Now unto Jehovah, Ye Sons of the Mighty

Joint Committee on a Uniform Version of the Psalms in Meter, 1909 (st. 1); H. Bonar, 1867 (st. 2–4)
Based on Psalm 29
Tune © 1990, RAM Music Publications.
Addressed to one another
Now unto Jehovah, ye sons of the mighty,Ps. 29:1; 89:6; 1 Chr. 16:28; 2 Cor. 6:18
   all glory and strength and dominion accord;1 Pet. 4:11; Jude 25; Rev. 1:6
ascribe to him glory, and render him honor.Ps. 29:2; 68:34; 96:7–8; Deut. 32:3
   In beauty of holiness worship the Lord.1 Chr. 16:29; Ps. 96:9
The voice of Jehovah comes down on the waters;Ps. 29:3; Jer. 10:13; 51:16
   in thunder the God of the glory draws nigh.Ex. 19:19; 1 Sam. 2:10; 2 Sam. 22:14; Is. 29:6
Lo, over the waves of the wide-flowing watersIs. 10:26; 23:11
   Jehovah as King is enthroned on high!Is. 6:1; 37:16; Ezek. 10:1
The voice of Jehovah is mighty, is mighty;Ps. 29:4; 68:33
   the voice of Jehovah in majesty speaks:
the voice of Jehovah the cedars is breaking;Ps. 29:5
   Jehovah the cedars of Lebanon breaks.
Each one in His temple His glory proclaimeth.Ps. 29:9b; Matt. 21:15
   He sat on the flood; he is King on his throne.Ps. 29:10; 45:6; 103:19; Is. 37:16
Jehovah all strength to his people imparteth;Ps. 29:11; 28:8; 68:35; 81:1
   Jehovah with peace ever blesseth his own.Luke 2:14

Beauty is not a synonym for “pleasant.” It is not a synonym for “decorous.” It is not a synonym for “emotionalizing.” It is not a synonym for any word at all. However, if we must find it a synonym (and to understand the hymn above, it seems we must) we can best describe it as “revelation.” Beauty is revelation. To understand it thus is to make sense of countless central passages in scripture (from Gen. 1’s “God saw” to Matt. 26:10 and Mark 14:6’s “beautiful thing”). A thing is beautiful when it is a successful medium for truth, so to call it revelation offers no lexical difficulty. This small essay, (and even this large website) is not the place to prove such an assertion, but the proof is unnecessary for anyone willing merely to test it and see if it lends clarity to ideas otherwise dimly lit. With this in mind, Psalm 29:2 is not a vaguely winsome slogan, it is a call to ascribe worth to God in a clear way. Sin conceals God (“You will not surely die”) while holiness reveals Him (“Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”). It is in this way that holiness is to be understood as beautiful. Holiness is articulate. The Psalm begins this way, however, because identifying holiness as beautiful (where “beautiful” means “articulate”) is necessary for everything that follows. The recurrent theme of the Psalm (akin to the “let the peoples praise you” of Ps. 67) is “the voice of Jehovah.” This is as much as to say that Psalm 29 is a Psalm on revelation. Of all the things that a congregation can sing about, this is primal. For if God did not speak—if he had no care for beauty—then His truth and goodness would be irrelevant to us because we could not know them. And because He speaks, we can speak to one another in song. For our speech there is only an extension of His.

(Given that the word “Jehovah” is sung twelve times in this song, we probably should acknowledge that some Christians today think this rendering of God’s covenant name a regretable corruption. We, however, believe it is no more a corruption to translate the Hebrew “Yahweh” with the English “Jehovah” than it is to translate the Hebrew “Mosheh” with the English “Moses” or the Greek “Ioannes” with “John.” One might regret the process by which our language arrived at “Jehovah,” but what is gained by trying to undo it now?—other than to alienate modern Christians from half a millenium of English-language reflection on the covenant name? Anyway, during the thousand years when the Old Testament was written, the phonetics of Hebrew, like that of any language, presumably shifted, and we think it improbable that Moses and Malachi would have pronounced “Yahweh” the same way.)

The Psalm paraphrase above succeeds because it slows down an already slow-moving Psalm text and allows the congregation to think about these difficult propositions many times. By slowing down, we can see connections between the several ideas of the Psalm. For instance, the first stanza calls us to declare God’s glory, but glory is only another synonym for revelation (think of Sinai, the Transfiguration, or the Greek word for angels used in Jude 8). So the first stanza taken as a whole tells us to declare God to be self-revealing and to do so because, when holy, we are ourselves enabled to reveal His nature. Our holiness, when put to work in worship, is merely an extension of His glory.

The second stanza begins with the repeated theme of the Psalm, but it is critical to see how this first line relates to the second. God draws near to us when He reveals Himself. His thunder is one of the ways by which He reveals His power; it is not the power itself. God could create and destroy in utter silence if He chose. But instead, He thunders, He speaks on the waters, and by doing so He declares himself to be enthroned on high.

The third stanza describes the voice of Jehovah as mighty. This is not a synecdoche, though the stanza ends by describing Jehovah himself to be mighty. In the start of the stanza, however, it is His voice that is mighty. Indeed, it is so mighty that it can break the cedars of Lebanon (an obvious emblem of strength to the ancient world—in Gilgamesh, Bel makes them a terror for all who enter them [IV.v]). But how and why does God’s voice (that is, His revelation) destroy? Consider the glory of Sinai that was so blinding even in reflection from Moses’ face that the Israelites compelled him to wear a veil. Consider the frequent warnings not to enter the Holy of Holies “lest ye die.” God’s fully disclosed revelation does break down the proudest of the proud, and the cedars of Lebanon depict that perfectly.

However, those who are made able to enter God’s temple, thanks to His redemption, are able to speak of his glory without danger. This is the subject of the last stanza. The proclaimed glory is described in several examples. God reveals himself through the floods (his power over nature and earth), in his enthronement (His power over heaven), and in his protection of his people (his power over earthly princes).

Perhaps the most important way the hymn slows down the progress of this very dense Psalm is through the repetition of the summary last line of each stanza when sung to the tune WILLOW GROVE. The tune is top-heavy. The setting of the first two lines of text (measures 1–8), which then repeats to set the second two (measures 9–16), is twice as long (and, collectively, four times as long) as the setting of last line’s repetition (measures 17–20). No other tune described on this website has a structure anything like this. WILLOW GROVE’s “predicate phrase,” so to speak—its musical release—is packed into the last 20% of the tune. But what a release it is! The setting of the last line’s repetition begins with the highest note yet sung and immediately outstrips it by a step to reach the tune’s climax on D. While the long-winded setting of the first two lines, containing all those repeated ideas in the text, slowly ascends an octave (starting on low C and ending on high C) over the course of its eight measures, the setting of the last line’s repetition, in half as much time, descends nearly an octave, from D to F. This allows each stanza’s summary to come to us in a melodic phrase quite opposite from the stanza itself and one considerably more terse. Most emphatic of all, however, is the establishment of the tonic there. The setting of the text’s first line ends on a G, as part of the dominant sonority (the chord that is harmonically opposite the home chord of F). The setting of the second line of text ends on C as part of the dominant sonority, now strengthened by the B natural that preceded it. When we sing the second half of each stanza, we only reconfirm our departure from F and arrival on C by singing the same melody again. When the tune’s predicate phrase finally arrives, it plunges headlong from the melody’s climax to F, reaches it prematurely by leap, and then approaches it again by step for a firm conclusion, driving the home key—and that last line of every stanza—squarely into our hearts.