Hymn notes: Psalm 2 – for when you tire of singing ‘Jerusalem’

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It was early September 1997, and I had watched yet another Last Night of the Proms with its rendition of Jerusalem. The second verse certainly can be stirring, jingoistic stuff – ‘Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand…’ etc. etc. But the first verse is absolute tosh. Asking a rhetorical question, ‘And did those feet in ancient time…’ already I want to shout ‘No! They didn’t!’ Indeed, at the end of verse 1, as the musicians play the musical interlude, you can interpose a ‘bridge’ of words as follows:

                The answer’s no; It really didn’t ever happen so!

I am convinced Jerusalem would be much improved if this caught on!

Therefore, fed up with another Last Night rendition of Blake’s spiritual fantasies, I decided to try and do better. I set to work on a version of Psalm 2, which I must have preached about that time, set to the tune Jerusalem. The key phrase to render was ‘I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ It is the crux of the psalm, and God’s answer to the nations. Because I was using rhyming couplets, I had two options for the end of the first verse. I could have stuck to a fairly literal rendition of the text as follows:

                Then in his wrath declare his will:

                ‘I set my king on Zion’s hill.’

When it came up for discussion at the Praise Trust editorial board, this very nearly became the version we used, but I wanted to have something more explicitly Messianic, drawing on the sense of rejection that the cross involved that is expressed in Hebrews 13:12-13. So we went with the more dynamic lines:

I set my Son, whom you condemn,

                as King outside Jerusalem.

Because I had the tune Jerusalem in mind, it was good to get the word ‘Jerusalem’ in there, especially as the word Zion is now a word that is either highly politicised or incomprehensible to most.

The tricky phrase in Psalm 2:7 ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you’ has caused huge exegetical debate. Because the eternal generation of the Son is important, I rendered it as:

You are my Son, with me always,

                begotten from eternal days

With hindsight I think this misses the real context of the verse, which is the resurrection of Jesus, as Acts 13:33 makes clear. I wish I could have seen that before it was published.

It was really helpful to have this version chewed over by Christopher Idle and David Preston, two critics of the highest order. There is nothing harmful in doing this, and any aspiring hymn writer really should value their most critical friend. Too much dross gets published that hasn’t been combed through properly by a critical mind.

This was published as the 2B version in Praise (2A is David Preston’s more literal version) but to my disappointment the board wouldn’t let it be sung to Jerusalem! After all, they said, this version of Psalm 2 has three verses, and Jerusalem is sung to only two. Instead we commissioned a tune from Richard Simpkin of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, who wrote the tune Thorpe Berger. This is much more reflective, and is sung as a solo on the album Richard produced called ‘So hear his voice’. It is also the tune set in the Praise! music edition. I have a high regard for Richard’s work, but I haven’t heard any church say to me ‘We really like the tune. It really works.’ Maybe it is more suited to something more reflective and has yet to find a marriage with the best words.

So here is my final version, and do try singing it to Jerusalem.

Why do the nations rage and cry,

plotting against the LORD most high?

and why do kings and people scorn

his Christ, forsaken and forlorn?

The Lord in heaven shall laugh aloud

at all the boasting of the proud:

‘I set my Son, whom you condemn,

as King outside Jerusalem.’

 

‘I will declare the LORD’s decree,

these are the words he spoke to me,

“You are my Son, with me always,

begotten from eternal days;

you shall receive both east and west,

all nations yours at your request;

judge them and rule them with your rod,

and shatter those that fear not God”.’

 

Rulers, be warned, and kings, be wise;

God’s only Son do not despise,

but serve the Lord with humble fear,

rejoice with trembling, and draw near;

adore the Son; his sudden wrath

can soon destroy you in your path;

yet safe are all, beneath his wing

who hide in Christ our Lord and King.

©1999 Jim Sayers

 

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