shepherd sounds

Hymn of the month: November 2014 · III

O come, O come, Emmanuel [Hymn 56]


Jesse tree, St Quentin Basilica

Remember Isaiah from last time? He wrote one of the longest books in the Bible, urging people to put their trust and hope in God, during a time of terrible war. Israel was so badly beaten, scattered, in fact almost completely destroyed, that it was like an almost-dead tree or vine, one that looks like it has no more life in it. But Isaiah, knowing that God still loved God’s people and would never abandon them, wrote that ‘a shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’ (Isaiah 11:1) – a little bit of green growing out of a dead-looking plant.

Jesse was the father of David, who was the greatest King of Israel (he lived maybe 300 years before Isaiah). Much, much later, the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesse was the great-great...(25 greats in all!)...grandfather of Jesus’s earthly father, Joseph, meaning that Jesus was the ‘shoot’ or ‘branch’ growing out of ‘root of Jesse’: a sign of hope for God’s people. Many old books and churches have paintings of Jesus’s family tree springing from Jesse like the one above.


The source of the phrase Key of David is once again the prophet Isaiah (22:22). The original meaning of the phrase doesn’t have to do directly with Jesus or with this hymn, but the verse from Isaiah is used again in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, where St John writes that Christ has, or is, the ‘Key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens’. Both heaven and hell, though they are not places in the physical sense, are often described as having gates: hell is like a prison, and heaven is like a garden (the word ‘paradise’, which is another word we use for heaven, originally meant ‘a walled garden’) or a city with gates. We believe that because Christ overcame death by living and dying completely unselfishly – by living in perfect harmony with God and other people – he has the power to lock the gate of hell and open the gate of heaven. In the picture above, Christ is shown holding the Cross that is also a giant key, and rescuing people from hell. And so we pray that we may live a heavenly life with Him.


The sun over a lake by JMW Turner

Dayspring is just a poetic way of saying ‘dawn’ or ‘sunrise’. What does it mean here? In the daytime we can see, for example, and so we feel safer, while at night, we can’t see the people or animals or objects around us that might surprise or even hurt us, and so we might feel afraid sometimes. So we often use day and night to talk about other good and bad things (you’ll see this all through the Bible, Prayer Book, and Hymnal as you use, read, and study them more and more). ‘Day’ might stand for warmth, health, safety, happiness, home, friends, family, even life itself, while ‘night’ might remind us of cold, sickness, fear, sadness, loneliness, or even death. This hymn, and the Bible verses it’s based on, tells us that Christ is like the sunrise: when we let Him come near to us by following His teachings, showing love to everyone (and being loved by others), receiving His Body and Blood in the Communion, then it’s like we light up inside, and we can spread that light to a world that can often seem very dark. God doesn’t necessarily make evil disappear, but the Light of Christ helps us see the bad things around us (and even those of our own thoughts and wishes that aren’t very nice) and helps us to overcome the things we can and to survive the things we can’t, knowing that God is always right there with us.

Hymn of the month: November 2014 · II

O come, O come, Emmanuel [Hymn 56]


St Mary and Jesus
from a church of ancient Nubia, in what is now Egypt and Sudan

Emmanuel means ‘God with us’. The prophet Isaiah lived about 2,700 years ago, 700 years before Jesus lived on earth. During his lifetime, the nation of Israel was constantly at war with its neighbors, and many of its people were killed, taken as slaves, or driven from their homes. But Isaiah knew that God still loved God’s people. He preached that people should trust in God rather than in earthly kings or military might, and he believed that God would bring new life to God’s beloved. And so he wrote that ‘The Lord himself will give you a sign: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel’ (Isaiah 7:14). St Matthew told us in his Gospel – his story of Jesus’s life – that Jesus was this child (Matthew 1:22–23). Because Jesus was both God and a human being, he really was ‘God-with-us’.


Wisdom is a slightly mysterious figure (the traditional way of picturing her, as shown above, is very strange indeed!) who is talked about in some parts of the Old Testament (Proverbs 8, Wisdom 8, Ecclesiasticus 24). Wisdom in this case doesn’t mean ‘cleverness’ or even ‘good advice’, but something much bigger and deeper – maybe we could say ‘the way God creates and sustains the universe’, or ‘the way everything fits together and works best’, from the galaxies and stars and planets, to all the incredible life on Earth, to the ways we humans ideally should interact with each other, to how all those things are somehow connected to each other and to God. Some of the New Testament books (John 1, Colossians 1) connect Wisdom with Jesus Christ, using very similar language to the Old Testament books we just mentioned. These writers tells us that in Jesus’s life and teaching we can see and understand some of what God is like, and how God’s ways are really best. We’ll talk a bit more about this in some of the following posts.


