Posts Tagged 'Texts'

Psalm 25: The College of Grace

IMG_2431

To you, O LORD, I lift my soul.
O my God, in you I trust.

–Psalm 25:1,2 (ESV)

The new school year brings with it a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Students of all ages worry whether they will make new friends in a new school, whether their coursework will be manageable, or whether their teachers or professors will be gentle or tyrannical. College freshmen wonder how they will survive living away from the comforts of home and school. Eagerness and dread blend together in a classic combination so unique to this time of year.

Poised to enter my senior year of college, I sympathize with all students who have an intimidating course of study to return to next month, but I think particularly of the incoming college freshmen. Three short years ago I was in their shoes, losing sleep over hundreds of questions (both important and totally unimportant) about what my life would look like. If I could travel back those three years, I often wonder what words of wisdom I might have for my freshman self. I think it would be a relatively short list: avoid the fish tacos, take more communication classes, and don’t expect hot water on the third floor of the dorm at 6 a.m. But above all these practical tips, there would certainly be one piece of advice in bold print: Study Psalm 25.

In Hebrew Psalm 25 is an acrostic. In other words, each verse begins with the successive letters of the alphabet. As it turns out, Psalm 25 presents not just a literal alphabet but also a spiritual alphabet, a set of principles for wise living in a foolish world. The more of college I experience, the more I recognize the stores of wisdom this psalm offers to all of us who are students in the lifelong course of the Christian walk.

“Let me not be put to shame.” I can definitely recall times in my college experience when I felt ashamed: maybe it was the disappointing grade I got on a paper, or the conflict I handled poorly, or the times when I failed to meet my own expectations. “Let not my enemies exult over me.” There are enemies in college too—perhaps not actual bullies, most of the time, but the triple evils that attack Christians in their walk: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Whether or not you attend a Christian school, you will feel these pressures at some point, and there will be times when you feel that they have triumphed over you.

The world tries to paper over the shame and disappointment we experience with pep talks about success and self-definition. Be your own person! Rise above your circumstances! Take control of your destiny! Surprisingly, this is the very opposite of the psalmist’s solution. His answer sounds passive, even paralyzing: “None who wait for you shall be put to shame.” Far from blazing his own trail, the psalmist seeks directions to a pre-existing path: “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.” He describes waiting on God “all the day long,” a discipline that seems thankless and fruitless. Yet it is here, according to this psalm, that the believer will find true success.

In The Treasury of David, Charles Spurgeon pictures Psalm 25 as the request of a little child: “Father, first tell me which is the way, and then teach my little trembling feet to walk in it.” If there is one thing college has taught me, it is that I often do not know the way. As a freshman, I loved to picture myself excelling in all my classes, surrounded by groups of great friends, and pressing forward to exciting prospects after graduation. God has provided many of these blessings, and they are blessings indeed. But it is impossible to really enjoy such gifts without a kind of wisdom that no college can impart, a wisdom gained from the humbling experience of waiting upon God through times of doubt and hardship as well as ease and assurance.

While the path may often seem steep or overgrown, Psalm 25 promises that those who wait upon the Lord will receive this heavenly wisdom. “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.” If you can take one verse with you through your college education—and through the rest of life’s difficult decisions as well—let this be it. Do you need to confess nagging sin? Do you doubt your strength to follow Jesus all the way to the end? Do you feel lonely and homesick? Psalm 25 offers you a spiritual alphabet to remind you of the wisdom that comes from above. It is a syllabus that will guide you successfully through all the halls and corridors of what Spurgeon called “the college of grace.”

–MRK

How Every Delegate Should Vote Next Week

psh-distort-small

It’s an unwritten rule of church relations: If you want to get into an argument as fast as possible, question a brother or sister’s favorite song. The rule applies to every church tradition from a cappella psalm-singing to contemporary worship music, including the URCNA.

Synod 2016 meets in Grand Rapids next week, and I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s going to be a difficult meeting. Decisions related to the Psalter Hymnal are by no means the only issues of importance on the agenda, but they will be painful nevertheless. A new book means some of our most beloved psalm settings and hymns may end up on the chopping block—and let’s admit it now: that hurts.

