Posts Tagged 'Worship Services'

Doxologies from the Psalms

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How many doxologies can you sing?

I say “doxologies” because the category is far broader than the traditional “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” that usually comes to mind. “Doxology” is derived from the Greek words doxa (“glory”) and logia (“saying”); thus, a doxology is simply a “saying of glory” or a statement of praise, often in poetic form. In much of English hymnody, this statement of praise appears at the end of a hymn and references the three persons of the Trinity. Even the traditional “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” was originally the last stanza to a much longer hymn by Thomas Ken.

So while “the Doxology” does fit the trinitarian form commonly associated with hymn doxologies, so do these last stanzas of other hymns. Both are from the blue Psalter Hymnal—do you recognize them?

To the great One in Three
Eternal praises be
Hence evermore.
His sovereign majesty
May we in glory see,
And to eternity
Love and adore.

All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son, and Him who reigns
With them in highest heaven,
The one eternal God,
Whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.

Although references to the Trinity have become commonplace in sung doxologies, it’s not necessary for these references to be explicitly present. Think, for instance, of the last stanza of “By the Sea of Crystal” (#469). Thus, a doxology can be adequately described as any succinct yet powerful statement of praise to God, often occurring at the end of an element of worship.

Given the topic of this blog, you can probably imagine where this particular conversation is headed. If we’re looking for succinct yet powerful statements of praise to God, how can we neglect the divinely-inspired riches given to us in the Book of Psalms? In fact, I must confess that for the hundreds of times I’ve heard “The Doxology” sung at the end of worship, the number of times I’ve heard a psalm setting in that position is relatively small.

As it turns out, the Book of Psalms contains its own internal doxologies that divide the five subsections of the Psalter: Psalms 41:13, 72:19-20, 89:52, and 106:48. Most of these simply urge the people to “Bless the LORD!” and are followed by an “Amen.” In addition, one thinks of the five psalms that close the Psalter, each of which begin and end with “Hallelujah” or “Praise the LORD!” The blue Psalter Hymnal’s topical index lists some of these passages under the “Doxologies” heading: #73 stanza 6; #135 stanza 4 (and #488, from the same passage); #171 stanza 8; #211 stanza 23; and #309-310. But it would be foolish to limit our repertoire of psalm-based doxologies to these passages. To whet your appetite, here are four other Psalter Hymnal psalm settings that (though paraphrased) would be excellent choices for a doxology at the end of worship.

36, “The ends of all the earth shall hear” (Psalm 22)

(Sung at Synod 2012)

Psalm 22 opens as one of the most poignant laments of the Psalter, foreshadowing Christ’s suffering on the cross. But the latter half of this psalm opens up into an exultant declaration of praise, with references to the generations that will come to fear the Lord because of the mighty things he has done. The author of Hebrews interpreted this psalm as being sung by Jesus himself (“He is not ashamed to call them brothers,” Hebrews 2:11), and one can’t help but think of how suitable it is for Christians, those who have been purchased by Christ’s blood, to join in singing Jesus’ own statement of praise. This doxology would be especially suitable after a presentation from a visiting missionary (“The ends of all the earth shall hear”) or after celebrating the Lord’s supper.

The Lord’s unfailing righteousness
All generations shall confess,
From age to age shall men be taught
What wondrous works the Lord has wrought.

All earth to Him her homage brings,
The Lord of lords, the King of kings.

105, “O God, Be Merciful to Me” (Psalm 57)

Because of its strong themes of lament, Psalm 57 may seem like an unusual choice for a doxology. David cries out for God to be merciful to him amidst the “storms of destruction” and enemies that long to devour him. Yet in the middle of these pressing dangers he breaks out twice in a passionate exclamation of praise: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!” (vv. 5, 11). The last stanza of the Psalter Hymnal’s setting would be a fitting and sensitive doxology even after a worship service filled with confession and lament.

Yea, I will early wake and sing,
A thankful hymn to Thee will bring,
For unto heaven Thy mercies rise,
The truth is lofty as the skies.
Be Thou, O God, exalted high,
Yea, far above the starry sky,
And let Thy glory be displayed
O’er all the earth Thy hands have made.

284, “Give Thanks to God, for Good Is He” (Psalm 136)

(Sung at Synod 2012)

Psalm 136 is notable because each of its twenty-six verses concludes with the phrase, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” This magnificent poem surveys how the Lord’s covenant love was displayed to Israel throughout redemptive history, and how he continues to “remember us in our low estate” today (v. 23). Although it is a fairly free paraphrase, the last stanza of the Psalter Hymnal’s setting of Psalm 136 nicely sums up the doxological thrust of this psalm:

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.

303, “O Sing Ye Hallelujah” (Psalm 147)

You may recognize Psalm 147 as one of the Psalter’s concluding statements of praise (Psalms 146-150). As far as singing goes, however, Psalm 147 probably has one of the lesser-known text and tune combinations in the blue Psalter Hymnal. This psalm is a marvelous exposition of the Lord’s power in providing for his people. He fills them with the finest of the wheat (v. 14), but he also does something far better: he gives his statutes to Israel (v. 19), something no other nation has enjoyed. For us who have been grafted into the true Israel, the last stanza of this psalm setting reminds us what a privilege it is to be called into the presence of God himself for worship. (If a more familiar tune is needed, try LANCASHIRE, #364.)

