Posts Tagged 'Hymns'

A Shape-Note Sampling

Greetings, readers.  It’s been more than a month since my last post, and much has been transpiring in my second semester here at Geneva College.  I’m continuing on as a communications major and preparing to add a music minor; I’ve picked up an apparently permanent job as “staff accompanist” for several of Geneva’s voice majors; and just two weeks ago I was touring Ohio with the college choir, The Genevans, singing a concert of a cappella psalms in various churches.  For a psalm-singing nerd, that’s pretty close to heaven (and I hope to share more about it at some point).

Today, however, I just participated in a very unique experience from a rather different part of the church music spectrum: Sacred Harp singing.  This old American tradition is often called “shape-note singing” because its hymnals assign their noteheads four different shapes to aid non-musical singers in picking up the complex four-part harmonies.  The first verse of every song is sung in a simplified form of solfeggio with the syllables “fa,” “so,” “la,” and “mi.”  After that the words are sung—always with a strong rhythm and as much gusto as possible.

Sacred Harp setting of

Sacred Harp setting of “Amazing Grace”

Featured Recording

The biggest contributor to the texts in the songbook we were using today was Isaac Watts, whose hymns and psalm paraphrases have had a tremendous impact on American hymnody.  While I’m not a huge fan of Watts’s attempts to “Christianize the psalms” by turning them into loose paraphrases, it was nice to find so many connections in our singing today to texts I already know and love from the Psalter.  Below is our group singing a Watts setting of a portion of Psalm 65:


What made this hymn-sing such an unusual experience, however, was its undenominational character.  Perhaps even “undenominational” is an understatement, since this event attracted many participants who love shape-note singing simply because of its cultural and communal ties, not because they have any religious attachment to the words they sing.  One man I had lunch with, who views himself as undeclared with regard to religion, views many of the song lyrics as “hair-raising.”

On one hand, the thought of self-declared nonbelievers singing these psalms and hymns is a little jarring.  It’s unsettling because it forces me to ask: Do I really believe everything I’m singing?  Am I still being nourished by the content of worship, or have I become hopelessly preoccupied with its form?  Has church music in total become nothing more than a quaint set of styles and traditions?

So, in that respect, this shape-note singing experience served to me as a sober reminder that God delights not in hollow worship but rather in broken hearts (Psalm 51:17).  On the other hand, however, it also struck me that these words—even if sung by unbelieving hearts—continue to attest to the glory of God.  And as we sang, “‘Tis by Thy strength the mountains stand, God of eternal power,” I found myself rejoicing, for the day is approaching when all flesh shall come to the One who alone hears prayer (Psalm 65:2).


More selections from this hymn-sing:

RYS’s Tribute to the Heidelberg Catechism

The 2013 Reformed Youth Services Convention met at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, MN.

The 2013 Reformed Youth Services Convention met at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, MN.

For the first time in its history, the ministry of Reformed Youth Services has made available to the public the audio from its 2013 International Convention, as well as the videos from its Talent Show.  The theme of the convention this past year was “Mission Possible,” based on I Timothy ii.3, 4; this year’s keynote speakers were both excellent and challenged their young audience to live their lives as servants, soldiers, and sojourners of Christ the King.

You can find links to the convention sessions in the side navigation of Reformed Youth Services’s website, or read more about the event in the July 31/August 21 issue of Christian Renewal magazine.  My purpose in mentioning the RYS convention, however, is to point you specifically to this year’s choir selection.

This year Mrs. Kathy Arrick, the wife of Rev. Steve Arrick of the Zeltenreich URC in Lancaster County, PA, directed the convention choir.  The anthem she selected was an old one, unlike the choir’s selections in previous years; but, as she explained, it had a unique message.  Mrs. Arrick specifically picked this song to coincide with the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism.

The anthem “The Potter and the Clay” opens with these poignant lines:

Lord, I have tried to go my own way,
Wandering alone day after day.

This acknowledgment of “how great my sin and misery are” is followed by a powerful reminder of the fact that “I am not my own”: as the three-part harmony explodes, the choir cries, “Now I am Yours!  Guide me, I pray.  You are the Potter, Lord; I am the clay.”

