Tag Archives: Psalms

The longest Psalm/ mindless repetition?


3631902258_3fab33242d_mI follow a reading plan through which, in 365 days, one reads the whole Bible. Most days there are 2-6 chapters to read each day. One day in June I came to a day that had only 1 chapter to read. Twelve columns later I had read the entire 119th Psalm in one sitting. The next day I looked for more information on the Psalm and read that it was intended to be read, like a devotional book in our day, rather than sung or recited. I continued thinking about this, the longest psalm, for days, weeks. I started thinking about the fact that we only ever encounter short sections of 119 in the lectionary cycle, and wondered how to include it all in one, or a series of services. So here we are!

This Psalm is different from other Psalms, not only because of its length, but because it was most likely written out rather than developed orally, and its focus is not on God’s acts and his rule over the world, but rather on his word or the Torah. This Psalm is a highly structured piece of poetry. There are 176 verses, 22 strophes or stanzas, each of which could stand alone with no problem!  The whole thing is an acrostic with each section beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I bet we have all been asked to write an acrostic poem at some point in our school years. “Write your name down a page and then have each line start with that letter.”

Every line of this poem has essentially the same message. How many of you have heard, or said, “You call that music!?! They just keep saying the same words over and over!” Much as people may complain over hearing the same thing over and over again, repetition is not always a bad thing. Think of music.  Composers work hard to keep a balance between repetitions, essential in order to hold the piece together as a single unit, and contrast to give variety. The first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is based entirely on one short rhythmic pattern and one interval; three eight notes and a half note, and a descending major third. It holds together so well, in fact, that even people with little or no music training could respond to the first pattern with the next.

With all 176 verses saying basically the same thing, the repetition is well in hand.  So where does the psalmist provide variety? First with vocabulary. In the Hebrew there are eight central words (seven when translated to English) used throughout the Psalm to give subtle tweak to the meaning of the one word, Torah, which could have been used in all cases. There are two different Hebrew words that translate as word, and then law, judgments, testimonies, commandments, statutes, and precepts. Rather than tell of God’s mighty acts, these highlight two aspects of God’s word, his directives for our lives, and his promises to us.

Second, variety comes from the form of each statement. Within this one Psalm you can find examples of all the types of Psalms; individual prayers for help, “94 I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts,” petitions, “116 Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope,” expressions of ones troubles, “95 The wicked lie in wait to destroy me, but I consider your decrees,” assertions of trust, “103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” and vows of praise, “175 Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me.

            In the Interpretation Series book Psalms, James L. Mays lists four key points about the psalmist’s single-minded focus on God’s word. The first is that “God’s instruction is important because it is God’s.” This is a fairly simple statement. Having already read all the other Psalms which talk of God’s power in creation, in redeeming his people time and again, and in his rule over all the nations, readers of this Psalm should be ready to consider God’s word first in everything. The fact that he had to continually redeem his people is testimony to the fact that people did not, in fact, put it first but got caught up in the words of man, in the statutes put in place by human rulers and the tempting statements of believers in other gods. The Psalmist knows well that God’s word is most important, and yet throughout 119 we read that even he struggled with this. Pick a random verse after verse 8 from this Psalm and find the word used for Torah. What word goes with it? These nouns are always prefaced with the word, “his,” or “your” in order to maintain the readers focus on God. In the introduction and conclusion sections it says things like, “the law of the Lord,” or, “his statutes.” He never said our laws, or the laws, or the commandments.

May’s second point is that “The word of God requires obedience and faith and does not accept legalism.” Obedience is not a strong suit for many of us, and we know that we will fail in being completely obedient, but God’s word calls us to obey anyway. With respect to legalism, it is all too easy to lose focus on God himself and start watching out for any little infraction to his law in order to judge and punish the person responsible. This became so prevalent that perhaps it is why, long after this Psalm was written, Jesus simplified things into the New Commandment, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34). Only God is to judge.

