Book Review: The Bay Psalm Book

Welcome to Saturday Book Review time!  On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value.  Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.

Today we’re stepping outside the Anglican tradition and looking at a gem of American history.  The first book ever published and printed in North America was The Bay Psalm Book in 1640, a mere twenty years after the pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts.  It has gone through many re-printings since then, and probably has some more legible successors in recent times, but I happened upon a facsimile print of the first edition, complete with blocky type and funny 17th century spelling.  On its own, it’s a cool historical curiosity.  But its actual contents have proven useful to me, and even found their way into my church’s worship from time to time.

The Bay Psalms Book is basically a psalter: all the psalms are re-translated such that they conform to common poetic meters in English such that they can be set to hymn tunes.  This book does not assign any tunes, it’s simply the text of the metric psalms.  What I have done, then, is take up some of a psalm from this book, fix up the spelling (and modernize the grammar a little if possible) and pick a tune that my congregation will know.

Psalm 67, for example (odd spelling and italics included), reads thus:

God gracious be to us & give
his blessing us unto,
let him upon us make to shine
his countenance alſo.*

That there may be the knowledg of
thy way the earth upon,
and alſo of thy ſaving health
in every nation. **

O God let thee the people prayſe,
let all people prayſe thee.
O let the nations** rejoyce,
and let them joyfull bee:

For thou ſhalt give judgement unto
the people righteouſly,
alſo the nations upon earth
thou ſhalt them lead ſafely.

O God let thee the people prayſe
let all people prayſe thee.
Her fruitfull increaſe by the earth
ſhall then forth yeilded bee:

God ev’n our owne God ſhall us bleſſe.
God I ſay bleſſe us ſhall,
and of the earth the utmoſt coaſts
they ſhall him reverence all.

* The “long s” – ſ – looks like an lowercase f, but if you look carefully it doesn’t have the horizontal line through the center.  There was a general rule when to use ſ or s, but it doesn’t seem to be strictly followed in this book.

** Twice in this psalm you have to pronounce “nations” with three syllables: na-ti-ons.  This kind of thing happens with similar words throughout the book, making it rather difficult for the modern reader to pick up on.

Now try singing that to the hymn tune AZMON (popular with the song “O for a thousand tongues to sing“).

Pretty cool, huh?  What you can do with a book like this is look up the Psalm for the Communion service on a given Sunday, check if its verses are readable and singable for your congregation, and then bring them into the worship service set to a tune they know… then they’ll both read/pray the Psalm and sing a paraphrase of it!

A note on Psalm-singing: in liturgical worship, Anglican or otherwise, the text of the liturgy is very important.  It matters what we say, and why we say it.  To mess around with the wording or translation, therefore, is not good practice.  So I would never recommend metric psalms as a replacement for the Psalmody in the Daily Office or Communion services.  Let the official psalter translation do its work.  Metric versions such as in The Bay Psalms Book can be refreshing and interesting and even beneficial at times, but should never replace the actual text of our liturgy.

The ratings in short…

Accessibility: 5/5
This book is nice and simple; there’s an explanatory introduction, the text of 150 psalms, and nothing else.  The header tells you what psalm(s) are on the page below, so you can thumb through the book quickly and easily as you search for the one your want.

Devotional Usefulness: 3/5
You have to supply the music.  You have to be able to read the imperfect print (if you get a facsimile edition) and ignore the funny spellings.  You have to figure out how to pronounce some of the words like a 17th century British colonist.  It can be done, and it can be beneficial, but much of this book just “won’t do it” for worshipers in the 21st century.  Whenever I’ve used it in my church, it’s always been limited in scope and edited for clarity of language.

Reference Value: 3/5
There are modern metric psalm translations out there, so you don’t really need to seek this one out.  This is great if you like colonial American history, or the history of bible/psalm translation, or the history of Christian worship.  The introduction provides a little insight into puritan theology of worship, too.

Learning from the Liturgy: Ascension Day

Happy Ascension Day, everyone!
Here’s what I wrote for my congregation last year about this holy day:

Leorningcnihtes boc

Ascension Day is perhaps the most under-celebrated important holiday in the calendar.  Representing one of the lines of the Creeds (“he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father”), this holiday marks a significant turning point in the Gospel story and sets the stage for how the Christian’s relationship with God is defined.  We often think of it as an awkward point between the Resurrection of Jesus (Easter) and the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), but even in itself the Ascension is a major event.  What I’m setting out to do in this post is draw from the various Scriptural and traditional resources of the Church’s liturgy to explore some of the basic teachings and implications of this great and underappreciated day in the year.

