Sunday July 18th 2021
When we restarted services after Covid, but we weren’t allowed to sing, various people told me that they wouldn’t be coming back to church until we were allowed to sing again! It did make Gwen and me wonder why we spent hours each week writing sermons if all people really wanted to do was sing hymns.
So this week you aren’t going to get a sermon, instead we are going to have a service based around the Church’s first hymn book – the book of Psalms.
A few years ago when I was in Edinburgh at a meeting, I went into the Free Church of Scotland’s bookshop and I bought a book called The Psalms by F. B. Meyer.
In his introduction to the book he says:
“The Psalms have furnished the bridal hymns, the battle songs, the pilgrim marches, the penitential prayers and the public praises of every nation in Christendom since Christendom was born. They have rolled through the din of every European battlefield; they have pealed through the scream of the storm in every ocean highway of the world. Drake’s sailors sang them when they clave the virgin waters of the Pacific, Frobisher’s when they dashed against the barriers of Arctic ice and night. They floated over the waters on that day of days when England held her freedom against Pope and Spaniard. They crossed the ocean with the Mayflower pilgrims; were sung around Cromwell’s camp fires and his Ironsides charged to their music. In palace hall, by happy hearths, in squalid rooms, in pauper wards, in prison cells, in crowded sanctuaries, in lonely wilderness – everywhere they have uttered our moan of contrition and our song of triumph; our tearful complaints, and our wrestling, conquering, prayer.”
The Psalms were the hymnbook of the Jewish people. They were familiar to Jesus who often quoted from them, most notably when he hung dying on the cross and cried out in the words of Psalm 22:1 “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Within worship in the Church of Scotland, the psalms have held a special place. Both the first and second editions of the Church hymnary had the first section devoted to the Psalms and this has been repeated in CH4.
Many of the Psalms are songs of praise, in fact the Hebrew title for this book of the Bible is praises and it is the translation of this word into Greek which gives us the word Psalms. But other Psalms are prayers – prayers of penitence, prayers for help, prayers crying out in anguish.
Today we are going to sing and read a selection of the Psalms. We are going to begin with a Psalm which speaks of the glory of coming into God’s house to worship.
Hymn 52 (Psalm 84) How lovely is thy dwelling place
Prayer of Approach (Gwen)
Dearest Lord God, our loving Heavenly Father,
We gather this morning and invite you to come and be among us to witness our praise and receive our worship. Our ancestors of long ago also praised and worshipped you and enjoyed a relationship with you as they had a simpler life. We today, with all the complications of our modern life have lost the closeness of that relationship and are the poorer and for this we are sorry.
Our ancestors recognised how much you had been a part of creation and without you we would not have this beautiful world round about us with the timings of all things –the times to sow, to grow, to be born with new life, times to reap, times to rest, times to die and make way for new life. You created the mountains and the seas and everything in between and you created the wildlife to live in each of the habitats. Through all this you are the guide; you look after us and stay by our side just as you did with our ancestors. They knew and recognised your power and knew the consequences of not doing your will. They knew your abandonment when they disobeyed you, when you left them to be overcome by their enemies, and knew your forgiveness when they cried to you for help, for the people knew your laws that were handed down from generation to generation, and even to us today.
By your grace you send the sunshine and the rain; you give us joy and happiness and love, but you also allow us sadness, wars and strife and still we don’t acknowledge your omnipotence. We go our own way, making our own rules then wonder why things go wrong. You know every step we take in life and if we let you into our lives our lives are so much richer and rewarding knowing you are by our sides.
When we go wrong we grieve you and for this we are sorry. Help us to serve you better in all we do, especially help us to follow the example of your Son Jesus as we pray the prayer he taught - - - - -
Our second Psalm is a Psalm of praise. It is Psalm 98 and can be found at hymn 61.
Hymn 61 O sing a new song to the Lord
The first people to have sung the Psalms would have been the ancient Israelites. So it seemed appropriate to have at least one of the psalms sung to a Hebrew melody. This is a setting of Psalm 143 which is a prayer calling out to God for help and is attributed to King David. It is sung to the tune Leoni.
Hymn 99 O hear my prayer O Lord (Hebrew melody)
Psalms and the Reformation
The Reformation had a big impact upon the way we worshipped, including the way we sang the Psalms. Prior to the Reformation, all worship was in Latin and that included singing. One of the main features of the Reformation was that worship would be in the vernacular - the language of the people. There was also a move among some of the Reformers, most notably John Calvin, upon whose teachings the Church of Scotland is based, to only sing Psalms because they were the actual words of Scripture. Calvin was very convinced of the power of music to affect human behaviour, and although he thought that music had a place in worship, he believed that it should be carefully controlled. Calvin did not believe that musical instruments should be used in worship. Singing had to be unaccompanied. Calvin also opposed the use of polyphony which he said distracted from the words. So singing had to be in unison.
This emphasis on unaccompanied, monophonic Psalm singing has made its influence felt on all churches which trace their reformed roots through Calvin, including of course, the Church of Scotland. Until quite recently, all worship at the General Assembly for example, was unaccompanied Psalm singing.
We are going to sing a Psalm, in unison, unaccompanied. It is Psalm 122, and you will find it at hymn 82. I tried to choose one that didn’t jump about too much so we would be less likely to go flat. David is going to lead us in it.
