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Understanding the Wording of Some Church Hymns

The Worldwide Church of God Bible Hymnal which was originally published in 1974 (“Hymnal”), is, and has been for a long time, an integral part of our weekly Sabbath and annual Holy Day services. In the opening notes of the Hymnal, headed, “How This Hymnal Came to Be,” Mr Herbert W Armstrong gave the historical background, and below are a few of the observations he made:

“It is… scriptural to sing hymns. Jesus sang hymns. After His last Passover, it is recorded, ‘And when they had sung [a] hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives’ (Matthew 26:30). I knew that the Psalms were, in fact, songs—or hymns. It was clear in my mind that God’s people should sing God’s inspired words, not man’s uninspired and often unscriptural words. But the Bible has not preserved nor revealed to us the music. God has left it to us to compose the music.

“When we moved to Pasadena to found Ambassador College, in 1947, I asked my brother (Dwight Armstrong) to devote full time to setting the words of Psalms-and/or any other Scripture – to music in the four part harmony of hymns. For some little time the Church, then small, sang the first 12 or 15 hymns that had been composed. The Church grew, and so did the number of hymns sung with God’s own inspired words.

“It is, indeed, a happy achievement to have, at last, God’s own hymnal for God’s own Church.”

It is interesting to review those hymns where the meaning can be, at first glance, a little difficult to fully understand. In this Q&A, we will look at three examples.

Hymn 78 is entitled, “He Shall Reign Forevermore!” It is taken from Psalm 102. In the New King James Bible, the sub-heading of this Psalm is that it is “A prayer of the afflicted when he is overwhelmed and pours out his complaint to the LORD.” Verses 1 and 2 read: “Hear my prayer, O LORD, And let my cry come to You.  Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my trouble; Incline Your ear to me; In the day that I call, answer me speedily.”

In verses 6 and 7, we read: “I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am like an owl of the desert. I lie awake, And am like a sparrow alone on the housetop.”

In hymn 78, it reads in the second verse: “Like a melancholy sparrow, Like a pelican alone,” but what does it really mean? How many times have we sung this without fully understanding what we were singing?

We find an interesting note about the authorship of Psalm 102 in Wikipedia:

“Midrash Tehillim quotes Rabbi Pinchas, who notes that in some psalms David calls himself by name, as in ‘A prayer of David’ (e.g. Psalm 17 and 86), but here he calls himself ‘the afflicted’, as in ‘A prayer of the afflicted’. Rabbi Pinchas explains that when David foresaw the righteous men who would descend from him— Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Isaiah— he called himself David. But when he perceived the wicked men who would be his descendants— Ahaz, Manasseh, Amon—he called himself ‘the afflicted.’”

It would seem that David is the author, but what does he convey in the psalm?

Poole writes about the Pelican:

“Pelican, or, bittern, as the same word is translated (in the Authorized Version), Isaiah 34:11, Zephaniah 2:14. It is a solitary and mournful bird, as also the owl here following is.”

Spurgeon adds:

“Pelican, owl: ‘The Psalmist likens himself to two birds which were commonly used as emblems of gloom and wretchedness.”

Poole continues about the sparrow:

“… this Hebrew word doth not only signify a sparrow, but in general any bird, as Leviticus 14:4, Deuteronomy 14:11, Daniel 4:12, 14, 21. And so it may here design any one or more sort of birds which used to sit alone, watching and mourning upon house-tops.” (Compare hereto enduringword.com).

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible adds:

“The Jews had flat roofs upon their houses, and here birds of solitude would come and sit alone in the night season, to which the psalmist likens himself; being either forsaken by his friends and acquaintance; or, being in melancholy circumstances, he chose to be alone, mourning over his sorrowful state and condition.”

Dr. W. M. Thomson elaborates:

“A sparrow alone upon the house-top. When one of them has lost its mate — a matter of every-day occurrence — he will sit on the house-top alone, and lament by the hour his sad bereavement.” Dr. Thomson says that he has often heard a sparrow which had lost its mate, uttering “by the hour” its sad lament, seated upon a housetop (“The Land and the Book,” p. 43).

Suffice to say that this was a time when king David was overwhelmed. Many of the 150 Psalms are laments. The pelican was a representation of being alone and thoroughly discouraged but he does finish up the Psalm in a very positive way. Verse 28 reads: “The children of Your servants will continue, And their descendants will be established before You.”

A second example is Hymn number 89: “O Give Thanks Unto Our God.” In the 3rd verse, it reads: “All nations compassed me about; compassed me like bees. But the Eternal is my strength; In His name I cut them off.”

This is adapted from Psalm 118:10-12, which reads: “All nations surrounded me, But in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. They surrounded me, Yes, they surrounded me; But in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. They surrounded me like bees; They were quenched like a fire of thorns; For in the name of the Lord I will destroy them.”

The Pulpit Commentary opines:

“Verse 11. – They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about (comp. Psalm 88:17). The special compassing about alluded to is probably that in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, when not only the Babylonians but the Syrians, the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites took part in hostilities against Israel (2 Kings 24:2; Psalm 137:7). But in the Name of the Lord I will destroy them. The threefold repetition of this trenchant phrase (verses 10, 11, 12) lends it vast additional force. It is no casual utterance, no mere wish, or thought begotten of a wish, but a deep and firm conviction.

“Verse 12: They compassed me about like bees; i.e. in vast numbers, and with intense energy, and a furious desire to injure (comp. Deuteronomy 1:44)…”

John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible observes as follows:

“They compassed me about like bees… In great numbers; as a swarm of bees, which, being irritated and provoked, will fly upon persons in a body, and with great fury; to which the Amorites and the Assyrian army were compared, Deuteronomy 1:44. They will attack horses and kill them, as Aristotle says; and places besieged have been delivered by throwing out hives of bees among the besiegers: and yet as they are feeble creatures, so by striking they lose their sting; and either die very quickly, or however become useless.”

