Posts Tagged 'Thanksgiving'

Forget Not

Yesterday Twitter dropped a little note in my email inbox that mentioned “Thanksgiving–the day we express gratitude for family, food and football. (But mostly football.)” After rolling my eyes and muttering something about how Thanksgiving has become a symbol of America’s cultural decline, I tossed the email without further thought.

College Hill RPC CornucopiaReflecting a little more deeply, though, what are we called to be thankful for, and how do we show it? We Christians may be quick to protest that Thanksgiving Day isn’t mostly about football, but is it really about family or food either? My pastor made a convicting point this morning: American Christians gladly accept the state’s invitation to participate in a nationwide day of giving thanks. But what we should really want is to invite people everywhere to participate with us, not in a day of thanksgiving, but in a life of thanksgiving. And thanksgiving for what? For all of God’s benefits, as the psalmist teaches us in Psalm 103—forgiving, healing, redeeming, crowning, satisfying, and renewing us. We thank God for his righteousness and justice, his mercy and grace, his “steadfast love toward those who fear him,” his compassion to his children, and his throne established in the heavens. Not only are we to exert our utmost effort in blessing the LORD, we are to call people everywhere to do the same.

Psalm 95 sheds more light on the believer’s motives for giving thanks. Our gratitude is framed not in vague terms of “family, food and football” but rather in the salvation wrought for us by our God (v. 1). We praise him for his sovereignty (v. 3) and his creation (vv. 4,5), acknowledging that we belong only to him. “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (v. 7 ESV). Throughout Psalm 95 we find concrete reasons and exhortations for giving thanks to the Lord.

But the second half of Psalm 95 strikes even closer to home. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” warns v. 7. In the middle of this passage the voice shifts from the psalmist to that of God himself, who reminds the worshipers of “when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work” (v. 8). This section of the psalm is so ominous, we may even be tempted to skip over it. But the implication is clear: giving thanks isn’t an option, it’s a command. Thanksgiving arises from hearts that recognize God’s blessings, and the absence of thanksgiving is a telling sign of spiritual hardness, of “a people who go astray in their heart” (v. 10). It’s no wonder that the Lord swears in his wrath that such people—people who respond to his manifold mercies with a shameless shrug—“shall not enter my rest” (v. 11).

The key question is not how much God has blessed us (the answer, of course, is “abundantly”), but how much we acknowledge it. Will your Thanksgiving Day be filled with joyful kneeling before your Maker, or merely loading up on turkey and getting ready to hit the stores tomorrow? It’s sad enough that the unbelieving world can’t even finish a day of gratitude without the encroachment of gluttony and greed. But are we Christians, in our living, working, and worshiping (and yes, feasting) proclaiming the glory of “the rock of our salvation” to everyone around us?

Thanksgiving Day is many things to many people—family, food, and football considered. For the Christian it is so much more. To a people whose natural inclination is always to forget, Thanksgiving Day offers an opportunity to “forget not.” Today we can hear his voice, sing his praise, and remember all his benefits.


Psalm 65: Due Praise

Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion,
and to you shall vows be performed.
O you who hear prayer,
to you shall all flesh come.
When iniquities prevail against me,
you atone for our transgressions.
Blessed is the one you choose and bring near,
to dwell in your courts!
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
the holiness of your temple!

–Psalm 65:1-4 (ESV)

"All nature joins in singing a joyful song of praise."

“All nature joins in singing a joyful song of praise.”

Can Psalm 65 be summarized in a single sentence?  If so, it is a song of thanksgiving to God for his abundant providence and faithfulness in both creation and redemption.  The Lord sits supreme above all the (false) gods of the nations because he hears prayer (v. 2), atones for his people’s transgressions (v. 3), has created the world (vv. 6-8), and continues to sustain it with awesome deeds (vv. 9-13).  As a result, how could praise be withheld from him, especially in Zion, the city of his chosen people?

Today it’s time for us to evaluate Psalm 65 as set to music in the Psalter Hymnal.

