Friday, November 16, 2012

Early, My God, without Delay

Praise for the Lord #123

Words: Isaac Watts, 1719
Music: William Dixon, 1790 (LANESBORO)

Here we have Watts's setting of Psalm 63:1-5, from his Psalms of David Imitat'd (1719), in which the great 18th-century hymnist attempted to render the devotional thoughts of the Psalms "in the Language of the New Testament, and Applied to the Christian State and Worship," as the remainder of that volume's title reads. He wrote two other paraphrases of the complete 63rd Psalm, but in this case he split the two sections. The first half he titles, "The morning of a Lord's Day," and the second half, "Midnight thoughts recollected."

Judean Desert. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.
The 63rd Psalm comes with the following superscription: "A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah." On several occasions in his younger days (1 Samuel 17:29, 23:14, 24:21) David hid out in this mountainous region southeast of Jerusalem; the reference to "the king" in verse 11 may indicate, however, that this was during his flight from Absalom, which went east through the wilderness and across the Jordan.(2 Samuel 15-17) It is a dry, inhospitable place, and prone to severe drought. The modern city of Arad, located at the southern edge of this area, gets no more than 129 mm (5 inches) of rain per year on average, compared to an average of 537 mm (21 inches) in Jerusalem; as of this writing, in November, Arad has had only 9 mm of rain for the year 2012.(Israel Meterological Service) The pictures I have seen remind me of the "badlands" of the U.S. Southwest, where like David and his band, Geronimo and his Apache warriors repeatedly evaded capture by much larger opposing forces.

In this text, however, the Psalmist transfers the desert fugitive's physical isolation and deprivation into the spiritual realm. Psalm 63 comes from a person who has seen both physical danger and spiritual deprivation in the world without God. His need for God's presence is more for the sake of his soul's comfort, than for the body's protection.(Mays, 217)

Stanza 1:
Early, my God, without delay
I haste to seek Thy face;
My thirsty spirit faints away,
Without Thy cheering grace.

The first stanza draws its ideas from first verse of the Psalm, invoking the culturally powerful metaphor of drought (quoted from the King James Version, which was Watts's Bible):
O God, Thou art my God;
Early will I seek Thee:
My soul thirsteth for Thee,
My flesh longeth for Thee
In a dry and thirsty land, where no water is . . .
This harsh reality was an obvious metaphor for the Psalmists, who frequently used dryness and drought to describe spiritual exhaustion and trial. Psalms 22:15 and 32:4 use this idea in the phrase, "My strength is dried up." This idea is also found in the prophets: the vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 emphasizes that "they were very dry."(v. 2) The spiritual application is spelled out in Ezekiel 37:11, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.'" Spiritual dryness and its relief is also the theme of this beautiful passage in Isaiah:
For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit upon your offspring, and My blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams.(Isaiah 44:3-4)
It is thus a spiritual, and not a physical need, that haunts Psalm 63; the Psalmist is "hungering and thirsting after righteousness."(Matthew 5:6) He feels his spiritual isolation and his thirst for God's presence so acutely, however, that both "soul" and "flesh" are affected.(Terrien, 462) If only we all had such keen appetites in the spiritual realm!

Stanza 2:
So pilgrims on the scorching sand,
Beneath a burning sky,
Long for a cooling stream at hand;
And they must drink or die.

The second stanza continues to explore the same metaphor, with even more emphasis on the severity of the situation. Now it is not just a "dry and thirsty land,"(Psalm 63:1) but "scorching sand" and "burning sky." In contrast, the presence of God is a "cooling stream," and the stakes are life itself. The human body needs water in some form every day, because it is essential to so many of the processes of the body. We might last for days or even weeks without food, but the effects of dehydration set in within a matter of hours.(Bryant) David's need for God's presence is this critical.

Now, I almost never forget to eat during the day (though that has actually happened), and my consumption of liquid refreshment in the form of coffee and tea is proverbial in my family. But I confess that if I am not careful, most of a day may go by before I realize that I have been too "busy" to spend time in prayer, or in reading God's Word. By contrast, the Psalmist sees his communion with God as a need so pressing that he compares it to finding water in the desert--and when you are in the desert, not much else matters. Would that we all could realize the spiritual desolation that surrounds us in this world, and value the precious time we can spend with God as a matter of spiritual life and death! Jesus gently reminds us of this in the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, "What shall we eat?" or "What shall we drink?" or "What shall we wear?" For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.(Matthew 6:31-33)
Though the primary context of the teaching is our need to put aside worry, it also reminds us of the need to "worry" instead about the things that are really important.