The Event of the Ascension

Christ’s ascension is described in three books: Mark, Luke, and Acts.

In Mark’s Gospel…

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Psalm 118 Flashback

It’s the 24th day of the month, and that means Psalm 118 is on the docket for the rounds of daily prayer today.  With Eastertide well in progress this psalm may give you a bit of a flashback, as Psalm 118 plays prominent roles in Holy Week and Easter.

14 The Lord is my strength and my song, * and has become my salvation.
15 The voice of joy and deliverance is in the dwellings of the righteous; * the right hand of the Lord brings mighty things to pass.
16 The right hand of the Lord is exalted; * the right hand of the Lord brings mighty things to pass.
17 I shall not die, but live, * and declare the works of the Lord.
18 The Lord has chastened and corrected me, * but he has not given me over to death.
19 Open unto me the gates of righteousness, * that I may go into them, and give thanks unto the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord; * the righteous shall enter into it.
21 I will thank you, for you have heard me, * and have become my salvation.
22 The same stone which the builders refused * has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing, * and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made; * we will rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Help me now, O Lord; * O Lord, send us now prosperity.
26 Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord; * we bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 God is the Lord, who has shown us light; * bind the sacrifice with cords, even to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will thank you; * you are my God, and I will exalt you.
29 O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious; *  his mercy endures for ever.

The verses in blue are the parts of this Psalm appointed for Easter Day.  The verses in red are the parts appointed for Palm Sunday.  The verses in purple are appointed for both.  (Easter Saturday also repeats much of this part of the psalm too.)

The Palm Sunday (Liturgy of the Palms) portion, verses 19-29, are pretty explicit in their attribution to Palm Sunday.  “Open to me the gates” invokes the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem, Jesus is “the righteous” who “shall enter” through “the gate of the Lord.”  The crowd’s cry of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is found here, as is the prophetic line “bind the sacrifice with cords, even to the horns of the altar”, which is what Palm Sunday goes on to observe – the crucifixion of Jesus.

Easter Day captures the more ‘positive’ verses of this psalm.  That is the day we celebrate that the Lord “has become my salvation,” that Jesus “shall not die, but live.”  Verses 22-24, which are shared on both days, proclaim a truth Jesus attributed to himself: I am the “stone which the builders refused” (Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17), which St. Peter remembered well in his life thereafter (Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:7).  That, above all others, is “the day that the Lord has made” in which we are to “rejoice and be glad in it.”

Of course, when we’re praying this Psalm in its entirety on its own, outside the context of Palm Sunday or Easter Day, we need not let those liturgical usages of the psalm dictate the fullness of its interpretation.  But its allusions to the death and resurrection of Christ are inescapable, and the Christian must always see and acknowledge the echoes both of Calvary and the empty tomb sounding back through centuries into the words of this psalm, rebounding again to us as we pray, chant, and sing these words.

So many Psalms!

There are a lot of Psalms kicking around this time of year.  Today, Good Friday, has quite a few available to us.  In the classical Prayer Books this was one of the very few days in the year that got its own set of Psalms for the Daily Office, interrupting the 30-day cycle.

Morning Prayer: 22, 40, 54
Evening Prayer: 69, 88

Looking at the modern liturgy of our 2019 BCP, it’s not quite as heavy-handed on the Office, but the options still give a similar range:

Friday Morning Prayer: 40
Good Friday Service: 22 or 40:1-16 or 69:1-22
Friday Evening Prayer: 102

Saturday Morning Prayer: 88
Holy Saturday Service: 130 or 88 or 31:1-6
Saturday Evening Prayer: 91

You’ll notice that there is a little overlap between the Psalms offered in the primary service and the Psalms offered in the Daily Office, and a lot of overlap with the traditional Prayer Book Psalms.  Although the execution and placement has changed, it’s nice to see that the contents of our venerable tradition have not been lost entirely.

If you’re a worship planner for your congregation, you should observe that the primary worship service for Friday and Saturday in the Triduum offer three choices of Psalms… and our lectionary has a three-year cycle.  This is not presented as a rule, but it is a logical assumption that we should cycle between those three Psalms year by year.  If you want to cast an eye back to general Western tradition, the Gradual Psalm for Good Friday was from Psalm 54 and Psalm 42 for Holy Saturday, neither of which are appointed in our Prayer Book.  You could, however, add them to the Daily Office Psalmody on their proper days (the former is already there in the classical Prayer Books anyway).

