A World of Psalm 119

Psalm 119, with 176 verses, is the longest chapter in the book of Psalms – the longest Psalm – and the longest chapter in the Bible. It contains several wonderful memory verses, some of which have been set to popular Christian music: Thy Word (is a lamp unto my feet) – by Amy Grant (Psalm 119:105).

The Psalm is a special type of acrostic, composed in 22 sets of eight verses, or bicolons, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This lengthy Psalm can overwhelm attempts to set it to music – not only because it is long, but also because it can seem repetitive. The Anglican Psalter prayer schedule breaks down Psalm 119 in five separate morning and evening sessions.

Several songwriters have composed  22 settings for each of the alphabetical stanzas:

Charles Ciepiel 

(Worship Arts Pastor at New Creation Church, Longmont, Colorado) Composed the album “Psalm 119” and released it in 1997. It’s available on iTunes. These compositions run from 1:30 to 3:30, and use the NKJV as the text (as do Scott Brenner and Esther Mui). Ciepiel employs different musical stylings to distinguish each setting. The word-for-word rendering can be a little clunky at times, but Ciepiel has maintained ab solute fidelity with the NKJV translation, which facilitates memorization as well as devotional use.

John Kramp

(Pastor, LifeWay team, and Riverside Consultant) Composed the album (with a companion website and book, available on Amazon) initially for personal devotional use, then produced and released an album – with karaoke tracks!) in 2014. If you register on his website, you can download an e-book describing a devotional practice of writing your own acrostic. The music is varied and contemporary in style, and the settings run from 1:30-4:20. Kramp uses the Holman Christian Standard Bible – HCSB – as his text.

Kramp’s goal is to facilitate devotional meditation & prayer as well as memorization. He quotes Wilberforce’s journal entry about walking through Hyde Park one day while reciting Psalm 119. Before composing the Psalm 119 Experience, Kramp’s song, “Touch of the Master’s Hand” was recorded by Wayne Watson.

Tom Quinlan

(Christian from Asheville, NC) Tom wrote 22 settings to Psalm 119 – using the NIV translation) during nine months in 2007, in the wake of the loss of his spiritual mentor, Art Katz. His album and chord sheets are available at Zion Christian Press, a website/ministry Quinlan birthed. They are also on YouTube.

Susie Kimbrough

Between July, 1998 and May, 2001, Kimbrough composed 22 settings of Psalm 119 (using the KJV translation) to facilitate devotional memorization for her family. Her husband got on board, and they wrote a companion book, produced a CD and website, Shepard Music Company. These are typically short settings, from 1:17-2:34, and are written in a range of musical styles. The CD/mp3 download and songbook each sell for $18 on their website.

Adoration and Praise – Entering the Temple of the LORD

Day 2 – Morning – Psalms 9-11

Ran across this gem while singing the Psalms this morning – an instrumental interpretation of Psalm 24:2 –

for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters

by the praise band, The Ramp. It’s part of an album titled Ascend: Prayer Instrumentals that includes interpretations of the ten verses of Psalm 24. After snatching it up for my collection of Psalm settings from iTunes – now at 698 songs (see Footnote below) – I prayed for a while using this powerful collection and then got to thinking…

I have often marvelled at the how the editing and gathering of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures coincides with the destruction of Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples by Babylon and Rome. By the Kebar River, Ezekiel experiences a vision of a third Temple – one not made with hands, recorded in Chapter 40-43 of his prophetic testimony. As I have studied these foundational events and the profound effect they had on God’s people, I have come to believe that for Jews and for Christians, the scriptures became God’s Temple for us that could not be destroyed. I’d love to spend more time with this notion – having found so little made of it in print – but that will have to wait for another time.

Suffice it to say for now that if God’s Word in Jewish and Christian scriptures is our Temple – our sanctuary and place of refuge and formation – then the Psalms must be the gates of that Temple. Perhaps that explains this powerful obsession God has given me for all things Psalms for several years now – with no signs of abating anytime soon. And this obsession, by the way, has opened my eyes of an entire culture of praise threading its way through the centuries as countless other worshippers have been drawn to these gates of Praise.

The Psalter guides us to the heart of God
to the place of sanctuary in the wilderness

I had a vision of curating a worship experience cultivating this entry – using the music of this album – or music very much like it – along with special lighting (laser and candle, digital and incandescent), in a darkened, comfortable, open space with carpeted floors and a screen for displaying something like the iTunes Visualizer. We could focus on each of the verses in turn, using them as a mantra, until we immersed ourselves in the spaces between and beyond the words, not for understanding, but to experience the living praise of our God and to enter the Courts of the LORD – to be transformed and healed and resurrected there as the people of God. Lost in wonder, love and praise.

It seems as if the more I explore, the deeper and more unfathomable the Psalms become. This past week, I have discovered that the second (Easter) portion of Handel’s Messiah includes Psalm settings of six of the Psalms, including four settings of verses 1-4, and 9 of the Second Psalm. In late November, I rediscovered The Psalm Project – a Dutch group of Christians dedicating themselves to arranging contemporary versions of the Genevan Psalter settings (they make all of their lyric/music sheets available for free and have recorded several of their albums in English).

I also discovered a Hebrew rendering of the 15 Psalms of Ascent – by Waltraud Rennebaum and the Ensemble Shoshan. I’m on the hunt for a singable collection of these pilgrim songs. Earlier in November – November, 2016 was a great month – I stumbled upon Handel’s Dixit Dominus, a nine movement interpretation of Psalm 110. Apparently this is a thing. And little wonder, as the 110th Psalm is the most-quoted Psalm in the New Testament.

Finally, I found  wonderful, 22-part interpretation of the 119th Psalm by Charles Ciepiel, which matches the text wonderfully and powerfully. This find in September – and I’ve since had the opportunity of using it in devotions over the two and a half days the BCP assigns the readings of the 119th. Speaking of which, I have included calendar appointments on my master calendar for all of the monthly BCP readings/singings/prayers of the Psalms. Evenings are still much harder that mornings, but I’m getting there.