The third point is that, “God’s word is given but never possessed; we need to seek and study constantly and pray for teaching and learning.” So we read the Bible, at least in worship, and before we do so we ask that he reveal his message to us, that he use the word to teach us and that he help us to learn. I think of a part of Tevye’s song from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I were a rich man…If I were rich I’d have the time that I lack to shit in the synagogue and pray. Maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I’d discuss the Holy books with the learned men seven hours every day. That would be the sweetest thing of all!” The usual connotation of the word rules would be of limits on freedom and on punishment. But, like Tevye, the writer of Psalm 119 clearly did not see the Torah as an onerous duty, but as a source of delight.

92 If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my misery.
93 I will never forget your precepts,
for by them you have given me life. 

May’s fourth point is that, “The word comes from God, but must become a part of us, it requires a conversion of the heart.” This Psalm itself is an example to us of what that means. “The author had a theme that filled his soul, a theme as big as life, which ranged the length and breadth and height and depth of a person’s walk with God.”(John H. Stek) And so his Psalm is not some arbitrary exercise in acrostic poetry but a pouring out of his heart. It is not a lifeless, repetitive annoyingly long reading, unless we make it so.

By the end of the service today we will have heard, read, or sung, not quite the whole Psalm, but at least a part of every strophe. Remember that God’s word is important, that much is required of us, that we need to study and reflect on it, and that we need to allow it to seep in and become embedded in our hearts, a part of us.

 

Abingdon Press.,. New Interpreter’s Study Bible-NRSV. Abingdon Press, 2003. Print.

Barker, Kenneth L and Donald W Burdick. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1995. Print.

Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994. Print.

 

Praise Notes: The Book of Praise Hymn 64


Another in a series of posts that go through hymns in The Book of Praise of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. 

Hymn #64

Be still and know that I am God

BE STILL AND KNOW
Words: anonymous
Music: anonymous
 
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am God.

I am the Lord that healeth thee.
I am the Lord that healeth thee.
I am the Lord that healeth thee.

In thee, O Lord, I put my trust.
In thee, O Lord, I put my trust.
In thee, O Lord, I put my trust. 

I like this well-known hymn despite its repetitive lyrics.  It is in the repetition that one is able to rest and, be still.

Similar to the repetition in the lyrics the melody has a simple pattern with a rising line between two falling lines.  The triple rhythm has a soothing almost rocking feel which adds to the stillness even more.


Praise Notes: The Book of Praise Hymn 61


Another in a series of posts that go through hymns in The Book of Praise of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. 

Hymn #61

Oh come and sing unto the Lord

Psalm 95
Irish
Paraphrase,  Psalter 1912
Music: A Collection of Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1749
 
Oh come and sing unto the Lord;
to God our voices raise.
O Rock of  our salvation hear
our joyful noise of praise!

Before God’s presence let us come
with praise and thankful voice;
let us sing psalms to God with grace,
with grateful hearts rejoice.

Our God is great and reigns supreme
above all power and might;
God’s hand still holds the depths of earth,
the mountains’ breadth and height.

The sea belongs to God alone
who made both calm and storm,
and from the Maker’s mighty hand
the dry land took its form.

Oh come and let us worship God
as to our knees we fall;
we are God’s people; God is Lord,
the Maker of us all.

This paraphrase flows well and uses language which will be simple even for children.  Good to use when Psalm 95 comes up in the lectionary, this is also good to use any time creation or praise in general are a Sunday theme.

Irish is a good melody with two distinctive phrase patterns.  The first two phrases are primarily step-wise while the second pair has a series of skips and falls with eighth notes to add interest.  The tune is used for one other hymn in the book, Thy kingdom come- on bended knee #784.


Praise Notes: The Book of Praise Hymn 58


Another in a series of posts that go through hymns in The Book of Praise of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. 

Hymn #58

To render thanks unto the Lord

Psalm 92
Bishopthorpe
Paraphrase, Scottish  Psalter 1650
Music: Jeremiah Clarke (c.1674-1707) paraphrase
 
To render thanks unto the Lord,
it is a comely thing,
and to thy name, O thou Most High,
due praise aloud to sing.

Thy loving kindness to show forth
when shines the morning light,
and to declare thy faithfulness
with pleasure every night,

upon a ten-stringed instrument,
up on the psaltery,
and on the harp with solemn sound,
and grave sweet melody.