Furthermore, whether you’re a worship planner or not, something anyone can do is add Psalms to the recitation of the Daily Office on one’s own.  Assuming you’re able to know what Psalm the main liturgy at church will use later today, you can fill in the other Psalm options to your recitation of the Office.  So if Psalm 69 is featuring at the Good Friday liturgy today, then consider adding Psalm 22 to Morning Prayer; perhaps you can grab Psalm 54 from the classical Prayer Books also, to add to Evening Prayer.

Same deal with Holy Saturday; take a look at the Psalms appointed, and consider how you might use up ones “left out” this year.  I mean, hey, it’s the Triduum… there’s no such thing as praying too much on days like these!

Favorite Psalm? Favorite Day of the month!

One of my favorite Psalms is number 24.  I’m not even sure I can quite put my finger on why that is, exactly.  I appreciate the entirety of creation being identified as God’s dominion in the first two verses.  I like the Q&A in verses 3 & 4 – “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?”  “He who has clean hands and a pure heart” – and the blessing and affirmation of verses 5 & 6.  I like the immediate repetition of verses 7 & 8 in verses 9 & 10.

It also sounds really awesome in Anglo-Saxon.  It begins Drihtnes is sio eoroþe & gefelledness hire * ymbwyrft eorðena & ælle þa ðe eærdiæþ on hieræ.Verse 7 reads: Geopeniæþ gæto eowre eældormonne & upæhebbæþ þæ ecelecæn gæto * & ingeþ se wuldorfestæ kyning.  It strikes me as one of the epic entries in the Psalter, and as a result it makes me look forward to the 5th day of the month when it normally pops up in the Daily Office.

In his book The Christian Priest Today, former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey spends an entire (brief) chapter commenting on Psalm 37 (“Fret not yourself because of the evildoer) and that he often looked forward to the evening of the seventh day of the month because of that!  If you pray the Daily Office regularly, then you, too, can start having “favorite days of the month” as you latch on to your favorite Psalm(s).

Anyway, I hope you enjoy Psalm 24 with me today:

1 The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, *
the compass of the world and those who dwell therein.
2 For he has founded it upon the seas *
and established it upon the rivers of the deep.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? * Or who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, *
and who has not set his mind upon vanity, nor sworn to deceive his neighbor.
5 He shall receive blessing from the Lord *
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
6 This is the generation of those who seek him, *
even of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.
7 Lift up your heads, O you gates, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors; *
and the King of glory shall come in.
8 “Who is the King of glory?” *
“It is the Lord strong and mighty, even the Lord, mighty in battle.”
9 Lift up your heads, O you gates, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors; *
and the King of glory shall come in.
10 “Who is the King of glory?” *
“The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.”

Dealing with Psalm 137

It’s day 28, Evening Prayer… almost finished with the month, we’re zipping through all these short Psalms near the end of the Psalter, and then suddenly BAM! you slam into Psalm 137.

Oh it starts normally enough.  The lament of the community in exile in Babylon over the loss of Jerusalem is a sad thing; this month it is especially timely with the book of Lamentations at the same time.  How can God be worshiped away from His (destroyed) House, in the midst of a heathen land?  What will become of us if (and when!) memory fades of that glorious Temple?  Translated into Christian experience today, we see a world around us steeped in sin and ask similar questions: how long until the music of worship fades in our own hearts?  How much will we succumb to the paganizing forces in natural human culture?  Will churches and denominations continue to decline into obscurity?

Blessed shall he be who takes your children * and throws them against the stones

Wait, what? Where did that come from?  I thought this was a sad psalm, but all of a sudden it takes such and angry and sadistic turn at the end.  And it just stops there, like that’s a perfectly okay last word to have.  What does a Christian do with this?  This angry and vengeful rebuke of the Edomites who were complicit in the destruction of Jerusalem as they basically cheered the Babylonians on feels a little too extreme.  As the popular meme goes, “that escalated quickly!”

As Anglicans, we pray through the Psalter every month at least, so we really need to know how to tackle with this, lest we have a crisis of faith and biblical fidelity every month.

Reminder #1 – Vengeance is the Lord’s

Prayers for vengeance can be found in many places throughout the Bible, especially the Old Testament.  This does not conflict with the also-biblical teaching that God is the one who avenges evil; indeed, such prayers reinforce the doctrine, putting our desire for revenge into the hands of the Just One.

In the New Testament, a new pattern emerges: prayers for mercy upon the evildoers, even as they kill the faithful.  Jesus prayed for those who arrested him and those who crucified him.  Saint Stephen prayed the same as he was stoned to death.  The readings for the Communion service on St. Stephen’s Day, by the way, highlight this interesting contrast between Old and New Testament tendencies regarding vengeance.  Regardless of whether the victim is praying for mercy or not, however, the New Testament upholds the doctrine that God will judge and avenge wrongdoing.