Lord of might (sometimes we say ‘Lord of hosts’, or ‘Almighty God’) is one way the Old Testament describes God, since God is more powerful than anyone or anything else. The Book of Exodus tells about God giving the tablets of the Law to the ancient people of Israel through Moses, their leader (Exodus, chapters 24, 31–32, and 34). You’ve probably seen pictures of the Ten Commandments written on two pieces of stone. In the above picture, they are written in a Bible (in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament) as though they are on two stone tablets. We recite the Ten Commandments (sometimes called the ‘Decalogue’, from the Greek for ‘Ten Laws’) on Sundays during Lent, and many older Episcopal/Anglican churches have, or used to have, the Commandments written on two panels behind the altar.

God has told us in many different ways how we should live for our own good and for the good of others: in the Ten Commandments, through the prophets who wrote much of the Old Testament, through the teaching of Jesus and his followers who wrote the New Testament, and through the teaching of the Church all the way up to our own time. We don’t always understand God’s ways perfectly, but we can always remember what Our Lord said: ‘The first and greatest commandment is this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:37–40) If we truly do these things, then we can’t go far wrong.

Hymn of the month: November 2014 · I

O come, O come, Emmanuel [Hymn 56]

The hymn ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ is one that we sing a lot in the season of Advent – the four weeks before Christmas – so the tune is probably familiar. But the words are full of ways of describing God that are very imaginative and maybe a little hard to understand, even though they are very beautiful. We’ll try to explain them a bit so you can enjoy singing this hymn even more. You’ll want to look up this hymn, Hymn 56, in your Hymnal so that you can read the words alongside these explanations.

The word advent simply means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’. We usually think of the season of Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas, when we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus. But this is only one part of what Advent means, and only one way that God has been made known on earth. During this season we read a lot from the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, who understood a bit more than the rest of us what God is like and the different ways we can come to know God. We prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming to earth as a baby, but we also read about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry and teaching when He was grown up. We read and pray about Christ’s ‘Second Coming’ at the very end of the world, when we believe all the things that are wrong in the world will finally be put right. And in between all of that, the Lord comes to us in our own lives in many different ways. This hymn is a prayer that Christ will indeed make Himself known to us in all these ways, some of which we will talk about in the following posts.

Choral Evensong: October 2014

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23 A [RCL · SC]
12 October 2014

Exodus 32.1–14
St Matthew 22.1–14
Psalm 106.1–6, 19–23
     tone: in B-flat minor (Herbert Howells)
Phos hilaron
     text: ‘Enchanting light’ (para. Patricia Blaze Clark)
     tune: ‘Sancta civitas’ (Herbert Howells) 
Magnificat & Nunc dimittis
     Collegium Regale (Herbert Howells)
     text: ‘I sat down under his shadow’ (Song of Songs 2.3–4)
     text: ‘All my hope on God is founded’ (Robert Bridges)
     tune: ‘Michael’ (Herbert Howells)
     Psalm-Prelude Op. 32, No. 2 (Herbert Howells)
     on Psalm 37.11

At the kind encouragement of my colleague Jonathan Babcock, I am posting (further edited) these notes which appeared in the service leaflet for last night’s Choral Evensong.

Tonight’s lessons deal primarily with lack of faith – or, which is perhaps the same thing, lack of vision.

In the lesson from Exodus, appointed as part of the ongoing tour through the Old Testament that is one option in the Revised Common Lectionary (and echoed in the Psalm portion for tonight, which is taken from one of a pair of psalms that together recount the history of the people of Israel), we find the Israelites, wandering through the desert, once again impatient and dissatisfied with their precarious and seemingly pointless situation. Moses, for his part, has ascended the mountain seeking divine guidance – but as he lingers there, the people grow anxious; they wish for a more concrete sort of reassurance and more decisive action, so Aaron, Moses’s brother and right-hand man, decides to provide them an easy answer, a sort of figurehead. But God’s person and purposes are always more elusive than we would like them to be; the moment we try to freeze them into a solid, contained, fully apprehensible form, we have almost certainly ceased to see with heavenly eyes, and ceased to ‘seek the things that are above’, as a much later follower of Moses would put it.