For thou, Lord, by thy mighty works
hast made my heart right glad,
and I will triumph in the works
which by thy hands were made. 

The language is quite archaic.  When was the last time you heard anything referred to as “comely”?  I find the fact that verse two doesn’t end until the end of verse three irritating, as always when these things happen.

The tune Bishopthorpe is a slightly less familiar melody, at least in the churches in my area.  In 3/4 time, it begins with a syncopated pick-up note at each phrase.  I really like the snappy rhythm in the second last bar.  The range is slightly less than an octave, and it is easy to sing.  This is the only hymn in the Book of Praise which uses this melody, though it does work with other 8686 CM lyrics.


A Comforting Rumble: Is the Church The Last Real Bastion of Choral Reading?


One of my earliest memories of church was that reassuring rumble of a whole group of people reading or praying in unison.  There was such a sense of safety in it, even before I could possibly understand the meaning.  Later, as I learned to read, I had a chance to join in comfortable in the knowledge that if we came to a word I wasn’t sure about, no one would notice and I would be able to get it the next time.

I got thinking about this at church a couple of weeks ago as we were reading the prayer of confession together in church.  It is almost like magic really.  You have a whole room full of people all facing in the same direction (no visual cues) and reading out loud from a bulletin.  There is no director, no one beating time, and yet the reading will proceed in almost perfect unison, include appropriate inflection, and sound at once like each person’s voice and one voice!  How does that work?  Even better is when we repeat the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed which can be done by many of us without having to consult the paper at all.

Before I started writing this I looked up choral reading on the internet.,  Almost all the entries I found were in reference to teaching children to read, especially those with learning difficulties, or helping people with speech problems.  I remember watching a Danny DeVitto film called The Renaissance Man in which Danny ends up teaching “basic comprehension” to a group of people about to flunk out of military basic training.  He ended up teaching Hamlet and one of the pivotal moments was when they were trying to help one of the guys to read, “and this above all, to thine own self be true.” which was one of the lines for his character.  He just couldn’t get the rhythm of it, until they all began to repeat it as a chant.  He doesn’t get it right away but as they continue he repeat it with them.  No longer on the spot, he gets it!  What a great moment!

One of the great things about reformed worship is the fact that the people in the pews have an active role to play.  They may be repeating call and response calls to worship, unison  prayers of confession, responsive Psalms, actively engaging the word themselves along with the rest of their church family.  There are many responses shared by most of the Christian communities.  Try standing in a room full of Christians and getting their attention…now try saying, “The Lord be with you!”  I’ll bet you have their attention now as many will have automatically responded, “and also with you!”

I think the church is one of the few places in which choral reading has a real-world application.  Sure, we repeat the Brownie promise together, those in USA recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, but to actually take a text you may never have seen and read it aloud with no rehearsal, this is different.  Some people criticize the church liturgies, saying that people just repeat things without any thought and this may be true to some extent, but I applaud the church for the use of unison reading and hope that it never changes that comforting rumble I know so well!

Praise Notes: The Book of Praise Ten


Tenth in a series of posts that go through hymns in The Book of Praise of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. 

Hymn #34

God be merciful to me

Psalm 51
Pressburg (Nicht So Traurig)
Paraphrase, Psalter 1912
Music: Geistreiches Gensangbuch (Freylinghausen) 1704
public domain
 
God be merciful to me; on thy grace I rest my plea
Plenteous in compassion thou, blot out my transgressions now;
my transgressions I confess; grief and guilt my soul oppress;
I have sinned against thy grace and provoked thee to thy face.Wash me, wash me pure within; cleanse, oh cleanse me from my sin;
I confess thy judgements just; speechless, I thy mercy trust.
Thou alone my saviour art; teach thy wisdom to my heart;
make me pure, thy grace bestow; make me thus thy mercy know.

Gracious God, my heart renew, make my spirit right and true;
from my sins oh hide thy face, blot them out in boundless grace.
Cast me not away from thee: let thy Spirit dwell in me;
thy salvation’s joy impart; steadfast make my willing heart.

