This Sunday is “Reformation Sunday” in Protestant circles, and one of the primary ways that we will celebrate the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church during this period is by the psalms and hymns that we will sing. Of course, Martin Luther is a central figure, not only for nailing his 95 Theses to the door of The Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, but also for the efforts that he made to reform the liturgy of the church, particularly the music. Famously he wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is our God,” which has become known as the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” While we probably think of the Lutheran chorales that emerged as being “slow, solemn, and heavy,” they were originally written “to be lively, energetic tunes, sung in unison with great enthusiasm” (Roff, Let Us Sing, 50). Of course, we’ll be singing the jazzy, rhythmic version of this great hymn.
Musical reformation was also central to the work of John Calvin, particularly in relation to the psalmody of the church. We’ll be singing “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art,” an original hymn of the Strassburg Psalter which Calvin published in 1539 while ministering to the French refugees in that city. Later, when in Geneva, Switzerland, Louis Bourgeois joined Calvin, and acted as a composer and editor for the Genevan Psalter, which was completed in 1562. One of Bourgeois’ most famous tunes is RENDEZ A DIEU, which we will sing with the text of “Give Thanks unto the Lord, Jehovah” (based on parts of Psalm 118). Claude Goudimel would later add the harmonies to the Genevan Psalter, from which we will be singing Psalm 100, and the latter half of Psalm 68. If “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation,” then Psalm 68 is arguably the “Battle Psalm of the Reformation.” In a sermon on Psalm 68, Pastor Rob Rayburn provides the following context:
There is something to be said for singing this text to the same tune by which it has been known for centuries, for this is a psalm with a past! That, of course, can be said about all the psalms, as we have been making a point of saying week by week in our studies. All of them have their place in the history of Christian life and devotion through the ages. But it is particularly true of this psalm. Even before the Reformation, before anyone had begun to translate the Psalms into metrical verses and years before Matthäus Greiter had written his tune, this 68th psalm was chanted by Savonarola and his fellow Dominicans as they marched to the grand piazza of Florence where they were to meet their trial by fire. The year was 1497. The Italian Reformer’s preaching had been more than the corrupt Roman establishment could bear and they condemned the good man to death. And he met that death with the strength that only faith, and faith sustained by such a psalm as the 68th, can supply.
But, a few decades later, when the Reformation broke over the church the same psalm sustained the legions of Christians who were now exposed to suffering and persecution for advocating the return to a biblical faith. And the 68th played its great role in strengthening their faith as well. As I have told you before, the psalm became known, especially as a result of its use by the French Huguenots, as The Protestant Psalm of Battles. Listen to this from one scholar of the Calvinist Reformation, that is, in particular the Reformation in French and English speaking Europe.
‘The Calvinist Reformers were led by a militant aristocracy and financed by a wealthy bourgeoisie. They put up long and frequently successful battles. Yet the leadership and finance could not have won the day had the individual Calvinists not possessed, to quote Cromwell,‘a conscience of what they were doing.’ In many cases, they won their battles or retrieved those they had lost, not through generalship nor through greater economic power, but because of superior morale. In building up and maintaining this morale, the battle hymns of the Psalter played a conspicuous part.’ [W. Stanford Reid, The Battle Hymns of the Lord: Calvinist Psalmody of the Sixteenth Century, 36]
One of the Camisards, as the persecuted Protestants of the Cevennes (the hill country of southern France) were called, put it this way: ‘We flew when we heard the sound of the psalms, we flew as if with wings. We felt within us an animating ardour, a transporting desire. The feeling cannot be expressed in words. It is a thing that must have been felt to be known. However weary we might be, we thought no more of our fatigue, and grew light as soon as the psalms reached our ear.’ [In Ker, 96]
Well chief among the psalms that had that ennobling and nerving effect on the believers of the time was the 68th. I’ve told you before that the story goes that the authorities were so unnerved by the confident singing of Psalm 68 by the Protestant party that they outlawed it. Public singing has often been a means of carrying a message into the streets and stamping it upon the public consciousness (think of “We Shall Overcome” in the Civil Rights Movement). And so it was in the Reformation (STUDIES IN THE PSALMS No. 14 Psalm 68 April 18, 2004).
The reformation of music would continue, and in the 1600s notable hymn writers and composers such as Johann Cruger and Paul Gerhardt would supply the church with a treasure trove of hymns. Joachim Neander, “called the greatest of all German-Calvinist Reformed hymn writers,” is probably most famous for “Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty” (101 Hymn Stories, Osbeck, 209). We will be singing “Wondrous King, All-Glorious,” for which he wrote the text and music.
I am looking forward to celebrating the Reformation, particularly through the musical heritage that we have received as a result. Come and join us.
The rake leans against the tree
Waiting for a pair of hands
To sweep fall’s confetti
Of oranges, yellows, and reds;
The sun’s frozen imprints.
Graceful embers tumbling
In the mischievous breeze,
Composing a burnished collage
Of winter’s prelude upon the ground;
Summer’s parade having passed.
Isaiah 65:17-19: For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. 19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.
Charles Spurgeon, in a sermon on the above text, stated, “Did you ever regret the absence of the burnt-offering, or the red heifer, or anyone of the sacrifices and rites of the Jews? Did you ever pine for the feast of tabernacle, or the dedications? No, because, though these were like the old heavens and earth to the Jewish believers, they have passed away, and we now live under new heavens and a new earth, so far as the dispensation of divine teaching is concerned. The substance is come, and the shadow has gone: and we do no remember it.”