Posts Tagged 'Lamentation'



March’s Psalm of the Month: 42B

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

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Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why are you so disturbed in me?
Trust God, for I will praise Him yet;
My Savior and my God is He.

If you happen to compare Psalms 42B and 42C in the Psalm Proposal, you may notice that their texts and tunes are interchangeable—you can easily sing one set of words to the other melody. That’s because these two versifications share the same meter, or poetic structure. But while selection C (taken straight out of the blue Psalter Hymnal) only treats vv. 1-5 of Psalm 42, selection B is a new and complete versification from Sing Psalms. The text is nicely complemented with the American folk tune O WALY WALY.

Singing Psalm 42B requires special attention not to let the extremely long melody notes sag. For a unique effect consider singing the tune (in unison) as a round, with one half of the congregation beginning a measure ahead of the other half. This musical technique is particularly appropriate for the question-and-answer motifs of Psalm 42.

Suggested stanzas:

  • 3/1: stanzas 1,2, 5
  • 3/8: stanzas 3-5
  • 3/15: stanzas 6-8
  • 3/22: stanzas 8-11
  • 3/29: all

Source: Psalm 42 in Sing Psalms; see also Psalm 42C in The Book of Psalms for Worship

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 42

  • “When shall I come and appear before God?” (vv. 1,2)
  • “Where is your God?” (vv. 3,4)
  • “Why are you cast down?” (v. 5)
  • “Why have you forgotten me?” (vv. 6-9)
  • “Where is your God?” (v. 10)
  • “Why are you cast down?” (v. 11)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 42

“I thirst,” said Jesus as he hung on the cross (John 19:28). The sour wine his crucifiers gave him calls to mind Psalm 69:21, but surely Jesus felt more than physical thirst in his anguish. In words reminiscent of Psalm 42:3, the watching crowd jeered, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now” (Matt. 27:43). As he experienced utter separation from the Lord’s favor, Jesus must have thirsted for God spiritually “as a deer pants for flowing streams” (Psalm 42:1). Truly all of God’s breakers and waves went over him (v. 7), but God also raised him up for our justification.

Through Christ we have access to living water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14), and we have this promise: “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 7:17). Hope in God, your Rock and Savior!

Applying Psalm 42

  • What water-related images does the psalmist use to portray his affliction (e.g. vv. 1, 7)? Which ones are most vivid to you?
  • Does frequent absence from God’s house of worship grieve you (v. 4)?
  • Do the breakers and waves of v. 7 indicate God’s absence or his presence?
  • In times of affliction, how would you answer the challenge, “Where is your God” (v. 10)?

Note well that the main hope and chief desire of [the psalmist] rest in the smile of God. His face is what he seeks and hopes to see, and this will recover his low spirits, this will put to scorn his laughing enemies, this will restore to him all the joys of those holy and happy days around which memory lingers. This is grand cheer. This verse, like the singing of Paul and Silas, looses chains and shakes prison walls.

—Charles Spurgeon on Psalm 42:5

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

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

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Psalm 143: I Am Your Servant

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
give ear to my pleas for mercy!
In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness!

–Psalm 143:1 (ESV)

URC Psalmody’s journey through the Psalter began with the beginning of URC Psalmody itself, back on December 31, 2011.  To avoid getting “bogged down” in one area of the psalms, I decided to split the series into two different trails: one beginning with Psalm 103, the other beginning with Psalm 48. While this journey is still far from complete (with Psalms 1-47, 68-102, and 144-150 awaiting their own posts), it’s a bit surprising nonetheless to come to Psalm 143 and realize that it is the last lament of the Psalter.

Even from the cross-references provided in the ESV Study Bible, we can see the clear connection of Psalm 143 with earlier laments: Psalm 140:6, 31:1, 130:3, and 88:3-6, just to name a few.  Perhaps its closest cousin is Psalm 77, which includes both a desolate cry for help and a call to remember the Lord’s mighty deeds in the past.  But one unique aspect of Psalm 143 is its beautiful confession of guilt in v. 2: “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.”  This psalm also contains a direct appeal to the guiding work of the Holy Spirit in v. 10, and ends on a note of confidence that is both an unusual conclusion to the psalms of lament, and a wonderful transition to the final seven songs in the Psalter:

For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life!
In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!
And in your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies,
and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul,
for I am your servant.

–vv. 11, 12

As is our custom, today we’ll briefly consider the blue Psalter Hymnal’s two versifications of Psalm 143.

294, “Lord, Hear Me in Distress”

When it comes to psalms of lament and imprecation, the 1912 Psalter and, by extension, the Psalter Hymnal have a nasty habit of dialing down the weight and power of the inspired text.  Thankfully, for Psalm 143 that is not the case.  In fact, the text of number 294 is one of the best I’ve seen throughout the Psalter Hymnal.  Despite the challenge of setting the words to a short and rather unusual meter (6.6.6.6.D.), the creators of this versification managed to preserve the nuances of the psalm exceptionally well.  The poetry is conducive, too, especially in stanzas like the fourth:

My failing spirit see,
O Lord, to me make haste;
Hide not Thy face from me,
Lest bitter death I taste.
O let the morn return,
Let mercy light my day;
For Thee in faith I yearn,
O guide me in the way.

DENBY is a fairly unique tune composed by Charles J. Dale in 1904.  A number of tunes have been implemented for this psalm setting in its various incarnations, but I tend to like the flow and mood of the melody included here.  Just let the musician be careful not to speed through these powerful words of desolation and hope!

