Posts Tagged 'Imprecatory Psalms'

Singing the Whole Psalm

smithThe following is a guest post by Rev. Nick Smith of the United Reformed Church in Nampa, Idaho. It appears in the May 25 issue of Christian Renewal Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

One of the things that Michael Kearney notes in his excellent article on the proposed Psalter Hymnal is the way it addresses the problem of “telescoped and sanitized” Psalms. This is an issue that I think is important for our churches, and I want to highlight some reasons that I think this is the case. Before doing so, however, I want to note a few things up front.

First, this is not the only or even the main reason that the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) will be a blessing to our churches. The dramatic improvement of the hymn selection, the expression of unity with the OPC, and the consistent use of actual contemporary English are all rich and important reasons to commend the committee’s work.

Second, as should be expected of anything done in community by way of working together with others, there are aspects of the new book that I don’t like. But this too is an opportunity to express our fellowship as churches, and to exercise our ability to work together and learn from each other. So I am eager to set aside my personal preferences for the sake of this great expression of unity, and for the sake of the larger benefits the book presents.

One of those benefits is the inclusion of full versions of each of the Psalms, versions that include much biblical content that has been excluded when the Psalms are “telescoped and sanitized.” A great treasure of the Reformed tradition is our commitment to embracing the Psalms as belonging to the church today, using them in corporate worship, and allowing them to shape our spirituality. The TPH will help us grow in this practice, to sing the Psalms in their entirety, precisely where they challenge us to grow in the way we sing and pray to the Lord.

Psalm-singing is deeply rooted theologically. The Psalms, as with all of Scripture, spoke of Christ and are fulfilled in Christ (Luke 24:44). Jesus grew up singing and praying the Psalms, crying out with the words of Psalm 22 on the cross (Matthew 27:46). The Psalms are rightly understood as singing of Christ and being sung by Christ. As we are united to Christ by faith, the Psalms become our songs and prayers that we share with him.

Moreover, the practice of singing the Psalms is fruitful precisely because they are God’s Word. There can be times when we may dislike the singing of a Psalm because what it describes or expresses doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t resonate with our experience. It doesn’t say what we desire to say. But this is exactly when the Psalm is most needed. We don’t always feel what we should feel; we don’t always desire to pray what we should pray. When we sing the Psalms, our spirituality is being shaped and formed by words that God has given to us. But when we sanitize those words or eliminate the elements that make us uncomfortable, that formative function of the Psalms is lost. Rather than the Psalm forming us, we have transformed the Psalm.

The TPH helps us address this problem. Our congregation is singing Psalm 110A (our “Psalm of the Month” for May). While the new setting is beautiful, singing a new version was difficult, since we have grown to love the setting of Psalm 110 in the blue Psalter Hymnal (#221, “The Lord unto His Christ Has Said”). If there’s a Psalm setting I’d be inclined to defend, it’s that one. And yet as we sang the new version, I was struck by some of the words:

The nations he will judge;
the dead in heaps will lie.
The mighty of the earth he’ll crush –
all who his rule defy.

I’ve read Psalm 110, I’ve sung it, I’ve preached on it. And yet when we came to the words, I wondered, “Are those words really in the Psalm?” Sure enough, it’s verse 6: “He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth.”

So why the disconnect? I suspect it’s because of our practice of singing versions that are “sanitized.” The setting that we most often sing, and that I was inclined to defend, says “Thou shalt subdue the kings of earth with God at thy right hand; the nations thou shalt rule in might and judge in every land.” There are no corpses, no heaps of dead, no shattering and crushing the proud who defy the Lord’s rule.

Does it really matter that we sing, “The nations he will judge; the dead in heaps will lie. The mighty of the earth he’ll crush – all who his rule defy”? It does matter, and it matters precisely because these words make us uncomfortable. These words give us a vivid and memorable way to sing of God’s defeat of all of his enemies, and the practice of singing them is meant to shape and form us.

The words are memorable. Much like stories in the book of Judges, the language sticks in the mind. Who can forget Ehud slaying Eglon, or Jael’s tent peg driven into Sisera’s temple? Likewise, when we sing “the mighty of the earth he’ll crush,” the language is vivid in a way that stays with us. This is important, because we face real enemies. The language of the Psalm is ultimately fulfilled in Christ’s defeat of the demonic forces of sin and death and hell, in his defeat of the spiritual powers that array themselves against the church. This is a reality that we come up against repeatedly in the Christian life. When we face temptation, when we face the darkness of depression and anxiety, when we are confronted with the reality of pain and sickness and death, we need to have sung the vivid words of Psalm 110 – Christ is on the throne, and he has crushed – and will crush – all of those enemies.