Our federation-wide sensitivity to the topic of church music has been revealed to me in several communications I’ve received from URC pastors, elders and members in recent weeks. I’ve heard opinions ranging from the overwhelmingly positive to the astonishingly critical, and I’m glad to listen to and learn from all of them.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if we’ve adopted a double standard in evaluating the new book. Although we may examine its lyrics and music with a magnifying glass, we often fail to consider the new book as a whole. By contrast, we have a very positive overall view of the blue Psalter Hymnal, yet we may have lost sight of some of its specifics. And I’m afraid that many songs from the blue book would fail under the careful scrutiny so quickly applied to the proposal.

To give an example, I’ve heard allegations that the new songbook contains hidden strains of universalism and Roman Catholicism—a shocking claim which, if true, would give us great cause for concern. Supporting evidence is drawn from hymns that include lines like “died to save us all,” or from a communion hymn translated by a priest, John Mason Neale, exhorting us to “take by faith the body of the Lord.” Now, in context these lyrics can easily be explained Scripturally: the “us all” refers to the church, and the “body of the Lord” merely echoes Jesus’ own words in Matthew 26. I don’t think heresy is implied in either case.

More concerning, however, is the tendency to elevate the blue Psalter Hymnal as the gold standard to which other songbooks must attain. In this case, no mention is made of some of its own hymns that could be interpreted in the very same light. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” contains the line “Light and life to all He brings,” while “Faith of Our Fathers” was written by a Roman Catholic priest to commemorate Catholic martyrs. I’m not judging the merit of either of these hymns. I merely want to point out that by this line of reasoning, we would have to conclude that the blue Psalter Hymnal too is a corrupted seedbed for unreformed heresy.

Most of all, though, I’m surprised that this conversation is coming to a head at such a late date. We’ve had 19 years to think about this project, to recommend our favorite songs, to share our concerns, to overture our consistories and classes and synods as to what shape the new book should take. We might have even appealed the very decision to pursue a new book. We’ve had access to a complete psalm proposal and two complete hymn proposals. We’ve had every opportunity to participate in the project with a spirit of mutual edification and constructive criticism.

Yet 19 years later—and one week before what may be the last vote on the book—we are still asking and answering questions about why the “old blue” won’t remain in print forever, why working together with another denomination is to our advantage, and “why we need a new Psalter Hymnal anyway.” Rather than acknowledging this as a monumental task that requires the active involvement of every concerned member, we apparently prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize. We criticize the distant and unknown—the motives of the Songbook Committee, the traditions of the OPC—in contrast to the familiar, the good, the safe.

Brothers and sisters, let’s remember one thing: the new book is corrupted. It’s corrupted because we are. And the blue Psalter Hymnal is corrupted too—because we were corrupted back then as well. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought,” said Paul, and much less do we know how to sing as we ought. Even the most staunchly Reformed songbook would still bear the marks of our sin and imperfection before God.

And that’s why we’re commanded to sing: because we’ve been promised redemption from this corruption, and because the experience of congregational singing builds us up together as the body of Christ. As we fill our hearts and mouths with the words God has given us in the psalms, as well as the words of godly men and women of old—slowly, imperfectly, through thee’s and you’s, Jehovah’s and Lord’s, archaic verbs and clumsy rhyming schemes—still, we learn to speak like Jesus. That heavenly accent we pick up is one not of arrogance and confusion, but of humility and peace.

If you’re preparing for next week’s synod, I trust that you won’t base your decision on the new book merely on my words or the words of others, but that you are even now prayerfully considering the question of our songbook for yourself. I humbly urge you to meditate on Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 as refreshing reminders of the context in which our redeemed singing must occur.

Above all, take comfort in this: it is in the very experience of disagreeing over the Psalter Hymnal project that we are being taught what brotherly love and self-sacrifice look like—if our eyes and ears are open.

–MRK

How Literal Is Literal Enough?