In the lesson from St Matthew’s Gospel, we have a similar account of failure of vision, set in the meal / party context that appears throughout the Scriptures. As this parable is traditionally explained, the King is God, the guests originally invited are the People of Israel, the slaves are the prophets, and those latterly invited are the Gentiles – and it is clear who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. But the parables beginning ‘the Kingdom of God may be compared to...’ are rarely so simple; the foregoing explanation is not given in the text itself and does not account for the ‘interloper’ who has refused to wear the wedding garment that would have been provided by the giver of the banquet. Indeed, lest we be tempted to think, or to protest that these passages appear to proclaim, that unfaithfulness is, or was, a characteristic only of a certain group or nation, the text does not make clear which group this guest belongs to – only that he, with the party going on all around him, has refused to participate in it. One could just as easily read the original group of invitees as Adam and Eve, or humanity in its intended state (clothed in glory, i.e., with appropriate attire for a divine banquet).

The point is that this refusal to see and join in the reality we call the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven, which Our Lord and his Forerunner St John the Baptist taught was not just a future but a present reality – already here, all around us – the refusal to accept the unconditional love, forgiveness, reconciliation, communion of the divine life – this, the Lessons remind us, is the thing (and the only thing, we might add) that can cast us out of the great Supper of the Lamb into the nothingness that is the only alternative, and which the violent reactions of the Lord / the king – which amount to annihilation (literally, making into nothing) – symbolize.

The canticles which answer the Lessons at Evensong (as well as tonight’s voluntary) in many ways speak to this issue of vision. The pieces in question were all written in the midst of war – the former near the end of the Second World War (for the Collegium Regale – the King’s College – at Cambridge), the latter in the thick of the First – a time when it is all too easy to lose sight of the Kingdom, and yet when, as in any crisis, the Kingdom can be very strongly felt as people must come together simply to survive. In Howells’s setting of the Magnificat we can hear all this anxiety and uncertainty – and Our Lady must have felt a good deal of both – but the text affirms that God is doing wonderful things, remembering promises, casting down the proud, and lifting up the lowly. Indeed, both St Mary and St Simeon, despite any misgivings they may have had about the calls they received, are supreme examples of prophetic vision, of those who were able to see at least enough of God’s works and purposes to trust in them: ‘mine eyes have seen thy salvation’, as St Simeon sings.

All these themes are summed up in a way by the concluding hymn (though here too the music avoids simple answers; Howells wrote the tune in 1936 for this text and named it for his young son, Michael, who had died suddenly the year before). Robert Bridges, sometime Poet Laureate of England, and writer and scholar of hymns, wrote this text after the hymn ‘Meine Hoffnung stehet feste’ by the seventeenth-century Reformed minister and hymnist Joachim Neander.* It reminds us that the plans and pretensions cooked up from the ordinary human point of view are likely to be short-lived, but that the creative, loving, joyful, generous ways of the Holy One are everlasting.

And so tonight we pray that the Lord’s ‘grace may always precede and follow us’ as it did (in cloud and fire) the Hebrews in the wilderness; that God may indeed bring us ‘to the banqueting house’ that we may taste the sweetness of the fruit of the Kingdom; that we may be among the meek who ‘shall inherit the earth, and delight themselves in the abundance of peace’.

Eric Mellenbruch

*Neander is best known for the hymn translated as ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty’, which we happened to sing this morning. The Neanderthal (Neander Valley), near Düsseldorf, was so named in Neander’s honor after his death, as he often spent time and held preaching services there. It was in a cave in this valley, in the nineteenth century, that the type specimen of the extinct human species that now bears its name was discovered.

Glorious things of thee are spoken

24 August 2014

Yesterday’s selection of ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ as a Communion hymn brought expressions of surprise among some members of the the parish choir, who (thinking especially of its setting to Haydn’s famous music) termed it ‘march-like’, even ‘martial’, and implied that it was a puzzling and perhaps even unsuitable choice. Though I do not intend exactly to mount a defense, I would like to take the opportunity to show how this hymn is not only suited for Communion, but is particularly so at this time of year – and, incidentally, to offer a different view of Haydn’s tune.

‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ was written by John Newton, slave-ship captain turned Anglican clergyman, abolitionist, and hymnist (he was also the author of ‘Amazing grace’ and ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds’). In its original publication, the hymn is entitled ‘The City of God’, and this passage is inscribed above it:

Look on Zion, the city of our appointed festivals!
Your eyes will see Jerusalem,
a quiet habitation, an immovable tent,
whose stakes will never be pulled up,
and none of whose ropes will be broken.
But there the Lord in majesty will be for us
a place of broad rivers and streams,
where no galley with oars can go,
nor stately ship can pass.
     Isaiah 33.20–21

The hymn itself is, like the best hymns, absolutely steeped in Scripture (the annotations show only the most direct sources of the images, many of which echo throughout the Bible):

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
     Zion, city of our God! [Psalm 87.3]
He, whose Word cannot be broken,
     formed thee for His own abode. [Psalm 132.14]
On the Rock of Ages* founded, [Isaiah 26.4–5]
     what can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded, [Isaiah 60.18]
     thou may’st smile at all thy foes.

See! the streams of living waters, [Ezekiel 47.1]
     springing from eternal love,
well supply thy sons and daughters [Psalm 46.4]
     and all fear of want remove:
who can faint while such a river [Revelation 22.1]
     ever flows their thirst t’assuage? –
grace, which like the Lord, the giver,
     never fails from age to age.

Round each habitation hovering,
     see the cloud and fire appear
for a glory and a covering,
     showing that the Lord is near.
Thus deriving from our banner
     light by night and shade by day, [Exodus 13]
safe they feed upon the manna
     which He gives them when they pray. [Exodus 16]

Blest inhabitants of Zion,
     washed in the Redeemer’s blood! [Revelation 7.14]
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
     makes them kings and priests to God. [Exodus 19.6; I Peter 2.9; Revelation 1.5–6; 5.10]
’Tis His love His people raises
     over self to reign as kings,
and as priests, His solemn praises
     each for a thank offering brings. [Leviticus 7]

The hymn is thus, as its title suggests, a depiction of heaven, which we experience here and now most fully through the Church and her Sacraments. Zion is the mountain on which the city of Jerusalem is built; the vision of the heavenly realm as a ‘New Jerusalem’ is very prominent in the Hebrew prophets and in the Revelation to St John. In Holy Baptism we experience the ‘living waters’ – an image found all over the Scriptures which grew up in a desert land, from the rivers flowing from Eden (Genesis 2.6, 10–14) and from the Throne of God (Revelation 22.1–2; Ezekiel 47.1–12), to the water that flowed from the rock in the wilderness when Moses struck it with his staff (Exodus 17.6; Psalm 78.20; Isaiah 48.21; I Corinthians 10.3–4), to Our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) and His invitation to the thirsty (John 7; cf. Isaiah 55.1).

The manna (the substance sent by the LORD to feed the Israelites in the desert of the Exodus) is the Body of Christ made present in the bread of the Eucharist. And the Eucharist (which means ‘thanksgiving’) is indeed our thank offering, which we, the ‘royal priesthood’, bring before God. Even the pillars of cloud and fire signifying the presence, leadership, and protection of the LORD during the Exodus are present in the Church’s liturgy: for what else is the Paschal Candle and the smoke rising from it, or from the burning of incense? The celebration of the Sacraments in the Church’s liturgy makes present these heavenly realities, and – even if we only glimpse this for a fleeting second – the Church, and we as members of it, become who we truly are.

*   *   *

But let us see how the hymn is more specifically suited to precisely this moment in the Church’s year.

Yesterday’s and this coming Sunday’s Gospels, the Confession of St Peter and Our Lord’s subsequent prediction of His suffering (Matthew 16.13–28), come just before the account of the Transfiguration (that account, in Matthew 17, is omitted from the otherwise mostly in-course series of Sunday readings from this Gospel because the Transfiguration is celebrated with its own feast on 6 August as well as on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany). As we shall see in a moment, the Transfiguration is clearly intended by the Synoptic Evangelists (Sts Matthew, Mark, Luke) to be understood to take place at the Jewish feast of Sukkoth (‘Booths’ or ‘Tabernacles’, Exodus 23.16, 34.22; Leviticus 23.39–44). This connection with Sukkoth, in turn, has implications for our understanding of not only the Transfiguration and Holy Cross Day (14 September – also closely connected with Sukkoth – at whose Offices and Mass many of the Biblical passages mentioned below are read or referred to), but also this whole season of the year and the hymn in question.