Note the rest of these Biblically-rooted lyrics as you listen to the rest of the anthem.  The choir finally concludes:

Held in Your hand, I thankfully pray:
You are the Potter, Lord;
I am the clay.

Enjoy the video at this link or embedded below.

All glory be to Jesus Christ, our faithful Savior!


Featured Recording: By the Sea of Crystal

By the sea of crystal
Saints in glory stand,
Myriads in number,
Drawn from every land;
Robed in white apparel,
Washed in Jesus’ blood,
They now reign in heaven
With the Lamb of God.

Featured Recording

Blue Psalter Hymnal number 469, “By the Sea of Crystal,” is a hymn that’s brought comfort and peace to many a troubled heart over the years.  On countless occasions, especially in our Reformed churches, it has served as a response of praise, a triumphant doxology, or a song of quiet assurance at a believer’s funeral.  Its text is an adaptation of the glorious vision of the great multitude in Revelation 7:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’  And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

‘Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

–Revelation 7:9-17 (ESV)

Along with today’s Featured Recording, I’d like to share with you the fascinating history of the hymn “By the Sea of Crystal,” as recorded for us in the Psalter Hymnal Handbook:

Once, after hearing Edward Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ march, William Kuipers decided to write a new hymn text that could be sung to it.  At the time the march was associated with the patriotic hymn ‘Land of Hope and Glory.’  Kuipers wrote this text late in 1932 while he was pastor of the Summer Street Christian Reformed Church (CRC), Passaic, New Jersey.  He submitted it to Henry J. Kuiper, editor of the Christian Reformed Church weekly, The Banner, and a member of the committee preparing the 1934 Psalter Hymnal, which was the first denominational collection including hymns (the CRC had previously sung only psalms in worship).

Because Elgar’s music was under copyright, The Banner held a contest to find a new tune for Kuipers’s text.  The magazine received 150 tune entries and recognized first, second, and third places, as well as six honorable mentions.  First prize of $10 was awarded to Siebolt H. Frieswyk of Whitinsville, Massachusetts, and his tune was published with Kuipers’s text in The Banner, May 5, 1933.  However, an honorable-mention winner by John Vanderhoven was chosen as the setting for this text when the new Psalter Hymnal was printed in 1934.  That association of text and tune has been continued in each of the following editions of the Psalter Hymnal.  Because it was used as a theme song for The Back to God Hour broadcasts, this hymn became well known to a whole generation of radio listeners in the 1950s and 60s.

And thus, this beloved hymn is in some sense “our own” here in the Dutch Reformed tradition.  As I researched this history, I was thrilled to find a digitized version of a single video episode of the CRC’s “Back to God Hour” from 1953, with Rev. Peter Eldersveld.  In the opening of the film you can hear the Calvin Radio Choir singing the third stanza of “By the Sea of Crystal.”  The format of the video prevents me from embedding it on the blog, but you can click here to access it.

However, today’s Featured Recording is not from sixty years ago, but from six weeks ago.  “By the Sea of Crystal” is still a beloved hymn nearly everywhere in the United Reformed Churches in North America, and this recording is particularly rousing.  Here is Grace Reformed Church of Dunnville, Ontario, singing it with all their hearts.

‘Unto God Almighty,
Sitting on the throne,
and the Lamb, victorious,
Be the praise alone.
God has wrought salvation,
He did wondrous things;
Who shall not extol Thee,
Holy King of kings?’


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Featured Recording: Our Refuge and Our Strength

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain;
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain…

Featured Recording

There’s no doubt about it: “America, the Beautiful” is probably one of the best-loved patriotic songs ever composed.  The grandeur of its poetry, the thrust of its message—it is truly an inspiring hymn for patriots to sing.  Personally, I’ve enjoyed hearing, playing, and singing this song for most of my life.  But recently I began to wonder: does “America, the Beautiful” have anything to say about theology?  To answer this question, I looked a little closer at the text, and in particular, the last stanza:

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

The lofty poetry of this stanza might veil its meaning a little.  To simplify, the singer praises a patriotic dream.  It is a dream for the future in which “alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.”  Which cities are these?  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we can draw no other conclusion than that they refer to America itself!

