Posts Tagged 'Messianic Psalms'

Called to Sing (Part 2)

(The following is continued from an adaptation of a Sunday school class I led at the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Franklin Square, NY, on May 24, 2015.)

We’ve already worked through the question of why Christians should sing. If we view congregational singing as the grateful offering of redeemed sinners before a holy God, we should also carefully consider what to sing. Simply put, we should strive to make sure we worship God the way he desires to be worshiped.

In preparation for this class I took a peek inside the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Directory for Public Worship to learn how your church regulates its worship services. There I found these guidelines: songs should be “for the praise and glory of God and the building up of the saints,” they should “befit the nature of God and the purpose of worship,” and they should be “fully in accord with the Scriptures.”

Now while most Reformed Christians (and, indeed, Christians in general) would agree that these are good requirements, they have long disagreed about which songs best fit them. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) encourages the use of both psalms and hymns (that is, any songs from outside or from other portions of Scripture) in worship services. However, with the decision to produce a complete Psalter Hymnal in collaboration with the United Reformed Churches in North America, the OPC took one step further. In so doing it affirmed that all of the psalms (not just some of the psalms) are appropriate for Christians to sing, and that their nature and purpose are distinct from those of uninspired hymns.

I heartily agree with this position. And while I’m not here to argue that the psalms should be sung exclusively, I do want to spend the rest of this class outlining how the Book of Psalms is supremely suitable and helpful for Christian worship. In particular, there are three primary ways in which psalm-singing offers a fuller and richer experience than hymn-singing.

First, when we sing psalms we sing the inspired Word of God itself (though usually adapted to fit a rhymed metrical pattern). You can’t get more “in accord with the Scriptures” than the Scriptures themselves! As long as the translators and versifiers have done their job well, we never have to worry about singing psalms that promote false doctrine. Psalm-singing immerses us in the Word of God to an extent that hymns do not.

Second, when we sing psalms we sing in unison with the church of all ages. As we saw earlier, Christian worship participates in the one cosmic song of redemption, “the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.” In Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms, Andrew Bonar writes, “The Psalms are for all ages alike—not more for David than for us. Even as the cry, ‘It is finished!’ though first heard by the ear of John and the women from Galilee, who stood at the cross, was not meant for them more truly than for us; so with the Psalms.”

Even though the psalms were written thousands of years ago, through the Holy Spirit they speak to believers today just as powerfully as they did then. In fact, aspects of some psalms still remain unfulfilled—for instance, the prophecies about the blessings of the Messiah’s reign over all the earth in Psalm 72. We find that we must sing the psalms with the same eyes of faith as our forefathers did.

Third, when we sing psalms we sing not just to Jesus and about Jesus, as we do with hymns, we also sing with Jesus (a distinction helpfully brought out in David Murray’s book Jesus on Every Page). Opponents of psalm-singing often argue that as part of the Old Testament, the psalms fail to incorporate the revelation of the person and work of Jesus. But while there are two testaments, there is only one redemptive story, and Christ is at its center. Murray and others have made a convincing case for reading the psalms as they would have been sung by Jesus himself.

As an example of singing the psalms with Jesus, look at Psalm 22. The opening words of this psalm should be familiar to all of us: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They were, of course, spoken by Jesus as he hung on the cross. But look at the last verse of this psalm: “They shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.” Some theologians have suggested that this last phrase could also be translated, “It is finished.” From beginning to end, Psalm 22 reflects the thoughts and words of Jesus as he suffered for our sins. In that sense, we see this psalm as being sung by him! This becomes even more awe-inspiring when we see Jesus singing about us in the second half of this psalm: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you” (v. 27). With this perspective, isn’t it an incredibly rich and rewarding experience to study and sing this psalm?

As we close, I’d simply like to ask you to learn to love the psalms God has provided for us in his Word. Learn to love reading them, studying them, seeing Christ in them, and singing them. Learn to let this book shape your expressions of praise and gratitude to God. Individually and as a church body, you will find that the psalms nourish and strengthen your spiritual walk as a result.

–MRK

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Christmas Psalms: Psalm 98

Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!
Born is the King of Israel!

As often as it appears in cards, plaques, and Christmas carols, the little word “Noel” evades precise definition. The old English Christmas shout “Nowell” can be traced back to the French form “Noel,” and from there the etymological road splits. On one hand, “Noel” could be derived from the Latin natalis, meaning “born”—thus, “He is born!” The second possibility, however, and the one that intrigues me more, links “Noel” with the French word nouvelle, meaning “news.” Rather than the direct statement “He is born,” then, “Noel” takes on a broader meaning: “Good news!”

