shepherd sounds

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.

Hymn of the Month: May 2014 · I

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

The Psalms

The Book of Psalms, the longest book in the Bible, is a collection of 150 songs. The Psalms are the ancient hymnal of the Jewish people and of the Christian Church (remember, Our Lord Jesus and many of His first followers were Jews). The Psalms are such an important part of our tradition that the entire book is traditionally sung through once a month or even once a week at Morning and Evening Prayer and other daily services. Verses of Psalms show up all over the other services of the Church too. And although most of the Book of Common Prayer comes from the Bible, the whole Book of Psalms (called the Psalter) is printed with the Prayer Book (starting on page 581) so that people can read and pray the Psalms as part of their daily prayers. (Do you remember when we talked about the Daily Devotions that you can pray with your family at home? You can go back and look here.)

The end of Psalm 149, and Psalm 150, from a Hebrew Bible from the Middle Ages
Psalms are poems, although they don’t rhyme or have a regular rhythm like poems in English often do (the Psalms, like most of the Old Testament, were written in Hebrew). Usually each verse of a Psalm is divided into two halves, which in the Prayer Book Psalter are divided by an asterisk (*). The second half might say something like the first half, but with slightly different words, or it may say the same thing, but more strongly, or sometimes it says the opposite. Some Psalm-verses have three parts to them. It’s traditional to take an extra-long breath at every asterisk.

Portrait of King David from an Ethiopian Psalter
(Ethiopia has very ancient Jewish and Christian communities)

The Psalms are said to have been written by King David, who the Bible tells us played the harp or lyre (see I Samuel 16). David probably did write psalms. Other people probably wrote some of them too, inspired by King David’s example.

The Psalms can be about all kinds of things. Many of them are songs of praise to God. Others are prayers for God to rescue us from danger or trouble. In some of them the writer seems to be mad at God (which is okay sometimes) or to blame God for things going wrong (which is not okay – God always knows and wants what is best for us but doesn’t always fix things just the way we want them to be, and Jesus showed us that God shares our sadness when we are upset). Some of the Psalms seem to ask God to help us fight or hurt others, but we must understand these Psalms to mean that we want God to help us resist the temptation to do bad things.

A good example of a Psalm is the last one, Psalm 150. It’s a song of praise, as you can see, and you can see how the verses (they’re numbered at the left) are divided in half by the asterisk (*), and how the two halves of each verse usually say similar things.

Psalm 150

1 Hallelujah!
   Praise God in his holy temple; *
       praise him in the firmament of his power.
2 Praise him for his mighty acts; *
       praise him for his excellent greatness.
3 Praise him with the blast of the ram’s-horn; *
       praise him with lyre and harp.
4 Praise him with timbrel and dance; *
       praise him with strings and pipe.
5 Praise him with resounding cymbals; *
       praise him with loud-clanging cymbals.
6 Let everything that has breath *
       praise the Lord.

Jewish people still sing the Psalms in Hebrew, but most Christians haven’t learned Hebrew, so the Psalms, like the rest of the Bible, have been translated into many, many languages. Often these translations try to say exactly the same thing that the original words say (we call this a ‘literal’ translation). Once in a while people try to make the translation sound like the rhythm of the Hebrew (which can make it harder to write a literal translation). But it’s also common for people to make the translations sound like the poetry that they’re used to in their own language. So there are very, very many translations of the Psalms into English that rhyme and have regular rhythm. There are a number of these in our Hymnal, and this month we’ll take a look at one well-known one and its very important writer.

Hymn of the month · April 2014: IV

The day of resurrection [Hymn 210]

Eastern Churches

Last month, when we were talking about St Gregory the Great, we said a little bit about the spread of Christianity in the early centuries after Our Lord lived on earth (you might want to look back at this post, which has a map). Now, besides the time the Holy Family spent in Egypt, where they went to escape King Herod, who wanted to kill the baby Jesus, Our Lord himself never traveled very far from His home. But His very first followers, the Apostles [uh-POSS-ulz] (which means the same thing as ‘missionaries’ – ‘those who are sent out’), spread the Good News far and wide. The book of the Acts of the Apostles, which comes right after the four Gospels in the Bible, tells a lot about those first mission trips.

The Twelve Apostles
[carved in alabaster, around 1450, England]

St Paul was the most important of these Apostles, because he wrote several letters that ended up as part of the Bible. The Bible tells us that St Paul, who came from the city of Tarsus in what is now Turkey, traveled not only to Jerusalem, but to Syria and as far south as Arabia, to Greece, and even all the way to Spain. Other books not in the Bible tell us that St Mark took the Good News to Egypt, and St Thomas went all the way to India! People in these places, and in Ethiopia, Armenia, and what are now Sudan, Iraq and Iran, even all across North Africa, were Christians long before the people of Northern and Eastern Europe were. (France, Britain, and Ireland, because they were part of the Roman Empire, were also early converts to Christianity.)

