Oh, Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord

David; trans. by the Joint Committee on a Uniform Version, 1909
Based on Psalm 103
Addressed to oneself, then to each another
Oh, come, my soul, bless thou the Lord thy Maker,Ps. 103:1; 104:1, 35
   and all within me bless his holy name;
bless thou the Lord, forget not all his mercies,Ps. 103:2; Deut. 6:12; James 1:25
   his pard’ning grace and saving love proclaim.Ps. 103:3–4; Mic. 7:18; Mark 16:15
Bless him forever, wondrous in might,Ps. 103:20–21; Dan. 4:3
bless him, his servants that in his will delight.
Good is the Lord and full of kind compassion,Ps. 103:5; 1 Chr. 16:34; Ps. 34:8
   most slow to anger, plenteous in love;Ps. 103:8; Ex. 34:6; Ps. 145:8
rich is his grace to all that humbly seek him,Ps. 103:9–10; Deut. 4:29; 2 Chr. 7:14; Eph. 1:7
   boundless and endless as the heav’ns above.Ps. 103:11–12; 36:5
Bless him forever . . .
His love is like a father’s to his children,Ps. 103:13; Jer. 31:9; Matt 6:8–9; 1 John 3:1
   tender and kind to all who fear his name;Ps. 115:13; 145:19; Mal. 3:17; Luke 1:50
for well he knows our weakness and our frailty,Ps. 103:14; 1 Cor. 10:13
   he knows that we are dust, he knows our frame.Ps. 78:39
Bless him forever . . .
We fade and die like flow’rs that grow in beauty,Ps. 103:15–16; Is. 40:6–8
   like tender grass that soon will disappear;
but evermore the love of God is changeless,Ps. 103:17–18; Ps. 118; James 1:17
   still shown to those who look to him in fear.Ex. 20:6
Bless him forever . . .
High in the heav’ns his throne is fixed forever,Ps. 103:19; 11:4; Is. 66:1
   his kingdom rules o’er all from pole to pole;Dan. 4:35; Luke 13:29
bless ye the Lord through all his wide dominion,Ps. 103:22; 145:10
   bless his most holy name, O thou my soul.
Bless him forever . . .

Scripture repeatedly commands us to bless the Lord. The hymn printed above, based on Psalm 103, helps us to understand what that means. We are not likely to understand what it means based on our human (and in that context, accurate) uses of the word “bless,” as in “our school was blessed by a generous donation” or “the meal you brought us was such a blessing.” Because we are so needy, any blessing that we receive, either from our fellow man or from God directly, must be related in part to a satisfied desire of our own. Yet in another part, all the blessings we receive have in them something like disinterested pleasure. We can all imagine what it would be like to be given something which we in no way need or depend on, but that still gives us pleasure simply because it has been given by someone who loves us and because we deserve the gift. Our children often give us such blessings, and while we need to be loved by our children and are only in part deserving of their blessings, we can, independent of that need, understand their blessings as a good earthly comparison to our blessing God. Successfully blessing God, it seems, is like a child who blesses his father. The child succeeds at this best when he obeys and when he delights in that obedience. Psalm 103 refers to those who fear the Lord (vv. 11, 13, and 17), who keep his covenant and remember his commandments (vv. 18 and 20), and who do his will (v. 21). It is these who bless the Lord because it is these who love the Lord (John 14:15). Accordingly, in this paraphrase, each stanza ends in a refrain that asks the Lord’s servants—his children, that is—to bless him. The refrain does more than merely define blessing in terms of those who give the blessing (“his servants that in his will delight”). It explains the duration of the blessing (“forever”) and the nature of the one blessed (“wondrous in might”), giving us a summary of what it means to bless the Lord—upon which summary the entire hymn builds.

We cannot be his servants without first acknowledging him as maker (stanza 1, line 1) and savior (stanza 1, lines 3–4). We proclaim his saving love in the whole of stanzas 2 and 3, explaining why it is we “delight in his will.” In an interesting play on the mortal and immortal nature of man, stanza 4 compares us “his servants” to grass and flowers that soon disappear, while the refrain has us blessing the Lord forever. So, while our mortal flesh will perish, our souls—the primary object of address in this hymn—will bless the Lord eternally.

The fixedness of his rule, his “wondrous might,” is the subject of the last stanza. In a delightful turn of order, both the psalm itself and this paraphrase return to the soul as object of address in the last line, the rhyme against “soul” being well prepared by the anachronistic expression “pole to pole” which faithfully extends the psalmist’s expression “rules over all.”

The tune TIDINGS is ideally suited to this text because the portion of it which sets the refrain is as summarizing as the refrain’s text. The tune for the refrain opens with the rhythm that opened the tune itself (long, short, short, long). The first two instances of the rhythm (“Oh, come, my soul” and “and all within”) involve motion of descent (in the first instance a large descending leap is not undone for all the ascending stepwise motion—could we say a foreshadowing motion?—that follows, and in the second instance the entire figure is set to stepwise descent). But this changes when the third line of the text begins (on “bless thou the Lord”) and the same rhythm is given a turn of direction which it then maintains in its last instance before the refrain (on “his pard’ning grace”). So one way to summarize the thesis of this tune is to say that the long–short–short–long rhythm moves from gestures of descent to gestures of ascent. This is exactly what happens, only at a much faster rate, in the refrain. The refrain opens with the rhythm, set to a descending line that leaps up at the end. Note how this inverts the pattern of the tune’s opening bars. The rhythm then repeats to another descending line but this time the leap at the end is much higher. And this great leap precipitates the change in direction for the opening of the rhythm, which now rises to the tune’s climax on a high E-flat (a note we flirt with but miss in the tune’s first line, in the last beat of measure 3).Thus, the last call to “bless him” is the most resounding of them all.