Reminder #2 – You can bring your anger to God

One of the frequent shortcomings in modern piety is the misunderstanding that you have to (or even just should) come to church happy.  Jesus is our lover and our joy, and therefore we must be happy in his presence.  Such an attitude can be very damaging for those who are hurting!  Thankfully there has been some popular movement toward recovering a sense of common lament before God, recognizing the pain and brokenness and drear of our lives.  But anger, I suspect, is probably not quite as readily accepted.  Wrath quickly turns to sin, as the Bible teaches, so perhaps it is understandable that we don’t have many examples of anger in the Psalms.  Psalm 109 is one of the angriest psalms besides this one.

So what about those babies dashed against the rocks?

Frankly, I hope this verse will always make you uncomfortable.  It takes a very deep and profound anger to wish such a curse on anyone.  The trauma the Judean exiles experienced – the trauma of many refugees to this day – is not an experience that most people have, and I hope you and I never do.  This verse is coming from that place of extreme pain.  It may not come from your own place of brokenness and hurt, but it does come from someone’s brokenness and hurt, and you and I are offering that pain to God with them.

Just as we pray the happy Psalms like 98, 99, and 100 whether we’re feeling joyful or not, just as we pray the penitential Psalm 51 whether we’re actually in a contrite mood or not, also do we pray Psalm 137’s profound anger regardless of the state of our own heart.
Ultimately, this psalm is one of the most helpful case studies in liturgical worship, as it puts into the mouth of the worshiping community words that likely none of us in a given church would ever say in our own extemporaneous prayers!  As rough ’round the edges as this psalm is, I thank God that it’s in the Bible.  It teaches us that we can pray even at our angriest.  It teaches how to pray with others at their angriest.  And it shows us anger that still faithfully conforms itself to the ultimate judgment of God.

February Psalms: old-school!

Archbishop Cranmer’s 30-day cycle of Psalms applies to each month of the year, but it works out differently according to what month you’re dealing with.  Several months have 31 days, and his appointment was to repeat the 30th day’s Psalms on the 31st day.  February has 28 or 29 days, though, so presumably that means you don’t quite finish the psalter that month, right?

Right, the 1662 Prayer Book (and all thereafter) state that you get to the 28th or 29th day, and leave it at that.

However… this seems to be a simplification of a slightly different approach that came before.  I picked up a facsimile edition of the 1611 “King James” Bible some years ago, and it has a number of Prayer Book rubrics in it, including the table of daily lessons throughout the year and the order of the Psalms.  I expect these reflect the then-current 1559 (Elizabethan) Prayer Book’s order.

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Check out what it says about February (and I’ll update the spelling for you)…

And because January and March have one day above the said number, and February, which is placed between them both, hath only 28 days; February shall borrow of either of the months (of January and March) one day : and so the Psalter which shall be read in February, must begin at the last day of January, and end the first day of March.

In other words, once you finish the 30-day cycle in January, start the cycle at the beginning on the 31st (today!) and carry it through to March 1st.  That means you’ll be a day off between the Psalter and the calendar date throughout February and March, but on the upside you’ll get through all the Psalms three times without repetition or omission in the first three months of the year!

The fact that the Prayer Books after this point don’t include this rubric indicate to me that this proved too complicated in actual practice, and so the powers that be gave up on it and simplified it when the next Prayer Book was produced (in 1662).

The latest draft of the 2019 Prayer Book doesn’t look as flexible about the Psalms as its predecessors, but the fact that it authorizes two different Psalm cycles plus allows the option of further shortening and simplification indicates that our liturgists care more that we pray the Psalms regularly and in an orderly fashion than about total conformity to one system.  Therefore, consider yourself well within your rights to give “old-school February” a try, if you want!  Start with day 1 today, finish with day 30 on March 1st, and carry on through March a “day off” from the norm until we all meet back together with day 1 on April 1st.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter a ton which system you use, as long as you do use one.  It’s just nice to know (and sometimes try out) the ways of our forebears.

Psalm 119 in pieces

The 119th Psalm is, as I’m sure you know, the longest in the Psalter by far.  It’s so long that it has (probably?) never been appointed to be sung or said all the way through in a liturgical setting.  Private recitation and devotion, is another matter.  Thomas Cranmer’s monthly cycle of Psalms splits it over a few days, starting on the evening of the 24th day.

