Whilst the practice of singing psalms in worship is ancient both in Hebrew and Christian tradition, it behooves us to consider exactly why such a practice is important or meaningful. The word “psalm” comes from the Hebrew word “tehillim,” meaning “praises,” and we know that the psalms were originally sung.  In fact, should you wish to flip through your Bible you will find many of them prefaced with either “a song,” or possibly “a psalm” or “a prayer,” or even less familiar Hebrew terms such as “maskil” (Psalm 89) or “gittith” (Psalm 84) or “miktam” (Psalm 58.)  Many psalms are expressly labeled “for the director of music,” or give even more precise liturgical instructions such as those found prefacing Psalm 60, “For the director of music.  To the tune of “The Lily of the Covenant.” A miktam of David.  For teaching.  When he fought Aram Naharaim and Aram Zobah, and when Joab returned and struck down twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” It is commonly supposed that David wrote most of the psalms, but many are attributed to other writers, such as Asaph, Ethan, Heman, and even Solomon.  Further, the psalms were not only sung, but probably were accompanied frequently by the simple string or wind instruments of the time, as we read in the prefaces to Psalm 4 (“with string instruments”) or Psalm 5 (“for flutes.”)  Since the ancient Hebrews did not notate their music, we have no way of knowing what melodies they might have used or how specifically they might have been accompanied.  No doubt they would have sounded quite foreign to our ears, as they would not have employed the Western musical modes (such as major and minor) but probably would have been more reminiscent of modern Middle Eastern music (and, considering that all music evolves and changes, one can be quite certain it would have sounded different than even that.)  The psalms are truly the “hymnal of the Bible,” containing a compendium of personal expressions for petitions, prayers, praises and even laments.  Yet, they were almost certainly used in Temple worship, as suggested by the frequently-encountered title of “for the director of music.”  The skilled Hebrew music director, just like his counterpart thousands of years later, would know which psalms to employ at which portion of the liturgy.

The Early Church, freed from the Old Covenant though it was, did not forsake the singing of psalms, and it is likely those early Christians (who, in fact, were mostly Jewish converts) sang psalms liturgically and exclusively.  Not until several centuries into the growth of the Church do extra-biblical hymns become commonplace.  (The earliest hymn whose author is known is “Shepherd of Tender Youth” by Clement of Alexandria, c. 200 AD.)  Through the Middle Ages and the development of the Roman Catholic Church psalms were sung and chanted by the great schola of mendicants.

With the Reformation, psalm singing took a different turn.  Luther continued to chant the psalms as he continued to chant the Epistle and Gospel lessons every Sunday.  His famous “A Mighty Fortress” is a paraphrase of Psalm 46—certainly an extra-biblical liberty which would not have been taken by more conservative theologians of prior centuries.  Huldrich Zwingli, the reformer from Zürich, forbade all singing in church, even of the psalms, finding the very act of singing to evoke humanity’s carnal nature;  meanwhile, in Geneva, Calvinism embraced psalm singing both at home and in church, producing the Genevan Psalter (1539, but many editions were published subsequently.)  This wealth of Genevan compositional activity both limited to and inspired by the psalms resulted in many tunes which have become second nature to us, including the famous Doxology, “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow,” whose tune name is OLD HUNDREDTH, a reference to the versified psalm for which it was intended.

Isaac Watts Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719) brought to English speakers settings of the psalms more elegantly set for personal and corporate singing (“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is from Watts’ volume and is a setting of Psalm 90: 1-5.)  Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century (and, in fact, even into the twentieth century in many denominations), psalm singing was the normative liturgical practice, whether one was a New England Anglican or a New England Puritan (whose Calvinist background stressed psalm-singing.)  Our American heritage is replete with musical settings of the psalms!

Therefore, this practice of singing psalms in the liturgy is both an ancient Hebrew and Early Church practice as well as an American practice.  David, Solomon, Jesus, the Apostles, King George III, as well as George Washington, John Bunyan, Queen Elizabeth the First and Cotton Mather were all edified by the singing of psalms.  Is there a reason why we moderns cannot likewise be edified the same way?

We do not know the musical style of the ancient Hebrews, but we can surmise that the melody was solely a vehicle for the text, as is all chant.  Therefore, our style of psalm singing is one that allows the text to proclaim God’s Word.  Nothing needs to be paraphrased in order to fit a certain tune’s meter (as was the case with all of Watts’ hymns) and the text can speak for itself.  There is no human editor who alters the text in order to make it more palatable to our sensitive ears.  We are able to use the same thoughts and expressions to offer our praise, prayers, and thanks to God as King David did when he wrote them, inspired as he was by the Holy Spirit.


Holy God, We Praise Thy Name

This famous hymn is one of the few hymns that both Protestants and Catholics call one of their favorites.  It was sung as President Kennedy’s casket was carried out of the church after his funeral in 1963.

The famous Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, a devout Catholic, ordered this hymn to be published in 1774; the author of the text is unknown, although it is based loosely on the historic Te Deum, an ancient hymn found in many ancient liturgies.  The Te Deum, as well as this paraphrase we sing today, recall the praise which God will be given on the last days and through eternity.  The saints, angels, martyrs, and the rest of us, will all give God glory forever!

