This past Sunday our class took up Lift Up Your Heart’s six hymns on Fall and the Human Condition, the shortest section in the hymnal. We weren’t familiar with most of them, but we were impressed by their compositional and theological sophistication. These are not hymns that allow verse skipping.
Since the first half of the hymnal is organized around the story of creation-fall-redemption, it needed some hymns about the fall. (Fall and the Human Condition is sandwiched between Creation and Providence and God’s Covenant Faithfulness in a larger section titled Old Testament Life and Witness that opens the hymnal.)
The section consists of three hymns that refer to the Fall and three imprecatory psalm settings (imprecatory psalms apparently saying something important about the human condition.)
Hymns about the Fall
“God Marked a Line and Told the Sea” (LUYH #28) is a hymn about lines and limits with definitely theological lyrics by Thomas Troeger. The first stanza is about the limit God put on the sea in the creation story. The second stanza is about the limit on eating the fruit in the garden. The third stanza informs us that:
The line, the limit, and the law
are patterns meant to help us draw
a bound between what life requires
and all the things our heart desires.
The fourth stanza describes our exceeding the limits, reaching “to take what is not ours.” The fifth is the conclusion:
We are not free when we’re confined
to every wish that sweeps the mind,
but free when freely we accept
the sacred bounds that must be kept.
Here is Bert Polman’s explanation of the hymn from hymnary.org: “Thomas Troeger based this text on Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17 for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A, when the assigned Old Testment reading is from Genesis 2 and 3 in the Revised Common Lectionary. Stanza 4 also references Job 38:8-11. Many of his hymn texts were written in direct response to scripture and for devotional use as well as singing in public worship. His texts often follow a three-step pattern of 1) Memory: to recall the passage; 2) Understanding: to explore the meaning, and 3) Will: to commit to live God’s will in accordance with both the memory and the understanding.”
The tune is DEO GRACIAS, which is also used in LUYH for “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High” (LUYH #111/PH87 #364) and “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty” (LUYH #149/PH87 #382).
We concluded that “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea” is a candidate for congregational singing at Trinity, possibly with confession or as a response to appropriate sermons.
“How Sweet Was the Garden, Fertile and Fair” (LUYH #29) tells the story of the Fall: the garden was good (stanza 1); we ate the fruit (stanza 2); but God hasn’t given up on us (stanza 3). Here is the third stanza:
From dark, bitter fruit came forth a bright seed,
for God did not turn from us in our need;
the love that first formed us embraces us still
and woos us from wandering to follow God’s will.
The lyrics are by Carl Daw, who has ten songs in LUYH, including “Faith Begins by Letting Go” (LUYH #852/SNC #172) and “God of the Prophets” (LUYH #853/PH87 #521). The tune is LONG ISLAND SOUND by Rusty Edwards. Here is a sample.
Although I didn’t recognize it, our occasional choir apparently sang “How Sweet Was the Garden, Fertile and Fair” during last year’s Christmas Lessons & Carols service as a response to the Fall reading. It probably would work better with a choir or soloist than as a congregational hymn for us.
“What Adam’s Obedience Cost” (LUYH #34) tells the whole story of fall and redemption: Adam’s disobedience led to Eden lost (stanza 1); despite the Flood and “ark of mercy,” we “rebuilt… an unrepentant world” (stanza 2); through Jesus, “Eden is restored” (stanza 3) and “the kingdom is the Lord’s” (stanza 4); and we look ahead to New Jerusalem (stanza 5). The lyrics are by Fred Pratt Green. Here is a sample.
This hymn could be used as a Christmas song because the focus on Jesus is as “a little child” inspiring “joyful carols everywhere.” It would work at the end of a Lesson & Carols service.
Four Imprecatory(-ish) Psalms
Imprecatory psalms are those that pray for judgment or misfortune against enemies. Most lists of imprectory psalms don’t seem to include 52, 75 or 14/53, but they all celebrate God’s judgment and are treated by Lift Up Your Hearts and Psalms for All Seasons with special care for these elements. (LUYH specifically refers to 52 & 75 as “psalms of imprecation).
Three hymns in Lift Up Your Heart’s Fall and the Human Condition section are based on these psalms. For our class, we sang these three songs and additional songs for these psalms in Psalms for All Seasons. (We didn’t sing any of the psalm settings from the Psalter Hymnals, but I include those here.)
“God, Let Me Like a Spreading Tree” (LUYH #30/PFAS #52A) is a Psalm 52 setting by Doug Gray known in Psalms for All Seasons as “You Cunning Liar, Why Publicize.” The first seven verses of the psalm (stanzas 1-2) denounce the psalmist’s enemy and celebrate God’s coming judgment. In the final two verses (stanza 3), the psalmist declares “But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God.” LUYH places the “God, let me like a spreading tree” stanza at the beginning and the end of the hymn, sandwiching (and de-emphasizing) the imprecatory part of the psalm. Here is that stanza:
God, let me like a spreading tree,
grow as I trust in your sure love.
