Because He Comes, He Surely Comes

I have written in the past about why Psalms are appropriate for Advent and Christmas worship (quoting at length from C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms ). Psalms have a long history of being sung during Advent. Before most Advent/Christmas hymns were even penned, churches were singing Psalms to celebrate Christ’s incarnation. Traditional Advent Psalms include (but are certainly not limited to) Psalms 89, 96, 98, and 113. To go back further, the “Advent” hymns in the Gospels are rich in Psalm imagery; Mary’s song in Luke 1, for example, is rich in psalm themes, especially Psalms 89 and 92.

Psalms are chock full of themes that have historically been associated with Christ’s incarnation. These include justice for the poor and oppressed, comfort for the downtrodden, judgment for the wicked, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, and a cosmic rejoicing in God’s mercy and reign. Singing Psalms with these themes helps to balance the sentimentality of some Christmas songs, as well as center us on the magnitude of the incarnation. Indeed, the baby born in a cattle stall 2000+ years ago is the King and Judge of the universe who came to defeat the prince of this world. Granted, on the other hand, if we sing only Psalms during Advent, we’ll miss out on some sublime and strong incarnational hymnody. C.S. Lewis provides some helpful thoughts on Psalm singing and Advent:

“Psalm 110, the psalm assigned to Christmas Day, has nothing about peace and good-will, nothing remotely suggestive of the stable at Bethlehem. It seems to have been originally either a coronation ode for a new king, promising conquest and empire, or a poem addressed to some king on the eve of a war, promising victory…The note is not ‘Peace and good-will’ but ‘Beware. He’s coming’…All this emphasizes an aspect of the Nativity to which our later sentiment about Christmas does less than justice. For those who first read these Psalms as poems about the birth of Christ, that birth primarily meant something very militant; the hero, the judge or champion or giant-killer, who was to fight and beat death, hell, and the devil, had at last arrived.”

Since Christmas Day is two days away, I wanted to share one such Psalm that is especially appropriate for Advent: Psalm 98. Psalm 98 is cosmic in scope, calling on all people and all of creation to praise God for his covenant promises, righteous judgment, and imminent coming. Isaac Watts’ famous hymn “Joy to the World” is actually his christological paraphrase of Psalm 98. He published it in 1719 with the title “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” It’s not difficult to see why Psalm 98 and Advent are closely tied, as the ESV Study Bible notes: “The psalm and the hymn have come to be associated with Christmas; like Psalm 96, this is not inappropriate, provided it is clear that the coming of Jesus as the Davidic king who will bring light to the Gentiles is what establishes the connection.”

There are several excellent metrical arrangements of Psalm 98 of which I am aware. My all-time favorite version is from the RPCNA’s Book of Psalms for Singing (also included in the Cantus Christi and the forthcoming URC/OPC joint psalter hymnal). This boisterous fuguing tune is called LYGNHAM, published in 1803. This video is from one church’s psalm sing, though I prefer it a touch slower for congregational singing.

My other favorite version has older roots than the British tune above: the Genevan version of Psalm 98. The Genevan Psalms were commissioned by John Calvin in the 1500s and are still frequently sung in Dutch and Canadian Reformed churches. The video below is an excellent Dutch  rendition of this song.



Psalm 98 (ESV)
A Psalm.

Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.


Psalm 98A (Book of Psalms for Singing)

O sing a new song to the LORD,
for wonders he has done;
His right hand and His holy arm
the victory have won.

The great salvation wrought by Him
Jehovah has made known.
His justice in the nations’ sight
He openly has shown.

He mindful of His grace and truth
to Isr’el’s house has been.
The great salvation of our God
all ends of earth have seen.

O all the earth, sing to the LORD
and make a joyful sound.
Lift up your voice aloud to Him;
sing psalms! Let joy resound!

With harp make music to the LORD;
with harp a psalm O sing!
With horn and trumpet raise a shout
before the LORD, the King.

Let seas in all their vastness roar,
the world its living horde.
Let rivers clap, let mountains sing
their joy before the LORD!

Because He comes, He surely comes,
the judge of earth to be!
With justice He will judge the world,
all men with equity.

From All That Dwell Below the Skies, Sacred Harp, and SSS

I have a condition. It’s not an officially diagnosable, documented, or serious condition, but I have one just the same. I like to call it Song Stickiness Syndrome, or SSS for short (just wait for the DSM-VI, there are dozens of us!). The symptoms include perpetually singing a song in my head (most of the time in full or partial harmony), waking up with a song in my head (which is why it is particularly important to have a good alarm in the morning – currently Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue”), learning melodies (and often harmonies) of songs with just one or two listens, and a penchant for whistling and humming.

