnal #464), and how those powers of darkness are overcome in the victory of Christ. It takes lifelong practice to recognize this battle for what it is. All the more reason for the songs we sing to portray this reality fully.

–MRK


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