Where loyal servants offer praise
within your house, I’ll add my voice
to glorify your holy name.
The tune is BACA.
“O God, Your Deeds Are Unsurpassed” (LUYH #32/PFAS #75A) is based on Psalm 75, which is about God as Judge. The lyrics, by Michael Morgan, place us in the position of the guilty (which the psalm doesn’t do) and asks God to “remove our pride” and “help us to know humility.” A sample is here.
According the Psalms for All Seasons performances notes: “It is dangerous to sing a psalm calling for God to judge the powerful or to pour a draught of bitter wine down the throats of the proud when the singers themselves may in fact be the powerful and the proud. Rather than representing the psalm as a call for judgment on others, this versification imagines that we may be the ones in danger of being judged as insolent. The psalm could first be read, after which the worship leader might ask, ‘Is it possible that some may be able to pray this psalm against us? Have we lifted ourselves up?’ After a moment of silence for contemplation, the congregation can sing this song with humility and contrition.”
“O God, Your Deeds Are Unsurpassed” is paired with “God, Let Me Like a Spreading Tree” since they both use BACA and they are thematically connected to “Prayers of the Oppressed and Oppressor” (LUYH #31), which “may be prayed with the readings or singing of Psalm 52 or Psalm 75 or other psalms of imprecation.” One of the two prayers “assumes the voice of the psalmist in praying for judgment against those who hurt and oppress.” The other “assumes the voice of a person who may be the oppressor, the one the psalmist is praying against.”
“All Have Sinned” (LUYH #33/PFAS #53A) by Bev Herrema has three stanzas based on Psalms 14 & 53 (which are nearly identical) and a refrain from Romans 3 that shifts the theme from condemnation to redemption:
All have sinned, all have turned aside,
and there’s no one righteous.
But redemption will one day come
from Zion, so rejoice!
Here are samples of the first and second stanzas. The hymn is called “Hear the Fool” in Psalms for All Seasons for the beginning of the first stanza (“Hear the fool saying loud and long, there’s no God, we’re all alone”). LUYH’s name change shifts emphasis to the refrain. This song is suitable for congregation singing, perhaps after the confession/pardon of assurance.
Psalms 52, 75 or 14/53 in PFAS & the Psalter Hymnals
“You Cunning Liar, Why Publicize” is the only Psalm 52 hymn setting in Psalms for All Seasons. The responsorial setting is “But I Am Like a Green Olive Tree” (PFAS #52B). (Psalm 52’s only appearance in the Revised Common Lectionary is during Year C as a response to Amos 8, about the basket of ripe fruit.)
Psalms for All Seasons makes an odd choice with its second hymn setting of Psalm 75. “Canticle: My Soul Cries Out” (PFAS #75B/LUYH #69) is a song based on the Magnificat. The song appears in Lift Up Your Hearts as “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout” and is set to STAR OF COUNTY DOWN. (A sample is here.) It’s a great song, which we sang this past advent, but it isn’t Psalm 75. PFAS actually includes a canticle section that includes four settings of the Magnifcat; another is included as part of “A Service of Evening Prayer.” I don’t understand this choice.
“Hear the Fool” is the only song in the Psalm 53 section of Psalms for All Seasons. The Psalm 14 section includes “Oh, That Your Salvation and Your Rescue” (PFAS #14A), which is in 5/8 time, making it unsuitable for congregational singing.
The responsorial setting is “Prone to Wander, Lord, I Feel It” (PFAS #14B), a line from “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (LUYH #521/PH87 #486/PH57 #314/PH34 #330/HFW #104) set to BEACH SPRING. (Psalm 14 is used twice in the lectionary, including as a response to the story of David and Bathsheba.) PFAS also includes “A Prayer of Confession” (PFAS #14C).
All the settings for these four psalms in the gray Psalter Hymnal are original versifications by Marie Post (14/53) or Helen Otte (52/75): “The Foolish in their Hearts Deny” (PH87 #14) set to MAPLE AVENUE, “Mighty Mortal, Boasting Evil” (PH87 #52) set MADILL, “The Foolish in Their Hearts Exclaim” (PH87 #53) set to BRISTOL, and “We Give Our Thanks to You, O God” (PH87 #75) set to WEYMOUTH.
The earlier Psalter Hymnals include five settings of the four psalms, four of which (all those in the 1934 Psalter Hymnal) are from the 1912 Psalter. The Psalm 14 settings are “The God Who Sits Enthroned on High” (PH34 #20) and “How Long Wilt Thou Forget Me” (PH57 #18). The Psalm 52 setting is “O Mighty Man, Why Wilt Thou Boast” (PH57 #97/PH34 #104). The Psalm 53 setting is “Fools in Their Heart Have Said” (PH57 #98/PH34 #105). The Psalm 75 setting is “To Thee, O God, We Render Thanks” (PH57 #143/PH34 #151).