A Biblical Theology of Prayer

According to one of my teachers Dr. Hughes Oliphant Old, in his monumental Holy Communion in the Piety of the Reformed Church (Tolle Lege Press, 2013):

From the standpoint of a biblical theology of prayer two things should be said: (1) Recount the story of God’s saving acts, as we find them in Psalms 78, 105, and 136, and (2) dedicate our lives to his service in recognition of his grace.

He’s commenting here on the Thanksgiving Prayer or Prayer of Dedication, as he calls it, in Calvin’s communion liturgy. For those of us who’ve grown up on the liturgical forms inherited from the Reformation, this rings true. Old provides a translation of this Lord’s Supper thanksgiving prayer formulated by Calvin:

Heavenly Father, we return to you our prayers and eternal thanks, that you have prospered us with such manifold blessings. You have lifted us up from our poverty and futility and brought us into the communion of your Son Jesus Christ, our Saviour. For our sake you offered him up to death and even now you have given him to us for our food and nourishment.

Now grant us also this further blessing, that we not ever be allowed to forget these things, but have them engraven upon our hearts. Grant that we grow and diligently increase in the faith; that we abound in all kinds of good works. Grant that we live out our whole lives in the exaltation of your glory and the edification of our neighbour, through the same Jesus Christ your Son, who in the unity of the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns eternally with you, O Father. Amen.





Where desert and garden meet

Again and again the Psalms celebrate, in almost embarrassingly vivid language, the belief that the creator of the universe has, for reasons best known to him, decided to take up residence on a small hill in the Judean uplands. The living God, the Psalms declare, has decided to make his own special home at the point where the fertile western escarpment meets the eastern wilderness. It is poised between garden and desert–almost as though God couldn’t quite make up his mind whether to settle firmly in a New Eden or to remain camped with his people in their wilderness wanderings.

N.T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms

Published in: on October 21, 2013 at 6:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

N.T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms

Those who love the biblical psalms will want to reach for N.T. Wright’s The Case for the PsalmsHere are some highlights I couldn’t wait to share:

By all means write new songs. Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church’s original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy.

There is a temptation to act

as though the Psalms are the problem, and we should try to fit them into our world. Actually, again and again it is we, muddled and puzzled and half-believing, who are the problem; and the question is more how we can find our way into their world, into the faith and hope that shine out in one psalm after another.

And here’s a great one on Christian liturgy:

Good liturgy, whether formal or informal, ought never to be simply a corporate emoting session, however “Christian,” but a fresh and awed attempt to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy that is going on all the time in the heavenly realms. (That’s what those great chapters, Revelation 4 and 5, are all about.) The Psalms offer us a way of joining in a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent nonpsalmic “worship” based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.

It only gets better:

The Psalms, I want to suggest here, are songs and poems that help us not just to understand this most ancient and relevant worldview but actually to inhabit and celebrate it–this worldview in which, contrary to most modern assumptions, God’s time and ours overlap and intersect, God’s space and ours overlap and interlock, and even (this is the really startling one, of course) the sheer material world of God’s creation is infused, suffused, and flooded with God’s own life and love and glory.

Speaking about the symbolism of Gothic cathedrals, those “great vaulted spaces, soaring high above ordinary human capacities,” Wright says:

When we sing, the sound made even by small-scale earthbound creatures such as us rings around the rafters that we cannot otherwise reach.

And later this:

Sing these songs, and they will renew you from head to toe, from heart to mind. Pray these poems, and they will sustain you on the long, hard but exhilarating road of Christian discipleship.

I think you’ve probably figured out why I’m so thrilled about this book. If you don’t have it, get it and share it, or borrow it. Wright has a way of putting into words what you may have known or experienced for a long time but were never quite able to put into words. And of helping you go beyond.

Published in: on October 16, 2013 at 9:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Psalm 1

Here is a compelling rendition of Psalm 1, which makes use of the Hebrew scale. Thanks, Dr. David Erb!

Published in: on January 26, 2013 at 6:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Genevan Psalm 13 Koyzis on guitar

Listen to this plaintive yet restful rendition of Psalm 13 by David Koyzis. Sweet.

Genevan Psalm 13 Koyzis on guitar – YouTube.


