How Shall the Young Direct Their Way?

Joint Committee on a Uniform Version of the Psalms in Meter, 1909
Based on Psalm 119:9–16
Addressed to God
How shall the young direct their way?Ps. 119:9; John 14:5
   What light shall be their perfect guide?Ps. 119:105; 2 Pet. 1:19
Your Word, O Lord, will safely lead,
   if in its wisdom they confide.Ps. 93:5; 119:42; Prov. 28:26
Sincerely I have sought you, Lord,Ps. 119:10; Deut. 4:29; 2 Chron. 15:12
   oh, let me not from you depart;Ps. 19:13; 85:8
to know your will and keep from sinPs. 119:11
   your Word I cherish in my heart.Ps. 37:31
O blessed Lord, teach me your law,Ps. 119:12, 68
   your righteous judgments I declare;Ps. 119:13; Deut. 6:7; Josh. 1:8; Ps. 35:28
your testimonies make me glad,Ps. 119:14, 111
   for they are wealth beyond compare.Ps. 119:162; Prov. 3:13–15
Upon your precepts and your waysPs. 119:15
   my heart will meditate with awe;Ps. 1:2; 119:97, 161
your Word shall be my chief delight,Ps. 119:16, 47
   and I will not forget your law.Ps. 119:93

Hymns are hard to write. The reader may recall our description in section 2, "Message," of the qualifications of Watts, Wesley, and Newton, and believe us when we assert that the skills required to write a great hymn—the biblical knowledge, the literary genius, the pastoral wisdom—are mastered by few. The effort required to follow some of the more technical analyses on this website may indirectly substantiate for the reader the truth of this assertion. And so might the origin of the hymn above. It is from the exceptionally fine 1912 Psalter (so called because its first publication for congregational use was in 1912, although it actually first appeared in print in 1909 for submission to the assemblies and synods of its sponsoring denominations)—the product of a wealth of deliberation, scholarship, and man-hours likely unmatched in the history of metrical psalmody. Several learned and theologically-orthodox subcommittees, representing nine Presbyterian and Reformed denominations, undertook numerous revisions in regular, lengthy meetings from 1897 to 1909. They included the likes of pastor-poet Edward Augustus Collier, secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Publications and Princeton trustee Elijah Richardson Craven, his son Charles Edmiston Craven, John D. Davis of Princeton, John Scrimger of the Presbyterian College of Montreal, David Steele of Fourth Reformed Presbyterian Church Philadelphia, his son James D. Steele, and David A. McClenahan and John McNaugher from the Bible faculty of the Allegheny United Presbyterian Theological Seminary, among dozens of others. Their object was to produce a text that, while a faithful rendering of the exact thought of each Psalm, was rhythmical in form, poetic in spirit, and easily sung. In the words of one committee member, they intended it to be “comparable in poetic expression to the best class of English hymns.” The beauties above (not to mention those in “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah, O My Soul,” “God Be Merciful to Me,” and “Lord, Our Lord, Thy Glorious Name”) were no accident.

But consider this, as well: though hard to write, great hymns need not be complex. In fact, “How Shall the Young Direct Their Way” was hard to write because it is simple. The preacher with thirty minutes and the commentator with four pages of elaborate argument have an easier time explicating these eight verses from Psalm 119. The hymnist, by comparison, needs an extraordinary precision of diction to convey biblical truth adequately in terse poetry that ordinary Christians can sing from their hearts. Here, for example, is the committee’s English prose model (the Revised Version) for Psalm 119:9—“Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed [thereto] according to thy word.” The image of cleansing one’s way poses a problem for the hymnist. Its meaning is clear enough in the context of the psalm and, indeed, becomes quite vivid upon study: where can I find the path leading to, or proper to, a pure heart? But the image, when encountered out of context (as in the few seconds it takes to sing the first line of a hymn), resists interpretation. Left undefined (How can a young man cleanse his way? / Let him with care Your word obey) it conjures pictures of a street sweeper—pictures that get us only halfway to Scripture’s meaning before we’re on to the next line. The metaphor is too rich for song, unless one deviates from the psalm altogether to sing about cleansing instead. So the committee changed the metaphor to something simpler. What the young need, to keep their way pure, is direction. Hence the clearer metaphors of light and perfect guidance in line 2 of the hymn.

The situation of the “young” in stanza 1 corresponds to that of anybody who approaches Sunday services prepared to worship, and to that of any pupil ready to benefit from Sunday school. He knows he needs direction from God’s word, for he cannot find the way himself and the world is full of treacherous guides. His safety requires both personal commitment (stanza 1, lines 4–5) and God’s grace (stanza 1, line 6, and the first line of stanza 2). The two cannot be separated. Above all, he cherishes God’s word. Stanza 2, then, simply explores the nature of this cherishing: it involves talking about God’s word (line 2), treasuring it (lines 3–4), meditating on it (lines 5–6), delighting in it (line 7), and memorizing it (line 8).

The repeated pitches and lockstep quarter-notes of DUANE STREET may bore those who goes to church for the music. But those who have agreed with the thesis of this website must admit that the tune does its job. Every congregation includes singers who find rhythm a special challenge. If they are to be made a full part of the effort to cultivate traditional congregational singing (that is, if you are unwilling to deploy the rhythm-section of a praise band to commandeer their musical faculties!) the repertoire ought to include several tunes of this sort, in which every syllable has the same length. Such tunes empower all to sing unselfconsciously. The strength of DUANE STREET is that it does so even as it gives the musical imagination something to chew on by way of motivic development. Compare the first complete measure with the second, where the headmotif is transposed up a step to impel the hymn (the young?) forward. Then consider the growth in measures 9–10 (“Sincerely I have sought you, Lord”) where the same rhythm and intervals move in another direction. The fermatas underscore the punctuation of the poem, while the recurring musical structures seem a counterpart to Psalm 119’s didactic rehearsing of its main point.