Sukkoth, like Pesach/Passover and Shavuot/Pentecost, was originally an agricultural festival: in the late summer, which was considered the end of the year, the harvest would be gathered in, to expedite which process farmers would live in the fields for a week in shelters made of branches and leaves. As part of the festival, thanks were given for past fruitfulness and prayers made for fruitfulness in the season to come, with water libations signifying prayer for rain and a procession made round the altar with bundles of greenery. The establishment of the feast of Sukkoth for the nation of Israel in the Book of Exodus is also connected with the giving of the Law, in which the Glory of the the LORD covered the mountain for seven days and was later reflected in the face of Moses (Exodus 34).

Sukkoth was later appointed as a pilgrimage festival in which all Israelites were to travel to Jerusalem and live for a week in shelters on the slopes of Zion to remind them of their ancestors’ travels in the wilderness, where the Israelites lived in tents and ultimately were sheltered by the cloud of God’s Glory (Exodus 13). By the time of Our Lord, the festival also featured a grand illumination of the Temple Mount with the ceremonial lighting of lamps on giant lampstands. Because it was a time when the whole nation was supposed to be gathered, Sukkoth was also the occasion for other important business to be conducted – for example, the reading of the Law every seventh year (Deuteronomy 31.10–11); the dedication of the First Temple, in which the Glory of the LORD came to dwell (I Kings 8.2, 8.65, 12.32; II Chronicles 5.3, 7.8); and likewise the establishment of the Second Temple after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon (Ezra 3, Nehemiah 8).

Sukkoth falls half a year after Passover and is thus its mirror (the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, strongly links Christ’s self-sacrifice, which the Gospels place at Passover, with the sacrifice of atonement offered on Yom Kippur, which falls just before Sukkoth). Sukkoth also attracted eschatological overtones during the era of Hebrew prophecy, seen most clearly in Zechariah 10 and 14. Here the prophet recounts a vision in which the remnants of all the nations will go up to Jerusalem to keep Sukkoth, all things will be as holy as the Temple vessels, and ‘living waters’ (cf. the water libation of Sukkoth) will flow out from Jerusalem. This vision continued in the Christian era; the Revelation to St John draws richly upon the symbolism of the Sukkoth celebration: the dwellings appear in 7.15, 12.12, 13.6, 21.3; the entire scene in 7.9–17 – the crowd around the altar with palm-branches, dressed in white, drawing ‘water of life’ from springs, sheltered by God – recalls the procession and ablutions of the Sukkoth procession. The tents came to symbolize the dwelling-place of the righteous in the presence of God (cf. the ‘tents of the righteous’ in Psalm 118, which describes precisely the Sukkoth festivities noted above, is used at Palm Sunday and Easter, and was also sung yesterday).

And so we read in Matthew 17 and the parallel passages in Mark and Luke that, six (or eight) days after the Confession of St Peter (a reference to the week-long festival), Our Lord and the three disciples go to a high place; Moses appears; the Glory of God is manifested; St Peter wishes to build ‘booths’ and stay on the mountain: as clear an evocation of Sukkoth as there could be. The Gospel of St John, on the other hand, has no account of (or, presumably, need for) the Transfiguration, for already in the Prologue of that Gospel we read that from the beginning Christ’s life was the very reflection of the Glory of God: a claim confirmed in Our Lord’s own words delivered during none other than the feast of Sukkoth: ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8.12).

The Prologue also returns us to the tents/dwellings/tabernacles: for the true shelter is that of Our Lord’s body, which is the dwelling-place of God’s Glory: ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling (‘pitched his tent’) among us’ (John 1.14). This is the same Glory which was the true shelter for the Israelites in the wilderness, which dwelt in the Temple, which came to dwell in the Lord’s Body, was shown to a few at the Transfiguration, is glimpsed in the Body of Christ as it exists today (i.e., the Church), and will be fully realized when the tents of our own bodies (Genesis 3.21; II Corinthians 5.1–4; II Peter 1.13–14) are fully transformed into the likeness of Christ and are also made fit for the glory of God – all of which realities are manifest in the Body of Christ made present in every celebration of the Eucharist.

