Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hymns of the Faith

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

Today's "Hymn of the Faith" is "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty." It is one of the very best hymns (thinking of the combination of text and tune) written in the last three hundred fifty years, and it is no surprise that it is a favorite of our congregation.

The text or lyric of the song is loosely based on Psalms 103 (esp. 1-6, 19-22) and 150:6, and alludes to a number of other biblical passages. In the Scottish Psalter and Church Hymnary of 1929, it finds itself aptly located in the section delineated "God: His Being, Works, Word."

The song’s author was Joachim Neander, the grandson of a musician and the son of a teacher. He studied theology at Bremen, Heidelberg and then Frankfurt, where (at the age of 23) he met the great German Pietist scholars Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) and Johann Jakob Sch├╝tz (1640-1690). Neander died at the young age of 30, perhaps of the plague or tuberculosis, having served in his short life as a school principal and as a minister. We think he wrote this hymn when he was 20.

Julian, the great hymnologist says "A magnificent hymn of praise to God, perhaps the finest production of its author (the German hymn-writer, Neander), and of the first rank in its class.

It was translated by the remarkable Catherine Winkworth who "lived most of her life in Manchester, England. The notable exception was the year she spent in Dresden, Germany. Around 1854, she published Lyra Germanica, containing numerous German hymns translated into English. She went on to publish another series of German hymns in 1858. In 1863, she came out with The Chorale Book for England, and in 1869, Christian Singers of Germany. More than any other single person, she helped bring the German chorale tradition to the English speaking world." (

The hymn is exceedingly rich in biblical allusions and in piety and worship rooted in sound doctrine. The song anchors our life and worship in the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, his creation, his providence, his goodness, mercy and lovingkindness. In other words, in a beautiful, lyrical and poetic way, it brings to bear a rock-solid theology proper, or doctrine of God (who he is, what he is like and what he does for us) on our personal Christian experience and public worship.

The psalm(s) on which it is based [Psalm 103 and Psalm 150:6] are also rich. But I want to point out three things in particular: (1) self-exhortation; (2) mutual exhortation; and (3) praise for providence. READ Psalm 103:1-22 and Psalm 150:6. The Psalmist is teaching us something about what we do when we come to worship God together congregationally. We not only come to praise God: (1) we exhort ourselves to praise God; (2) we exhort one another to praise God; and (3) we praise God for his providence. To elaborate, you will find the Psalmist in 103 doing at least three things: (1) the psalmist is talking to himself; (2) the psalmist is exhorting his fellow believers; and (3) the psalmist anchors his praise of God in the comprehensive sovereignty and providence of God.

Now, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation! beautifully and biblically picks up on all these themes, and more.

Stanza One
Praise to* the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation! *in some renderings "Praise ye"
O my soul, praise him, for he is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near;
Join me in glad adoration.

Line 1-2, Psalm 103:1 - "Bless the LORD, O my soul, And all that is within me, bless His holy name."
Line 2, allusion to the content of Psalm 103:2 ["forget none of his benefits" and "health and salvation"], and 103:3-6 [specified benefits], and Line 1 (again) to 103:19 ["rules over all" and "King of creation"])
Line 3, "draw near" is standard biblical language for public worship, see, e.g, Lev. 9:7; 21:18; Num. 16:40; 1 Sam. 14:36; Ps. 69:18; 119:150; Eccl. 5:1; Isa. 29:13; 34:1; 41:1; 45:20; 48:16; 57:3; 58:2; Jer. 30:21; Ezek. 43:19; Joel 3:9; Zeph. 3:2; Mal. 3:5; Heb. 4:16; 7:19, 25; 10:1, 22; 11:6; Jas. 4:8
Line 3, "His temple" refers to the old covenant sanctuary, as a way of describing new covenant worship, see Ps 11:4, Hab 2:20 and esp. Eph. 2:21. In the new covenant, God is making his people into his temple.
Line 4, "join me" the congregation exhorting one another to come worship God willingly and gladly

Stanza one praises the almighty Lord who is the Creator God for his blessings of both health and salvation (this is stated emphatically, "he is your health and salvation") and then calls our own soul and fellow believers to join in praising and blessing the Lord. In its self-exhortation, we speak to our own souls ("O my soul, praise him"), echoing Psalm 103:1-2, exhorting our own selves to praise the Lord. The stanza concludes with an exhortation to all who have heard the Lord’s gracious call to worship ("All ye who hear") to draw near to God with joyful adoration.

Stanza Two
Praise to the Lord, who o’er* all things so wondrously reigneth, *"o’er" means "over"
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e'er* have been *"e’er" means "ever/always"
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Line 1, Psalm 103:19 - "The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, And His sovereignty rules over all." "The Lord reigns" is a major biblical affirmation. See, e.g., 1 Chr 16:31; Ps 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1; Isa 24:23; Rev 19:6. The Lord’s works, deeds and love are repeatedly called "wondrous" in Scripture. See, e.g., Ps 40:5; 72:18; 107:8, 15, 21, 24, 31; 111:4. Aside: The Open Theist can’t sing this hymn as is. He’d have to sing. "Praise to the Lord, who over some things so wondrously reigneth,"
Line 2, Possible allusion to Psalm 17:8 "Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings," or even better Psalm 61:4 "Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!"
Lines 3-4, Ps 44:4 and Isa 26:12 speak of God ordaining salvation and peace (total well-being) for his people; Rom 8:28ff tells us that God works all things for the good of his people.

