Posts Tagged 'Psalter'

Featured Recording: Hyper-Psalmody?

Featured Recording

Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Calvinism is enjoying an incredible burst in popularity.  The ubiquity of names like John Piper, Derek Thomas, and Kevin DeYoung demonstrate that, for now at least, it is cool among Christians to be “young, restless, and Reformed.”  Along with this surge of interest in the orthodox Reformed faith, there has been renewed enthusiasm for many of its key elements: the “five points” of Calvinism, the creeds and confessions, the traditions of historic worship—and, not least of all, psalm-singing.

I’ve been exploring the nooks and crannies of cyberspace for psalm-related articles and discussions since 2011, before I even started URC Psalmody.  Perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right places, but back then these resources seemed pitifully few and far between.  Now, almost two years later, there is almost an overabundance of articles, forums, blogs, and websites devoted to psalm-singing.

On the one hand, I’m greatly excited and inspired by this burst of enthusiasm; after all, I was the creator of one of those blogs.  Yet I can’t help but also fear that a hidden danger lies in such abundant activity.  Psalmody is becoming, or has the potential to become, more than just a healthy Biblical practice: it is becoming a fad.

DSC_0182It’s nigh impossible to measure the tone and context of the Reformed world online, but I’m troubled to see psalm-singing sometimes worn as a badge of merit, even separated from the holistic system of Biblical, Reformed worship.  I say this with extreme caution lest I make sweeping and unfounded generalizations, and I believe this phenomenon is the exception rather than the rule.  Nevertheless, may it be in the forefront of our minds that we are psalm-singers because we follow Christ—never the other way around.

Another evidence of psalmody’s increasing faddishness is the extremes to which some of its advocates are pushing it.  Not only am I finding arguments for the simple practice of psalm-singing; lately I’ve been coming across more and more writers who will settle for nothing less than a particular strain of psalm-singing in worship, arguing (or at least strongly implying) that it is more authentic, even more Biblical, than the rest.  Whether that strain is medieval chant, the Psalms of David in Metre, or even our own Psalter Hymnal, the consequences of such a view can be very dangerous to the health of the Church.  Again, I hesitate to say this, because any collection of psalms set to music has its own distinct advantages as well as disadvantages—and of course there is room for personal favorites.  Yet we must never forget that psalm settings, like Bible translations, have all passed through the hands of sinful men, and our arguments ought to be shaped accordingly.

I must mention that URC Psalmody is no more immune to these phenomena than any other blog.  As I compose articles on psalm-singing, church history, and denominational practices, I continually need to be reminded that the Lord needs none of our praises (Ps. 50), that our best deeds are still stained by sin (Is. 64:6), and that the only acceptable worship to God is that which arises out of humble gratitude for his salvation (Ps. 116).  Only with this foundation will our discussions about the particulars of worship be profitable.

Such discussions can indeed be appropriate and edifying, since we are called to grow up into spiritual maturity.  At the same time, however, I submit to you that the worship we offer our heavenly Father should be childlike in its simplicity and sincerity—not childish, but childlike.  How might that perspective change the way we interact in worship-related conversations with our brothers and sisters in the Lord?

I’d like to close this humble call to reflection with a recording that puts a smile on my face every time I watch it: a group of third-graders belting out Psalm 118.  May these words of grateful praise echo from our own hearts!

O praise the Lord, for He is good;
Let all in heaven above
And all His saints on earth proclaim
His everlasting love.
In my distress I called on God;
In grace He answered me,
Removed my bonds, enlarged my place,
From trouble set me free.

The Lord with me, I will not fear
Though human might oppose;
The Lord my Helper, I shall be
Triumphant o’er my foes.
No trust in men, or kings of men,
Can confidence afford,
But they are strong, and sure their trust,
Whose hope is in the Lord.

Salvation’s joyful song is heard
Where’er the righteous dwell;
For them God’s hand is strong to save
And doeth all things well.
I shall not die, but live and tell
The wonders of the Lord;
He has not given my soul to death,
But chastened and restored.


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal Update

Hymnological Math

Our local news station likes to pat itself on the back by calling viewers’ attention over and over to the fact that they saw a particular story “First on 12.”  Sometimes it’s a particularly boring piece of news that no other station could be expected to cover.  Then they’ll brag that it’s a story you’ll see “Only on 12.”

The update I’d like to share with you today is neither mundane enough to be something you’ll read “Only on URC Psalmody,” nor recent enough to be something you’ll read “First on URC Psalmody.”  Had I been unencumbered with a host of other obligations, maybe this post would have gone up a little earlier.  Nevertheless, here it is: a summary of the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee’s latest report.

Read the entire press release here.

If you’re not familiar with the URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal project, this page provides some helpful background information.  As of last November (the date of their last report), the committee had tentatively chosen settings for all 150 psalms.  This report of their March 5-6 meeting includes a substantial amount of overlap, but also some new information.