In the Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, they state that “the heathen of every kind (in the Aramaic and Arabic with) are both bees and wasps, which make themselves especially troublesome in harvest time.”

The Independent newspaper reported this interesting item in December 2020:

“In late November 2020, two flights were delayed in India after the planes were surrounded by a huge swarm of bees. The incidents took place at Kolkata airport, first on 29 November, delaying a Vistara flight by around an hour, and again on 30 November. Firefighters were called to the scene and had to deploy a water cannon to disperse the insects.

“In the first instance, the bees amassed around the plane just before boarding was due to start for the service to Delhi. ‘Within minutes, lots of bees had settled on the plane as though ready to build a hive,’ a Vistara spokesperson told The Times of India. ‘Water jets had to be sprayed for a good 30 minutes to dislodge them. The flight ultimately took off at 6.30pm instead of 5.30pm.’

“The disruption wasn’t over though. Just 16 hours later, the bees were back, swarming around yet another Vistara flight, this time bound for Port Blair. The bees congregated just above the cargo bay door, making it impossible for baggage handlers to load passengers’ luggage into the hold. The fire department was called out again, and the flight departed an hour later than schedule, at 11.30am, after the water cannon had been successfully deployed for a second day running.

“In September 2019, a swarm of bees covered a plane’s cockpit windshield, delaying the flight by almost two hours.”

We should realise that bees, part of God’s wonderful creation, are a necessity as part of the natural order.

“Bees are some of the hardest working creatures on the planet, and because of their laborious work ethic, we owe many thanks to this amazing yet often under-appreciated insect.  Our lives – and the world as a whole – would be a much different place if bees didn’t exist. To illustrate this fact, consider these numbers: bees are responsible for pollinating about one-sixth of the flowering plant species worldwide and approximately 400 different agricultural types of plant” (onegreenplanet.org).

There is no doubt that bees [as well as wasps and hornets], in certain circumstances, can be seriously troublesome, and in this analogy in Psalm 118, they are shown in this light.

A third example is the hymn, “Praise You the Lord!”, on pages 112-113 in the Hymnal, which is one of the most upbeat hymns that we have.

This hymn was adapted from Psalm 148 – sub-headed in the New King James Bible as “Praise to the LORD from Creation.”

In this psalm of just 14 verses, we see that praise to the LORD from heavenly things are contained in the first 4 verses with reasons why this should be done in verses 5-6. We then read that those on the earth should praise the LORD in verses 7-12 with, again, reasons why in verses 13-14.

We can surely understand that the righteous angels would praise God (verse 2). In the hymn, it reads: “Praise Him, ye angels, Praise Him, ye hosts…” But what about the sun and moon and stars, mentioned in verse 3? In the hymn, it says: “And praise Him, ye sun, moon and stars in the heights.”

In John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, we read:

“The sun praises the Lord, the Creator of it, by doing the work constantly it is appointed to do; to rule by day, and give light and heat to the earth, and the inhabitants of it; and so is the cause of man’s praising the Lord for the benefits they receive from it; for its enlightening, warming, and refreshing rays; and for the precious fruits brought forth by it and so the moon likewise doing its office, ruling by night, and reflecting the light of the sun upon the earth, and producing precious fruits, also praises its Maker, and is the occasion, of others praising him;

“…The stars of light which are very beneficial in the night season, especially to mariners and travellers, and shed their benign influences upon the earth and things in it; which are a means of praising the Lord, and in their way they do it.”

George Horne wrote that “Though they have neither speech nor language, and [lack] the tongue of men, yet by their splendour and magnificence, their motions and their influences, all regulated and exerted according to the ordinance of their Maker, do, in a very intelligible and striking manner, declare the glory of God.”

Likewise, the sea creatures in verse 7 show in their way the praise and glory of God (Psalm 102:24-26). In verse 8, the fire, snow, hails, cloud and stormy winds display greatly the power, majesty, and glory of God; and in verses 9-10, mountains, fruitful trees and beasts are described which are all very beneficial to mankind, thereby figuratively giving praise to God; see Isaiah 55:12.

The rest of this psalm is about earthly and human praise and the instruction is clear; we are to give praise to the One who is deserving of such praise.

In hymn 112, it is expressed in these terms:

“Heaven of heavens, waters above; Praise the Eternal let all praise His Name!… Praise ye the Lord! Ye mammals and deeps too, Fire, hail and windstorms fulfilling His word! Vapours of snow all hills, too, and mountains, All cedars and fruitful trees, let’s praise His Name! Wild beasts and cattle, birds and all reptiles, Earth’s kings and judges, all people and chiefs; Young men and maidens, old men and children, All praise ye the Name of our God evermore!”

Philippians 2:9-11 gives us the news of a wonderful future event:

“Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Psalm 148 is a testament to God’s creative power—not the appallingly ridiculous and ungodly evolutionary theory which is nothing less than man trying to explain creation without a creator because they do not want to acknowledge a superior Being who created all things.

We have looked at just 3 hymns in this Q&A–Psalms 102, 118 and 148 out of a hymnal containing well over 100 hymns. Beautiful and descriptive Scripture conveying meaning in an easily understood form can help us to appreciate the great God and His ways. When we don’t quite understand what we are singing in the hymns that are available to us, then researching the meaning can be a very worthwhile exercise and allow us to understand more clearly what has been written.

Lead Writer: Brian Gale (United Kingdom)