SSS is both a blessing and a curse. Mostly blessing. It enriches my life since chances are strong that a given song in my head is a hymn or psalm, given the nature of my ongoing hymn- and psalm-related service for my church and denomination. The mere mention of a song or hymn title lodges that song in my head for at least an hour. The curse nature of SSS comes when my wife plays cruel tricks on me. Once in a while, she’ll sing a bar or two of a terrible Methodist or Baptist “hymn,” knowing that I will carry that burden far longer than one person should bear. For example, we were at a concert at an area megachurch recently, paging through their hymnal (The Celebration Hymnal, a popular Baptist hymnal) pointing out particularly egregious songs. She playfully decided to sing a few bars of “There’s Something About That Name” on the way home. The schmaltzy-ness – oh, the humanity. I also have difficulty shopping, since most of the background these days drives me to the brink of madness. Fortunately our local supermarket plays mostly alternative and classic rock, making it an SSS safe zone (or SSSSZ for short).

All this to say, I’ve had a song stuck in my head for days that falls under the “blessing” category, and I thought I’d share. Thus the long, me-focused introduction. Isaac Watts wrote a loose paraphrase of Psalm 117 titled “From All That Dwell Below the Skies” in 1719. This text has been paired with various tunes throughout the years, including DUKE STREET and LASST UNS ERFREUEN. Each of these are sturdy, appropriate, singable tunes for this text, but neither compare with its Sacred Harp match, called SCHENECTADY. I learned this tune thanks to the fantastic collection of early American sacred music called Goostly Psalmes or Early American Choral Music, volume 2 by His Majestie’s Clerkes, conducted by Paul Hillier.

To learn more about Sacred Harp singing, I’ll point you to a post on Sacred Harp singing I wrote last year. Hillier’s version of “From All That Dwell Below the Skies” is professional and polished, though one of the mesmerizing characteristics of Sacred Harp gatherings is that they are neither professional nor polished. I’ll leave you with two videos of this song, one from an Irish Sacred Harp sing, and another more raucous version from a Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention. And please don’t take advantage of my now-public SSS vulnerability by playing cruel tricks on me.

Irish:

Massachusetts:

The Sacred Harp: feeling sorry for the devil?

Mesmerizing. Passionate. Fascinating. Joyful. Loud. Beautiful. Complex. Lusty. Unpolished. These are adjectives I describe shape note singing with.

We were first introduced to shape note music by friends in Virginia Beach. They had an album called the Goostly Psalmes (reissued as Early American Choral Music, volume 2) that Elizabeth and I fell in love with. The album featured several shape note style songs from America’s earliest composers.

Though “shape note” refers to a method of teaching music and not the type of music itself, it can refer to a distinctive style of singing characterized by a capella singing, frequent fugues, polyphonic textures, and other more musically technical things I’m not qualified to explain. This singing is more accurately called Sacred Harp singing, named after a famous 19th century hymnal of the same name.

Example of shape note notation

Recently, Sacred Harp has entered the mainstream (relatively speaking) thanks to Derek Webb’s new album, Ctrl. He samples several Sacred Harp songs on this album, creating a rich texture even though he only uses his voice, a single nylon-string guitar, Sacred Harp samples, and electronic percussion. I am enjoying Webb’s album, and started to look into the history and practice of Sacred Harp as a result. In my reading, I came across the film Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp, which we watched last weekend. The film is well done, giving a history of Sacred Harp hymns, shape notes, the format of the all-day sings, and even some music theory. I highly recommend it.

Let’s just say I have a renewed interest (obsession?) in Sacred Harp. The singing is mesmerizing: robust, complex, and beautiful. Some might even call it lusty. It is difficult to describe in writing, so check out the trailer for the film before reading on:

Many of the Sacred Harp hymn texts were written by Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and other familiar hymnwriters. Even very different musical versions of “Amazing Grace, “Come Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing,” and “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand” are in the Sacred Harp hymnal. The hymn texts are available online, though audio versions of tunes are more difficult to find. Tunes that might be familiar include Montgomery, Greenwich, Russia (the tune to Psalm 119X in the Book of Psalms for Singing), Rainbow, and perhaps my personal favorite, Bridgewater. Note that singers first sing through the tune using fa, so, la, and mi before singing the hymn text. One of the draws to Sacred Harp singing is the rampant joy evidenced in the wall of sound, the mirthful smiles, and the passionate expressions. The rule of thumb is that if you can hear the person next to you, you aren’t singing loud enough.