Watts's original has two more stanzas here, omitted in Praise for the Lord. It is an unfortunate omission, in my opinion, especially in the case of the first of the two, which presses the point that arguably underlies the entire Psalm:

I've seen Thy glory and Thy power
Through all Thy temple shine;
My God, repeat that heav'nly hour,
That vision so divine.

Not all the blessings of a feast
Can please my soul so well,
As when Thy richer grace I taste,
And in Thy presence dwell.

These two stanzas derive from Psalm 63:2, with a secondary reference to verse 5:
To see Thy power and Thy glory,
So as I have seen Thee in the sanctuary . . .

My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness;
And my mouth shall praise Thee with joyful lips.
Here is what the Psalmist desires so earnestly, like a dying man in the desert longing for water: the presence of God. He has been to the sanctuary before and has known the power and glory of God, and longs to keep this ever foremost in his mind. If this Psalm was written during one of David's periods of exile, his desire was probably all the more keen because of deprivation--he could hardly go to such a public place as the tabernacle, and certainly dared not gather with his kinsmen for the appointed festivals. The denial of these opportunities for worship and fellowship made them all the more precious in memory. In the solitude of the wilderness, then, the Psalmist seeks God's presence as an individual appealing for that which he has once known but cannot immediately reclaim. Artur Weiser notes, "It is only against the background of the worshipper's ardent yearning for the presence of God that the experience which fills his heart with joy and gratitude to God is clearly set off in all its magnitude."(Weiser, 454)

There are Christians in this world--perhaps some reading this page--who must put forth a great effort just to gather with the saints for worship. Some are hindered by physical disability; some are forced to drive, ride, or walk great distances; some are even threatened with persecution for the very act of gathering to worship. I hang my own head in shame as I think of them, and then consider how often I arrive late for a worship assembly held just 3 miles from my home, to which I can drive in less than 15 minutes. I would never think of being late to meet with the governor, or the President, or some other important person; can I not at least be sure I am on time to meet with my God, and in the frame of mind to do so?

Part of the problem that so many of us have with worship, I believe, comes simply from a lack of effort--resulting, usually, from a lack of understanding and appreciation of what worship is. When people say, "I didn't get anything out of that service," they may be revealing a fundamental misunderstanding of the transaction that takes place--we come to a worship service primarily to give something, not to get something. Worship is something we "offer to God,"(Hebrews 12:28) presenting ourselves as "living sacrifices."(Romans 12:1) Now, the planners and leaders of a worship service certainly ought to do their best (within God's revealed will!) to make that service as conducive as possible to offering sincere worship, and should not conduct a service in such a way that it becomes a hindrance to the worshipers. But ultimately the responsibility for my worship lies within me, and what I choose to bring to God that day.

Of course there is a natural, reciprocal benefit to giving, even when the gift is so relatively small as our individual worship is to the majesty of God. We do "get something out of worship," even though that is not the reason we do it. Worshiping God restores us to a right frame of mind--humbling us when we have lifted ourselves too high, and raising us up when we have fallen too low. Worshiping God reminds us of the supremacy of His eternal promises over the passing fancies of this world. Worshiping God is a time spent with the very best, purest, and most wholesome Friend the human soul can have. No wonder David so frequently spoke of the "house of the Lord" in the Psalms! "One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in His temple."(Psalm 27:4)

Stanza 3:
Not life itself, with all its joys,
Can my best passions move,
Or raise so high my cheerful voice,
As Thy forgiving love.