114, “Praise Waits for Thee in Zion”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

In my own church at least, “Praise Waits for Thee in Zion” is probably the most familiar setting of Psalm 65 from the Psalter Hymnal.  This praiseful and praiseworthy versification sets to music the first five verses of Psalm 65, which form a fairly complete section of thought in the text.  It begins by extolling the Lord for his salvation, and it ends by stating that “Man finds no sure reliance, no peace, apart from Thee.”

The accompanying tune, MENDEBRAS, is a bouncy German melody arranged by Lowell Mason, and it’s one that I inevitably associate with this psalm setting.  When played too slowly this tune is dismal, but the opposite temptation always lurks to play it just a bit too fast.  Personally, I like a tempo just a touch slower than 120 bpm (2 beats per second).  The only challenge to the singers is the soprano jump to a high F in the last line.  Some hymnbooks have remedied this by lowering the key to E-flat, which I believe ruins the brilliance of the music.  Instead I would suggest that sopranos who can’t reach the F simply sing a D, as is written for the third line directly above.

115, “Thy Might Sets Fast the Mountains”

(Sung by the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir)

Psalter Hymnal number 115 takes on the remainder of Psalm 65, verses 6-13.  Like its companion, “Thy Might Sets Fast the Mountains” is textually accurate and musically appropriate.  Once again the versification has three stanzas, with a recapitulation of the key theme of this part of the psalm at the very end: “All nature joins in singing a joyful song of praise.”

You’ll probably recognize the tune WEBB right away as the melody of “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” (Psalter Hymnal number 467).  While this association may be a little confusing at first, I believe this is a very fitting tune with the confidence and jubilation necessary to carry the vivid words of Psalm 65.  Thankfully, the soprano line never goes too high, and the brilliant key of A works perfectly.  Once again, the only challenge to the average accompanist is finding the proper tempo.  If you can attain that, this version of Psalm 65 might soon become a favorite!

116, “Forth from Thy Courts, Thy Sacred Dwelling”

(Sung on YouTube)

“Forth from Thy Courts” is the Psalter Hymnal’s Genevan offering for Psalm 65.  The English text of this 16th-century setting, composed by Rev. William Kuipers in 1931, is much more ornate than our other versifications, and in some cases a little less accurate.  It still forms a powerful paraphrased version of the psalm, however, as evidenced in the second stanza:

A mighty stream of foul transgression
Prevails from day to day;
But Thou, O God, in great compassion,
Wilt purge my guilt away.
Blest is the man whom Thou hast chosen,
And bringest nigh to Thee;
That in Thy courts, in Thee reposing,
His dwelling-place may be.

To modern ears, this Genevan tune in a minor key is far from jubilant; that is a roadblock that may be impassable for our American culture.  However, choosing a befitting organ registration for this selection and playing it at a lively tempo can help dispel any complaints about singing a dirge.  After the very last verse, you might repeat the last line and end in an F-major chord, as done in the recording above.

117, “Before Thee, Lord, a People Waits”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

While a fourth version of Psalm 65 isn’t really necessary in the Psalter Hymnal, there’s nothing that should detract from its use.  “Before Thee, Lord, a People Waits” includes a solid versification of Psalm 65:1-8, and a lilting, uplifting tune to accompany it.  I find the tenor and bass parts in the first two lines to be rather monotonous, but it would be relatively easy to employ some creative re-harmonizing here.  Once again, the poor sopranos will be confronted with a high F right at the end; I don’t believe the key can be dropped, since the bass part goes down to a G already, but an alternate soprano note of C might resolve the problem.

The year is crowned, O Fount of blessing,
With gifts to cheer the land;
Thy goodness fills the earth, expressing
The wonders of Thy hand.
The hills rejoice; the pastures, teeming
With flocks that skip and spring,
The golden grain, in valleys gleaming—
All sing to God the King.


