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Studies in Hymns

The Young Person's Guide to the Hymnbook

The Psalms


by Wayne S. Walker


One morning after breakfast, just before leaving the house to go out on a visit, Dad stopped by to see how Andrew and Seth were doing with their schoolwork while Mom was washing up the breakfast dishes.

The boys had just finished their Bible lesson, which involved reading Psalm 148 and answering some questions about it. Seth said, "Dad, while I was reading this Psalm, it sounded a great deal like one of the songs that we often sing in church services. Are a lot of our hymns based on the Psalms?"

Dad replied, "Some of them are. And a lot of songs that are not drawn directly from the Psalms often use language taken from the Psalms. The reason for this is fairly easy to understand when you realize that the Psalms were sort of like the hymns that God gave the people of Israel to sing."

Andrew had a question. "A little while ago you told us about the German chorales, so it would seem that the Lutherans did not stay only with the Psalms."

"That's right," Dad replied, "although Luther's famous 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God' is based on Psalm 46. But for the most part, the German chorales were not based exclusively on the Psalms."

"So," Andrew continued, "were there any branches of the Reformation which did emphasize the use of Psalms, and how did Psalm singing come about?"

Dad answered, "As you know, the period of 1500 to 1700 in church history is often called the Reformation, but the concept of Reformation had earlier antecedents. Jan Hus, who lived in Bohemia from 1370 to 1450, is called by some the earliest Reformer. His followers were called Hussites or Bohemian Brethren, and although Hus himself was burned at the stake and his followers were persecuted almost to extinction during the Counter Reformation, some of the remnant, joined by others who were likeminded, formed the 'Unitas Fratrum,' known commonly as the Moravian Church, based on the teachings of Hus. This organization still exists today. Luther began his aspect of the Reformation in Germany in 1517, and many of the Moravians came to Germany; their hymns tended to blend in with the Lutheran. There were also the Anabaptist groups throughout central Europe, but their hymns also tended to be very much like the Lutheran chorales.

"The other two main branches of the Reformation were those of Calvin in Switzerland and France, especially the south and eastern portions, and of Henry VIII in England, and there's an interesting connection between the development of hymn singing in the two that we'll notice in this lesson. Since the basic cultural background out of which the United States grew was English, the majority of the hymns with which we're familiar came from England, but there was a definite early influence from Calvinism. John Calvin established his religion as supreme in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1536. It quickly spread to France, where it grew rapidly in the southwest portion but was eventually stamped out, to the Netherlands, some portions of Germany, and eventually to England and Scotland.

"After Henry broke with Rome in 1533-1534, Archbishop Cranmer determined that a new worship service would have to be developed, so he eliminated all hymns. There were practical reasons for this. The hymns of the Catholic Church were in Latin, and most people couldn't read Latin. Also, they were sung to intricate plainsong melodies which only trained choirs of monks could sing. Therefore, it was decided that the songs should be sung in English churches only if the words were taken from the Bible. Since the Calvinists had already taken the route of singing the Psalms in their worship, this became the basic practice adopted by the early Anglicans.

At this point, Dad headed over to his bookshelf to pick up a couple of old hymnbooks. "The French Calvinists produced metrical versions of Psalms to be sung in books called Psalters. It appears that while the emphasis among the Calvinists was upon singing Psalms, many of the Psalters did have an appendix of a few other hymns, although they sounded very much like the metrical versions of the Psalms that were common at that time. One of the earliest examples that is still used from these Psalters is actually not a Psalm, but it's taken from the Strasburg Psalter of 1545, an early French Psalter. Sometimes attributed to John Calvin himself, it's called in French 'Je Te salue, mon certain Redempteur,' and was translated into English by Elizabeth Lee Smith in 1868 as 'I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art.'

"The English Reformers having decided to follow a similar pattern, a man named Thomas Sternhold, who died in 1549, published in the year of his death a collection of 'Certayne Psalms, chose out of the Psalter of David' containing his version of 37 Psalms. One of them, Psalm 18, was 'O God, my Strength and Fortitude.' However, after Henry VIII died in 1547 and his son Edward VI in 1554, his Catholic daughter, Mary, came to the throne and did everything she could to return England to the Catholic fold. Many of the Protestant leaders were killed, and those that escaped went mainly to Geneva, Switzerland, where they were further influenced by the Psalm singing of the Calvinists.

