Sunday, November 20, 2005

Beyond Psalm 23

The first time I walked into my future Husband's (and now my) church was 5 years ago today. I remember the date specifically because it was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. My future Husband warned me that the service was going to be a bit unusual because of this. It was an evening service, and a Seminary student was speaking, leading us through prayer for the Church abroad. It probably wasn't the best introduction a former-atheist-turned-wiccan could have had to the Reformed Presbyterian Church, but I asked to return the following week, so I guess it wasn't so bad ;) God opened my eyes to my sin 2 weeks later, during another evening service, sparking an intense period of research into the Bible, culminating in my profession of faith in Christ Jesus by the New Year.

The first thing I noticed as I walked into the simple, unornamented sanctuary was the lack of organ, or piano, or any type of musical instrument. I didn't have a religious background, but from the few times I had attended church as a child, or seen it on TV, I knew there should have been some sort of instrumental accompaniment. I remember thinking that this must be a rather poor church, to not be able to afford any instruments; I figured they must use tape recordings.

Before the service, a man stood next to the pulpit, in front of a microphone, and asked for "Psalm favourites" (silent "p", rhymes with "palm", unless you're from the Almonte congregation, in which case its pronounced "Sam" *wink*). A Psalm was requested, and the man announced the selection. As the parishioners opened their Psalters (Pronounced "Salt- er," as I later learned they were called) to the correct song, the man produced a small round pitch pipe, and blew a note. He hummed the starting note, raised his hand and as he lowered it into the rhythm of the piece, the entire church filled with beautiful song, completely a cappella. I was stunned. I was confused. I was in love.

The melodies chosen for the Psalms are well recognizable classics, written into simple, yet beautiful harmonies. Most people from the Western/European world recognize the song "The Lord's my Shepherd". Like the famous 23rd Psalm, the words are taken straight from the Biblical Book of Psalms and translated to fit various meters. The Psalms are not completely rearranged (they aren't simply "inspired by" the Psalm); they follow a literal verse by verse progression. The longer Psalms are broken into various selections, each containing around 8-12 verses (Psalm 119 has 24 selections, A-X). Singing psalms is an excellent way to memorize entire chapters of God's Word.

The Psalter we use (The Book of Psalms for Singing) has 4 parts: Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. Most selections have fairly simple tunes with beautiful harmonies (such as Psalm 3, to Amazing Grace), making the slightly more complex melodies stand out (such a Psalm 119, the 'X' selection, or Psalm 98A).

Here is a small collection of some of our Church's favourites. The entire melody is given for each sample, it is simply repeated for each additional verse. To add interest to the melody (and make your group sound more advanced), I recommend staying in unison for the first verse, and then branching into harmony for the remainder.

Psalm 102 (simple, beautiful harmony)
Psalm 29 (slightly complex phrases)
Psalm 98 (harmony with overlapping rounds)
Psalm 126 (rather complex)

Try it yourself! Take this translation of Psalm 3 (from The Book of Psalms for Singing) and sing it to the tune of Amazing Grace.
O Lord, how are my foes increased, against me many rise.
How many say "In vain for help, he on his God relies!"

You are my Shield and Glory Lord, You lifted up my head.
I cried out "Lord!" and from His hill to me His answer sped.

I lay down slept and woke again. The Lord is keeping me.
I will not fear ten thousand men entrenched, surrounding me.

Arise, O Lord, save me my God! You punish all my foes.
You smite the face of wicked men, their teeth break with your blows.

Deliverance is from the Lord, Salvation His alone.
O Let your blessing evermore be on Your people shown.
This was the first Psalm I decided to memorize, partly because it was just about the only tune I recognized, and also because I could relate with the Psalmist crying out to God for help. Don't be shy about singing for God to smash the teeth of your enemies. It took me a while to get over that image, but this is the inspired Word of God - He wants you to ask Him to help you. I think a lot of contemporary Praise songs have forgotten the protective force of God in the face of danger. The 150 Psalms cover a broad range of emotions and situations, and each song is Divinely Inspired. Don't get me wrong - I love contemprary Christian music, but I know they are the words of Man. When I want to truly worship God, I sing His Words back to Him.

If you'd like to know more about why we only sing Psalms in public worship,
here is an informative article from the Reformed Witness website. If you're curious why we sing a cappella, here is another article written by the same author, Pastor Brian Schwertley.

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