There is real evil in the world, and when people align themselves with that evil, when they obstinately refuse to follow Christ, and when they use their power to abuse and hurt and kill and rape and destroy, the Bible is clear that all of those wrongs are going to one day be set right. God’s people need to sing of that reality. One of the ways Christ defeats the serpent is by converting the nations and bringing salvation. That has been the case since Christ ascended and will be the case until he returns. But we also know that there are those who instead ally themselves with the serpent, who use their position of power to cause suffering for others. And the Bible calls us to sing of the day when all of that evil will be set right, when the Lord will bring justice.

Sanitized Psalms, cleansed of vivid language, withhold from the church a bold prayer that God intends to answer – a prayer that the day will come when evil will be destroyed, when sin and death and hell and all the demonic forces of the serpent will finally be crushed and defeated. This is the future God reveals in Revelation 19: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” This is the reality we sing of in the Psalms.

When we are frightened by evil, by the wicked powers that are present in the world, by political might that seeks to oppose Christ and his church, we are challenged to respond in faith. Over against the evil in the world, we are to be a people of hope, composure and confidence, living in a way that points to a future in which evil does not have the last word. Psalm 110 is given to form in us a vivid remembrance of that hope:

The nations he will judge;
the dead in heaps will lie.
The mighty of the earth he’ll crush –
all who his rule defy.

–Rev. Nick Smith

July’s Psalm of the Month: 54

The seventh installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

IMG_0137

See how God has been my helper,
How my Lord sustains my soul:
To my foes He pays back evil—
In Your truth destroy them all!

Does it seem strange to sing Psalm 54? This song of lament and imprecation, calling down God’s judgment on the psalmist’s enemies, may feel out of place on Christian lips. However, as this month’s study aims to show, Psalm 54 is both a song of comfort and a battle cry for faithful believers in a faithless world.

In the Psalm Proposal, the minor key and rolling triplets of the Welsh tune EBENEZER (TON-Y-BOTEL) capture the turmoil of this psalm’s spiritual battlefield as well as the psalmist’s passionate prayer. The text of this setting, drawn from the Book of Psalms for Singing, is a literal and straightforward versification. Sing Psalm 54 not vengefully but confidently, recognizing that a righteous God sits on the throne.

Suggested stanzas: All

Source: Psalm 54B in The Book of Psalms for Singing and The Book of Psalms for Worship, Psalm 54 in the Trinity Psalter

Tune only: Blue Psalter Hymnal 360, Revised Trinity Hymnal 283, 535

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 54

  • A cry for help (vv. 1,2)
  • The treachery of strangers (v. 3)
  • The trustworthiness of God (vv. 4,5)
  • A response of thanksgiving (vv. 6,7)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 54

The occasion for this psalm was David’s betrayal to Saul by the Ziphites, foreigners to whom he had fled for protection. Christ, too, “endured from sinners such hostility against himself” (Hebrews 12:3). In fact, Jesus quoted a line from a similar psalm, Psalm 41, in reference to his betrayal by Judas (see John 13:18). Psalm 54 alludes not only to Jesus’ innocent punishment at the hands of “ruthless men” (v. 3) but also to the colossal battle between God and the devil. Like the psalmist, we can give thanks that God’s victory is certain.

But there is encouragement in Psalm 54 for us, 21st-century followers of Christ, as well. Although suffering is an expected part of the Christian walk, we confidently await the return of Jesus when we will be “delivered from every trouble” (v. 7). After warning believers about their “adversary the devil,” the apostle Peter concludes his first letter with a comforting doxology that reinforces the psalmist’s closing words: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (I Peter 5:10,11).

Applying Psalm 54

  • Why does David pray to be saved by God’s name (v. 1)? What attributes does God’s name express (cf. Heidelberg Catechism LD 47)?
  • What enemies do you face (v. 7, cf. Catechism LD 52)? How do they seek to take your life (v. 3)?
  • How can God’s punishment be a sign of his faithfulness (v. 5)?
  • Is it wrong to pray for vengeance on one’s enemies?

David did not direct his prayers randomly into the air, but offered them in the exercise of a living faith.…It is as if he points his finger directly to that God who stood at his side to defend him. Is this not an amazing illustration of the power with which faith can surmount all obstacles, and glance, in a moment, from the depths of despair to the very throne of God? He was a fugitive amongst the dens of the earth…he was pressed down to the very mouth of the grave…he was trembling in the momentary expectation of being destroyed; and how can he possibly triumph in the certain hope that Divine help will soon be extended to him?…Even in the complete absence of all human defenders, David asserts that the help of God would abundantly compensate for all.