Published in: on December 9, 2011 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Psalm 75 by Brother Down (Contemporary Genevan)


Published in: on October 18, 2011 at 11:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Psalm 13 by Brother Down (Contemporary Genevan)


Published in: on October 18, 2011 at 11:25 am  Comments (1)  
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Meaning of Selah

As requested and promised, here’s more on Selah. Please forgive the highly technical nature of this post. In the future I hope to flesh this out in more popular language and to suggest some implications for music and song in worship.

A term that occurs often—more than seventy times—in the Book of Psalms, and is particularly relevant to the matter of musical instruments in worship, is the Hebrew word Selah (סֶלָה). It must be acknowledged at the outset that there has been uncertainty about the meaning of this term among lexicographers and commentators. Koehler and Baumgartner call it “obscure” and Holladay calls it “unexplained.” A common thread in the suggestions and explanations offered, however, is that Selah is a “musical or liturgical marker,” in the words of James A. Swanson. Some have suggested that it means “pause,” as translated by the New Jerusalem Bible, or “Silence!” according to the eminent Hebrew scholar, William Gesenius. Old Testament commentator Franz Delitzsch believes that “in a psalm where סֶלָה is appended…the stringed instruments,…and the instruments generally, are to join in in such a way as to give intensity to that which is being sung.”

A closer look at the semantic root of this word supports Delitzsch’s assertion about Selah.  Brown, Driver, and Briggs suggest that the word is, in fact, a verb in the imperative mood, meaning “lift up” or “exalt,” from the Hebrew verb salal (סָלַל). Gesenius connects it to the verb salah (סָלָה), “to be quiet, to be silent,” and to the noun seleh (סֶלֶה), “rest, silence,” and designates its form as Milel. In this same entry, however, where he comments that this word has “been so much discussed and tortured by the conjectures and blunders of interpreters,” Gesenius argues that “it seems to have been used to mark a short pause in singing the words of the psalm, so that the singer would be silent, while the instrumental music continued.” In support of this interpretation, Gesenius mentions firstly, that the Septuagint always renders this Hebrew word diapsalma (διάψαλμα), which means “interlude”; secondly, that its usual position in the middle of the psalms where a section is finished implies that it was used to divide the respective psalms into strophes; and thirdly, that in Psalm 9:17 Higgāyōn Selah (הִגָּיוֹן סֶלָה) is used, “which should apparently be rendered ‘Instrumental music—pause,’ i.e. the instrumental music was to continue while the singer paused.” This explanation seems the most plausible, especially considering the fact that almost all the occurrences of this word are in the Psalms, many of which call for the use of musical instruments.

While the two most likely meanings of Selah, “Silence!” on the one hand and “Strike it up!” on the other, initially seem to contradict each other, the meaning of the related Hebrew words along with the locations and uses of this word in the Psalms strongly suggest that Selah designated an instrumental interlude (in the middle of a psalm) or crescendo (at the end of a psalm) during which the voices went momentarily silent and the musical instruments swelled to punctuate and intensify the words being sung.

One more thing. I have a bit of trouble remaining agnostic about the meaning of this word. To ignore or pass over it, as is often done, on the grounds of its apparent obscurity, is unsatisfactory. That’s why I’m not content, as I mentioned in an earlier post, with the exclusion of this term in the main text of NIV 2011, in which it is relegated to footnote status. I’m also not convinced that lexicographers and commentators should have the final word. Is the Holy Spirit not pleased when we wrestle with what he has revealed to us to reach well-considered, reasonable conclusions? These conclusions must always be open to revision and adjustment, of course, but I don’t believe that, unless we can arrive at absolute certainty and majority consensus, we may not draw such conclusions.

Thanks for bearing with me. More on the practical implications some other time.

Published in: on July 29, 2011 at 6:23 am  Comments (7)  
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It is good!

A psalm. A song. For the Sabbath day.

It is good to praise the LORD
and make music to your name, O Most High,
proclaiming your love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,
to the music of the ten-stringed lyre
and the melody of the harp.
“The LORD is upright;
he is my Rock,
and there is no unrighteousness in him.”

Psalm 92:1-3,15

Published in: on July 24, 2011 at 7:33 am  Leave a Comment