*   *   *

This hymn and the scriptural and spiritual truths it encapsulates offer a substantial counterweight to the series of Old Testament Lessons provided in this year’s ‘Semi-Continuous’ track of lectionary appointments, or at least to a literalist reading of them in which God is said to favor a particular people or nation at the expense of another: a reading which has been used to excuse conquest, occupation, exploitation, and wholesale slaughter over and over from Biblical times to our own. Even flight from very real persecution – and the affinity God has for the poor and persecuted, which Scripture does seem to affirm – can never be an excuse to persecute and subjugate others; a more nuanced understanding of the ‘enemies’ in the Old Testament narrative of conquest and the imprecatory Psalms as applying to spiritual realities against which we struggle (and to be sure, spiritual realities are not separate from temporal ones) must include not only personal deeds and demons but also corporate and systemic sin which binds victor and victim, and from which we all need deliverance.
And so the very Psalm (87) whose first verse begins this hymn goes on to affirm that, in God’s own time, everyone – the surrounding and usually embattled nations included – is to be counted and enrolled as a citizen of the glorious and beloved city of Zion. The other Psalm referred to in which ‘living waters’ appear (46) proclaims, along with the prophet Zechariah, that it is the LORD who makes war to cease (both of these Psalms are also appointed for the Eve of Holy Cross Day). Ezekiel, who had a vision of a river flowing from the Temple, flanked by trees with leaves good for healing, makes it clear (despite his priestly concern for the holiness, including the ethno-religious purity, of the Temple) that, when the land is restored and reapportioned, the aliens among the children of Israel will have a share in the inheritance (47.21–23). And in the vision of Zechariah and St John (and Isaiah and others), all nations will stream to the City of God. A glance at the news will confirm that it is none too soon to look and long for signs of God’s gracious Kingdom, as these late-summer Sundays, the Transfiguration and Holy Cross Day, and, later, All Saints’ Day begin to point the way to the Feast and Person of Christ the King and His Advent.

*   *   *

The musical setting in question was written by Franz Josef Haydn to serve as a national anthem (not necessarily a march) for the Austrian empire, with the opening phrase possibly taken from a Croatian folk-song; the composer was fond of it and used it as the theme for a set of variations in one of his string quartets and then arranged that piece for piano. Its subsequent employment as the musical setting of the anthem of National Socialist Germany made it, quite understandably, fall out of favor in the Anglophone sphere during and after the Second World War, and a new tune, ‘Abbot’s Leigh’, was written for this text (the Hymnal 1982 prints this tune with this text at 523, as well as with two other texts, and it is commonly used with still others). Perhaps in the twenty-first century, though, we can hear Haydn’s stirring music afresh and it can once again serve Newton’s fine hymn,† which reminds us that our true fealty is due to no earthly emperor of either Newton’s and Haydn’s day or our own, but rather to the King of Kings, who shows us the kind of ‘kings and priests’ we are to be: priests who sacrifice themselves, not victims or scapegoats; kings who serve the least and lowest.

 Eric Mellenbruch

*‘Rock of ages’ is the literal rendering of the typically vivid and concrete Hebrew epithet for the LORD in Isaiah 26.5, translated ‘everlasting strength’ in the KJV. The LORD is the Rock; Christ is the Rock; but in yesterday’s Gospel we also learned that St Peter – or his recognition and confession of Jesus as the Messiah – is also the Rock upon which the Church is built. And we too are living stones (I Peter 2.5) joined to the Cornerstone (see, once again, Psalm 118 [quoted many times in the New Testament], as well as Isaiah 28.6 and Ephesians 2.19–22 [read on the Eve of Holy Cross Day]).

†On the Good Shepherd Choir’s tour of the UK two years ago at exactly this time of year, this hymn was appointed to be sung as the introit hymn at Sunday Parish Communion at Beverley Minster (the Gospel was from the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of John: the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse, in which Our Lord refers to the manna in the wilderness, and which precedes His teaching in the Temple at Sukkoth). It was not specified, however, which of these two tunes was to be used. The Eucharist was celebrated that morning by the Archdeacon of the diocese (York), himself an organist; in a hasty pre-service huddle, he and I agreed that, any negative connotations notwithstanding, we ought to sing Haydn, and so we did – and glorious it was in that splendid church.