The paraphrase has a perfect rhyme and rhythm scheme which if spoken might make it seem a bit trite.  Sung however it has a nice flow.

The tune for this hymn is not one you want to spring on a congregation with whom it is unfamiliar.  In a minor key with half-tone changes in note from bar to bar (F# in one bar with F in the next) it will take some time for it to become comfortable.  Assuming your choir can sing it, I advise having the organ (piano) play it all the way through and then just the choir for the first verse and then the congregation joining as they are comfortable.

 

Praise Notes: The Book of Praise Nine


Ninth in a series of posts that go through hymns in The Book of Praise of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. 

Hymn #32

Within your temple, Lord

Psalm 48
Gopsal
Paraphrase, United Presbyterian Book of Psalms 1871
Music: Congregational Church Music 1853
public domain
 
Within your temple, Lord, your mercies we will tell,
for where your name is known there does your praise excel:
your praises sound through every land;
with righteous reign you shall command.Mount Zion, now rejoice! Let Judah’s daughters praise
with strong and cheerful voice, the justice God displays;
go round the walls on Zion’s mount
its many splendours to recount.

The towers of Zion tell; its palaces survey;
mark its defences well, and to your children say:
“The Lord, our faithful God and guide,
this God forever shall abide.”

The paraphrase is considerably shorter than the original Psalm and seems to leave out most of the more martial elements.  Other than that, it fits nicely with the phrasing of the melody.  If it were not the Lectionary Psalm of the day, I don’t think I would pick it for a service.

The tune for this hymn is ok.  I’m not a huge fan, but it isn’t hard to sing and congregations will pick it up fairly quickly.  I like the fact that the second half is not just more of the same.  After two repeated lines there are two upward flowing phrases which lead to a nice climax.

 

Praise Notes: The Book of Praise Eight


Eighth in a series of posts that go through hymns in The Book of Praise of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. 

Hymn #29

Oh send thy light forth

Psalm 43
St. Paul
Paraphrase, Scottish Psalter 1650
Music: James Chalmers’ Collection, 1749 
public domain
 
Oh send thy light forth and thy truth;
let them be guides to me,
and bring me to thine holy hill,
even where thy dwellings be.
Then to God’s altar I will go
to God, my chiefest joy;
O God, my God, to praise thy name
my harp I will employ.

Why art thou then cast down, my soul?
What should discourage thee?
And why with vexing thoughts art thou
disquieted in me?

Thou art my refuge and my help,
my God that doth me raise.
I hope in God; I will again
have cause to give thee praise.

The paraphrase is good.  It skips over the first section of the Psalm and then follows quite closely for three verses without any strange syntax in order to achieve rhymes.  The final verse is a combination of lines from the opening sequence of the Psalm and the last two lines. 

The tune for this hymn is also a good one.  I prefer it without the use of the half-notes at phrase endings.  I believe they were put in to approximate the traditional practice of putting a fermata at the end of each phrase.  I’m not sure about the half notes at the beginning of the phrases, they seem a bit gratuitous.  Check out the rhythm in hymn 76 to see how much more nicely it flows.

 

Praise Notes: The Book of Praise Seven


Seventh in a series of posts that go through hymns in The Book of Praise of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. 

Hymn #26

As Pants the Heart

Psalm 42
Martydrom
Paraphrase, Tate and Brady’s New Version 1696
Music: Hugh Wilson (1766-1824) 
public domain
 
As pants the hart for cooling streams
when heated in the chase,
so longs my sou, O God, for thee
and thy refreshing grace.For thee, my God, the living God,

my thirsty soul doth pine;
oh when shall I behold thy face,
thou majesty divine?Why restless, why cast down, my soul?

Trust God, who will employ
sure aid for thee, and change these sighs
to thankful humns of joy.God of my strength, how long shall I,

like one forgotten, mourn,
forlorn, forsaken and exposed
to my oppressor’s scorn?Why restless, why cast down, my soul?

Hope still, and thou shalt sing
praise to thy God, the living God,
thy health’s eternal spring.