I greatly appreciated Rev. Nick Smith’s guest post last week on why Christians need to learn to “sing the whole psalm.” As he points out, we need to fill our hearts and mouths with the complete message of the Psalter, even when it feels strange or unseemly to us, because this is how we learn to speak and act like Jesus. We ought not to be afraid of texts that call for God’s judgment, especially with the benefit of New Testament passages such as Revelation that assure us this judgment will one day take place. When the psalms we sing in worship have been paraphrased, or their sharper edges have been sanded off, they rob the church of the “bold prayer” that God would utterly destroy the wicked.

Rev. Smith’s response reminded me of the topic of “psalm-hymns,” or psalm paraphrases, that we’ve talked about before. Every Christian ought to care about Scriptural faithfulness in the words they sing as well as the words they read. Consistories and congregations, especially, should carefully consider the question of Biblical accuracy before purchasing a new psalter. But if you’re not a Hebrew scholar (and most of us aren’t), is there any way to tell how accurate the psalm settings you’re singing are?

Although unfamiliarity with Biblical languages may be a hindrance, I don’t think it should stop us from at least beginning to think in terms of Scriptural accuracy. So here’s a rule of thumb that has proved for me to be a great starting point: Get a pencil and mark all the verse numbers in the song. If this sounds strange, allow me to give an example.

psh-markup-1

A few months ago I was thinking about settings of Psalm 46 and decided to sit down with this version from the blue Psalter Hymnal to find out how closely it matched the prose psalm from the ESV. My goal, as mentioned above, was to identify all the verses from the prose psalm in this setting. You can see that it passed the test—Psalm 46 has eleven verses and I was able to locate all of them here (even though v. 11 is unmarked for some reason).

While this is a helpful way to establish that this psalm setting does in fact follow the pattern and flow of the original text, I went a step further. As you can see from this scan (click to enlarge it), I’ve developed a kind of shorthand to efficiently note weaknesses in the translation.

Parentheses ( ) designate words that roughly summarize the original text. You can see at the bottom of the second stanza I highlighted the word “fathers’,” which is close to the original term “Jacob’s,” but not quite the same thing. Whatever their reason may have been, the editors of this psalm setting decided to use a more generalized ancestral reference than one that named the nation of Israel directly. As far as Biblical accuracy, that’s a point against them.

Brackets [ ] designate phrases and concepts that definitely do not appear at that point in the prose psalm. For example, the third stanza contains references to “His wrath” and “His grace” which are not found anywhere in Psalm 46. In this particular passage we are not told whether God’s intervention to make wars cease to the ends of the earth is wrathful or gracious. An argument could be made for either. But in this case, it seems presumptive to incorporate these interpretive components into a psalm setting.

Finally, parallel vertical lines || appear where the versification has left out a concept or phrase from the original psalm. I combine most of these with a brief note in the margin as to what has been left out. In the middle of the second stanza, you can see that the portion of vv. 5-6 that mentions “when morning dawns” and “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter” is missing. These are vivid word pictures that bring Psalm 46 to light in the believer’s mind, like Rev. Smith suggested with Psalm 110.

All things considered, I could argue that this setting of Psalm 46 passes this simple inspection, though maybe not with flying colors. (In case you’re interested, I’ve since revised this text for Psalm 46, and the new setting is available here.) Unfortunately, if you apply this test to other songs in the Psalter Hymnal, some will fail miserably. If I tried to use the same principle to evaluate number 306 from Psalm 149, it would look more like this:

psh-markup-2

As you can see, in the last two stanzas of this psalm setting, which are clearly intended to represent Psalm 149:5-9, I was only able to locate v. 5, part of v. 6, and an elaborated version of v. 9 that includes pieces of vv. 6-8 within it. These lyrics fail to mention anything resembling the “judgment,” “vengeance,” “punishments,” “chains,” and “fetters” of the psalm. That’s a tremendous loss for us as psalm-singers, and because this is the only complete setting of Psalm 149 in the Psalter Hymnal, it’s even more lamentable.