By now the committees have completed a provisional “Psalm Proposal,” which includes one full metrical version of each psalm (except for Psalm 119, which is divided into its twenty-two large stanzas).  “In all, there are about 235 complete metrical Psalm songs included in the proposal. In addition to these metrical versions, there are about 40 partial or paraphrase Psalm songs that have been agreed upon.  Most of these partial or paraphrased Psalms are from the blue Psalter Hymnal (PH), as a fair percentage of selections in the PH are either partial or paraphrased Psalms.”  This seems to indicate that the Psalm Proposal will be only slightly smaller than the psalm section of the blue Psalter Hymnal (with 310 psalm-songs), and it is my guess that the evaluation process will tend to add more selections to the list.

The URCNA committee reports:

Sensitive to issues of continuity and familiarity, our committees have retained many full metrical or partial/paraphrase selections from the PH in several ways: either as is, or with updated words (e.g. ‘thee’ to ‘you’), or with fuller or more scripturally accurate texts (e.g. a partial text in the PH has been converted into a complete metrical version).

One of the most controversial characteristics of the Hymn Proposal was its extensive modernization of the lyrics of the hymns; the committees will have to address this issue as they tweak the Psalm Proposal as well.  Whatever course of action they decide upon, there are bound to be strong opinions throughout our churches.  Thus, we ought to pray for God’s wisdom and guidance for the committee members, especially as they try to sort out these sticky matters.  May the discussions and the final decision be to his glory.

Pocket Psalter HymnalI am very excited about the committee’s decision to expand some partial texts from the Psalter Hymnal into full ones.  One example they give is Psalter Hymnal #282, “Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim.”  In the blue book this setting only treats vv. 1-7 and 19-21, but the report notes that it has been converted into a full versification in the Psalm Proposal.  Recently I even experimented with completing a setting of Psalm 63 in a similar fashion.  To me, this seems to be an excellent way to preserve the familiarity and heritage of our psalter, while also improving its quality and Scriptural accuracy.

Once again the committee emphasizes, “By retaining many well-known tunes as well as adding some excellent new ones, we hope that our churches will be able to robustly sing all of the Psalms in the collection.”

Now, what of the future?  It has taken the committees nearly two years to complete the Psalm Proposal; beginning this summer, they plan to begin work on a “new and improved” Hymn Proposal.  Meanwhile, the Psalm Proposal is expected to be released online sometime after the OPC’s General Assembly in early June of this year.  “There will be an online system for churches from both of our communions to submit feedback.  After considering this feedback, we hope to have the Psalm Proposal ready for recommendation in 2014 to both the URCNA Synod and the OPC General Assembly.”  Work will continue on the Hymn Proposal, which the committees hope to present to synod and the General Assembly in 2016.  “Upon approval, the final editing, publishing, and printing of the entire songbook would then commence in the Fall of 2016.”

I’ll be honest: I remain on the edge of my seat as I wait to see what’s inside the Psalm Proposal.  Collecting beautiful, singable, familiar, and (above all) Scripturally accurate psalm settings into a reasonably-sized psalter is an incredibly arduous task.  There’s no doubt there will be disagreement amongst the members of our churches regarding which songs should be included and how much they should be modified.  And, like anyone in the URCNA, I need to be prepared for the fact that the Psalm Proposal will probably omit a number of my personal favorites.

But should these objections be allowed to bring our sixteen-year project to a grinding halt?  I hope and pray it may not be so.  I pray that our discussions and feedback to the committee will be well-measured, well-grounded, and well-intentioned for the good of our federation.  I pray that God will grant wisdom and good judgment to the members of the Songbook Committee as they continue their work.  Most of all, I pray that our efforts would be seasoned with grace and Christlikeness—for all our singing is in vain if it is not to God’s glory.


Featured Recording: Holy is He

Featured Recording

For some reason, I have always loved the structure and flow of thought in Psalm 99.  As a whole, it is a beautiful statement of the might and covenant faithfulness of our God.  More specifically, Psalm 99 is divided into three sections or stanzas, separated by the pointed refrain, “Holy is he!”  At the very end this refrain is expanded into a grand finale:

Exalt the Lord our God,
and worship at his holy mountain;
for the Lord our God is holy!

I’ve also developed a greater-than-usual fondness for the many versifications of Psalm 99.  I think I first heard Psalter Hymnal 194, “Jehovah Reigns in Majesty,” sung at an RYS convention.  This setting is paired with the familiar tune of “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” and preserves the stanza-and-refrain structure of the original text.  Recently, I also heard an awe-inspiring recording of the less familiar number 193, “God Jehovah Reigns.”  Although this is a challenging Genevan tune, it offers rich rewards to the adventurous congregation.  It is possible that I may have this recording uploaded to YouTube within a few weeks.