Fire Island Lighthouse

Fire Island Lighthouse

This year, “good news” has become a recurring theme in many of my experiences. From enjoying the robust psalm-singing of the Reformed Presbyterian Church I attend at college, to singing with The Genevans Choir first in Ohio and then in southeast Asia, to hosting Geneva’s small vocal ensemble New Song at my home church, to participating in a TASC (Teens Actively Serving Christ) trip on Long Island, to preparing organ and choir music for The Genevans’ Christmas concerts this fall, the year 2014 left me both with a deeper understanding of what that “good news” means and with a more vigorous joy to proclaim it.

The good news, of course, is that God has provided a way for sinners to be reconciled to himself, through the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son Jesus Christ. But the ramifications of that statement—on either an individual or a global level—are hard to process for minds and hearts as thick as mine.

Heinz Chapel

Heinz Chapel

Just before the end of the spring semester, The Genevans sang for a wedding in the architecturally overwhelming Heinz Chapel in Pittsburgh. Three weeks later, we were visiting a chapel in rural Mindanao with one wall and a dirt floor. I got to sing psalms in locations as disparate as the summit of 13,435-foot Mount Kinabalu and the cavernous tower of a Long Island lighthouse. The choir’s Christmas concerts drew a full house at Beaver Falls’s magnificent First Presbyterian Church, but our audiences in the Philippines sometimes consisted only of a few villagers and a dog. Yet almost anywhere we visited, there were signs that the good news of the gospel had been there.

In places like Heinz Chapel, the gospel has become so commonplace—so un-extraordinary—that the colossal building may represent nothing but a shell of once-vibrant faith. In other places, the physical amenities may be meager, but the good news has brought true hope and real transformation, incorporating new “living stones” into the spiritual edifice of the Church universal (I Peter 2:5). For me, some of the most powerful evidence of the gospel’s work emerged from the fellowship I enjoyed with Christian brothers and sisters in the congregations we visited, whether stateside or around the globe. What a wonder it is to belong to “one body and one Spirit” (Ephesians 4)!

Psalm 98 expresses the joy of these “glad tidings” better than any human tongue can:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The LORD has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. . . .

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

–Psalm 98:1,3 (ESV)

Perhaps the psalmist penned these words with ardent longing for the day when God’s salvation would be revealed to the nations as never before, when his “steadfast love and faithfulness” to his people would be remembered and the earth’s ends would see his redeeming work. That would be good news indeed—but it would be long in coming.

The angels’ first words to the shepherds in Luke 2—“Fear not . . . I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people . . .”—marked the beginning of the best announcement this tired world could hope to see. Christ has come! He has come, as he promised through Isaiah,

to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

–Isaiah 61:1-3

In the last few weeks of the fall semester I put together the following video (with footage from several of the sites we visited this year and audio from Geneva’s campus chimes and the First Presbyterian Church pipe organ) in an attempt to connect as many of these themes as possible—“The First Noel,” the good news of Christ’s coming, and the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.

[youtube http://youtu.be/5c2u1Q9d5rM]

May this season offer you the opportunity to see the Lord’s salvation, to rejoice in his righteousness, to know his steadfast love, and to “sing to the Lord a new song.” Truly he has done marvelous things.

–MRK

A Good Friday Meditation

As a child I never could figure out why we called it Good Friday.  The story of Jesus’ crucifixion seemed anything but good; in fact, it seemed absolutely horrible.  My reaction tended to be similar to the response someone might have to a tragic secular narrative: “Did it have to end this way?  Oh, if only Jesus and his disciples hadn’t gone to the garden of Gethsemane the previous night!  If only Judas hadn’t betrayed him!  If only Pilate hadn’t condemned him!”

It shames me to admit this now, because I was clearly missing the story of salvation, the entire reason why Christ came into the world.   The apostle John counters this notion with parenthetical notes in his Gospel that Jesus knew “all that would happen to him” (18:4) and “that all was now finished” (19:28).

One of the themes throughout John’s gospel is “that you [the reader] also may believe.”  After he describes Jesus’ death, John comments:

He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.  For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken.’  And again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on him whom they have pierced.’

–John 19:35-37 (ESV)

Here the apostle clearly shows that nothing about Jesus’ arrest, condemnation, and crucifixion was accidental; each event transpired to fulfill all of the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.  In the gospel of Luke, the risen Christ explains the fulfillment of these prophecies to his despairing disciples:

‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’  Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.’

–Luke 24:44-48 (ESV)

What is amazing about this passage is that Christ himself explicitly refers to the psalms as prophecies about the Messiah.  As we remember the Lord’s death today, I’d like to point you to one of the most powerful messianic passages in all of Scripture: Psalm 22.  As you read the excerpts below, think back to the events of the Crucifixion.  Seeing these prophecies so powerfully fulfilled, we ought to be inspired to declare with the centurion, “Truly this was the son of God!” (Matt. 27:54).