Because Islam later became the main religion in most of the Middle East and North and West Africa, as it still is today, it’s easy to forget about these ancient Christian Churches, some of which are gone and most of which struggle to survive the terrible wars in those parts of the world. And because Christians, Jews, and Muslims have so often had a hard time getting along, it’s also easy to forget that it hasn’t always been this way, and doesn’t have to be. Although things certainly weren’t always perfect among them, people of these three faiths once lived together fairly peacefully in places like the Middle East and Spain, and Christians like St John of Damascus were important people in their cities and countries.*

Because what we believe about God, and how we live our lives according to our beliefs, is so important, it’s very easy for people to get into fights with those who believe differently. And a lot of the time, what looks like a fight about religion is really, or also, about power, money, land, food and water, language and culture, or some other things. But saints and teachers – not only Christians, but from all the great faiths of the world – have always taught that true religion leads to peacefulness and to caring about others. St Paul called this the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ : love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5.22–23). Pray that God will show you and others how to live in this way – that our ‘hearts be pure from evil’, as our hymn says – so that there may be peace on earth and everyone may know God’s love – that ‘the round world [may] keep high triumph, and all that is therein’.

*We said that St John of Damascus wrote his hymns in Greek. One of the things Christians in the Middle East did during the time that he lived was to translate a lot of important ancient books about science, medicine, and other things from Greek into Syriac (which was then the main language of of what is now Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, and was very close to the language Our Lord spoke) and finally into Arabic. This meant that people all across the Muslim world, from Spain, Morocco, and Timbuktu in the west to northern India in the east, could study them – and a lot of important science was done in that part of the world because of this. In some cases we only know about these ancient Greek books because of these translations, since the original versions were lost.

These Christians translated not only books about science, but also the Bible itself, into Arabic, and there are many Christians – especially in Egypt and Lebanon – who speak Arabic today. Here’s a page from a Book of the Gospels in Greek (its original language), with an Arabic translation, from a little after the time of St John of Damascus:

Hymn of the month · April 2014: III

The day of resurrection [Hymn 210]


Icons of saints around the lantern above the crossing
[Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Ely, Cambridgeshire, England]

Icons of saints around the rotunda
[St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, California]

Two weeks ago we learned about the author of this month’s hymn, St John of Damascus, who lived in Syria and Jerusalem in the 600s–700s. During that time, Christians in Eastern Europe and the Middle East – whom we now call Eastern Orthodox Christians – got into a big argument about icons. No, they weren’t fighting about tiny pictures on their computers or phones! Icon is the Greek word for ‘image’, and for much of the Church’s history, pictures have been very important (we’ve been looking at lots of them on this blog, haven’t we?). Pictures help tell the stories of the Bible, and icons of the saints also help us feel connected to these important examples and fellow Christians – just like pictures of our families and friends we have known help us feel close to them even when we’re not with them physically.

As we’ve said before, these pictures can be found on the walls, ceilings, and windows of churches, in Bibles and other books, and on panels of wood or canvas. Thousands and thousands of them have been made over the centuries. But because of the love and devotion many Christians show towards the saints – the family of God – sometimes some people worry that pictures like these can become idols (something we worship instead of worshiping God). Sometimes they even go around destroying them. This happened a lot in Europe during the 1500s and 1600s, during what we call the Reformation, and it happened in the Eastern Orthodox churches in the 700s, during the lifetime of St John of Damascus. But he wrote some books defending the use of icons, and ever since then icons have been an important part of people’s lives in the Eastern Churches, most of which are covered with icons on the inside. Many Western Churches too, especially Roman Catholic and Anglican/Episcopal Churches, have beautiful images of the saints: at the beginning of this post you can see icons in the Cathedral in Ely (‘EEL-ee’) in England, and in the Church of St Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, California – both of which are Anglican churches.

Good Shepherd has a couple of pictures that might be called icons – have you ever noticed them? One is a painting of St Mary with the baby Jesus, a kind of picture often called a ‘Madonna and Child’; Madonna means ‘My Lady’ in Italian. The other one is a picture of St Mary with the body of Jesus after it had been taken down from the Cross; this is called a Pietà (‘pyeh-TAH’), another Italian word meaning ‘pity’. There is also a Pietà sculpture outside in the garth, and a statue of St Francis of Assisi in the lobby of the office building. Next time you’re at church, take a few minutes to look at these images, and thank God for Jesus, our Lord and Savior; for St Mary, who agreed to be His Mother; and for the other saints like Francis, who show us what it’s like to follow God’s will in our lives.