—paraphrased from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 54:4

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

Featured Recording: Analyzing Accompaniment

Featured Recording

Even with URC Psalmody’s 187 videos on YouTube and hundreds of other psalm-related videos from other channels, picking a Featured Recording each week can be surprisingly difficult.  Usually I try to pick a recording from which I can make a related point, or at least offer some helpful thoughts for reflection.

The candidates for today’s post included a video I just put up yesterday of my home congregation singing “Be Thou My Helper in the Strife” (Psalter Hymnal 60, from Psalm 35).  I was unconvinced; it’s a six-and-a-half-minute long video, much longer than the average congregational song, and it’s far from perfect.  For my own part, I wasn’t too confident about the way I had played it, or the merits of the recording in general. But I did start to think about some of the challenges and unique aspects of a song like this one, and came to believe it could make for a thought-provoking Featured Recording post after all.

My pastor had chosen this song from Psalm 35 to accompany a sermon on Luke 20:45-21:4—and it was a very appropriate choice, I think.  He also decided to split the psalm setting in half, having the congregation sing the first four verses before the sermon and the last four after it.  I combined the two halves on the recording for continuity, but you can still pick out the splice.

As I mentioned, the challenges inherent in this case were many.  Our second service is slightly smaller than the morning service (which isn’t large either), so the entire congregation usually sits on one side of the sanctuary.  When I’m scheduled to play, I tend to prefer the piano for this smaller group.  This gives me more musical freedom, since I’m still no master of the organ, but it also means I have to work extra hard to musically lead the congregation.  Thankfully the tune of this psalm setting is that of the familiar hymn “He Leadeth Me,” so they were able to hold the melody line without much trouble.

Then there was the interpretation of the psalm itself.  Psalm 35 is one of the most violent imprecatory songs in the entire Psalter, alternating between exultant highs and the darkest of lows.  Reflecting this in my piano playing was incredibly difficult; while I should never dominate the congregation or view the piece as a performance, I try to at least reflect the overall mood of each stanza for their benefit as I play it.  (It doesn’t help that “He Leadeth Me” is a generally uplifting tune in the bright key of D Major!)  To accomplish this I used a few techniques such as melody in octaves, changes in register, or limited harmonization tweaks.

Finally, there was the typical variety of technical obstacles to overcome.  Settling into the right tempo can be challenging, and if anything, I usually tend to speed when I’m playing piano.  The phrasing of this Psalter Hymnal arrangement also threw most of the congregation for a loop; unlike number 463, this setting includes only one fermata, at the end of the second line.   And through it all I had to rein in my urges to improvise and keep one and a half ears on the congregation.

Were my attempts at properly accompanying #60 successful?  Honestly, I’m still not sure.  At the very least I think my amount of musical communication with the congregation was deficient, as evidenced by the fact that I managed to throw them off on nearly every stanza.  I haven’t yet made up my mind whether piano or organ works better for congregational accompaniment, especially for a small group like this.  And I’m not sure what level of musical freedom I should allow myself.

So, although this Featured Recording lacks a thesis or points of application, perhaps it can still serve as a springboard for discussion.  Fellow musicians, how do you accompany your home congregation?  How do you bring out the themes of the songs you play?  What solutions could you offer to the problems I’ve mentioned above?  Your thoughts will doubtless be valuable to me and anyone else eager to learn how best to assist the church in singing praise to its Lord!

–MRK

(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Psalm 141: As Incense before You

O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me!
Give ear to my voice when I call to you!
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!

–Psalm 141:1, 2 (ESV)

The beauty of Psalm 141 is its balance of lamentation and self-examination.  Although the psalmist David calls for judgment on those who try to ensnare him, he turns directly to God to pray that his own heart and mouth might be kept pure.

O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me!
Give ear to my voice when I call to you!
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth;
keep watch over the door of my lips!

–vv. 3, 4

Another focus of Psalm 141 is the importance of righteous reproof.  Just as the proverb says, “Iron sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17), David exclaims:

Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it.

–v. 5

In short, Psalm 141 contains wise words on a variety of themes, and it’s to the Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of this psalm that we turn today.

292, “O Lord, Make Haste to Hear My Cry”

It ought to be acknowledged that Psalm 141 can be quite a challenge to interpret and paraphrase.  An ESV footnote comments that “The meaning of the Hebrew in verses 6, 7 is uncertain,” and even Charles Spurgeon, commenting on v. 6, admits that “This is a verse of which the meaning seems far to seek.”