His statutes and His judgments
He makes His people know;
To them as to no others
His grace He loves to show;
For matchless grace and mercy
Your grateful praises bring;
To Him give thanks forever,
And Hallelujah sing.

What are your favorite psalm doxologies? Share them in the comments below!

–MRK

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“How to Evade the Worship Wars”

My latest article for The Outlook magazine, entitled “How to Evade the Worship Wars,” is now available online. The article summarizes the regulative principle of worship and the dialogical nature of worship, as well as applying them to some common questions about worship styles in Reformed churches. It’s a follow-up of sorts to our “A Look at Liturgy” series here on URC Psalmody. If you’re interested, check it out!

–MRK

A Look at Liturgy: The Benediction

Pews

Today’s post brings us to the conclusion of URC Psalmody’s series on the liturgy of the Dutch Reformed tradition. We’ve examined the historical background of our churches’ worship structure, and we’ve progressed through some notable aspects of a typical Sunday morning service, like the votum and the reading of the decalogue. After the call to worship, confession, prayer, preaching, singing, and responses, one distinctive element remains: the benediction or parting blessing.

Meetings of many kinds end with a note of farewell, and almost any Christian church would ordinarily conclude its worship service with some kind of dismissal. But you may notice that the benediction in the Reformed worship service seems to bear some kind of added significance. In fact, if you pay very close attention, you’ll notice that only ordained ministers—not elders or seminarians—are permitted to administer the parting blessing with outstretched hands. Why are our churches so particular? What does the benediction actually represent?

The Psalter Hymnal Supplement comments, “In Reformation liturgies, the dismissal is more proclamatory than petitionary—more of a means of grace than a prayer” (113). We believe the dismissal carries the full weight of a direct promise of God. “The apostolic blessing is the proclamation of God’s gracious intention: it is rooted in the Gospel promise and, therefore, in God’s desire to give grace to His people” (114).

The benediction often takes the form of the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (vv. 24-26 ESV). But whether the minister uses these words or others, he is not just expressing a wish or a prayer. He doesn’t qualify the blessing with “ifs,” soften it with “mays,” or generalize it by replacing “you” with “us.” In delivering the parting blessing the minister speaks with the authority of God himself, declaring the Lord’s lasting favor on those he has reconciled to himself. God’s blessing is not something we have to repeatedly beg for or anxiously await; it is guaranteed us as his people. The benediction assures us that God’s good favor will rest upon us through the coming week until we gather to worship him again.

The Liturgical Committee notes, “[T]he customary gesture of the arms stretched and palms down, carries the ancient symbolism of an endowed blessing. The minister does not conclude the service by wishing his parishioners well. He concludes by summoning them to receive the parting promises of God’s mercy and peace” (114).

This, in a nutshell, expresses the beautiful pattern of Reformed, Biblical worship. We could summarize it in the glorious terms of Psalm 118: God has opened to us the gates of righteousness, that we may enter through them and give him thanks. He has answered us and become our salvation. Christ, the stone that the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone of the temple he is building for himself—the church. We stand in awe at the Lord’s doing, marvelous in our eyes. And we go forth from his courts believing and rejoicing that “the LORD is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us” (v. 27).

What cause for celebration!

–MRK

Note: Several churches in the United Reformed Churches in North America have created explanations of their particular liturgies and worship practices. Here are a few helpful summaries:

A Look at Liturgy: The Decalogue

The Decalogue

Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at some characteristic elements of the Reformed worship service. Today’s post brings us to perhaps the most distinctive feature of Dutch Reformed liturgy: the reading of the Ten Commandments (decalogue, “ten words”) in the service.

In theory, there is a basic theological rationale for the use of the decalogue in worship: “it testifies to the Calvinist respect for the unity of the covenant” (Report of Liturgical Committee, Psalter Hymnal Supplement 100)—though even Calvinists do not always agree on the nature of the covenant. In practice, however, this justification leaves some questions unanswered. For instance, why do the Ten Commandments not appear in the worship of other Protestant churches that uphold the unity of the covenant of grace?

The answer to this question is mostly one of history and tradition. It was John Calvin who “planted the decalogue in the liturgy” without leaving much explanation why, and it had come to be a fixture in Dutch Reformed worship by the time of Abraham Kuyper in the 19th century. “By that time,” the Liturgical Committee comments, “the law seemed liturgically inexpendable, and liturgically undefined.”

In West Sayville’s liturgy the Ten Commandments fall under the heading of “God’s Will for Our Lives,” and occasionally they are replaced in the worship service with another Scripture reading that urges us onward in “the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 33, Q&A 88). Following the reading of the decalogue or an alternate passage, our pastor offers a prayer of confession and reads another text as the “Assurance of Pardon,” and then the congregation sings a penitential psalm or hymn. Presented as God’s will for his people, the reading of the decalogue prompts us to confess how drastically we fall short of its perfection, but also to recognize Christ’s fulfillment of the law and go forth in grateful obedience to him.