Stanza two openly, gladly and unapologetically acknowledges God’s sovereignty over all things, especially as it is seen in his protective care of us ("Shelters thee under His wings," "gently sustains us"). By the way, notice how we are still talking to ourselves – "Shelters thee," thee being you talking to your own soul! It reminds you of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ suggestion that Christians ought to argue with and preach to themselves, instead of listening to themselves ! The second stanza concludes with a self-reminder that God has often granted our heart’s desires in his providential unfolding of his plan in our lives - and he does this even in our pain.

Illustration: Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956, Vol. 2, 615-617
(John Piper) . . . Thank you, heavenly Father, for the inspiration of this man’s life.No one did more than Solzhenitsyn to expose the horrors of the failed communist experiment in Russia. Hitler’s purge would pale, if such things could pale, when compared to ten times the carnage in Stalin’s gulags.Solzhenitsyn inspired me because of the suffering he endured and the effect it had on him. Here is the quote that I have not forgotten. It moves me deeply to this day. After his imprisonment in the Russian gulag of Joseph Stalin’s "corrective labor camps" Solzhenitsyn wrote:
It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. . . . That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: "Bless you, prison!" I . . . have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: "Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!" (The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956, Vol. 2, 615-617)
O that I would be done with murmuring against my tiny prisons. Lord, grant me greater faith to live in the coming day when I will say, "Bless you, all hardship and pain! You have cut me off from the death of prosperous idolatry again and again."

Stanza Three

Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee!
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee;
Ponder anew what the Almighty will do,
If with His love He befriend thee.

Line 1, possible allusion to Ps. 90:17 "Prosper thou the work of our hands, O prosper thou our handy-work" (Coverdale?, Book of Common Prayer)
Line 2, allusion to Psalm 23:6 "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life ...."
Line 3, pondering God, what God does and the way of life is constantly commended in the Bible. See, e.g, Psalm 64:9, 77:12, 143:5 and Prov 4:26. Not pondering is a sign of spiritual death (see Prov 5:6).
Line 4, is not raising a doubt with its "if" but enjoining us to consider the inseparable blessings that accompany God’s saving love for us. Think Romans 8:32.

Stanza three again recognizes that it is the Lord who "prospers the work of our hands" (see Psalm 90:17) and who protects us from our enemies. Once again, this stanza has us exhorting our souls to give praise to God because of his blessings to us ("Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee"). Here we acknowledge to ourselves that "Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee" (reminding one of Lamentations 3:22-23, as well as Psalm 23:6), and then we go on to exhort our heart to "Ponder anew what the Almighty will do, If with His love He befriend thee." That is, just think of what God most certainly will do, as he pours out his saving love on you? Romans 8:32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Stanza Four
Praise to the Lord, who with marvelous wisdom hath made thee,
decked* thee with health, and with loving hand guided and stayed** thee. *to clothe, adorn
How often in grief hath not he brought thee relief, **to cause to stand/stand firm
spreading his wings to o'er shade thee!

Line 1, The Bible constantly celebrates the marvelous things the Lord does (e.g., Psalm 118:23 "This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.") and in Psalm 104:24 we acknowledge "O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures." Here, we acknowledge the Lord’s marvelous wisdom in making us (think of Ps 139:13-14).
Line 2, The Lord has given us our health, guided us lovingly and preserved us. Aside: The hymn’s author died of tuberculosis at the age of 30.
Line 3, We are given reason here to praise God, even in our deepest griefs, he shades us.
Line 4, the language here reminds us of Ps 121:5, "The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand." Shade is a pervasive biblical metaphor (see Ps 121:5; Isa 4:6; 16:3; 25:4f; 32:2; Jonah 4:5f) for God’s protecting, sparing providence – refuge.

Stanza four acknowledges God is our own wise maker, the giver of our health, the loving providential guide and support of our life. Its powerful language crescendos with the bold and believing declaration: "How oft in grief hath not he brought thee relief, spreading his wings to o’er shade thee!" I have often sung this phrase in tears of trust, in the bonds of suffering, in confident peace, in our congregation.

Stanza Five
Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen sound from His people again,
Gladly fore'er* we adore Him. *"forever," in some renderings "for aye"

Line 1, picks up Psalm 103:1 again - "all that is within me, bless His holy name."
Line 2, alludes to Psalm 150:6 "Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD! "- which sums up Psalm 103:20-22.
Line 3, echoes the call of Psalm 106:48 ("Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! And let all the people say, "Amen!" Praise the LORD!") as it beckons all God’s people to add their own "so be it" to this grand paean of praise and blessing to God.
Line 4, because God is forever blessed (1 Chron 29:10) we are to bless him forever (Ps 145:1,2, and 21).

Stanza five, once more, asks our self to give God our all in praise ("O let all that is in me adore Him!"), and then transitions to the words and exhortation of Psalm 150:6 "All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him," concluding with a call to God’s people to add their "so be it," their "Amen," to the praise, and to continue this happy praise forever.

1 comment:

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