Hymn of the Month: May 2014 · III

O God, our help in ages past [Hymn 680]

This month’s hymn is one of the best hymns ever written in English, and probably the most famous hymn of one of the most famous hymn-writers, Isaac Watts.

Here’s a video of the hymn.

As we talked about last week, Isaac Watts thought that many English metrical Psalms (Psalms that are translated from Hebrew to English, and put in regular rhythm and rhyme to make them easier to sing) weren’t very good poetry. He decided he could write better ones, and so he did – but in the process, he moved away from literal translation (that is, trying to say exactly what the original said), borrowing other bits of Scripture and coming up with some of his own lines too. Here is Watts’s hymn ‘O God, our help in ages past’ (in red), with the parts of Psalm 90 (in the King James Version) that go with each verse – you can see that some parts are pretty close to the Psalm, while others aren’t:

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. [verse 1]

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home:

And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us:
and establish thou the work of our hands upon us;
yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. [verse 17b]

under the shadow of thy throne
thy saints have dwelt secure;
sufficient is thine arm alone,
and our defense is sure.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God. [verse 2]

Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received her frame,
from everlasting thou art God,
to endless years the same.

For a thousand years in thy sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
and as a watch in the night. [verse 4]

A thousand ages in thy sight
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

Thou carriest them away as with a flood;
they are as a sleep:
in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. [verse 5]

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all our years away;
they fly, forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

O satisfy us early with thy mercy;
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. [verse 14]

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
be thou our guide while life shall last,
and our eternal home.

The hymn may not be an exact translation of the Psalm, but it’s a beautiful song about how God, who has always existed and always will, is always with us, guiding us and watching over us in the past, now, and in the future – for ever, in fact. When you study and sing this hymn, thank God for His presence with us always.

Hymn of the Month: May 2014 · II

O God, our help in ages past [Hymn 680]

Metrical Psalms and Isaac Watts

Title page of the Bay Psalm Book

Although many people in many different places and times have written hymns (usually based in some way on the Bible), certain people in England and other countries in the 1500s to the 1700s felt that only the Psalms should be sung in church. So to make them singable to song-tunes of a familiar sort, they translated the Psalms into poetry that rhymed and had regular rhythm (poetic rhythm is also called ‘meter’ – so this kind of translation is called ‘metrical Psalmody’). A lot of these English metrical Psalms weren’t very good poetry, for example

The Lord to me a shepherd is;
Want therefore shall not I.
He in the folds of tender grass
Doth make me down to lie.

To waters calm he gently leads;
Restore my soul doth he.
He doth in paths of righteousness
For his names sake lead me.

(Can you figure out which famous Psalm this is a translation of? This translation, by the way, was written in Massachusetts when it was still an English colony, and the Psalter it’s part of was the first book ever printed in the English colonies of North America, shown in the picture above. One of the few surviving copies of that book sold recently for $14 million! A picture of it is at the beginning of this post.)

It rhymes and has a regular meter, but the order of the words is so mixed-up that it doesn’t sound like good English, does it?

Isaac Watts

Fortunately, there came along in 1674 an English boy called Isaac Watts. Isaac’s father ran a school, and with a teacher for a father, the young and brilliant Isaac learned Latin (age 4), Greek (age 8 or 9), French (11), and Hebrew (13). He apparently couldn’t help making up verses; he spoke in rhyme so much that his exasperated father threatened to punish him – whereupon the boy cried out,

O father, do some pity take,
and I will no more verses make!

When he was a bit older, he complained about how bad the metrical Psalm translations were that were sung in his congregation, so his father challenged him to write better ones – and that he did. Over his lifetime (in addition to sermons and school textbooks in many different subjects) he wrote as many as 750 metrical psalms and hymns. In fact, he was one of the first in modern times to write hymns in English for congregational singing, and we still sing a number of his works. You can look in the Index of Authors, Translators, and Sources of your Hymnal to see how many hymns of his are in there – it’s quite a few!

Next week we’ll look at probably his best and most famous hymn – and one of the greatest of all hymns in English – ‘O God, our help in ages past’, which is based on Psalm 90.