Not Idyllic, Pretty, or Easy

“In the Psalms, the life of faith isn’t idyllic, pretty, or easy. It is a walk with God marked by anguish, dread, and grief. The Psalms picture a life where prayers seem to go unanswered, where God seems distant, and where evil seems to be winning. The Psalms welcome us to a faith where God’s agenda is more important than ours and where we are asked to live out our faith in the context of a disastrously broken world. But this is also precisely where we experience the highest personal joys, as we put our hope in the covenant love of the Lord and make the pursuit of his glory the goal of our lives.”

-Paul David Tripp in A Quest for More: Living for Something Bigger than You (New Growth Press, 2007)

Let the Nations Be Glad

It’s difficult to read Scripture with the eyes of faith and not come away with an optimistic view of the future in light of the myriad promises of God that are breathtaking in scope and which promise success for the spread of the gospel. Though most of the Psalms are laments, the Psalms especially are filled with such global optimism and promises for the successful reign of Christ. Keith Mathison, in his excellent book Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope, devotes an entire chapter to the optimism of the Psalms. His summary at the end of the chapter is especially helpful, and I quote it here:

“In each of the psalms we have examined, a different facet of the reign of the Messiah is brought to light:

1. Psalm 2. Christ is the rightful heir of all the nations.
2. Psalm 22. The same Christ who was crucified and is now exalted will fulfill the Abrahamic promise, and all the nations of the earth will remember and turn to God.
3. Psalm 47. All nations of the earth will be united to Christ and will become the one people of the God of Abraham.
4. Psalm 67. Although national Israel has failed, Christ will succeed as the mediator of the Abrahamic blessing to the nations of the earth.
5. Psalm 72. The people of God should faithfully pray for Christ to have worldwide dominion, to have all nations bow before Him, and to have all nations call Him blessed.
6. Psalm 86. The same omnipotent God who made all the nations will convert all the nations.
7. Psalm 110. Christ will reign from the right hand of God until He has brought all His enemies into either willing or unwilling submission.

“The Psalms continue to expand upon the covenant promises of the Pentateuch and the Historical Books by expressing Israel’s faith in the sure fulfillment of those promises. In doing so, they reinforce the postmillennial foundation, even as they begin to build upon it.”

-Keith Mathison in Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope (P&R, 1999), pp. 81-82

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.

When the Symphony Rings Cacophony

“Because the Psalms are dialogic (they pose questions and offer answers), psalm singing involves learning the meaning, purpose, and grace that undergirds each individual’s life calling, and, living under the faithful presence of God’s guiding Hand. This manifestation of aesthetics, the study of what makes something beautiful, bittersweet, compelling, and enduring, imbues each note of each psalm. The Christian life becomes a symphony of aesthetics, as each note resounds and resonates to God’s glory and, by the Hand of his composition, fits together, even during those times of darkness and struggle, those times when the symphony rings cacophony. In singing the Psalms, in worship and in life, we always know where God is in our suffering. In singing the Psalms, we always have a song in our heart that provides us with direction, redirection, rebuke (when needed), and encouragement. After years of singing the Psalms, and because the word does not return void, we listen, we respond, and, as part of God’s training of our hearts, we grow in grace and sanctification.”

-Rosaria Champagne Butterfield in Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith (Crown & Covenant, 2012)

The Psalms Cry Out To Be Sung

Since I have been wont to beat the proverbial drum about singing Psalms in corporate worship over the years (see inclusive hymnody, Psalms for Advent, predominant psalmody, and well-rounded worship), I think it appropriate to point you in the direction of another excellent resource on Psalm singing. William Boekestein is the very capable and humble pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA, a sister church of ours in the URCNA. That church is embarking on a four-year journey through the Psalms, and to kick it off he preached an excellent sermon called “Singing the Psalms.” Hop on over to Sermon Audio and give it a listen; it’s well worth your time.

In light of Calvin’s pithy saying that the Psalms are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul and Westermeyer writing that “the Psalms may be spoken, but they cry out to be sung,” Rev. Boekestein argues that “worship without Psalms is like preaching without Scripture, because it is missing divine inspiration.” He breaks his sermon into two main parts: why sing Psalms and how to sing Psalms. His basic outline is this:

Why Sing the Psalms?
1. Psalms were undoubtedly Israel’s inspired songbook.
2. Psalm singing is central to New Testament worship starting with Jesus and continuing today.
3. Psalms stretch our Christian consciousness.
4. Psalms help us to know Jesus better by revealing Him and presenting His experiences in prophetic form (Luke 24:44).
5. God commands it, and it is the Word of Christ (Colossians 3:16).

How to Sing the Psalms
1. Sing Psalms by way of personal appropriation: they must become ours.
2. Sing Psalms with an attitude that reflects the attitude of the psalm.
3. Sing Psalms with gratitude when the Psalms don’t express our current attitude (especially laments).
4. Sing Psalms with love for the work of God in Christ, as they remind us of our Suffering Savior and our Conquering King.