This stanza adds the thoughts of Psalm 63:3 to the ideas of the preceding stanzas. It is only God's "lovingkindness" that can satisfy the Psalmist's thirsty soul:
Because Thy lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips shall praise Thee.
Psalm 63:3 is a rather unusual statement, toying with a paradox: God's chesed ("lovingkindness") is more important to the Psalmist than his own life, but God's chesed is also the sustainer of that life, as seen in countless instances throughout the Psalms. David adores the lovingkindness of God, not because of the benefit it has been in his life (which was great), but for its own intrinsic worth.(Mays, 218)

The Hebrew word chesed is a powerful concept, not easily translated. The English word "lovingkindness" was actually invented by Miles Coverdale to represent this idea in his translation; this carried through to the King James Version and many of its successors. The Revised Standard, English Standard, and others use the phrase "steadfast love." Interestingly, the writers of the Hebrew Testament apply this term almost exclusively to God's attitude and actions toward His people, and not to human attitudes toward God or toward each other. It is bound up in God's covenant with Israel, and in His unchanging loyalty to His promises and to His own nature. Though His righteousness condemned His people's sins, His sworn love to them was equally great, and mercy was born of the result.(Snaith)

Chesed is therefore much more than a warm, fuzzy feeling of goodwill; the closest comparison that we can understand, perhaps, is the love of a parent for a child. When that love is what it should be, it is warm but also strong, and seeks not just to love and protect but also to guide and counsel. The parent will be disappointed in the child now and then, sometimes grievously so, but the desire for the child's best welfare is still uppermost. That parental love often brings out the noblest, most self-sacrificing deeds we will ever see among our fellow humanity. But God's lovingkindness comes from a place that no human parent can ever know--a position of absolute moral purity and absolute wisdom, knowing all the faults of the other party while being above any of those faults himself. Yet He loves us anyway! Here is the secret of David's joy, the knowledge of which was better to him than even food and drink, or life itself. The "lovingkindness" of God was to the Psalmist the "supreme good" in life.(Weiser, 455)

Stanza 4:
Thus, till my last expiring day,
I'll bless my God and King;
Thus will I lift my hands to pray,
And tune my lips to sing.

Watts's final stanza takes up the theme of Psalm 63:4, the Psalmist's resolve to live a life of praise in view of the refreshing grace of God that he has received:
Thus will I bless Thee while I live:
I will lift up my hands in Thy name.
The memory of his earlier encounter with God makes him long for the experience again, but David may not have been able at that time (perhaps for a long time!) to see God "in the sanctuary."(Psalm 63:2) In the same way, we cannot always be with the people of God, in the "holy temple" of Christian fellowship.(Ephesians 2:21-22) But our memories of those times can go with us, and the knowledge that we have such a refuge changes our perspective on the barrenness of everyday life. Weiser says of David's words, "What the worshipper has come to realize in the house of God does not therefore remain confined to the place of that cultic encounter, but accompanies him right into every sphere of his daily life."(Weiser, 455) The advice of this stanza is an echo of James 5:13, "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise." Even if he was alone in the desert, David had the glorious presence of God and His lovingkindness all around him, whenever he entered the his own personal tabernacle of prayer and praise.

In the same way, Paul could rejoice even in his unjust imprisonment in Rome, and exhort the Philippian church to do the same. We should not suppose that Paul enjoyed his suffering in some way; in fact, I can imagine his reaction if his status had changed. Suppose, for example, that Caesar (whichever one it was) had a sudden change of heart and came to Paul's place of imprisonment. "Paul," he says, "you have been treated very unjustly. You are free to go, and here is a letter with my seal declaring you a friend of Caesar and under my protection throughout the empire. You are welcome to stay here in Rome and preach, or I will pay your way to any destination you choose." Would Paul have responded, "No, thanks, I am enjoying these chains far too much?"

But if chains were his fate, Paul rejoiced in the good that he could do, because he had spread the gospel, through his guards, into Caesar's own household.(Philippians 4:22) Like his fellow apostles in Acts 5:41, he rejoiced that he was "counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name," and had stood his test faithfully. And most of all he rejoiced because he knew his God was always with him. At the end of 2 Timothy, knowing that his life was in far more danger than when he wrote to the Philippians, he could say, "At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me . . ."(2 Timothy 4:16-17) Though we may never face such a trial, may we daily cultivate that relationship with God that reassures us of His presence, whatever the circumstances we face. And may we daily offer our praise and prayer to Him for that blessing!