The point here is not to emphasize God’s wrath and judgment simply to gloat in gory language. Rather, we must understand that the Christian life is one of constant warfare against “the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 52, Q&A 127). As one hymnwriter put it, we must be able to see “how the powers of darkness/Compass thee around” (Psalter Hymnal #464), and how those powers of darkness are overcome in the victory of Christ. It takes lifelong practice to recognize this battle for what it is. All the more reason for the songs we sing to portray this reality fully.

–MRK

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

A Words-Only Psalter (Review)

bopfw_words

A few months ago Crown & Covenant Publications (that’s right, those Pittsburgh psalm-singing gurus) sent me a review copy of a new edition of The Book of Psalms for Worship. Notwithstanding their current selection of hardcover, softcover, loose-leaf, spiral-bound, large-print, lavender, sage, slim, mini, and slim-mini psalters, this latest release was something unique: a words-only edition (574 pp., Crown & Covenant, 2015).

To be honest, I was a bit puzzled. I’m not very familiar with words-only metrical psalters, and I’ve never sung from one in a church service. And being a musician at heart and not a poet, it was hard not to get the feeling that the new book, as it were, took the filling right out of my Oreo.

But after some more investigation, I came to conclude that maybe a text-based psalter isn’t such a crazy idea. Here are some of the advantages to using this words-only psalter (for which I’ll use the ungainly acronym WOP) rather than other editions of The Book of Psalms for Worship:

  • Do-it-yourself psalm-singing. The publisher’s note inside the WOP mentions “its flexibility in matching various tunes with a particular versification.” This means if you don’t like the tune to which a particular psalm is set in the regular Book of Psalms for Worship, you can easily replace it with a different tune of the same meter. A handy metrical index is included in the back.
  • Historical precedent. Although the idea of a songbook without music may strike us as odd, such was the norm just a few centuries ago (followed by the transitional form of the “Dutch door” or “split-leaf” psalter, which Jim introduced here). Even today text-only metrical psalters like the Trinity Psalter are still in print. Ultimately, of course, a text-only psalter reflects the layout of the Book of Psalms itself.
  • The end of verse- and stanza-confusion. When the song leader directs you to sing “verse 2,” do you ever wonder if they mean the second stanza of poetry or literally the second verse of the psalm text? The WOP eliminates this problem by differentiating stanzas with paragraph breaks rather than numerals.
  • Readability for non-musicians. If you struggle to read lyrics spread out over several lines of musical notation, you will love the WOP. Each psalm is laid out line-by-line in clear, readable paragraphs, like a book of poetry. (On the other hand, I could argue that even non-musical congregants should use a words-and-music psalter in order to become familiar with how text and tune interact.)

To be fair, I have to admit that I’ve noticed some drawbacks to the new psalter as well:

  • Not very useful as a standalone edition. The WOP presumes that its owner, or at least the song leader, also owns a regular copy of The Book of Psalms for Worship from which to obtain the tunes. The WOP is useful by itself only if a user prefers to read a metrical version of the psalms rather than a prose version.
  • Disappointing size savings. I hoped the WOP would be the size of a pocket New Testament or smaller, something on the order of 2” x 3” for ultimate portability. Sadly, it remains substantially larger (though, I guess, more readable) than the words-and-music slim-mini editions.
  • Awkward lyrics have nowhere to hide. A tenet of good psalmody is that the text should be able to stand on its own as clear, smooth, attractive poetry. While much of The Book of Psalms for Worship is excellently versified, it includes more than its share of stilted settings (46C is one example). And with a words-only psalter, there’s no music to mask these blemishes.

Whatever deficiencies it may have, I would gladly call The Book of Psalms for Worship one of the best English metrical psalters currently available (and so would Jim, who reviewed the other editions here). The words-only edition is an opportunity for Crown & Covenant to capitalize on the success of an already excellent book. But as I hope even the publishers would admit, these new branches on the growing tree of psalm-singing should never become the final ones, as we continue the quest to sing the Word of God more faithfully and more joyfully.

–MRK

(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this book, and I was not required to write a positive review.)


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!

What’s New

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

Join 205 other followers

Categories