But I’ve lately discovered one other version of Psalm 99, whose absence from the Psalter Hymnal is surprising.  The 1912 Psalter contains a versification that goes like this:

God is King forever: let the nations tremble;
Throned above the cherubim, by all the earth adored;
He is great in Zion, high above all peoples;
Praise Him with fear, for holy is the Lord.

Merciful as mighty, He delights in justice,
For He reigns in righteousness and rules in equity;
Worship and exalt Him, bowing down before Him,
Perfect in power and holiness is He.

Holy men of old in Him alone confided;
He forgave their sins, although they felt His chastening rod;
In His holy temple worship and adore Him,
Faithful and holy is the Lord our God.

As you read these words, did you try to pair them with a tune in your head?  The only tune that matches this meter is NICEA, the majestic tune of Reginald Heber’s renowned hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  Indeed, the connection between these two songs is more than a mere musical similarity.  As the hymn peals, “Holy, Holy, Holy!   Merciful and mighty!” the psalm setting elaborates, “Merciful as mighty, He delights in justice,/For He reigns in uprightness and rules in equity.”  Heber writes, “All the saints adore Thee,/Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea,” while Psalm 99 exhorts, “Let the nations tremble;/Throned above the cherubim, by all the earth adored,/He is great in Zion…”  Not least among the parallels between these two songs is the fact that while the hymn contains a threefold declaration of God’s holiness at the beginning of each stanza, the psalm also states, “Holy is he!” three times.  The resemblance was clearly intentional, and, in my opinion, brilliant.

Today’s Featured Recording is a rendition of this psalm setting by a Grand Rapids Heritage Reformed congregation.  Unfortunately, “God is King Forever” dropped out of the blue Psalter Hymnal, even though it was included in the original red book, and hasn’t been seen in the CRC or URCNA since.  I, for one, would be thrilled to see it make a triumphant re-entry into the new URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal.  Even if it doesn’t, however, this version of Psalm 99 has still earned a place of honor in my mental library of psalmody.


(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)

Featured Recording: The Timelessness of Psalm 139

Featured Recording

As I’ve mentioned before, finding good psalm versifications on YouTube can be harder than searching for a needle in a haystack.  Besides our own URC Psalmody YouTube channel, the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir channel, and a few others, the only solid psalm-singing resources I can typically find are jazzed-up contemporary songs that only allude to or loosely paraphrase the psalm they claim as their basis.

When I first discovered the video featured today, I was sure it would follow basically the same path.  It purported to be a setting of Psalm 139, but with a youth choir onstage and the piano accompaniment opening in a minor key, I wasn’t prepared to be impressed.

The first thing I noticed was that the lyrics were anything but shallow.  True, they weren’t strictly from Psalm 139, but they reflected a prominent theme of the broader Psalter, and beautifully interpreted this particular psalm for the Christian life.  Unfortunately, I don’t know the author of these lines (though I hope I soon will), but I’ve transcribed the first two verses below:

Through all the trials which God sends my way,
Through all the troubles that face each day,
Shadows and clouds may bring doubt and fear,
But Lord, I know Thou art near.

Sometimes the darkness seems empty and cold,
Sometimes I search for a hand to hold;
Lost and uncertain of what to see,
I find my courage in Thee.

What came next took me completely by surprise; actually, the first time I heard it, it sent tingles of awe down my spine.  In the space of one pivotal quarter note, the choir transitioned into a major key, opened up into gorgeous 4-part harmony, and began singing the beloved words of Psalm 139 straight out of the 1912 Psalter.  Hearing the voices of a few hundred children and young people singing these lines made them all the more moving.

Lord, Thou hast searched me and dost know
Where’er I rest, where’er I go;
Thou knowest all that I have planned,
And all my ways are in Thy hand.

Following this incredible musical statement of confidence and trust, the choir reverted to the original minor key for one more verse of the new arrangement, then ended their all-too-short anthem with one more stanza from Psalm 139:

If I the wings of morning take,
And far away my dwelling make,
The hand that leadeth me is Thine,
And my support Thy power divine.

The recording of this arrangement is embedded below:

I could make a multitude of applications as a result of this video, from the modernization of psalm settings to the structure of good choir arrangements.  Rather than overcomplicate this post, however, I’d like to leave you with just one thought: The psalms are truly timeless and intergenerational.  Even a child can sing in simple awe, “Lord, Thou hast searched me and dost know/Where’er I rest, where’er I go.”  But these same words can be uttered with equal sincerity by a hopeful young person with tantalizing prospects ahead of him, as well as by a weak and weary senior who through trials and troubles has proved God’s faithfulness over many years.  The inspired psalms speak to any and every Christian, with no regard to age, time, or place.  Of all things, that is what makes this arrangement so powerful, and the Psalter so valuable.


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

URC Psalmody on YouTube

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