About the music:

William Dixon (c. 1750?-1825) was a musician just famous enough to leave his mark, but not prominent enough to have all the evidence of his life carefully set down in one scholarly source. The biographical index in the Psalmo-Doxologia (London: Simpson & Marshall, c. 1825) notes that Dixon was born in Liverpool, and was a composer and singer as well as music publisher.(quoted in Glover) This is supported by his self-identification as "William Dixon of Liverpool" in several works published in London (see my works list for Dixon in Worldcat).  Fétis adds that he was an organist as well.(Fétis, "Dixon")

His earliest publication that I have found dates from c. 1777, where he is listed as publisher and engraver. Music engravers made high-quality plates for music printing, working by hand rather than using moveable type. For this reason, I tend to believe the 1750 date of birth rather than 1760 as is often given; it is hard to believe he could have become a professional engraver and publisher by the age of 17.

His whereabouts can be determined only by his publications, which are primarily from Cambridge (with some published in London) up until about 1800. After that date, his publications begin to appear more frequently from Liverpool, suggesting that he may have moved back home. It might just have been a branch office of his publishing enterprise, of course, but one edition of his Euphonia (Liverpool, 1808) bears the subtitle, "for the Congregation of All Saints Church, Liverpool," perhaps suggesting a personal connection.

Based on his publications found in Worldcat, Dixon's compositions appear to have been primarily church music, including Psalm tune settings, original hymn tunes, anthems, and musical settings of the Anglican services. Most of these are arranged for keyboard accompaniment, and some have additional instrumental parts. Several of his publications indicate that they are written "for country choirs." He also wrote and published glees for the Cambridge Harmonic Society.

I have been able to examine a copy of Dixon's c. 1790 Psalmodia Christiana (thanks again to Aaron Kuglin at the Bowld Music Library, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary). The music is in the typical open score of the period, with the melody in the tenor, and has numerical "figures" under the bass part--a sort of shorthand that tells a keyboardist what chord to play over each bass note. An interesting feature of the Psalmodia is the inclusion of 50 "fugues," really just short anthems with an emphasis on imitative writing. These are apparently British cousins of the "fuging tunes" of the American colonies.

I have not yet discovered the exact publication in which Dixon's LANESBORO first appeared, though I can confirm it is not in the Psalmodia Christiana. Nor does it appear in the Hymn Tune Index at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which compiles several lists covering publications up to 1820. I can also confirm that it is not derived from Dixon's 1790 publication, Six Anthems in Score, Designed for the Use of Country Choirs (thanks to Kirstin Dougan, Mandi Goodsett, and John Wagstaff at the University of Illinois Music and Performing Arts Library for running down these leads).

There is some reason to believe it was not originally composed in the form in which we have it today. I hesitate to depend solely on The Story of the Hymns and Tunes by Brown & Butterworth, but this is the best lead thus far: "It was composed by William Dixon, and arranged and adapted by Lowell Mason."(Brown & Butterworth, 36) Mason cast his net far and wide in his efforts, and adapted the works of numerous minor composers as hymn tunes. The earliest instance I have found of LANESBORO in its current form is from Mason's 1829 edition of the Handel & Haydn Society Collection of Church Music (Boston: Richardson, Lord & Holbrooke). It does not appear, however, in the first edition of 1822.


Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

"Rainfall observations." Israel Meteorological Service (English site).

Mays, James L. Psalms. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

Terrien, Samuel. The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003.

Bryant, Charles W. "How long can you go without food and water?" 11 February 2008.

Snaith, Norman H. "Loving-kindness." A Theological Word Book of the Bible, edited by Alan Richardson. New York: MacMillan, 1951, pp. 136-7. Reproduced at

Weiser, Artur. The Psalms: A Commentary, translated by Herbert Hartwell. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1962.

Glover, Sue. "Who was who." Gallery Music: English Church and Chapel Music of the 1700s and Early 1800s.

"Dixon, William." Fétis, François-Joseph. Biographie universelle des musiciens. Paris: Didot Fréres, 1866, volume 2, page 28.

Brown, Theron, and Hezekiah Butterworth. The Story of the Hymns and Tunes. New York: American Tract Society, 1906.

1 comment:

  1. The LANESBORO tune is also not found in Dixon's "Four Services in Score," published ca. 1790. Thanks to Margaret Jones of the Cambridge University Libraries for this look-up!