That being said, in a few places I am equally puzzled as to the intents of the creators of this setting.  The first stanza is spot-on.  Verses 2 and 3, however, interpret a kind of “morning” vs. “evening” contrast into the second verse of the psalm, which I simply don’t see (the text merely refers to an “evening sacrifice”).  Similarly, the fifth stanza somehow manipulates Psalm 141:5 to read instead:

O righteous God, Thy chastisement,
Though sent through foes, in love is sent;
Though grievous, it will profit me,
A healing ointment it shall be.

As Spurgeon and the ESV indicated, verse 7 presents a real challenge to versifiers: “As when one plows and breaks up the earth, so shall our bones be scattered at the mouth of Sheol.”  Overall I suppose I am satisfied, if not thrilled, with the treatment of this verse in stanza 7 of number 141.  And there are no complains to make about the final stanza:

Themselves entangled in their snare,
Their own defeat my foes prepare;
O keep me, Lord, nor let me fall,
Protect and lead me safe through all.

As far as long-meter (L. M.) tunes go, QUEBEC (HESPERUS) is both a common standby and a beautiful selection.  The opening measure makes it easily confusable with tunes like MARYTON (#169), TRENTHAM (#276), and ST. CRISPIN (#252), but playing through a full stanza before singing should avoid any mix-ups on the part of the congregation.  Strangely enough, my only criticism of this tune is that it is surprisingly low for the blue Psalter Hymnal.  As I just sang through it I had trouble reaching the low F in the bass line; perhaps raising the key a bit would make the range more accessible.  Other than that, QUEBEC fits these heartfelt lyrics perfectly.

O Lord, make haste to hear my cry,
To Thee I call, on Thee rely;
Incline to me a gracious ear,
And, when I call, in mercy hear.

–MRK

Psalm 140: Deliverance from Evil Men

Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men;
preserve me from violent men,
who plan evil things in their heart
and stir up wars continually.

–Psalm 140:1, 2 (ESV)

It’s been suggested that the order of the selections in the Psalter could be more significant than we might think, and considering Psalm 140 in the context of its neighbors seems to give credence to this claim.

By itself, this psalm is simply an individual lament in which David calls upon the Lord for deliverance from his enemies.  He expresses righteous hatred for the slander and violence of the wicked, while declaring his own complete trust in God.

To grasp the broader picture, we need to back up and consider the progression from Psalm 138 to Psalm 140.  All three of these songs were composed by David, possibly at the same time and probably under similar circumstances.  Psalm 138 is a song of thanksgiving and confidence: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me” (v. 7).  The personal plea of its last verse (“Do not forsake the work of your hands”) is expanded in Psalm 139, which extols the Lord for his omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, as we considered a few weeks ago.  But Psalm 139 also contains a transitional passage which helps us understand Psalm 140 more clearly:

Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.

–vv. 19-22

Looking at Psalm 140 from this larger perspective, we can see in it echoes of the confidence of Psalm 138 and the personal assurance of Psalm 139.  “I say to the Lord, You are my God; give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O Lord!” (v. 6).  Although the psalmist is grieved by the arrogance and cunning of his godless enemies, his eyes remain fixed on his own Protector.  At the end of Psalm 140, David declares:

I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
and will execute justice for the needy.
Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
the upright shall dwell in your presence.

–vv. 12, 13

291, “Deliver Me from Evil”

Turning to consider the Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of Psalm 140, I find myself sadly disappointed.  “Deliver Me from Evil” contains only a weak and wobbly imitation of David’s declarations and prayers.  As with many of these settings, the sense of righteous imprecation is almost totally lost.  Even the very first line is softened—“Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men” becomes simply “Deliver me from evil.”  Much of the content of this psalm setting needs beefing up in order to merit inclusion in any new psalter.

One asset number 291 does possess is the beautiful German tune MUNICH, commonly sung with the hymn “O Word of God Incarnate” and utilized in Mendelssohn’s Elijah to the words of Psalm 55:22, “Cast thy burden upon the Lord…”  It’s a simple yet moving melody which colors the theme of this psalm perfectly.

Psalm 140 is much more than a lament; it is a much-needed reminder that even when “our sworn enemies—the devil, the world, and our own flesh—never stop attacking us” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 52, Q&A 127), we have a Deliverer in heaven who will cover our head in the day of battle.

Let evil smite the evil,
And cause their overthrow;
The needy and afflicted
The Lord will help, I know;
Thy saints, redeemed from evil,
Their thanks to Thee shall give;
The righteous and the upright
Shall in Thy presence live.

–MRK


Welcome to URC Psalmody

We hope you'll join us as we discuss music, worship, the psalms, the church, and much more here on URC Psalmody. You can learn about the purpose of this blog here. We look forward to to seeing you in the discussions!

With this feature, just enter your email address and you'll receive notifications of new posts on URC Psalmody by email!

Join 209 other followers

Categories