Yet, the writer of music notes cannot help but observe how much abuse the word “praise” receives today.  As one sings this hymn, it is good to note how specifically this praise is directed.  It is not ambiguous and it is more than an emotion; rather, praise is inexorably linked to the Triune God, whose nature this hymn does not shy from exploring.  We sing that the “cherubim and seraphim, in unceasing chorus praising,” reflecting the first verses of Isaiah’s vision (chapter 6) and throughout Revelation, for we know that the angels constantly praise God.  But not just the angels, but the apostles and prophets and white-robed martyrs, and that great “cloud of witness” (Hebrews 12: 1) also join in this praise.  In our narcissistic society, even Christians have a difficult time understanding that their own lives and concerns, whilst important, are not as historically-earth shattering as we sometimes may feel.  Generations of nameless prophets and martyrs have suffered and died before us, so it is important on this day to remember that we are only a part of this “apostolic train.”

In the fourth and fifth stanzas, we learn specifically about the God we praise.  We do not praise some white-bearded grandfather in the sky;  rather, we praise the “King of Glory, Christ;  Son of God, yet born of Mary.  For us sinners sacrificed, as to death a Tributary, first to break the bars of death, Thou hast opened heaven to faith.”  This is a credal statement that echoes the Nicene Creed, whilst the final stanza is a doxology to the Triune God, “Three we name Thee;   though in essence only one, undivided God we claim Thee and adoring bend the knee while we own the mystery.”  Even the doxology clearly elucidates Trinitarian doctrine.  This text comes from the 4th century with its manifold Christological controversies. . . Arius had said that Christ was not eternal, but created and therefore implied a denial of the Trinity.  These early Latin hymns tended always to explain Christian doctrine as clearly as possible. . . to these early generations, praise was inexorably linked with doctrine;  only recently have we come to equate praise with a nebulous feeling only.  Yet, how much more important is it in this post-Christian age to use every opportunity possible to explain Christian doctrine?  Why should the hymns we sing be any less substantive? After all, modern American society is just as theologically-illiterate as the early Roman.  On this Feast Day of St John the Baptist, we can learn to see beyond our own myopic concerns to see the host of saints which preceded us and will follow us, undoubtedly.  And their manner of praise does have much to teach our modern generation.

Thy Strong Word

This hymn is of relatively recent origin, the text having been composed by Martin Franzmann in 1954 for Concordia Seminary in St Louis, MO.

Franzmann, a lifelong member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, taught exegetical theology at several institutions in the US before his ordination in 1969. He subsequently moved to Cambridge, England, where he served as a professor in a theological college. He died in 1976 at the age of 69.

This hymn text reminds us again of God’s commands to us and of the supremacy of His Word.  This hymn reminds us of God the Father’s omnipotence: God’s word “did cleave the darkness” and spoke Creation into being! Both “light” and the “ordered seasons” are part of God’s domain of which this text reminds us. Franzmann’s second stanza laments those who “dwelt in darkness, dark as night and deep as death,” a darkness through which “broke the light of Thy salvation, breathed Thine own life-breathing breath.” Here Franzmann captures the stark reality of sin and death as well as life and salvation in a manner reminiscent of Luther, for whom the light and dark dichotomy was always suggestive of the great battle between Christ, “the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected” and the nefarious “world’s prince,” a metaphor for the reality of Satan. The scriptures illustrate the theological reality of such an image when Jesus says in Matthew 5:

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Salt was a valuable commodity in the ancient world, with wages occasionally being paid in salt instead of currency (ie., the word “salary” is derived from “salt.”) It was valuable as a preservative, for taste, and even for pickling. (In Elizabethan times, a dinner guest of social importance was placed closer to the salt shaker [cellar] than one of lesser importance, who was not “worth his salt.”) Without a proper amount of salt, our bodies would not be able to function. Without salt, the world would grind to a halt, just as it would without Christians whose spiritual life is enlightened through Word and Sacrament. It is Christ’s light which informs our lives as Christians as we meet together to worship, to hear and to study His Word, and to receive the sacrament. We don’t become metaphorically saltier and more enlightened by sitting at home Sunday mornings watching television preachers nor by making up excuses why not to participate in the life of our congregation. The fourth stanza points us to a Christological foundation: “From the cross Thy wisdom shineth breaketh forth in conquering might; from the cross forever beameth all Thy bright redeeming light,” paraphrasing Paul who writes in I Cor. 18 that “. . . the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

This famous tune, known in Welsh as “Ton-Y-Botel,” literally means “tune in a bottle,” for it was said that a bottle washing up on the Welsh coast in the 19th-century contained this unexplained and tuneful melody.  Perhaps that explains why Wales has produced so many lovely tunes over the years. . .