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O Lord, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!

None of us can come close to fully comprehending the suffering Christ endured, and the wrath of God he bore for us.  At the same time, however, Psalm 22 looks forward to deliverance—to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and our redemption and eternal life.

I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.

It has been pointed out, very appropriately I think, that the very last phrase of Psalm 22—“he has done it”—was paralleled in Jesus’ final words on the cross: “It is finished.”  This moment was the climax of history, the culmination of God’s incomprehensible plan of salvation.  As the Heidelberg Catechism explains it in Q&A 37:

This he did in order that,
by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice,
he might set us free, body and soul,
from eternal condemnation,
and gain for us
God’s grace,
righteousness,
and eternal life.

As we commemorate Good Friday, then, may our grief never stem merely from Christ’s suffering on the cross; may it grieve us more that it was our sins that put him there.  But although we may grieve, this should also be an opportunity for us to offer our humble thanks to God for bringing about our salvation.  In the powerful words of the old hymn:

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior,
‘Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever;
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love to Thee.

–MRK

Psalm 132: The Lord Has Chosen Zion

Remember, O LORD, in David’s favor,
all the hardships he endured,
how he swore to the LORD
and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob,
‘I will not enter my house
or get into my bed,
I will not give sleep to my eyes
or slumber to my eyelids,
until I find a place for the LORD,
a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.’

–Psalm 132:1-5 (ESV)

As its first line indicates, Psalm 132 is, in part, a song about David, the king of Israel.  But Psalm 132 is so much more than just a royal psalm.  It is a declaration of God’s promises to his people and his Church.  It is a commendation of all those who make God’s house their care.  And, most importantly, it is a powerful prophecy concerning the kingdom of David’s ultimate Son, Jesus Christ.

277, “Gracious Lord, Remember David”

(Sung at Synod 2012)

“Gracious Lord, Remember David” was the first selection sung during plenary session at Synod 2012, and it immediately became my favorite—so it’s especially hard to remain objective as I write this review.

Honestly, though, I believe the text of number 277 is a true gem.  Where a purely literal versification of Psalm 132 would prove clunky or difficult to understand, the authors tweaked the text just enough to make it fit the tune snugly.  For the most part, they simply let the idioms and phrases of the original text shine through.  The most paraphrasing occurs in the first and second stanzas, but even here it is carried out carefully.  The only spot I might question is at the beginning of the second stanza:

Far away God’s ark was resting,
It is with His people now…

This is certainly one possible interpretation of Psalm 132:6 (“Behold, we heard of it in Ephrathah; we found it in the fields of Jaar”), but there might be others as well.

Out of all the stanzas, the fourth is definitely my favorite, both for its content and for its poetic integrity:

Thou, the Lord, hast chosen Zion,
Thou hast ever loved her well;
This My resting-place forever,
Here, Thou say’st, I choose to dwell.
Surely I will bless and help her,
Feed her poor, her saints make glad,
And her priests shall stand before Me
In salvation’s garments clad.

The fifth verse also does an excellent job of preserving the original meaning of the psalm as it relates to both King David and his descendant, Jesus Christ.  The only extra-biblical content is the last line, “Blessed be His holy Name,” which makes sense only if we realize that it refers to the ultimate Anointed One, the true King of Israel.

The tune of number 277 comes as a bit of a surprise; it’s the tune of the Fanny Crosby hymn “All the Way My Savior Leads Me.”  Nevertheless, it certainly matches the theme and mood of this psalm; in particular, the repetition of the last two lines provides a delightful emphatic effect.  When I played this song at Synod 2012, I beefed up the bass line with a 32’ stop in the pedal for the second half of this stanza.  With 200 men singing along, this was one of those exhilarating moments when “the house shook.”

“Gracious Lord, Remember David” is the only setting of Psalm 132 in the Psalter Hymnal, but would anyone ask for another one?  Number 277 is an excellent selection, and I believe it’s not sung nearly as much as it ought to be.

I will cause the might of David
Ever more and more to grow;
On the path of Mine Anointed
I will make a lamp to glow.
All His enemies shall perish,
I will cover them with shame;
But His crown shall ever flourish;
Blessed be His holy Name.

–MRK

Psalm 55

Give ear to my prayer, O God,
and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!
Attend to me, and answer me;
I am restless in my complaint and I moan,
because of the noise of the enemy,
because of the oppression of the wicked.
For they drop trouble upon me,
and in anger they bear a grudge against me.