"When Elizabeth came to the throne after the death of Mary in 1558, the Protestants began returning and brought with them the Psalters that they had used in Geneva. Perhaps the best-known metrical Psalm from this background to survive today is taken from the Anglo-Genevan Psalter of 1561 and was made by William Kethe. It is based on Psalm 100 and is often called 'The Old Hundredth.' "

1. All people that on earth do dwell, Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.
Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell; Come ye before Him and rejoice.

2. The Lord, ye know, is God indeed; Without our aid He did us make;
We are His folk, He doth us feed, And for His sheep He doth us take.

3. O enter then His gates with praise; Approach with joy His courts unto;
Praise, laud, and bless His Name always, For it is seemly so to do.

4. For why? the Lord our God is good; His mercy is for ever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood, And shall from age to age endure.

Doxology: To Father, Son and Holy Ghost, The God Whom Heaven and earth adore,
From men and from the angel host Be praise and glory evermore.

Andrew had a question. "I remember singing that song from time to time, but in this book it doesn't sound quite the same as in the books we use at church. Why is that?"

Dad replied, "Well, the editors of the Psalters were always tinkering with the metrical arrangements in an attempt to improve them. Also, as this was originally done in French for the people of Geneva and then translated into English, some variations may be due to differences in translations.

"Kethe's versions of the Psalms were so popular that when Sternhold's friend John Hopkins took Sternhold's 37 Psalms, added 39 of his own, gathered still others from friends, and in 1562 published the entire book of Psalms, which became the standard Psalter in English Churches for many years and was commonly called 'Sternhold and Hopkins' or 'The Old Version,' it included 25 of Kethe's paraphrases.

'While all of this was going on in England, John Knox, who had left his native Scotland to escape persecution and gone to Geneva to study with John Calvin, returned to Scotland, bringing Calvinism with him and establishing the Presbyterian Church. He and his co-workers resolved to make a Psalter completely suited to their tastes. Some of the Psalms they took bodily from the Geneva Psalter, copied 76 more from Sternhold and Hopkins, and made new renderings of the rest for themselves. This work was published in 1564 and was revised several times until 1650 when it was given its final form. Many of the Psalms from this Psalter have found use beyond the borders of Scotland. Perhaps the most widely used is the rendering of Psalm 23 which shows the influence of several Psalter editors. It's sometimes attributed to Francis Rous, who couldn't have done the original since he wasn't born until 1579, but he did edit a version for the 1646 edition. The final version of 1650 is still sung."

1. The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want. He makes me down to lie
In pastures green; He leadeth me The quiet waters by.

2. My soul He doth restore again; And me to walk doth make
Within the paths of righteousness, Even for His own Name’s sake.

3. Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale, Yet will I fear no ill;
For Thou art with me; and Thy rod And staff my comfort still.

4. My table Thou hast furnishèd In presence of my foes;
My head Thou dost with oil anoint, And my cup overflows.

5. Goodness and mercy all my life Shall surely follow me;
And in God’s house forevermore My dwelling place shall be.

Seth said, "Oh, I know that one. But in our book, one line of each stanza repeats, doesn't it?"

Dad replied, "Yes. These Psalms have been sung to many tunes, and the one that most of our books use for this one has an extra phrase of music, so the third line of each stanza has to repeat to fill it out.

"By the early 1600's, the Anglican Church was beginning to show signs of division. Many, especially among those who had returned from Geneva, felt that the Church was moving away from Calvinism. Wishing to purify the Church of what they perceived were bad influences, they became known as 'Puritans.' In their desire to purify the Church, they dissented from many of its practices and refused to conform, so were often known as 'Dissenters' and 'Non-conformists.' Ultimately, they found that they could not purify the Church as they desired, so they began meeting independently of the state church and were called 'Independents.' Ultimately, they became known as 'Congregationalists.' The English Puritans accepted the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter only grudgingly because they felt that it took too much liberty with the text. Out of this background arose John Milton, who became the best-known epic poet of 17th century England with his Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. As a 15-year old boy in 1623 he paraphrased Psalm 136, and it is still sung today."

1. Let us, with a gladsome mind, Praise the Lord, for He is kind.
2. Let us blaze His Name abroad, For of gods He is the God.
3. He with all commanding might Filled the new made world with light.
4. He hath, with a piteous eye, Looked upon our misery.
5. He the golden tressèd sun Caused all day his course to run.
6. Th’horned moon to shine by night; ’Mid her spangled sisters bright.
7. All things living He doth feed, His full hand supplies their need.
8. Let us, then with gladsome mind, Praise the Lord, for He is kind.
Refrain: For His mercies aye endure, Ever faithful, ever sure.

The boys noticed that each stanza ended with the same refrain. Dad told them that this was because each verse in Psalm 136 ended with the words, "For His mercy endures forever."