This use of the Ten Commandments in worship, which I have to assume is fairly typical in United Reformed churches, reflects all three of the functions of the law listed in the Liturgical Committee’s report:

  1. “It could serve as a catalyst to confession.…It is the holy finger of God pointing to ‘me’ as the one who fails in his life to reflect the character of God.”
  2. “It could serve as a summons to the life of gratitude.”
  3. “It could also serve as a reading from Scripture…[that] consistently stresses instruction in the obligations of the Christian.”

While it is important to pinpoint the purpose of the decalogue in worship, the Liturgical Committee also provides an important qualification: “[W]e must remember, of course, that the Lord is free to use His law, at any moment, to achieve whatever purpose He wishes. If He wills to use His law of a given Sunday morning to convict one worshipper of sin, summon another to obedience, and at the same time inspire another to a grateful hallelujah, no liturgical definition of the law’s function will inhibit him.”

So should Reformed churches keep the decalogue in their worship services? In my experience, at least, the weekly reading of the Ten Commandments helps to anchor our worship in the blazing light of God’s holiness. If it is to have this effect, however, the decalogue must never be separated from the message of the gospel. Apart from confessing our sin, rejoicing in Christ’s salvation, and filling our lives with grateful obedience, the Ten Commandments become a highway to moralism and works-righteousness. Treat the decalogue as a checklist or one of those ubiquitous online quizzes (“I scored 8/10 this past week!”), and your life in Christ will wither. But respond to God’s law by confessing your natural misery and taking refuge in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and the Ten Commandments will spur on what the Catechism so beautifully describes as “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to” (Q&A 90).

O blessed Lord, teach me Thy law,
Thy righteous judgments I declare;
Thy testimonies make me glad,
For they are wealth beyond compare.
Upon Thy precepts and Thy ways
My heart will meditate with awe;
Thy Word shall be my chief delight,
And I will not forget Thy law.

–MRK

–quotes from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement are from pp. 100, 101

A Look at Liturgy: The Votum

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth

“Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

If you attend a United Reformed church, it’s likely you hear these words from Psalm 124 every week at the opening of morning worship. Although this is a common way to begin worship in our churches, it’s actually fairly unique to the Dutch Reformed tradition. What are the origins of this statement (often called the “votum”), and what does it mean?

In the Psalter Hymnal Supplement the Liturgical Committee of the Christian Reformed Church comments on the term “votum,” “No one is quite sure how this awkward Latin word crept into and managed to stay in a Reformed liturgy that otherwise kept itself clean of Romanist vocabulary.…The word itself seems to mean a ‘wish’ or ‘desire’ and so, perhaps, is roughly similar to an invocation.”

What makes the story of the votum even more unusual is its history. According to the Liturgical Committee, this verse (Psalm 124:8) was originally recited whispered privately by the priest during the Roman Catholic mass. “Thus, it was not the beginning of the people’s worship; it was part of the priest’s private preparation for worship. The words were taken over by Calvin to begin the morning worship for all the people. He did not tell us why he used the words; our liturgical rationale is, in a sense, after the fact.” And today Reformed churches differ widely with regard to the votum; many replace or combine it with a “call to worship” or an “invocation.” In West Sayville our morning service opens with a call to worship from an appropriate passage of Scripture, followed by a song of praise, then the votum and God’s greeting.

So what justifies the use of the votum in opening public worship? This explanation comes from the Agenda for Synod 1920 of the Christian Reformed Church: “This ‘Votum’ is not meant to be a prayer for divine aid, but rather a solemn declaration that God is in the midst of His people with His saving grace.”

The scriptural context of the votum sheds some light on its application to Christian worship. Psalm 124 is a song of Israel’s deliverance, opening with a vivid picture of the fate that would have befallen them “if it had not been the LORD who was on our side”:

then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
the raging waters.

–vv. 3-5 ESV

Instead of leaving them to their destruction, the Lord mightily delivered his people, freeing them from their bondage in Egypt. With joy and relief they could exclaim, “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped!” (v. 7)—proceeding to state their continued dependence on the Lord in the words that have become our votum.

We, too, lay in bondage in a spiritual Egypt of sin and death. We deserved the torrent of God’s righteous judgment to sweep us away and the punishment of sin to overwhelm us. But he delivered us, even more mightily than he delivered the Israelites, by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. The Lord was on our side, and he deserves all our praise!

For the church of Christ, stating that “our help is in the name of the LORD” acknowledges our profound need and complete dependence on our heavenly Father. We do not come into his presence in our own strength or because of our own merit, but because of his saving grace and only with his sustaining help. We are gathered not as the righteous, but as the sinners the Son of Man came to call to repentance. Yet despite our unworthiness, we appear in God’s courts with confidence. He has no need of our worship, but he delights in it. The almighty Creator of the universe is present wherever his people gather in his name—and thus we can say, not only in acknowledgment of our need but also in joyful assurance, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

And that, perhaps above anything else, is reason enough to keep the votum in Reformed worship.

–MRK

–quotes from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement are from p. 92


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