I Bind Unto Myself Today

This hymn is ascribed to St Patrick (c. 380-461 AD), born in Roman Britain to a family who had been Christian for three generations. As a young boy, he was captured by Irish raiders and became a slave for six years. This time spent in Ireland allowed him to learn the language and culture of the Irish people. He eventually escaped, undertook theological studies, and returned to Ireland in 431 to assist in its evangelization. This must have been a rough time, and Marilyn Stulken writes of this, “According to legend Patrick and the Druid king Loegaire met at Tara Hill, where a festival of the Druid fire-worshipers was about to culminate with the extinction of all fires through the country. Patrick, however, defiantly lighted a Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane in full view of the King, who then set out to kill Patrick. In the pursuit, Patrick and his companions were miraculously transformed into deer and recited this him in flight. . .” Dubious historicity aside, this hymn became a lorica, Latin for “breastplate” and in the monastic tradition a prayer used to defend against Satan and all evil. Although this particular hymn does not exist in writing before the 8th century (and it is possible Patrick had nothing to do with it), one medieval commentator addresses the aspect of this hymn being used as a “breastplate” of spiritual protection: “Patrick made this hymn. . . and the cause of its composition was for the protection of himself and his monks against the deadly enemies that lay in ambush for the clerics. And it is a lorica of faith for the protection of body and soul against demons and men and vices.”

The scriptural basis for this hymn, and the protection which singing God’s Word can offer, is found in Ephesians 6 which exhorts the Christian to “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. . .” We sing this hymn today because today is Holy Trinity Sunday, and this hymn’s Trinitarian implications are clear in the first stanza, “I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three.” Although we sing to “bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay. . . against the demon snares of sin, the vice that gives temptation force, the natural lusts that war within, the hostile foes that mar my course. . .” this is not some magical talisman; rather, it is based on a strong Christology. Stanza 2 recalls “Christ’s incarnation, His Baptism in the Jordan River, His cross of death for my salvation, His bursting from the spiced tomb, His riding up the heavenly way, His coming at the day of doom, I bind unto myself today.” What a great credal summary of Christian beliefs! Neither does this hymn simply bind against evil; rather, in it we pray for “Wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, His shield to ward, the Word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard.” Whether St Patrick actually wrote this hymn whilst flying through the air metamorphosed into a deer, one can sense the missionary struggles any Christian would have had during this savage time. These were not gentle times, and spreading the gospel would often have been met with death. These words, then, are just as instructive for us today. Although we do not face death for our faith, we can face persecution for holding Christian beliefs. St Patrick’s determination and stalwart faith cannot help but serve as an example to Christians living today.

O Christ, the Word Incarnate

This hymn text was written by William How (1823-97), the son of an English lawyer. He was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1847. He served many parishes in England, but became known as the “Poor Man’s Bishop” because of his work in East London.

This text is based on Proverbs 6: 23: “Your commandment is a lamp, and the law is a light.” This hymn is addressed to Christ. Recall John 1: 1: “In the beginning was the Word. . .” This term Word is translated from the Greek word logos, which means “revelation” or perhaps “ultimate truth” and can be applied also to the study of mathematics, as mathematics was always seen as revealing the ultimate perfection of God. (Nothing else in the universe was seen as being as perfect as math; theologians and philosophers might be wrong, scientists may develop a wrong hypothesis or theory, we may not work a math problem correctly, but the essence of numbers and their relationships can never change, no matter where and when they occur; hence, a reflection of God.) One can see this further on in the first stanza: “O Truth unchanged, unchanging. . .” The first stanza expresses thanks for revelation through Scriptures (“from the hallowed page”) that has remained unchanged through the centuries (“Shines on from age to age.”)

The second stanza contains a nautical reference: “It is the chart and compass That, all life’s voyage through, Mid mists and rocks and quicksands Still guides, O Christ to You.”

The third stanza is a prayer that we offer to God, that we might be witnesses (“a lamp of purest gold”) to bear His light “before the nations,” as presumably people of the past had done (“as of old.”)

As a general comment, this hymn text is typical of Victorian-era hymnody. Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901) was crowned when “the sun never set on the English nation,” for English territories ranged from Asia (India) to southern Africa and to many of the geographies in between. Throughout the nineteenth century, England gradually lost these colonies as the balance of power shifted from Europe to the nascent American nation. Rebellions of indigenous peoples and conflicts with other European nations eventually would reduce England’s territory back to its small island. This, of course, was a blow to their national morale, and many of the Victorian hymns express a conservatism which seems to long for better times (when England still ruled the world), but still couched in spiritual terms. These hymns frequently emphasize God’s unchanging nature, as a comfort to a people whose society was undergoing constant change. (Consider the words from the great evening hymn “Abide With Me”: “O, Thou that changest not, abide with me.” These are similar expressions from a Victorian writer.) There is a longing for and even romanticization of the past, evident in this hymn from the phrase “Your true light as of old.” Yet, as these hymns express God’s immutability (unchanging nature), they are good for us today as well, in a society in which “change is the only constant,” to use a cliché. The internet and other technological innovations have sped our rate of technological sophistication and development. New business models and new paradigms are in constant evolution, or at least so we are told And yet, it is good for us to realize that God and His Word offers unchanging spiritual nourishment in ephemeral times.