Hymn of the month · April 2014: II

The day of resurrection [Hymn 210]

Easter as the Christian Passover

The Red Sea crossing [Armenian miniature]

The first stanza (verse) of our hymn –

The day of resurrection!
Earth, tell it out abroad;
the Passover of gladness,
the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal,
from earth unto the sky,
our Christ hath brought us over
with hymns of victory.

– mentions the Passover twice, so it must be important! If you recognize this word, you might be surprised to find it in a Christian Easter hymn, since Passover is a Jewish holiday. But remember, Jesus and most of His first followers were Jewish, and of course most of the Bible (what we call the Old Testament) was, and is, the Scriptures of the Jewish people first.

The story of the Passover is found in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Exodus (‘EX-uh-duss’, which means ‘going out’). According to the Bible, long, long ago – maybe three thousand years ago, long before Our Lord Jesus lived  – the people of Israel had gradually moved to Egypt because crops weren’t growing and there wasn’t enough food in their homeland. But in Egypt, over time, they had been made slaves. So God chose Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and out of slavery. When it came time to leave, the Egyptian army chased the Israelites right toward the Red Sea, which separates Africa and Arabia. How did they escape? The Bible tells us that a strong wind pushed back the water of the sea so that there was dry ground for the Israelites to cross over safely – but when they got to the other side, the water came back so that the Egyptians couldn’t cross. You may have seen a movie or picture of this famous story; in the image above, you can see the Israelites at the right-hand side walking on dry ground, with the water coming together behind them as the Egyptians follow them.*

What does this have to do with Easter? Well, this story of rescue became one the most important stories that the Israelite/Jewish people told about their God and their history. And much, much later, when people were trying to understand the new life that they experienced in Jesus’s presence, or in living and worshiping in the way that He taught (which is another way that we experience His presence), they felt like God had rescued them from death just like He had delivered the Israelites from the Egpytian army. We can say that Jesus ‘passed over’ from death to life in His resurrection, and when we are baptized into the Church, His Body, we pass over into new life too. At the beginning of the Easter Vigil service (page 285 in the Book of Common Prayer), the priest tells the people:

On this most holy night…our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life…this is the Passover of the Lord, in which, by hearing his Word and celebrating his Sacraments, we share in his victory over death.

*No, the water in the picture isn’t red: the name may come from the algae that grow in the water and make it look red during certain times of the year, or there may be some other reason for calling it ‘red’. The Hebrew name used in Exodus is ‘Sea of Reeds’, meaning it has lots of sea-grasses growing in it.

Hymn of the month · April 2014: I

The day of resurrection [Hymn 210]

St John of Damascus

St John of Damascus (his real name was Yuhanna ibn Mansur ibn Sarjun) was a Syrian Christian monk and priest. He was born either around 645 or in 676 and was raised in Damascus, which is still the capital of Syria. He may have had an important job in the government. He certainly wrote many books about law, about God and the Christian faith, about church music, and other things. He also wrote hymns that are sung in the Eastern Orthodox [‘OR-thuh-docks’] Churches, those Churches that are in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, or that come from those areas (there are several here in Austin). We sing some of his hymns too. Do you remember how to find out which hymns in our Hymnal were written by him? You can look him up in the Index of Authors, Translators, and Sources near the back of your Hymnal.

The one we’re going to study this month is an Easter hymn:

The day of resurrection!
     Earth, tell it out abroad;
the Passover of gladness,
     the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal,
     from earth unto the sky,
our Christ hath brought us over
     with hymns of victory.

Our hearts be pure from evil,
     that we may see aright
the Lord in rays eternal
     of resurrection light;
and, listening to his accents,
     may hear so calm and plain
his own ‘All hail!’ and, hearing,
     may raise the victor strain.

Now let the heavens be joyful,
     let earth her song begin,
the round world keep high triumph,
     and all that is therein;
let all things seen and unseen
     their notes together blend,
for Christ the Lord is risen,
     our joy that hath no end.

Here’s a video of it the way we sing it:

Here are several verses of this hymn sung in Slavonic (the language used in Orthodox Churches in places like Russia and Ukraine, Bulgaria and Serbia), and in Greek (the language St John of Damascus wrote in), with an English translation in the video, and with the kind of music St John of Damascus probably would have heard in church:

And here is the first verse of this hymn sung in many different languages, including the original Greek, as well as in Arabic, which St John of Damascus must have spoken much of the time:

Next week we’ll talk about the word ‘Passover’ that is used in this hymn.