Psalm 136: His Steadfast Love

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

–Psalm 136:1-3 (ESV)

If after reading Psalm 136 you scratch your head and say, “I can’t figure out the theme here,” you’re obviously missing something.  This psalm is unique for its repetitive style and its refrain, “For his steadfast love endures forever,” which occurs a whopping 26 times.  In its opening verses, Psalm 136 bears considerable similarity to Psalm 118, while the rest of the psalm echoes other historical selections such as Psalms 104 and 105.  Regarding the refrain, the ESV Study Bible comments, “Perhaps the psalm was to be sung responsively, with a priest leading with the first line of each verse, and a Levitical choir or the whole congregation replying with the refrain.”  If it strikes you as monotonous to repeat “For his steadfast love endures forever” 26 times, just remember how quick we are to forget what the Lord has done for us, and how great his steadfast love truly is.

Today we consider the Psalter Hymnal’s two versifications of Psalm 136.

283, “Now May All in Brotherhood”

After plenty of studying and comparing hymnals, I simply can’t figure out why this psalm setting was created.  It comes neither out of the Genevan/Dutch Psalter nor the 1912 Psalter; it was created specifically for the blue 1959 Psalter Hymnal by Harry Mayer and Johannes Dirk Plekker.  What’s even more confusing is that the 1912 Psalter and the 1934 Psalter Hymnal both contain a setting of Psalm 136 in the very same meter, with an almost identical refrain (“For His mercy doth endure,/Ever faithful, ever sure”)—but the texts are very different.

“This one has ten verses rather than six, so maybe it’s more complete and accurate,” I thought, but that conclusion proved to be wrong as well.  True, the old version “Praise Jehovah for His Love” has 36 lines in total, whereas “Now May All in Brotherhood” has 80—yes, eighty.  Yet I found that this versification was less accurate, more archaic, and more cumbersome than its predecessor.  Why did the editors of the blue Psalter Hymnal feel the need to rewrite a perfectly good psalm setting?  Why did they decide to repeat each refrain twice, breaking up the flow of thought between the stanzas even more?  Perhaps I’ll never know, but at the very least I’d suggest that you take a second look at “Praise Jehovah for His Love,” which I’ve copied in its entirety below.

 "Praise Jehovah for His Love"

With a monotonous rhythm and a pedestrian melody line, REMEIN (the tune used with number 283 in the blue Psalter Hymnal) is far from perfect.  Again I’ll point you to the tune of “Praise Jehovah for His Love,” BETTER LAND, which is much more uplifting and suitable for these words.  Perhaps an even better and more familiar choice would be DIX, the tune of “For the Beauty of the Earth” or “Safely Through Another Week” (#320).

While it’s not my intent to completely tear apart this particular Psalter Hymnal selection, it just seems to be a shame that our songbook doesn’t give better treatment to such a jubilant psalm of praise.

284, “Give Thanks to God, for Good is He”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, and at Synod 2012)

Thankfully, my complaints are far fewer with regard to the Psalter Hymnal’s other version of Psalm 136, “Give Thanks to God, for Good is He.”  This is a limited paraphrase, treating only verses 1-9 and 23-26, but it successfully summarizes the main themes of the psalm.  The alternating refrains at the end of each line (“His grace abideth ever” and “His mercy faileth never”) closely replicate the structure of the original text, and might lend themselves to some kind of counterpoint setting.

The tune CONSTANCE was composed by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).  It powerfully bears along the text of Psalm 136, including its short but memorable refrain.  For church musicians, I’d suggest that the tune be lowered to E-flat to avoid the high F in the last line.  I’d also like to call your attention to the rest at the end of each line, and suggest that a contrasting organ registration be used for the refrains.  With these stylistic nuances, number 284 will shine!

He helped us in our deepest woes,
His grace abideth ever;
He ransomed us from all our foes,
His mercy faileth never.
Each creature’s need He doth supply,
His grace abideth ever;
Give thanks to God, enthroned on high,
Whose mercy faileth never.


A Thanksgiving Meditation

Thanksgiving.  For what?  Food?  Family?  Friends?  Amidst the holiday hustle and bustle, it’s easy to forget the reason why we set aside a day to give thanks in the first place.

The psalms offer the perfect remedy for shallow Thanksgiving traditions.  Transcending our limited view of God’s providence in our immediate circumstances, they remind us that we ought to thank God firstly for who he is, and secondly for what he has done.