Dad continued, "Toward the end of the 17th century, a new metrical version of the Psalter was made by two Irishmen in the court of William and Mary named Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady. For the previous 100 years, the Old Version of Sternhold and Hopkins had held sway over both the established churches and many of the dissenting sects. While its chief virtue was its reasonable faithfulness to the original Hebrew, its chief defect was its unpoetical character. The Tate and Brady Psalter, published in 1696, became known as the 'New Version,' but was used only among the Anglicans since the Non-conformists shunned it, feeling that it took even more liberty with the inspired word. One arrangement from the Tate and Brady Psalter which has survived, taken from Psalm 42, is 'As Pants the Hart.'

"As we move on into the 18th century, the writing of hymns of human composure among the Anglicans has already begun, and even their view of the Psalms has become more literary. Joseph Addison was co-founder with Richard Steele of The Spectator, a writer, moralist, and man of affairs. He produced four hymns in 1712, one of which was a paraphrase of Psalm 19."

1. The spacious firmament on high, With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame Their great Original proclaim.
Th’unwearied sun, from day to day, Does his Creator’s powers display,
And publishes to every land The work of an Almighty Hand.

2. Soon as the evening shades prevail The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth Repeats the story of her birth;
While all the stars that round her burn And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll, And spread the truth from pole to pole.

3. What though in solemn silence all Move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound Amid the radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice, And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine

"About this same time, a leading voice among the Dissenters, Isaac Watts, produced a different kind of Psalter. Even as a young lad, Watts lamented the dreary singing of Psalms in the Non-conformist churches and began producing hymns of human composure. However, since those in his religious fellowship still preferred the Psalms, he gave them what they wanted, only in a better fashion. In 1719 he published his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, in which he took the Psalms and rewrote them in poetic form to include more relevant applications of their thoughts. Many of these are still used today (e.g., 23--"The Lord My Shepherd Is" and "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need;"
72--"Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun;" 98--"Joy to the World;" 100--"Before Jehovah's Awful Throne;" 117--"From All That Dwell Below The Skies;" 119--"How Shall The Young Secure Their Heart"). However, perhaps one of the best-known is taken from Psalm 90."

1. Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home.

2. Beneath the shadow of Thy throne Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone, And our defense is sure.

3. Before the hills in order stood, Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God, To endless years the same.

4. A thousand ages in Thy sight Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun.

5. Time, like an ever rolling stream, Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.

6. Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last, And our eternal home.

"The basic period in which the Psalms held sway in the worship services of English speaking churches was from about 1550 to 1750. They held on a little longer among the Independents and even longer among the Scottish Presbyterians. However, even after the turn of the 19th century, there was still some interest in the Psalms. In 1822 James Montgomery, a Scottish Moravian newpaperman who produced many hymns, published his Songs of Zion, which contained his paraphrases of the Psalms. His version of Psalm 23 is fairly well known."

1. The Lord is my Shepherd, no want shall I know; I feed in green pastures, safe folded I rest;
He leadeth my soul where the still waters flow, Restores me when wand’ring, redeems when oppressed.

2. Through valley and shadow of death though I stray, Since Thou art my Guardian, no evil I fear;
Thy rod shall defend me, Thy staff be my stay; No harm can befall, with my Comforter near.

3. In midst of affliction my table is spread; With blessings unmeasured my cup runneth o’er;
With perfume and oil Thou anointest my head; O what shall I ask of Thy providence more?

4. Let goodness and mercy, my bountiful God, Still follow my steps till I meet Thee above;
I seek, by the path which my forefathers trod, Through land of their sojourn, Thy Kingdom of love.

"A couple of years later, Richard Mant published The Book of Psalms in an English Metrical Version in 1824. His rendering of Psalm 145 is still found in many hymnbooks today."

1. God, my King, Thy might confessing, Ever will I bless Thy Name;
Day by day Thy throne addressing, Still will I Thy praise proclaim.

2. Honor great our God befitteth; Who His majesty can reach?
Age to age His works transmitteth, Age to age His power shall teach.

3. They shall talk of all Thy glory, On Thy might and greatness dwell,
Speak of Thy dread acts the story, And Thy deeds of wonder tell.

4. Nor shall fail from memory’s treasure Works by love and mercy wrought;
Works of love surpassing measure, Works of mercy passing thought.

5. Full of kindness and compassion, Slow to anger, vast in love,
God is good to all creation; All His works His goodness prove.

6. All Thy works, O Lord, shall bless Thee; Thee shall all Thy saints adore:
King supreme shall they confess Thee, And proclaim Thy sovereign power.