–Psalm 55:1-3 (ESV)

Throughout Psalm 55, David expresses his grief at the wickedness surrounding him.  “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me.  Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me”…“Destroy, O Lord, divide their tongues; for I see violence and strife in the city.  Day and night they go around it on its walls, and iniquity and trouble are within it; ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace.”

In spite of his sharp dismay, again and again the psalmist returns to seek his refuge in the LORD.  “Give ear to my prayer, O God”…“But I call to God, and the LORD will save me”…“Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you”…“But you, O God, will cast them down to destruction”…“But I will trust in you.”

These conflicting thoughts, so common to every believer’s heart, form the basic structure of Psalm 55.  To some extent this song is a three-way conversation, with exchanges between the psalmist and himself, as well as between the psalmist and God.  Providing an honest treatment of the problem of evil in the world, Psalm 55 paints a beautiful picture of God’s constant faithfulness and imminent triumph over the wicked.  But there’s an even deeper layer of meaning in Psalm 55.  As you read, imagine Christ himself as the singer (as James recently suggested), and note the prophetic links to the events of Jesus’s suffering and death.

100, “Jehovah, to My Prayer Give Ear”

It takes an adventurous singer to tackle number 100 for the first time.  An unusual accompaniment figure in the first line, coupled with a daunting key change midway through each stanza, seems to present the average organist and congregation with quite a challenge.

This is especially unfortunate because the text of “Jehovah, to My Prayer Give Ear” is particularly well-written.  Although composed in the days of the archaic American Standard Version, the verbiage so closely matches the ESV text that they even share many individual words (“prayer,” “complaint,” “moan,” “enemies,” and “oppress,” in stz. 1 alone).  This similarity makes number 100 a particularly good selection for memorization.

I can point out only one flaw with “Jehovah, to My Prayer Give Ear,” but sadly, it’s a major one.  One of the most heart-rending passages in Psalm 55 is in vv. 12-14:

For it is not an enemy who taunts me—
then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
then I could hide from him.
But it is you, a man, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to take sweet counsel together;
within God’s house we walked in the throng.

This description of a close friend’s treachery echoes the experience of many children of God over the centuries, and, more importantly, points forward to the betrayal of Jesus himself.  Yet the creators of this setting crushed this pathetically beautiful passage into a meager couple of lines: “No foreign foe provokes alarm,/But enemies within.”  Clearly, the versification must be broadened here to take into account the full meaning of the psalm.

The most difficult aspect of number 100 is its tune, but even this isn’t unconquerable.  Surprisingly, this peculiar tune format (first half in a minor key, second half in major) isn’t uncommon in the Psalter Hymnal; some similar selections include numbers 161 and 464.  Ideally, the best way to address VOX DILECTI would be to offer a pastoral explanation on how the two musical moods represent the conflicting emotions of the psalmist.  When that’s not possible, simply noting the key change from the pulpit and requesting the accompanist to play through a single stanza beforehand should be sufficient.

101, “On God Alone My Soul Relies”

Number 101 is the complement to its prequel, “Jehovah, to My Prayer Give Ear.”  For the most part, the text is just as solid as number 100, with two notable exceptions.  One is the entirety of the fourth stanza, which is so tongue-twistingly complicated that it defies all but the most persistent attempts at interpretation.

All treacherous friends who overreach
And break their plighted troth,
Who hide their hate with honeyed speech,
With such the Lord is wroth.

It’s my humble opinion that a smidgen of updated language here would do a world of good.

The second questionable spot occurs in the very last stanza, which somewhat softens the impact of Psalm 55:23.  Whether or not the text should be changed to more completely reflect the original is up for discussion.

102, “O God, Give Thou Ear to My Plea”

Number 102 is merely an excerpt of Psalm 55, but it’s even more textually solid than numbers 100 and 101.  My only suggested change would be to the first line of stanza 3: that “Nay, soul, call on God…” be replaced with “But I call on God…”—simply for clarity.

Personally, I’d like to have a word with composers that choose to give their tunes wretched names like ASSIUT, but besides this awkward flaw (have you tried to pronounce it?), George Stebbins’s composition is a beautiful and solid tune.  Its undulating melody line perfectly bears the plaintive cry of the psalmist to the listeners’ ears, yet the very same melody also carries the calm triumph of the last two stanzas.

Of the three settings of Psalm 55 in the Psalter Hymnal, number 102 is best suited for a summary treatment of the psalm, whereas numbers 100 and 101 delve into the text more thoroughly.  While Psalm 55 would be particularly well-suited for a time of personal need (or a commemoration of the Lord’s suffering and death), its recurring theme is an essential element in every believer’s life.

Thy burden now cast on the Lord,
And He shall thy weakness sustain;
The righteous who trust in His word
Unmoved shall forever remain.

–MRK


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