His discussion of the Psalms stretching our Christian consciousness was especially helpful, and what I would like to summarize here. He contrasts this aspect of the Psalms with much of the contemporary self-focused, self-reflective, comfortable worship music today by highlighting five examples of this consciousness stretching.

Psalms Stretch Our Christian Consciousness
1. Psalms help us to fight when we would rather coast (e.g. Psalm 144). The Christian life isn’t a nice euphemistic “journey,” but a war. The Psalms help gird us for spiritual battle.
2. Psalms help us lament when we would rather rejoice (e.g. Psalm 143). Laments are the most frequently appearing Psalms. We can sing them because they remind us of and identify us with suffering Christians worldwide; they remind us to prepare for trouble and trial, because it’s coming; and they remind us to bring all our troubles to the Lord. They also remind us of Christ and His suffering. See my post on singing Psalms of lament for more.
3. Psalms help us to repent when we would rather cover up (e.g. Psalm 32, 51)
4. Psalms call timid Christians to be bold with God (e.g. Psalm 44), especially since we can speak boldly through Christ.
5. Psalms help us worship when we would rather complain (e.g. Psalm 42).

There are many more helpful points of teaching and application in the sermon, so I commend it to you. Rev. Boekestein is also an accomplished author, with a co-authored book on Advent and children’s books on the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort.

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:

3Q13 Book Briefs

Here are the books I read from July through September, 2013. My next list of reading goals is live here. I am also trying to finish Carson’s commentary on John and The Valley of Vision this year. As you can see, the novelty of reading on a Kindle has greatly diminished, as I read just one electronic book this quarter.

Death By Living – N.D. Wilson (2013); Print // His followup to one of my top books of 2009, which was a hard one to follow. This isn’t a sophomore slump by any stretch, but it wasn’t as unified or eye-opening as Notes from the Tilt-a-WhirlNotes… presented a way of viewing life and creation while Death By Living presents a way of living one’s life in light of our impending death. It is creative and interesting, though I think its intimately autobiographical nature made it less personal to the reader than Notes.

Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything – Steve DeWitt (2012); Print // My expectations were sky-high because the reviews I read were off the charts, so it was inevitable to experience a letdown. But it was still a solid book. He starts with the incomprehensible beauty of the Triune God himself, and then to how God’s beauty is manifested in creation and the gospel. Most helpful were discussions on how God is always bigger than our view of him, and that Christian vs. secular art/culture is a dichotomy to be avoided.

Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man – Doug Wilson (2004); Print // Strong book on being a faithful husband. Wilson has no patience or tolerance for waffling, spineless husbands. Pastoral and direct.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World – Joel Salatin (2011); Print // I’ve enjoyed Salatin’s interviews in food documentaries and his cameos in Michael Pollan’s books, but a full book by Salatin is an acquired taste that I have not acquired. Skimmed through most of it, but didn’t actually finish. I agree with many of his ideas, but his voice is very self-oriented, defensive to a fault, and pushing the boundaries of arrogant.

Home – Marilynne Robinson (2008); Print // One of the most beautiful, moving books I’ve ever read; a front runner for my book of the year. A reinterpretation of the prodigal son parable, this is heart-wrenching, grace-filled, and sublime. Home is the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead, though I think Home is the better of the two.

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture – Francis Schaeffer (1976); Print // I was expecting something a little more in-depth, so I was a little disappointed. It is a good Christian introduction to Western art, culture, and philosophy, though there are probably more current introductory books on the topic that are just as helpful.

Humor and Information Literacy: Practical Techniques for Library Instruction – Joshua Vossler and Scott Shiedlower (2011); Kindle // Read in preparation for taking on more library instruction sessions this semester. Helpful, though most of the book was comprised of literature reviews, which were dry and long.

Lancelot – Walker Percy (1977); Print // Written entirely via the monologue/flashback of a ranting institutionalized protagonist on a quest to prove the existence of God by proving the existence of one purely evil act. Contains standard Percy themes like existential awakening, lusty Southern women, and earthy Catholicism, but much darker and more disturbing than his other novels. Good, but I do hesitate to recommend it wholesale.

A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home – Jason Helopoulos (2013); Print // Short, pithy, and a good kick in the pants to (like Nike) just do it. He argues that family worship should, at minimum, include three elements: Scripture reading, prayer, and singing. Many treatments on family worship either forget or downplay singing, so that was refreshing. No excuses for tone-deafness!

The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms – Gordon Wenham (2013); Print // I really enjoyed this one and learned lots. Very insightful treatment of the psalter as a whole, as well as their individual genres. Repetitive at points because it is a collection of lectures, so it could have used a more thorough editor. But still very good.