For my part, I think this line sounds uncomfortably similar to Revelation’s descriptions of the New Jerusalem—“the holy city Jerusalem…having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel” (21:10, 11), and “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (21:4).  How does it strike you?

As a disclaimer, I’m aware of the two-kingdoms debate that has been yanking at our churches for the past few years, and I’m not about to get into its technicalities here.  But regardless of how one views the relationship between the church and the world, I think we would all agree that there is no equivalency between the United States of America and the New Jerusalem.  Truly this nation has been blessed by God in many ways, and it is not improper for us to pray, “God shed His grace on thee”—but how can we affirm that our heavenly home is tied to no earthly country, yet sing a song that flatly contradicts this view?

It’s not been easy, but this evaluation has forced me to take a second look at many of the familiar patriotic songs we sing.  Sadly, I have to conclude that many of them, like “America, the Beautiful,” come up lacking.

Interestingly, this hymn’s glorious tune, MATERNA, precedes the text by 11 years (Katherine Lee Bates wrote the words in 1893 and 1904).  I’m not sure when this text and tune were paired together.  In any case, I certainly wasn’t expecting to find MATERNA in the 1912 Psalter, to the words of Psalm 46.  First I was struck by how perfectly the lyrics and music blended; then I began to examine the connection a little more closely.

Psalm 46 begins with the powerful words, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”  Already I could hear echoes of the first stanza of “America, the Beautiful”—the purple mountain majesties, the sea and shining sea.

Further on, the psalm makes reference to a city, but a very different city than the ones mentioned in the patriotic song.  This is no ordinary place; it is “the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.”  The psalmist declares, “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.”

What comes next in Psalm 46 almost seems like a direct rebuttal of the misguided hopes of “America, the Beautiful.”  The nations rage, the kingdoms totter, but when God utters his voice, the whole earth melts.  To dispel any doubts about the origin of his confidence, the psalmist says, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  This mighty King “makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.”  Then we hear his mighty declaration to the nations:

Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!

Finally, the psalmist repeats his refrain once more: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  What better answer could there be to the words of “America, the Beautiful”?

“Debunking” favorite hymns is an unpleasant and risky practice, and all too often I find my opinions too strong and my wisdom too weak.  Nevertheless, I humbly submit these thoughts to you for your consideration.  Does the mere familiarity or popularity of a hymn justify its use in our churches, regardless of whether its contents are true?  May we ever be careful to match our singing with our doctrine!

Of course, a “Featured Recording” post wouldn’t be complete without a featured recording.  Thus, I simply present to you this beautiful men’s choir arrangement of 1912 Psalter number 126, based on Psalm 46, and sung to this tune: “God Is Our Refuge and Our Strength.”  This glorious psalm setting makes it a little bit easier not to miss singing “America, the Beautiful.”


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Lord’s Day 8: How God Has Revealed Himself

Catechism and Psalter

Here we are once again in our Wednesday series on the Heidelberg Catechism.  In the last Lord’s Day we were introduced to the Apostles’ Creed, the summary of the gospel every Christian must believe.  Lord’s Day 8, our focus for today, briefly explains the structure of the Creed and introduces us to a basic doctrine contained therein: the Trinity.

24 Q.  How are these articles divided?

A.  Into three parts:
God the Father and our creation;
God the Son and our deliverance;
God the Spirit and our sanctification.

25 Q.  Since there is but one God, why do you speak of three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

A.  Because that is how
God has revealed himself in his Word:
these three distinct persons
are one, true, eternal God.

Suggested Songs

We may automatically assume that the Old Testament psalms, written before the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit, contain nothing related to the doctrine of the Trinity.  This notion, though it may be widespread in the Christian church, is downright incorrect.  Today I’d like to consider just three psalms that speak of each Person of the Godhead.

206, “My Soul, Bless the Lord” (Psalm 104)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

If you’re looking for a spectacular psalm regarding God’s creation, look no further than Psalm 104. This vivid poem opens with a fitting expression of praise:

My soul, bless the Lord! the Lord is most great,
With glory arrayed, majestic His state;
The light is His garment, the skies are His shade,
And over the waters His courts He has laid.