"Consider a couple more examples from the early 19th century of more literary Psalm paraphrases which are still rather popular. Robert Grant took a version of Psalm 104 by William Kethe in the 1561 Anglo-Genevan Psalter and reworked it for Henry Bickersteth's 1833 Christian Psalmody."

1. O worship the King, all glorious above, And gratefully sing His wonderful love;
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days, Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.

2. O tell of His might, O sing of His grace, Whose robe is the light, Whose canopy space,
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form, And dark is His path on the wings of the storm.

3. The earth with its store of wonders untold, Almighty, Thy power hath founded of old;
Established it fast by a changeless decree, And round it hath cast, like a mantle, the sea.

4. Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite? It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain, And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

5. Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail, In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end, Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.

6. O measureless might! Ineffable love! While angels delight to worship Thee above,
The humbler creation, though feeble their lays, With true adoration shall all sing Thy praise.

Andrew noted, "We sing that song quite a bit, but I don't remember some of those stanzas, especially the one with thunderclouds and storms. That's awesome!"

Dad answered, "A lot of the older writers often wrote anywhere from ten to twenty stanzas. Obviously, we can't include all of them in our books, but I will admit that so many modern hymnbook editors' penchant for 'three stanzas only' does end up omitting a great deal of, I guess that I can say it too, 'awesome' thoughts.

"Henry F. Lyte, author of the famous hymn 'Abide With Me,' printed a little collection of Psalm paraphrases called Spirit of the Psalms in 1834. His version of Psalm 103 is often sung today."

1. Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven; To His feet thy tribute bring.
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, Evermore His praises sing:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise the everlasting King.

2. Praise Him for His grace and favor To our fathers in distress.
Praise Him still the same as ever, Slow to chide, and swift to bless.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Glorious in His faithfulness.

3. Fatherlike He tends and spares us; Well our feeble frame He knows.
In His hands He gently bears us, Rescues us from all our foes.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Widely yet His mercy flows.

4. Frail as summer’s flower we flourish, Blows the wind and it is gone;
But while mortals rise and perish Our God lives unchanging on,
Praise Him, Praise Him, Hallelujah Praise the High Eternal One!

5. Angels, help us to adore Him; Ye behold Him face to face;
Sun and moon, bow down before Him, Dwellers all in time and space.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise with us the God of grace.

"Interest in the Psalms continued into the latter part of the 19th century. In 1877, John Douglas Sutherland Campbell, who became Governor-General of Canada, produced his own version of the Book of Psalms and included one taken from Psalm 121."

1. Unto the hills around do I lift up my longing eyes.
O whence for me shall my salvation come, from whence arise?
From God, the Lord, doth come my certain aid, From God, the Lord, Who heaven and earth hath made.

2. He will not suffer that thy foot be moved: safe shalt thou be.
No careless slumber shall His eyelids close, Who keepeth thee.
Behold, He sleepeth not, He slumbereth ne’er, Who keepeth Israel in His holy care.

3. Jehovah is Himself thy Keeper true, thy changeless Shade;
Jehovah thy Defense on thy right hand Himself hath made.
And thee no sun by day shall ever smite; No moon shall harm thee in the silent night.

4. From every evil shall He keep thy soul, from every sin;
Jehovah shall preserve thy going out, thy coming in.
Above thee watching, He Whom we adore Shall keep thee henceforth, yea, forevermore.

"In 1893, William James Kirkpatrick took an arrangement of Psalm 148 from the Sabbath School Psalmist of 1866, edited by James M. Ferguson, and turned it into a gospel song. I think that this is probably the one that you were thinking about, Seth."

1. Hallelujah, praise Jehovah, from the heavens praise His Name;
Praise Jehovah in the highest, all His angels, praise proclaim.
All His hosts, together praise Him, sun and moon and stars on high;
Praise Him, O you heav’ns of heavens, and you floods above the sky.

2. Let them praises give Jehovah, they were made at His command;
Them forever He established, His decree shall ever stand,
From the earth, O praise Jehovah, all you seas, you monsters all,
Fire and hail and snow and vapors, stormy winds that hear His call.

3. All you fruitful trees and cedars, all you hills and mountains high,
Creeping things and beasts and cattle, birds that in the heavens fly,
Kings of earth, and all you people, princes great, earth’s judges all;
Praise His Name, young men and maidens, agèd men, and children small.

Refrain: Let them praises give Jehovah, for His Name alone is high,
And His glory is exalted, and His glory is exalted,
And His glory is exalted far above the earth and sky.