In particular, the psalms have some special words about the Lord’s care for the oppressed.  For many of my family and friends, as well as millions of souls across this nation, the year 2012 hasn’t been easy.  The Midwest encountered one of the most severe droughts on record, while the East Coast was walloped by a hurricane.  Each of us knows friends and family that have been afflicted in other countless ways this year—perhaps some of us are those people.  How can we give thanks in the midst of suffering?  Praise God! the psalms have an answer.

For today’s Thanksgiving meditation, I’ve mixed bits from the Book of Psalms (ESV) and some particularly poignant passages from our own Psalter Hymnal.

PSALM 9 (Listen)

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart;
I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.
I will be glad and exult in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.

–vv. 1,2

Thou, Lord, art a refuge for all the oppressed;
All trust Thee who know Thee, and trusting are blest;
For never, O Lord, did Thy mercy forsake
The soul that has sought of Thy grace to partake.

Behold my affliction, Thy mercy accord,
And back from death’s portals restore me, O Lord,
That I in the gates of Thy Zion may raise
My song of salvation and show forth Thy praise.

–Psalter Hymnal #14

PSALM 66 (Listen)

Bless our God, O peoples;
let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept our soul among the living
and has not let our feet slip.
For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
you let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.

–vv. 8-12

Come, ye that fear the Lord, and hear
What He has done for me;
My cry for help is turned to praise,
For He has set me free.
If in my heart I sin regard,
My prayer He will not hear;
But truly God has heard my voice,
My prayer has reached His ear.

–Psalter Hymnal #119

PSALM 89 (Listen)

My song forever shall record
The tender mercies of the Lord;
Thy faithfulness will I proclaim,
And every age shall know Thy Name.

I sing of mercies that endure,
Forever builded firm and sure,
Of faithfulness that never dies,
Established changeless in the skies.

–Psalter Hymnal #169

Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD,
your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!
For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,
a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
and awesome above all who are around him?
O LORD God of hosts,
who is mighty as you are, O LORD,
with your faithfulness all around you?

–Psalm 89:5-8

PSALM 103 (Listen)

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.

–vv. 1-6

Yea, the Lord is full of mercy
And compassion for distress,
Slow to anger and abundant
In His grace and tenderness.
He will not be angry alway,
Nor will He forever chide;
Though we oft have sinned against Him,
Still His love and grace abide.

As the heavens are high above us,
Great His love to us has proved;
Far as east from west is distant,
He has all our sins removed.
As a father loves his children,
Feeling pity for their woes,
So the Lord to those who fear Him
Mercy and compassion shows.

–Psalter Hymnal #201

PSALM 138 (Listen)

I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.

–vv. 1,2

O God, whene’er I cried to Thee,
Thou heardest me and didst deliver;
For by Thy strength, when sore afraid,
My soul was stayed, O gracious Giver.
The kings of earth in one accord
Shall thank Thee, Lord, with praise unbroken;
When over all the earth is heard
The wondrous Word which Thou hast spoken.

Lord, though I walk ‘mid troubles sore,
Thou wilt restore my faltering spirit;
Though angry foes my soul alarm,
Thy mighty arm will save and cheer it.
Yea, thou wilt finish perfectly
What Thou for me hast undertaken;
May not Thy works, in mercy wrought,
E’er come to naught or be forsaken.

–Psalter Hymnal 287

May the Lord give us deep and heartfelt gratitude to him this Thanksgiving Day for the abundant blessings he has showered upon us, and through all our trials may we be able to joyfully confess in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (LD 9, Q&A 26):

[I believe] that the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ his Son.

I trust him so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world.

He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Harvest Psalms

It’s the first day of November.  We still have a few weeks to go until Thanksgiving, which is, more or less, usually seen as the “official” celebration of harvest being over.  Yet many readers have been busy with the work of harvest for some time now, and for some the work is still ongoing and foremost in their minds right now.  And so we present a list of harvest psalms, appropriate for meditation and singing at this time of year.