From this point on, the psalmist roughly follows the story of creation, from the founding of the earth (stz. 2) to the establishment of the waters and dry land (stz. 3) to the creation of plants, birds, and animals (stz. 4-6).

Now without a truly Biblical understanding of the work of the Trinity, what comes next is surprising:

Thy Spirit, O Lord, makes life to abound,
The earth is renewed, and fruitful the ground;
To God ascribe glory and wisdom and might,
Let God in His creatures forever delight.

We ought to remember that the Spirit is first mentioned not in the New Testament but in Genesis 1:2—“And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”  Both the Son and the Spirit played an active role in the creation of the world.  Charles Spurgeon goes so far as to make a soteriological connection from Psalm 104:30: “If we read the word spirit as we have it in our version, it is also instructive, for we see the Divine Spirit going forth to create life in nature even as we see him in the realms of grace.”

3, “Wherefore Do the Nations Rage” (Psalm 2)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, to an alternate tune)

I find it fascinating that just as the Holy Spirit is mentioned as early as Genesis 1:2, Jesus Christ as the Messianic King is explicitly mentioned just one psalm into the Psalter.  While this psalm’s primary meaning applies to the human king of Israel, it is nearly impossible to miss the Christological connection in Psalm 2.  The 1912 Psalter and our own Psalter Hymnal, in fact, capitalize all pronouns in this psalm that refer to the king, cementing this solidly Biblical interpretation.  Furthermore, the Catechism notes that the second section of the Apostles’ Creed focuses on God the Son and our deliverance, a theme also present in the closing lines of Psalm 2.  Here’s the full text:

Wherefore do the nations rage,
And the peoples vainly dream,
That in triumph they can wage
War against the Lord supreme?
His Anointed they deride,
And the rulers plotting say:
“Their dominion be defied,
Let us cast their bonds away.”

But the Lord will scorn them all,
Calm he sits enthroned on high;
Soon His wrath will on them fall,
Angered then He will reply:
“Yet according to My will
I have set My King to reign,
And on Zion’s holy hill
Mine anointed I maintain.”

This the word declared to me,
This Jehovah’s firm decree:
“Thou art My beloved Son,
Yea, I have begotten Thee.
Ask and have Thy full demands,
Thine shall all the heathen be,
Thine the utmost of the lands,
They shall be possessed of Thee.”

Dash them like a potter’s urn,
Thou shalt break them with a rod.
Therefore, kings and judges, learn
Anxiously to serve your God.
Kiss the Son and worship Him,
Lest ye perish in the way;
Blest are all who trust in Him,
Yea, supremely blest are they.

95, “Gracious God, My Heart Renew” (Psalm 51)

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

While Psalm 51 is a song of confession, it is also a song of redemption and sanctification, as we’ve mentioned before here on URC Psalmody.  In fact, the three sections of Psalm 51 follow the “Guilt-Grace-Gratitude” motif of the Catechism remarkably closely.  Psalter Hymnal 95 versifies the latter half of Psalm 51, which appeals powerfully to the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s heart:

Gracious God, my heart renew,
Make my spirit right and true;
Cast me not away from Thee,
Let Thy Spirit dwell in me;
Thy salvation’s joy impart,
Stedfast make my willing heart.

Sinners then shall learn from me
And return, O God, to Thee;
Savior, all my guilt remove,
And my tongue shall sing Thy love;
Touch my silent lips, O Lord,
And my mouth shall praise accord.

Not the formal sacrifice
Has acceptance in Thine eyes;
Broken hearts are in Thy sight
More than sacrificial rite;
Contrite spirit, pleading cries,
Thou, O God, wilt not despise.

Prosper Zion in Thy grace
And her broken walls replace;
Then our righteous sacrifice
Shall delight Thy holy eyes;
Free-will offerings, gladly made,
On Thine altar shall be laid.

It’s hard to find more applicable and beautiful words with which to end this post than those from Reginald Heber’s great Trinitarian hymn (Psalter Hymnal 318, again sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI):

Holy, Holy, Holy!  Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy!  Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!


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