As you will find in most Bibles, Psalm 119 has 22 sections.  These sections are noted in the Prayer Books also; four are grouped together in the evenings and five are grouped together in the mornings.  These groups come from the structure of the original Hebrew poetry: an acrostic.  The acrostic is actually a fairly common poetic structure in the Hebrew Bible: it’s a simple matter of beginning each successive line with the next letter of the alphabet.  A handful of Psalms are acrostics, each chapter of the book of Lamentations is a sort of acrostic (well, chapter five is an anti-acrostic, but we’ll check that out later), and the occasional bit of prophetic writing also uses this device.  Psalm 119, however, does this to the extreme: it has eight lines (verses) beginning with the first letter (aleph), then eight beginning with the second letter (beth), and so on, all the way through the alphabet.  Obviously this effect is lost in translation, but many Bibles (and most if not all Prayer Books) note these eight-verse groupings.

One result of the acrostic structure is that the Psalm doesn’t have another organizing principle or logical flow.  It’s a series of meditations on God’s law and commands (etc.), with little sense of progression from one section to the next.  In that regard it’s like some of our modern songs (Christian or otherwise), dwelling on ideas, topics or feelings, but not developing a logical structure for the lyrics.  This means that, in the context of the liturgy, we can fruitfully deal with each section of Psalm 119 as if it were its own psalm, without missing much context.

In medieval and early Prayer Book tradition, therefore, it was appointed that the worshiping congregation place the Glory be to the Father at the end of each section of Psalm 119.  Today, Prayer Books tend to be ambiguous – we can either say that end the end of the whole Psalmody section of the Daily Office or at the end of each Psalm.  But be it known here that if you opt for the latter option, which was the way of the early Prayer Books, you may even do so with each eight-verse section of Psalm 119.

Getting through Psalm 78

Depending upon your mood and state of mind (or heart) we may have a bit of a Tuesday Terror looming at Evening Prayer: the 78th Psalm.  Assuming you’re using the 30-day cycle of Psalms by Thomas Cranmer that has adorned every Prayer Book for over 450 years, this evening is when we come to Psalm 78, the second-longest Psalm in the book, and the longest that we pray straight through.

In terms of genre, it covers a few bases.  It is a didactic psalm, written with the express purpose of teaching its reader, singer, or pray-er.  It is a history psalm, telling stories of the people of Israel throughout their past.  It is a parable, according to its opening verses, intending to teach us about divine faithfulness and human unfaithfulness through the medium of story.

Something that can help one get through this Psalm attentively and profitably is to break it into manageable sections:

  • Verses 1-8 are a very general introduction to this type of Psalm.
  • Verses 9-40 are the first story, summarizing the exodus, focusing on the wilderness wandering.
  • Verses 41-54 form the second story, also summarizing the exodus, but focusing more on the events in Egypt.
  • Verses 55-72 form a less organized section noting the conquest of Canaan, the split of Israel and Judah, a shout-out to Solomon’s Temple, and the kingship of David.

While the chronology is a bit mixed up, the order that may give clarity to the Psalm is perhaps the level of faithfulness exhibited by God’s people.  Much of the Psalm reveals how sinful and disobedient we can be, but there’s a trajectory of growth towards the end.  The end, reflecting on the Shepherd-King David, is a decidedly positive note to close with.

If you’re singing or chanting this Psalm, first of all congratulations – this will keep you singing for quite a while!  Second of all, consider changing the chant tune at verse 41, breaking the Psalm roughly in half.  I have heard choirs do this before with other long psalms, and it can help both break up the monotony and audibly mark the turn from one section to the next.

Christmas & December Psalms

Merry Christmas!

If you’re reading this on Christmas morning… well, props to you for being a liturgy nerd I guess.  And I’ll keep this short so you get back to whatever you’re “supposed to be doing” at this time.

In the 1662 Prayer Book, Christmas Day is one of the six days in the year that gets its own Psalms Appointed, interrupting the 30-day cycle.

Morning Prayer: 19, 45, and 85
Evening Prayer: 89, 110, 132

If at all possible, I strongly encourage you to replace the “Day 25” Psalms with these.  It’ll make the Offices a little bit longer, but you will find they are festively appropriate for the birth of our Lord.

And, in case you’re concerned that this means you’ll have to skip the Psalms for the 25th Day of the month, fear not!  Because December has 31 days in it, you can pick up with Day 25 on the 26th, Day 26 on the 27th, and so forth such that you finish the Psalms at the end of the month.  If you can stand being “off a day” for a week, I highly recommend it.

Anyway, go have a merry Christmas.