Being divinely inspired, all psalms are appropriate for singing at all times, but these are some psalms that are particularly centered on or appropriate for a time of harvest.  Of course, harvest time is also a time to meditate on thanksgiving and also the beauties and glories of creation, but this list will consist of psalms especially suited to harvest-time.  I’m sure I’ve missed some, so please feel free to mention any that I’ve missed in the comments below.

Note: I have taken the psalm selections from the 1959/1976 blue Psalter Hymnal that is commonly used in most URCNA churches.  However, it would be easy to find corresponding psalm versifications in any psalter or hymnal using the psalm reference.

  • #41 “The Earth and the Fulness with Which It is Stored” (Psalm 24) recognizes God as the owner of all the bounties of His creation.
  • #92 “The Mighty God, Jehovah, Speaks” (Psalm 50) famously reminds prideful, boasting man that the LORD owns “the cattle on a thousand hills.”
  • #115 “Thy Might Sets Fast the Mountains” (Psalm 65) explicitly celebrates both seedtime and harvest, culminating in the third verse: “The year with good Thou crownest, the earth Thy mercy fills/the wilderness is fruitful, and joyful are the hills;/with corn the vales are covered, the flocks in pastures graze;/all nature joins in singing a joyful song of praise.”  Similarly #116.
  • #117 “Before Thee, Lord, a People Waits” (Psalm 65) reminds us that “On Thy sustaining arm depend, to earth and sea’s remotest end, all men in every age.”
  • #121 “O God, to Us Show Mercy” (Psalm 67) praises God for the “rich abundance” of fruit that the earth brings.
  • #163 “Lord, Thou Has Greatly Blessed Our Land” (Psalm 85) rejoices in harvests that “crown our land.”
  • #174 and 175, both based on Psalm 90, include the prayer for God to “establish the work of our hands,” a fitting prayer for harvest time.
  • #180 “It is Good to Sing Thy Praises” (Psalm 92) compares the righteous man, blessed of God, to “fruitful trees and ever verdant.”  A lot of psalms do that, and I won’t include every one, but this is one of my favorites, so I put it in the list.
  • #184 “Now with Joyful Exultation” (Psalm 95) praises God for feeding us “as His flock in pastures fair.”  Similarly #185 and 186.
  • #195 “All People that on Earth Do Dwell” (Psalm 100) is of course the classic psalm to sing on Thanksgiving Day and during harvest celebrations.
  • #206-208 (Psalm 104) celebrate God’s control over the seasons and nature.  “The seasons are fixed by wisdom divine.”  I will never forget the day that a farmer friend of mine, at a party to celebrate the successful completion of sowing all his fields, emotionally read and commented Psalm 104.  It is as appropriate for harvest as for seedtime.
  • #268 “When Zion in Her Low Estate” (Psalm 126) uses the imagery of “the sower, bearing precious seed/may weep as in his toil he grieves/but he shall come again with joy/in harvest time with golden sheaves” to celebrate the rejuvenating and quickening salvation of God.
  • #270 “Blest the Man that Fears Jehovah” (Psalm 128) celebrates the blessedness of a life lived in the fear of the LORD.  One part of that is to “eat the fruit of the labor of your hands” (verse 2, ESV).
  • #284 “Give Thanks to God for Good is He” (Psalm 136) thanks God for many things, including supplying all our physical needs.
  • #296 “Thrice Blest Be Jehovah” (Psalm 144) prays that “our garners be brimming,/our flocks in the field,/increasing by thousands,/then thousandfold yield.”  Similarly #297.
  • #303 “O Sing Ye Hallelujah” (Psalm 147) praises God for His control over weather, and for His attentive care for all His creatures.
  • The imagery of harvest is often used biblically in connection with Christ’s Second Coming to judge the nations and gather His people home.  For that reason, psalms like 87, 97, 98, etc., are also fruitful meditation during this time of the year.

I hope this list is helpful for your own devotions or for singing with friends and family in this traditional time of celebrating the completion of harvest.

Questions for comment: what are some of your favorite “harvest psalms?”  Have I missed any?


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