In 1897 James McGranahan did something similar, taking a version of Psalm 19.8-13 from the Scottish Psalter of 1650, adding his own chorus, and made another gospel song which is usually titled 'O How Love I Thy Law.'"

1. God's law is perfect and converts The soul in sin that lies;
God's testimony is most sure And makes the simple wise.

2. The statutes of the Lord are right And do rejoice the heart;
The Lord's command is pure and doth Light to the eyes impart.

3. Unspotted is the fear of God And ever doth endure;
The judgments of the Lord are truth And righteousness most pure.

4. They more than gold, yea, much fine gold, To be desired are;
Than honey from the honeycomb That droppeth--sweeter far.

5. Moreover, they Thy servant warn How he his life should frame;
A great reward provided is For them that keep the same.

6. Who can his errors understand? From secret faults me cleanse;
Thy servant also keep Thou back From all presumptuous sins.

Refrain: O, how love I Thy law, O how love I Thy law
It is my meditation all the day.

"Coming into the 20th century, there is still interest in the Psalms. The United Presbyterian Board of Publication produced a Psalter in 1912, which contained several selections still in use, such as a
version of Psalm 135."

1. Exalt the Lord, His praise proclaim; All ye His servants, praise His Name,
His people for His own He takes And His peculiar treasure makes.
The Lord is good, His praise proclaim; Since it is pleasant, praise His Name;
Who in the Lord’s house ever stand And humbly serve at His command.

2. I know the Lord is high in state, Above all gods our Lord is great;
The lightnings flash at His command, He holds the tempest in His hand.
He makes the vapors to ascend In clouds from earth’s remotest end;
The Lord performs what He decrees, In heaven and earth, in depths and seas.

3. Exalt the Lord, His praise proclaim; All ye His servants, praise His Name,
In Zion is His dwelling place; Praise ye the Lord, show forth His grace.
Forever praise and bless His Name, And in the church His praise proclaim;
Who in the Lord’s house ever stand And humbly serve at His command,

"In 1921, Elmer Leon Jorgenson took a specific portion of Psalm 103 (vs. 8-22), made a lovely metrical version of it, set it to a theme from a piano sonata by Wolfgang A. Mozart, and published it in his Great Songs of the Church."

1. Thou art merciful, O Father, Full of pity, love, and grace;
Thou wilt not forever chasten, Nor in anger hide Thy face.
High as heaven--vast and boundless, Hath Thy lovingkindness been;
Far as east from west is distant, Thou hast put away our sin.

2. Like a Father's tender pity Is God's mercy toward His own;
For He knows our frame, remembering We are dust, our days soon gone.
Like a flower, blooming, fading, Like the grass, we pass away;
But God's righteousness and mercy On His children rest alway.

3. In the heavens, well established, Is His universal throne;
For His kingdom ruleth ever, And His sway all kings shall own.
Bless Jehovah, ye, His angels, Bless Him, hosts of His control;
Bless Jehovah, all ye creatures, Bless Jehovah, O my soul!

In 1974 Edward Fudge published a little book, Selected Psalms for Church Singing, originally printed by the C.E.I. Publishing of Athens, Alabama, in which he took several Psalm selections from The Book of Psalms for Singing, published by the Board of Education and Publication of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Pittsburgh, PA. These were set to familiar tunes. Also in 1974, Gary Mabry edited a little book Rejoice! and Sing to the Lord for Sweet Publishing Co. of Fort Worth, Texas, in which he took a traditional arrangement of Psalm 19, set to a traditional melody, and arranged it. It is found in a few books today."

1. The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul,
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

2. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart,
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.

3. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever.
The judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.

Refrain: More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold,
Sweeter also than honey and the honey comb.

"The Psalms are obviously not as popular as they once were. From around 1550 to 1750, the only singing that one would likely hear in most English speaking churches would be Psalms. This practice continued among the Scottish Presbyterians well into the latter part of the 19th century. Even today, there are one or two small denominations which reportedly use only Psalms in their worship services. However, in most churches, the exclusive hold of Psalms was broken by hymns of human composure. At
the same time, most hymnbooks published nowadays, especially among those from a Reformed or Presbyterian background but among others as well, do usually contain some of the historic settings of the Psalms, and that is a good thing, because I think that they're worth singing."

As Andrew reached for his grammar workbook and Seth took out his reader, Dad looked at the clock and said, "Well, I'd better go if I'm going to get that visit in before lunch."

Prior in Series: The Young Person's Guide to the Hymnbook: German Hymns of the Reformation