But the music and volume aren’t the only things going for Sacred Harp. That is, it’s not just experientially about the music like so much of the fluff you hear on positive, encouraging radio stations or in contemporary “worship experiences.” To put it bluntly, the music of the Sacred Harp isn’t emotionally manipulative to hide shallow words. On the contrary, most (though not all!) of these songs have poetic, theologically rich words that span a wide range of emotions and experience, much like the Psalms. In fact, many of the words are Isaac Watts’ paraphrases of the Psalms:

Early my God, without delay, I haste to seek Thy face;
My thirsty spirit faints away without Thy cheering grace.
So pilgrims on the scorching sand, beneath a burning sky,
Long for a cooling stream at hand, and they must drink or die.
-Isaac Watts (Montgomery)

This isn’t to say that the music isn’t stirring. It definitely is. Enough to make a city newspaper write, “Get enough people singing weird harmonies at the top of their voices and you start feeling a little sorry for the devil.” It’s the best of both worlds: text and music.

The film points out that when the sweet, schmaltzy revivalist hymns of the mid-to-late 1800s came along (thanks to Charles Finney and others who strove for a formulaic, methods-driven, human-centered, easy-believism evangelism), the more “difficult” songs of the Sacred Harp were forced out of mainstream urban areas to the rural South, where they are still being sung today by young and old alike. Thankfully, Sacred Harp singing is gaining exposure, and all-day sings are popping up around the country.

For more resources on Sacred Harp singing, visit awakemysoul.com or fasola.org. See if there’s an all-day sing near you! For multimedia content, search YouTube for Sacred Harp, pick the film up, or check out a wide range of Sacred Harp albums.

Thanksgiving Hymn

Though not typically thought of as a Thanksgiving hymn, when I reflect on what I am most deeply and humbly grateful for, I find myself singing verse two and three of Isaac Watts’ “How Sweet and Aweful is the Place” (1707).

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?”

Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice
And rather starve than come?

Full text of this “awesome” hymn here.

Sunday Citation

Death, like an overflowing stream,
Sweeps us away; our life’s a dream –
An empty tale – a morning flow’r,
Cut down and wither’d in an hour!

Teach us, O Lord, how frail is man;
And kindly lengthen out the span,
Till, cleansed by grace, we all may be
Prepared to die, and dwell with Thee.

-Isaac Watts (1719), vv. 4-5 of “Through Every Age, Eternal God,” from Psalm 90, to the tune of Amanda (Justin Morgan, 1790)

Long Have I Heard the Joyful Sound

Don’t really have much time to post lengthy things lately (only a couple more weeks!), but this song has been making its rounds in my head lately, and the words are fantastic. It was originally penned by Isaac Watts in 1709, and redone by Matthew Smith in 2008 on his Love Will Never Die EP. Matthew Smith’s version is very well done. You can download the album at his website for free by telling five friends about it.

Here are the lyrics from Matthew Smith’s version:

Long have I heard the joyful sound
Of Thy salvation, Lord.
But still how weak my faith is found,
How slow to learn Thy Word!

How cold and feeble is my love,
How negligent my fear!
How low my hope of joys above;
How few affections have I there!

Great God! Thy sovereign power impart
To give Thy Word success;
Write Thy salvation in my heart,
And make me learn Thy grace.

Show my forgetful feet the way
That leads to joys on high;
There knowledge grows without decay,
And love shall never die.

When I Survey

I find it helpful to use hymns and psalms as devotional material. Mediating on God’s word and works throughout the busy day can be as simple as singing a hymn, psalm, or spiritual song to yourself. One hymn in particular that has been making its rounds in my head during this Resurrection season is Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” penned in 1707.

Apparently, the great hymn writer Charles Wesley said he would trade all his hymns to have written this one (if Wesley claimed that, if baffles me why Chris Tomlin felt the need to add to try to improve it…). Because it is such a famous, familiar hymn I often don’t think about the words as much as I should. The last time we sung this, though, I saw one way in which this is such a great hymn.

The hymn moves from wonder, gratitude, and love for Christ’s work on the cross to the final verse, which is a verse of complete life dedication. It is a great example of the truths of the atonement stirring the right response – orthodoxy (right teaching) is nothing without orthopraxy (right doing), and this hymn encapsulates the truly amazing event of the atonement with the correct response we are to have as God’s children – giving our soul, our life, our all. I love that fourth verse, even though I so desperately fall short of it everyday.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Price of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorry meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.