Psalm 23 | Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken

Psalm 23 | Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken

Liturgy Lessons: May 21, 2017
Call to Worship: Psalm 103: 1-5 & 20-22
Hymn: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (#53)
Confession of Sin: Adapted from John Knox’s liturgy of 1560
Assurance of Pardon: Isaiah 54:4-8, 10; Lamentations 3: 31-32, 22-24, 55-58
Songs of Assurance: The Steadfast Love of the Lord; My Shepherd Will Supply My Need
Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Tithes and Offerings
Doxology: Gloria Patri
Sermon: “Our Good Shepherd” – Scott Harvey
Supper: Just as I Am (#501, vs. 1-2, 5-6); Psalm 23 (Watts/Morton)
Closing Hymn: Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken (#345)

The 23rd Psalm
By George Herbert

The God of love my shepherd is, and he that doth me feed:
While he is mine, and I am his, what can I want or need?

He leads me to the tender grass, where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently pass: in both I have the best.

Or if I stray, he doth convert, and bring my mind in frame:
And all this not for my desert, but for his holy name.

Yea, in deaths shady black abode well may I walk, not fear:
For thou art with me; and thy rod to guide, thy staff to bear.

Nay, thou dost make me sit and dine, ev’n in my enemies sight:
My head with oil, my cup with wine runs over day and night.

Surely thy sweet and wondrous love shall measure all my days;
And as it never shall remove, so neither shall my praise.

Psalm 23 is arguably the most famous and beloved poems ever written. It has inspired many poets and artists with with its rich imagery, tender intimacy, and faithful hope. It has provided solace at many funerals, often read graveside before a body is committed to the earth. It is a beautiful paradox that this most exalted of Psalms would be so earthly, so humble. It is almost impossible for me to read it without stopping for a sigh of contentment after every couplet. However, as with all familiar things, we can easily grow jaded and numb to its impact. This week’s liturgy is saturated with musical meditations on this iconic Psalm. These musical pieces can be “green pastures,” places to briefly dwell and find a fresh experience of the “anointing oil” of God’s goodness and mercies. As we, his sheep, are brought into the fold on Sunday morning, it is my prayer that the Lord, our great Pastor (from Pastore, or “shepherd”) will restore our souls as we are led by these “quiet waters,” which are reflections of his beauty. As George Herbert and King David both remind us, this “sweet and wondrous love” shall follow us all the days of our lives, “and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” That, my fellow protected lambs, is reason to sing!

Psalm 23
Text: Isaac Watts, 1719
Music: Luke Morton, 2013

There he is, a young shepherd on the hillside, sitting in the afternoon sun, back against a boulder with one knee raised to hold his lyre. As the lad strums and hums, he is working out a melody for the first thought on his mind, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” He is tending to his sheep, but also tending to his heart, for he knows he is comforted by another rod and staff. His cup overflows with contentment in these years, and little does he know that he will need to draw on this musical language of praise for the rest of his journey as a shepherd king.

There are many depictions of David playing a harp, referred to in the Hebrew Bible as a “kinnor” (literally “lyre”). This ancient instrument is a member of the zither family. It had 4–8 gut strings and was usually played in a similar manner to the way a modern guitar is strummed. According to 1 Samuel 16:23, “David took a harp, and played with his hand,” which may suggest that David’s technique also involved plucking with individual fingers, harpist-fashion. Modern singer-songwriter guitarists are part of an ancient tradition that extends from David, through the Sephardic players of Spain, Portugal, and North Africa, to European Medieval troubadours and Renaissance/Baroque lute players, all the way to the Appalachian long-necked dulcimer and American folk/rock icons like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. All due respect to lovers of the organ and piano (myself included), the presence of guitar in our public gatherings has more Biblical and historic precedent. It is an instrument blissfully devoid of any concert-hall elitism. It brings a rustic simplicity to the artist expression, a pastoral sensibility that is fitting for Psalm 23. It makes sense then that one of our most beloved local troubadours, Luke Morton, would provide us with a David-like musical setting of one of Isaac Watts’ versifications of Psalm 23. Here is a bit from Luke about his inspiration for this setting:

“Isaac Watts wrote at least three settings of Psalm 23. I was initially drawn to “The Lord My Shepherd Is,” because it seemed to be the least used of the three. When I began working on the melody, I was, at the time, very intrigued by the idea of convincing the ear a new tune was old. Until the fifth stanza, there are just two subjects, the Lord and the petitioner. But when “foes” are briefly, yet starkly, introduced, a new and darker color seemed fitting for a bridge. These kinds of melodic decisions come from a belief that every text offers a description of a world which music, then, helps us inhabit; to see, hear, experience and, ultimately, worship our God.”

As you will hear in the recording excerpt below, Luke achieves his goal to help us worship by skillfully inhabiting this Psalm. He musically describes a young David at rest in his field, and we are invited to sit and sing alongside him. His composition runs simple and clear, like a mountain stream. Its mood and meter perfectly capture the spirit of the Psalm. It is downright excellent, and it is utterly singable. Thanks, Luke, for stewarding your time and talent so well, for the good of the church and the glory of God.

Link to recording:

This week’s service also includes an alternate Watts versification of Psalm 23, “My Shepherd Will Supply my Need.” This wonderful hymn is one of my all-time favorites, and was introduced to us back on Feb. 14, when it was covered in our Liturgy Lessons. In case you missed that post, or just wish to revisit the hymn, that archived lesson can be found at this link by clicking here.

Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken
Text: John Newton, 1779
Music: Austrian Hymn, Franz Haydn, 1797

This has been called one of Newton’s finest hymns, and it is certainly one of his most popular. The opening quotes Psalm 87:3 “Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God” (ESV). The theme of these stanzas is the universal church, and its story. The text begins with a vision of the new city of God (Hebrews 12:22) in the first two stanzas, and then looks back to the early journey of the Israelites, with references in the third stanza to cloud, fire, and manna (Exodus 13:21, Exodus 16:31). We are reminded through this of the long history God has with His people, and of the wonderful future awaiting those who are, through grace, members of God’s family.

The music comes to us from a string quartet by the classical composer Haydn, whose 18th-century life span coincided with that of Newton. Haydn once wrote, “When I think of the divine Being, my heart is so full of joy that the notes fly off as from a spindle, and as I have a cheerful heart, He will pardon me if I serve Him joyfully.” This lightheartedness is a hallmark of Haydn’s music, and this wonderful tune is a mirthful mix of playfulness and pomp. Originally titled “Emperor’s Hymn,” it was the main theme of his string quartet in C, written in honor of Francis II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and later of Austria. This tune is most well-known as the national anthem of Germany. The music was paired with Newton’s text in the early 18th century, and it is a wonderful match. We sing this as an anthem to our Holy King, ruler over all, protector, provider, and shepherd of our hearts.

Link to sheet music:
Haydn’s original string quartet:–A
Hymn version with Organ accompaniment: