Psalm 129: We Won’t Stay Down

Psalm 129 gives us a scrappy underdog who just happens to have a protective older brother on the wrestling team. (In this case, the scrappy underdog is Israel and the older brother is God.) I don’t know about you, but I just don’t expect to find this sort of fight-the-man screed in scripture. But there it is: “May all who hate Zion (Israel) be turned back in shame… May those who pass by not say, ‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you.'” Ouch.

I decided the best way to express the pent up anger and the down-but-not-out camaraderie of the Psalm was with the music of a full-throated sea chanty. And since my voice is way too velvety for that sort of thing, I enlisted the help of my favorite Viking, Steve Brown. Steve delivers the lead vocal in a way that makes you want to grab your Ulfberht and finally avenge your people of their oppressors. (In the love of the Lord.)

1. Been pushed around since the day we were born,
but we won’t stay down forever.
Let all God’s people say it once more:
oh, we won’t stay down forever.

We won’t stay down.
No, we won’t stay down.
We won’t stay down forever.

2. Their feet on our necks and they plowed up our backs,
but we won’t stay down forever.
God broke our chains, we’re free at last!
Oh, we won’t stay down forever.

3. So confident of their schemes and their plans,
but we won’t stay down forever.
but God has saved! They leave empty-handed.
Oh, we won’t stay down forever.

Steve Brown on a Viking ship. Literally.
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Psalm 128: Bless Us, O Lord

The Psalms are full of images and ideas that are anachronistic to modern readers. Psalm 128 promises men who fear the Lord that they’ll enjoy fertile wives, lots of children, and a peaceful Jerusalem. It is fair to ask: What about women who fear the Lord? What about wives who don’t want to give birth to dozens of babies? What about peace in other places in the world?

These are all valid questions.

Beneath its difficult cultural veneer, though, the heart of this Psalm’s message is “Serve God, work hard, and God will bless you.” Yet even this strikes modern readers the wrong way. Most of us don’t like to ask for God’s blessing. Perhaps we avoid talk of blessings because we want to distance ourselves from the prosperity gospel. Maybe it’s because we (I) live in perhaps the most prosperous time and place in human history. Maybe we have a false humility that doesn’t allow us to consider the God of the universe wanting to give us good things.

Whatever our reservations may be, Psalm 128 is all about God blessing us. I don’t write the Psalms; I just make them singable in a modern context. And singable, this is! The leader sings all the verses while the people sing only four words. The melody is extremely simple; more adept groups may sing it in four parts. I can imagine the song being taught by rote and sung a cappella, though I added a simple accompaniment on this recording.

1. Blessed are those who honor the Lord. Bless us, O Lord. Bless us, O Lord.
Blessed are those who walk with God. Bless us, O Lord. Bless us, O Lord.

Bless us, Lord.
Bless us, Lord.
Bless us, O Lord.
Bless us, O Lord.

2. The work of your hands is its own reward.
The work of your heart is a fruitful home.

3. Blessing will come to those God loves.
Blessing to those who honor God.

4. Lord, may our cities live in peace.
Prosper our days, prolong our years.

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Pilgrim Psalms: Wait for the Work of the Lord (Psalm 127)

We have a strange relationship to work. Some of us are workaholics. (Or have a “good work ethic,” if we want to sound more pious about it.) Others are “working for the weekend.” (Or working toward a retirement of lounging and luxury.)

Psalm 127 provides us a good theology of work. As Eugene Peterson points out in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, “God worked.” The first thing the Bible tells us about God is that God created. So work is not a necessary evil, it is at the core of who we are as creatures in God’s image. However, unlike God, we have limits to what we can achieve with our work. Psalm 127 tells us that we can keep watch, but only God keeps us secure. We can plant, but only God can give the harvest. Indeed, the Psalm ends with a striking example of the interplay between God’s work and ours: children. We can procreate, women can labor, but only God can give life.

Peterson talks about frantic activity on the one hand and detached laziness on the other. In between those extremes is work that is full of joy and meaning, that trusts the Lord for the miracles of life and food, and that rests securely in the Lord when work is over (Sabbath).

This new setting of Psalm 127 (I wrote one before) attempts to tease out the balance between our work and God’s.” You’re probably wondering what my favorite line is. It’s in the third verse: “For our labors are a blessing we conceive in faith and love.” See what I did there, with “labors” and “conceive”?

Wait for the work of the Lord.
Wait for the work of the Lord.
Wait for the work, wait for the work,
wait for the work of the Lord.

1. We will build while there is sunshine
and keep watch throughout the night,
but only God can bless us
and guard our very lives. CHORUS

2. We will rise at dawn for planting
and we’ll pray for rain and sun,
but anxious toil and worry
rob sleep from those God loves. CHORUS

3. For our labors are a blessing
we conceive in faith and love,
but God alone brings life and breath;
we work, we pray, we trust. CHORUS

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Pilgrim Psalms: Tears and Joy (Psalm 126)

Psalm 126 is full of joy. In fact, it uses the word four times in a mere six verses. But this is not an easily earned joy; it is the joy of people who have known tears but have been rescued from misery just when they were about to give up.

Interestingly, the Psalm is divided into two sections: the first begins with “When the Lord restored our fortunes” and the second half begins with “Restore our fortunes, Lord.” This is a common move in the Psalms: start by remembering what God has done in the past and turn it into a confident prayer for the future.

While most of the songs in my Pilgrim Psalms series are very vocal-centered, I decided to take a little break with this one and just let it groove. I still think it could be sung by a group of travelers as long as they had some guitars or ukuleles, but that theory has yet to be proven.

1. When the Lord brought home the exiles,
it all seemed like a dream.
We just could not stop laughing
and we sang through joyous tears.

The nations were astonished–
they could not believe their eyes.
The Lord restored our fortunes,
brought joy back to our lives.

Tears, tears, tears,
we went out with floods of tears.
Joy, joy, joy,
we returned with songs of joy.

2. O dear Lord, restore our blessing
like gushing streams in spring,
and turn our tears of sorrow
into tears of joy again.

We cried as we were leaving
and we wept in fields of toil;
but we’ll come back with singing;
we’ll harvest fields of joy.

Tears, tears, tears,
we went out with floods of tears.
Joy, joy, joy,
we returned with songs of joy.

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Pilgrim Psalms: Everlasting Peace (Psalm 125)

I’ve already written music for Psalm 125 twice: “Those Who Trust” from my 2017 Adopt-a-Psalm program and an arrangement of Amorese/Zemuner’s beautiful “All Those Who Trust” in 2013. But this is a new series and it calls for new music!

In keeping with the Pilgrim Psalms series, this new setting of Psalm 125 has the voice at the center. Indeed, there are no instruments at all on this recording. Of course, you should feel free to try it with a praise band or a simple keyboard accompaniment.

Just in case you don’t pick up on my musical word-painting, Psalm 125 talks about God surrounding his people like Mount Zion circles Jerusalem; what better way to represent that image than with a round?

Those who trust in the Lord are encircled, secure,
surrounded like Zion, whose mountains endure.
Forever protected from evil’s misdeeds.
Forever they rest in God’s everlasting peace.

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Pilgrim Psalms: Our Help (Psalm 124)

I’ve actually set Psalm 124 to music twice before. The first time was “If the Lord Had Not Been on Our Side,” a Gospel-style choral anthem with narrator that is now published by GIA. The second time was “If God Had Not Been on Our Side,” a congregational song that is one of my proudest moments as a composer of psalmody.

I didn’t feel the need to plow this ground again, but I did want to write something on Psalm 124 that would fit into the larger Pilgrim Psalms series. I decided to write a song that could stand on its own or act as a “bookend” for “If God Had Not Been on Our Side.” “Our Help” is a simple 8 measure chorus that can be chanted at the beginning and or end of “If God Had Not Been on Our Side”; the key and meter are coordinated for that very purpose.

But let me suggest another purpose: “Our Help” is based on the words that traditionally begin Reformed worship services: Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Why not sing those words? “Our Help” is easy to pick up by ear and is the kind of song that can be sung multiple times while people gather and focus for worship. It could also segue into an opening song like Ron Rienstra’s “The Lord Be with You.” (Or pretty much any song in the key of G or E minor, for that matter.)

Our help is in God’s strong name;
the same God who made earth and heaven.

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Psalm 65: We Praise You, God, in Silence and Singing

I was honored that Bethany Cok and Josh Parks asked me to compose music for their wedding. I’ve played with Josh many times before at Church of the Servant, Calvin University, and in the St. Sinner Orchestra, so it felt like a real vote of confidence to be included in his nuptials.

The rehearsal.

Bethany and Josh chose Psalm 65 as the song’s text. It was a great choice: Psalm 65 is a Psalm of thanksgiving that was likely written for one of the harvest festivals; its focus on entering God’s house, keeping vows, and God’s blessing make it a beautiful fit for a wedding.

The piece I wrote volleys back and forth between a congregational refrain that features a bold, ascending melody I’ve dubbed a “Mannheim Mountain,” and lush, rhapsodic verses.

You might wonder about the opening phrase “We Praise You, God, in Silence and Singing.” Why “in silence” when it’s a song? Well, the first phrase of Psalm 65 “Praise awaits you,” is unclear in the Hebrew, but seems to carry the connotation of hushed awe—a quiet before a storm of praise. I decided to interpret that as “in silence and singing,” including a ripe silence before the return of each chorus.

I post this song on the day of Bethany and Josh’s wedding as a musical blessing on their union!

We praise you, God, in silence and singing,
in making of vows and lifting of prayers.
To you all people, in joy and thanksgiving,
renewed and forgiven,
to you they are streaming for you are our God.
And you, God, are good.

1. Blessed are the ones you draw to you courts–
guests in the house of the Lord.
Riches o’erflow and spill out the doors–
blessings that fill the whole earth! REFRAIN

2. For you pushed the mountains into place
with the strength of your hand;
and you hushed the chaos of the waves,
for even the seas obey your commands;
and you change the chattering of all the nations into choirs of joy!
And the whole world hums with your praise! REFRAIN

3. You care for the land, you soak the ground,
and you shower it with riches.
You fill the streams and soften the soil
and you flood the furrows and ditches.
The year is crowned with blessing;
her path flows with abundance;
her hills are covered in gladness;
her meadows clothed in flocks;
her vales are robed in wheat and grain–
they shout for joy! They sing!
They shout for joy and they sing! REFRAIN

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Pilgrim Psalms: Have Mercy (Psalm 123)

Psalm 123 presents a number of challenges, foremost is its use of slave language to describe our relationship to God. No matter what it may have meant to Hebrew worshipers, I just can’t imagine singing of slavery in a morally neutral tone. So how does one set aside a biblical image and yet stay true to scripture? What is the deeper pattern?

The first thing that caught my attention was Psalm 123’s use of “eyes.” In verses 1-2 it is our eyes that are looking up to God. In verses 3-4, though it doesn’t use the word “eye,” it’s essentially a prayer for God’s eyes to look down and have mercy. The other thing that struck me is that verses 3-4 are praying for salvation from the powerful who oppress them. The first half of the Psalm is an acknowledgment of the true God, and the second half is asking God to intervene against lesser authorities–those gods who abuse their power. My song verses followed this two-part pattern: our eyes look up to God in obedience to God’s true authority and God’s eyes look down to see our plight and deliver us.

Have mercy. Have mercy Lord.
Have mercy. Have mercy Lord.

1. Our eyes look to you.
Our eyes look to heaven.
Our eyes look to you
until you show your mercy, God.

2. Cast your eyes on us.
Cast your eyes on earth.
Cast aside the proud
who bind us with no mercy, God

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Pilgrim Psalms: Let Us Go! (Psalm 122)

Psalm 122 is full of exuberance at the mere thought of going to church. That’s hard to imagine in our day and age (at least before COVID-19), but the Israelites were in a different context. For them, God was present only in the Temple in Jerusalem. If they were going to meet with God–if they were going to worship–it would be at the Temple. Indeed, that’s what the Pilgrim Psalms are all about: songs for the long journey to Jerusalem to worship. I can imagine that this song would be one of their favorites along the way: it called them to join the journey, it boosted flagging spirits along the way, and it would be a grand anthem upon arriving at their destination.

In keeping with all my Pilgrim Psalms, “Let Us Go!” is very simple and easily learned without music. It is an eight-measure chorus repeated ad-lib with three verses that can be sung by a leader on top of the chorus. Think of it as Hillbilly Taizé.

Let us go; Let us go; Let us go to the house of the Lord!
Let us go; Let us go; Let us go to the house of the Lord!

1. I was glad when they said,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
And now we’re standing before your doors.
Let us go to the house of the Lord! (CHORUS)

2. The city of God
is made of more than stone.
It is founded on justice and love
for all who go to the house of the Lord! (CHORUS)

3. Give us peace,
O Lord, give us peace.
O Lord, give all your children peace, we pray,
when we go to the house of the Lord! (CHORUS)

For those of you who care about such things, all the voices and instruments were recorded with GLS Audio’s ES-57. It’s a $30 mic fashioned after Shure’s industry standard SM57. I quite like it. It has a little more volume than the SM57 and is perhaps a tad too hyped in the mid-range, giving it lots of presence but a slightly unnatural megaphone-like color for recording. But I bought it for miking instruments live and I think it will do a great job of picking up a piano or guitar amp without much room noise. Kudos GLS!

Technical note #2: I recorded this demo without a click track. I just hit record and started singing. That’s why there are some fluctuations in the tempo here and there. So sue me. It’s also why I had to tune my guitar up a quarter step when I decided to add it after all the vocal tracks were done!

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Pilgrim Psalms: My God, My Guide, My Guard (Psalm 121)

The next Pilgrim Psalm is 121. This is a beautiful Psalm of protection that begins with the words, “I lift my eyes up to the hills.” I already have two songs based on this Psalm: “My Keeper” and “Lift Your Eyes Up to the Mountains!” (a translation of Seong Sil Chung’s song).

In keeping with my Pilgrim Psalms project, this new version is simple enough that it can be sung without musical notation, as it is written in a leader/echo format which makes it easy to learn: simply listen and sing back.

Attentive listeners may discern a new voice in the mix. Usually, I sing all the vocals and harmonies because, well…I’m always here. But on this demo, my son, Theo makes his singing debut as part of the echo chorus. The afternoon we were recording, a sudden thunderstorm hit. I opened the window and recorded a few minutes of the cacophony, deciding later that it fit the song perfectly!

Raising my eyes to the mountains for help,
but the God who made the mountains is greater still.
God will guide me on my way,
through the dark of night and heat of day.
God will take my hand
when I journey out or return again.
God will guard my life always.

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