Sing to the Lord, Sing His Praise

Joint Committee on a Uniform Version of the Psalms in Meter, 1909
Based on Psalm 96
Addressed to the whole world
Sing to the Lord, sing his praise, all you peoples,Ps. 96:1, 7; 117:1; 1 Chron. 16:23
   new be your song as new honors you pay;Ps. 40:3; 98:1
sing of his majesty, bless him forever,Ps. 96:2; 66:8
   show his salvation from day to day.Ps. 40:10; 71:15
Tell of his wondrous works, tell of his glory,Ps. 96:3; 105:1; Is. 12:4
   till through the nations his name is revered;Matt. 6:9; Rom. 1:5
praise and exalt him, for he is almighty;Ps. 96:4; 48:1; Rev. 19:6
   God over all let the Lord be feared.Ps. 47:2; Jer. 10:7
Vain are the heathen gods, idols and helpless;Ps. 96:5; Is. 41:24; 1 Cor. 8:4
   God made the heav’ns, and his glory they tell;Ps. 19:1
honor and majesty shine out before him,Ps. 96:6
   beauty and strength in his temple dwell.
Give unto God Most High glory and honor,Ps. 96:8
   come with your offr’ings and humbly draw near;Lev. 9; Ps. 66:13; Eccl. 5:1
in holy beauty now worship Jehovah,Ps. 96:9; 29:2
   tremble before him with godly fear.Ps. 99:1; 114:7
Make all the nations know God reigns forever;Ps. 96:10
   earth is established as he did decree;Ps. 119:90
righteous and just is the King of the nations,Rev. 15:3
   judging the people with equity.Ps. 9:8
Let heav’n and earth be glad; waves of the ocean,Ps. 96:11; 97:1
   forest and field, exultation express;Ps. 96:12; Is. 55:12
for God is coming, the Judge of the nations,Ps. 96:13; 98:9; Eccl. 12:14
   coming to judge in his righteousness.Is. 11:4

The first two lines of the second stanza above, paraphrasing Psalm 96:3, could be the mission statement of any biblically-faithful evangelistic enterprise.

Tell of his wondrous works, tell of his glory,
   till through the nations his name is revered;

When the Lord sends his followers to evangelize the unbelieving world, their purpose is simply to share with others the vision he has given them of his glory—the glory of his nature (stanza 2, line 3; stanza 3, lines 3–4; stanza 5, line 3), of his creation (stanza 3, line 2; stanza 5, line 2), of his sovereign rule (stanza 5, lines 1 and 4), and of his salvation (stanza 1, line 4). We share this vision not merely to save souls from hell but, primarily, to call them to join us in worship. We invite unbelievers to change their song (stanza 1, line 2): to cease worshipping things that are vain and helpless (stanza 3, line 1) and to worship the Lord instead (stanza 1, line 1; stanza 4, line 3). Thus missions—whether evangelism, church-planting, discipleship, or mercy ministry—is all about worship. And where there is little longing to see God’s name revered, missions will shrivel and die.

The first step toward fulfilling the Great Commission, then, is to make sure we have the correct idea of worship. This is something every church needs to work on, perhaps now more than ever if what social critics tell us is true, that our culture tends to trivialize everything, including worship. John Piper has explained Albert Einstein’s indifference to organized religion in these terms. “For those who are stunned by the indescribable magnitude of what God has made, not to mention the infinite greatness of the One who made it, the steady diet on Sunday morning of practical ‘how to’s’ and psychological soothing and relational therapy and tactical planning seems dramatically out of touch with Reality—the God of overwhelming greatness” (Let the Nations Be Glad [Baker Books, 1993], 12–13).

This hymn can help. Two of its stanzas end with the concept of godly fear, and not the “fear” that so many explain away as a supposed synonym for “admiration” but the real deal (denoted by Hebrew words in Psalm 96:4, 9) in which we “tremble before him” (stanza 4, line 4). The way we worship matters. We are to do it in “holy beauty.” And, yes, it’s definitely something we do, something we bring to him. However much we stand to receive from worship, the benefits to us are a secondary matter, implied but not mentioned in the hymn, because the chief of them is the pleasure we take in serving God, and the value of this pleasure is that it glorifies him! Worship is service. Stanza 4 defines it as giving God glory and honor, coming with offerings, and humbly drawing near (not to mention all the verbs in stanzas 1–2: sing, bless, show, tell, praise, and exalt). But the hymn does not stop there. It does not merely call the nations to sing the Lord’s praise; it also presents clear and ample grounds for praise, especially in stanzas 3 and 5. Then comes the best part, at the end. All this glory, in which we have been reveling though five stanzas, condemns the evil that wears us down and wounds us. We join creation in rejoicing in God’s righteous judgments.

The meter of the poem,, is nearly unique. The first three feet of every line are dactylic, with an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables. The last foot of every line is varyingly truncated (in lines 1 and 3, it is a trochee; in lines 2 and 4 a single accented syllable) according to the normal expectations of rhymed dactylic verse. But something strange must happen in line 4 because it is a syllable shorter than its rhyming partner, line 2. While in all other lines we have three dactyls, in the last line we have only two, then a trochee, then the single accented syllable of line 2. The audible effect is something like a “missing” unaccented syllable in the third foot, which forces us to draw out the words (to keep the timing of the last two accented syllables regular). The resulting deceleration gives the stanza a weight that befits the awesome message. Consider how the poetic rhythm slows to a stop at “the Lord be feared” in stanza 2 and again at “with godly fear” in stanza 4. In most hymnals, the only text with this meter is “God the All-Terrible,” sung to the tune of the national anthem of tsarist Russia.

The tune WESLEY, with its alternation of half notes and eighth notes (LONG–short–short–LONG, etc.) and its metrically strong dissonances on the downbeats of measures 6 and 11 (not to mention the unstable sonorities on the downbeats of measures 4 and 12), can suggest the majestic tread—the ceremonially halting footsteps—of the coming King. At the same time it has a certain swing, being in triple meter with three beats to each “step.” WESLEY is stately without being somber, and jubilant without being merry. It’s festive. Line 3 of the stanza begins exactly like line 1, but then the altos and basses rise on beat 3 of measure 10 to subtly prepare us for an exultant, gigantic leap in the melody on the next beat, halfway through line 3 at the most critical point of the text. Consider the words in the second half of line 3 in any stanza. And then we ascend to an even higher pitch at the beginning of line 4 to avoid musical anticlimax in the approach to the extraordinary poetic rhythm, the stretching of syllables, described above.