The lyrics for this hymn are a paraphrase and of the three parahprase versions of Psalm 42 in the Book of Praise, this is the one which covers the majority of the Psalm. The phrasing in the first two verses fit with the pattern of the music perfectly while the other three continue through the midpoint.  Because of this and the fact that most of us need to breathe, the meaning tends to be lost or at least muddled.

The tune for hymn 26 isn’t my favourite.  There are many other 8686CM tunes in the BOP which would work if you don’t like this one.  Despite the fact that the paraphrase is better, I would choose hymn 25 which uses the English folk tune O Waly, Waly or 27 with it’s own tune As The Deer.

 

Prophet or Voice of Doom?


I think it is safe to say that there are still prophetic voices out there in the world today, probably not being paid much attention.  I think it is also clear that there are many people who get their five minutes of fame by predicting doom over one issue or another and they seem to be paid a great deal of attention.

 

I got the idea for this post a while ago while watching When Harry Met Sally with my daughters.  As he states himself, Harry has a dark side.  Particularly in the early part of the movie Harry makes many pronouncements which, while not necessarily without basis in reality, would suck the enjoyment out of almost any moment!  For instance;

 

Harry Burns: You take someone to the airport, it’s clearly the beginning of the relationship. That’s why I have never taken anyone to the airport at the beginning of a relationship.
Sally Albright: Why?
Harry Burns: Because eventually things move on and you don’t take someone to the airport and I never wanted anyone to say to me, How come you never take me to the airport anymore?
Sally Albright: Its amazing. You look like a normal person but actually you are the angel of death.

 

Later he and Sally actually discuss this tendency to the dark side;

 

Sally Albright: I have just as much of a dark side as the next person.
Harry Burns: Oh, really? When I buy a new book, I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.

A doomsayer is “one given to forebodings and predictions of impending calamity”  (http://www.merriam-webster.com) Harry, is a doomsayer!  Another good candidate for the title of doomsayer would be Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh;

 

“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he.”Why, what’s the matter?””Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.””Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.”Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.”

 

If predicting calamity is what it takes to be a doomsayer, then why do we not have a section in the Bible after the Pentateuch and Psalms and Wisdom Literature called Doomsayings?  If you read the beginning of many of the stories in the books of the prophets, they begin with warnings of catastrophe about to befall the people of Israel who have strayed from the ways of the Lord in one way or another.  Predictions of pandemics, military defeat, destruction of the Temple, and being taken into captivity abound!  I’m not sure I’d be in a hurry to invite a prophet to dinner at my house for fear they may have just such a message for me.

A prophet is,“one who utters divinely inspired revelations: as a often capitalized : the writer of one of the prophetic books of the Bible b capitalized : one regarded by a group of followers as the final authoritative revealer of God’s will <Muhammad, the Prophet of Allah> 2: one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight; especially : an inspired poet 3: one who foretells future events : predictor” (http://www.merriam-webster.com)

 

The fundamental difference is that a prophet is divinely inspired.  The messages prophets share with the people around them are the words of God.   Some prophets in the past were pretty unhappy to be called upon to give the message they were told.  Jonah really didn’t want to help out the people of Nineveh and even ran away, but that didn’t end well for him and he delivered his message in the end.  There are stories of prophets hiding in caves in the wilderness to avoid crowds who were out to get them.  In 1 Kings 19 we read about Elijah, having challenged the prophets of Baal and won, ran away to a cave on Mt. Sinai to hide from Queen Jezebel who had vowed to kill him.

 

Regardless of the message a prophet may carry to us, our problem remains.  How can we tell when we are hearing from a true prophet and not a doomsayer?  Recently there was an individual who “prophesied” the coming of the rapture.  He claimed that the date and time were to be found written in Bible.  Many people were convinced by this prediction, some even selling all they had.  Many took it as a joke and there were many photos posted on Twitter of people’s clothing laid out as if they had just vanished from within them.

 

Our best hope is to look to the Bible to determine validity of such claims.  “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)  This is also stated in Matthew 24:36 and echoed again in Acts.  If our doomsayer of the day had really been speaking words from God, he would have known that the hour and the day would not be written in the Bible.’  Through study and prayer we seek the truth of God.