295, “When Morning Lights the Eastern Skies”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

In some United Reformed congregations, this excerpt from Psalm 143 has traditionally served as a response to the silent prayer at the opening of morning worship.  Basically it is a setting of Psalm 143:8-11, less literal than number 294 but no less accurate to the inspired text.  The tune, also composed in 1904, is sufficiently meditative for these solemn yet hopeful words.  “When Morning Lights the Eastern Skies” would serve well as a response to the reading of God’s law, or in many other places in the worship service.

Perhaps it is particularly fitting that Psalm 143 should wrap up the genre of laments within the Psalter.  It starts with the realization that the Lord owes us nothing but punishment—“for no one living is righteous before you”—yet it rests in the assurance of his unmerited grace.  It acknowledges the terrible threats posed to us by our mortal enemies, but declares God to be our everlasting refuge.  It looks back on his mighty deeds of old as proof that his mercies are new every morning.  And it ends with this intensely personal confession:

And in your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies,
and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul,
for I am your servant.

Remove mine enemy,
My cruel foe reward;
In mercy rescue me
Who am Thy servant, Lord.

–MRK

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

Featured Recording: The Depths of Psalm 88

O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.

–Psalm 88:14, 15 (ESV)

Featured Recording

Let’s not kid ourselves: Psalm 88 is shocking.  It is a lament of laments.  Charles Spurgeon said of Psalm 88 that “this sad complaint reads very little like a song, nor can we conceive how it could be called by a name which denotes a song of praise or triumph; yet perhaps it was intentionally so called to show how faith ‘glories in tribulations also.’  Assuredly, if ever there was a song of sorrow and a Psalm of sadness, this is one.”

Lord willing we’ll consider the contents of Psalm 88 when we arrive at it in our progression through the Psalter.  Today, though, I’d like to ask a tough question: How do we sing Psalm 88?  How can a musical arrangement be crafted to adequately reflect the darkness and despair of this text?

The valuable vaults of the World-Wide Web give us a glimpse into historical attempts to set this psalm to music.  The Genevan Psalter of 1562 includes a sufficiently doleful tune in the Dorian mode, though I believe this recording is much too fast.  Of course, Psalm 88 was versified in a host of other historic Psalters, but recordings of the music used there are much more difficult to find.

What of our own Psalter Hymnal?  How does it treat Psalm 88?

About a year ago, a member of a United Reformed Church in Iowa and a friend of my co-author James Oord posted some thoughts on this psalm setting on her blog, Free Indeed.  Tierney lamented, and rightly so, that the version of Psalm 88 in the Psalter Hymnal is (or, at least, is often rendered as) “an atrocity.  How can you possibly sing words written from the depths of a soul so utterly desolate and torn apart, to a tune that belongs at a carnival—and really mean what you’re singing? It’s a musical lie, and borders on making a mockery of the text.”

Along with a few other readers, I commented on this post, and a thoughtful (and, I think, very profitable) discussion followed.  Both of us saw the same problems with this versification of Psalm 88—a weakly paraphrased text set to a jarringly jolly piece of music.  Tierney’s solution was to create a new and beautiful minor tune to be used to the words in the Psalter Hymnal; mine was to play around with varying harmonizations and stylistic approaches to try to redeem the original tune.  Along the way we shared thoughts about some of the notorious issues that plague any set of psalm paraphrases—scriptural accuracy, tune choices, and songbook loyalty, among others.  (If you’ve got a few extra minutes, I’d humbly encourage you to read the comments!)

That’s a rather roundabout way to introduce today’s Featured Recording here on URC Psalmody.  The very same day I commented on Tierney’s post, the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir uploaded a video to their YouTube channel with a new arrangement of Psalm 88.  They had kept the original tune, IRVING, and they had kept its original harmonies—but it was the most hauntingly appropriate rendition of Psalm 88 I’ve ever heard.  As I re-listen to it now, the power of this recording almost transcends description.

I’d encourage you to give some thought to Psalm 88 and how it ought to be sung.  Does this rendition convince you as fully as it convinced me?  Do you instead prefer Tierney’s alternate tune, or maybe my own rather sloppy arrangement?  Your wisdom, thoughts, and comments are always appreciated.

As we conclude this post, it might be helpful to call attention to Spurgeon’s further words on Psalm 88.  He points to a single but permeating “ray of comfortable light which shines throughout the psalm.”  Whatever the troubles of the psalmist may be, he still addresses his prayer to the God of his salvation.  “The writer has salvation, he is sure of that, and God is the sole author of it.  While a man can see God as his Saviour, it is not altogether midnight with him.  While the living God can be spoken of as the life of our salvation, our hope will not quite expire.”  Indeed, even in the valley of the shadow of death, we can rest assured that the Lord remains our Savior.  It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that the Christian can sing Psalm 88.

–MRK

(Click here for our last Featured Recording, posted three weeks ago)

Singing Our Sadness

We’ve spoken in the past about how Christians ought to view psalms of lament and imprecation. Are these sentiments worthy of a believer’s lips? Rev. Daniel Kok of Grace URC in Leduc, Alberta, shares his thoughts on this matter, and emphasizes the unique value of the Psalter.

–MRK

Grace Reformed Church of Leduc

A wise elder in a congregation I once served told me that I should select the first song in worship to be a joyful song of praise. His concern was that I, having chosen a sadder song to begin our Sunday worship, would bring to mind and heart the feeling of a funeral service rather than the glad celebration it was meant to be. Thus the tone of the entire service would be ‘off’ from the very beginning. I appreciated his point and, to this day, have striven to follow this ‘rule’ for the order of worship. And clearly there are many  appropriate songs to choose that have aided me in doing so.

Since that time I have grown in my appreciation and reverence specifically for the biblical Psalms. One of the reasons for my attraction to them is their capacity to express a wide range of emotions that God…

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