Hymn 82 (Psalm 122) Pray that Jerusalem may have peace and felicity
By far the longest Psalm in the Bible is Psalm 119. It is said that if a minister doesn’t turn up for worship, the Session Clerk could just read Psalm 119 instead of preaching a sermon. It would take just as long. We are going to read Psalm 119 now, but not all of it! Extracts of it are printed in the hymn book at hymn 80 and we will read it, men and women, verse about.
1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord!
2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies,
who seek him with their whole heart,
3 who also do no wrong,
but walk in his ways!
4 Thou hast commanded thy precepts
to be kept diligently.
5 O that my ways may be steadfast
in keeping thy statutes!
6 Then I shall not be put to shame,
having my eyes fixed on all thy commandments.
7 I will praise thee with an upright heart,
when I learn thy righteous ordinances.
8 I will observe thy statutes;
O forsake me not utterly!
97 Oh, how I love thy law!
It is my meditation all the day.
98 Thy commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
99 I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for thy testimonies are my meditation.
100 I understand more than the aged,
for I keep thy precepts.
101 I hold back my feet from every evil way,
in order to keep thy word.
102 I do not turn aside from thy ordinances,
for thou hast taught me.
103 How sweet are thy words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
104 Through thy precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.
105 Thy word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
106 I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
to observe thy righteous ordinances.
107 I am sorely afflicted;
give me life, O Lord, according to thy word!
108 Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord,
and teach me thy ordinances.
109 I hold my life in my hand continually,
but I do not forget thy law.
110 The wicked have laid a snare for me,
but I do not stray from thy precepts.
111 Thy testimonies are my heritage for ever;
yea, they are the joy of my heart.
112 I incline my heart to perform thy statutes
for ever, to the end.
Righteous art thou, O Lord,
and right are thy judgments.
138 Thou hast appointed thy testimonies in righteousness
and in all faithfulness.
139 My zeal consumes me,
because my foes forget thy words.
140 Thy promise is well tried,
and thy servant loves it.
141 I am small and despised,
yet I do not forget thy precepts.
142 Thy righteousness is righteous for ever,
and thy law is true.
143 Trouble and anguish have come upon me,
but thy commandments are my delight.
144 Thy testimonies are righteous for ever;
give me understanding that I may live.
If you look at some of the Psalms in the hymn book you will see that they are described as having a faux bourdon setting. This means that the melody line is in the tenor. One such Psalm is Psalm 100 All people that on earth do dwell. We will sing verse three with the faux bourdon setting. Men keep singing the tune. Ladies have the choice of the tune or the soprano line which comes across like a descant.
Hymn 63 All people that on earth do dwell (Psalm 100)
On David’s very first Sunday with us in Gatehouse, the beginning of January 2017, he told me that he liked the Gelineau Psalms. I confess, I had never heard of Gelineau, nor did I know his Psalm settings. But I am slightly wiser now.
Joseph Gelineau was a French Jesuit priest and composer, born in 1920. I was terribly surprised to discover that he was a 20th century composer because when you listen to his Psalm settings they sound like very early music. However, he was very influenced by Gregorian chants. The one Psalm setting in CH4 by Gelineau is Psalm 23 The Lord’s my Shepherd. David is going to sing the verses as a solo. After each verse, we are all going to sing antiphon no.2 “His goodness shall follow me always to the end of my days.”
Hymn 17 The Lord’s my Shepherd
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcqG4nAwkp4(the Youtube link is for antiphon 1)
Some Psalms nowadays are set to folk tunes, like Scottish melodies, or tunes from other countries. The tune Ballerma sounds Scottish but is actually French and we will sing it to Psalm 40 which you will find at hymn 30
Hymn 30 (Psalm 40) I waited for the Lord my God
Composers nowadays still set the Psalms to music. Bernadette Farrell who is responsible for a number of hymns in CH4 was just born in 1957 and she has written a modern setting of Psalm 139 – O God you search me and you know me.
Hymn 97 (Psalm 139) O God you search me and you know me
Prayer of Intercession
Lord God we have sung your praises, offering you our worship through the timeless words of the Psalms,
Now we come to pray for those whose song is not one of praise and thanksgiving but one of pain and suffering
We pray for those whose song is one of despair
The poor and weak
The oppressed and exploited,
The hungry and homeless –
All those denied the opportunity to help themselves,
Condemned to a lifetime of making do as best they can
We pray for those whose song is one of fear –
Those in lands torn apart by war,
In communities racked by violence,
In homes and relationships broken by abuse
Victims of racial discrimination and sexual harassment,
All whose safety is daily in doubt
We pray for those whose song is one of grief –
All who have lost loved ones
Or who are seeing those they care for wrestling with terminal illness
Those who have been betrayed by someone they love
Or whose relationships have broken down
Those who have been hurt by words or deeds
Whose hopes and dreams have come to nothing
We think of those affected by the floods in Europe…
Living God, we look forward to that day
When every tongue will sing your praises,
And all will rejoice in the light of your presence.
Until that time, may everyone for whom life is hard
Know your hand upon them,
And find in you the strength and the hope they need,
Through Christ our Lord
Hymns 18 and 19 The earth belongs to God alone and Ye gates
Let the grace of Christ redeem you
The power of Christ renew you
The example of Christ inspire you
And the love of Christ shine from you
And may the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be with you all this day and forevermore, Amen
Closing voluntary: Julius Reubke Sonata on the 94th Psalm (fugue)