"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
March 04, 2015
Songs and Psalms
by Marian Stoddard

“Sing unto the Lord a new song,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 98) Isaiah (Isaiah 42:10). “Let the earth break forth into singing,” writes Joseph Smith (in D&C 128:22). “Jehovah is my strength and my song,” says Nephi (2 Ne 22:2).

If you go to the Topical Guide, there is a lengthy list of choices of scripture verses under the heading of “singing,” and there are many more references that are not included there.

I asked my class to look for references to singing and songs in the scriptures as preparation for a class on the book of Psalms. I acted as part gospel teacher and part literature teacher that day.

The book of Psalms contains four basic types: Messianic, historical, hymns of praise, and pleadings for help or forgiveness.  The Messianic ones are quoted so many times in the New Testament, but I hadn't realized that they each contain only glimpses of His coming experience. 

Isaiah offers up his visions at length, but the Psalms don't.  Nevertheless, the Savior knew and fulfilled those bits of prophecy.  We think of the historical ones all being part of the psalms of David, but Psalm 90 is a song of Moses.  The praises and pleadings, as we read, we find that we know well.

Hebraic poetry is not poetry in the form that we know it, with specific meters and rhymes.  It is a poem of meaning and structure.  This poetry translates from one language to another readily precisely because it is a poem of meaning rather than meter fit with exacting words. 

There are other examples than in the Psalms, and other composers of psalms besides David.  Habukkuk 3, verses 17-19 is one.  2 Nephi 4:16-35, is often known as the psalm of Nephi, beginning, “Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard.” 

Lowell Bennion in Unknown Testament terms the Psalms "the beauty of pure worship."  The Lord says in several places that we are to come unto him, and he will give us rest.  I think the Psalms are a form of spiritual rest.

I was able to find the Ensign article that I still remember, about the structure of chiasmus in the Old Testament and in the Book of Mormon.  (Another one since, here.) It was striking then as a newly realized concept, something that runs true that Joseph Smith had no inkling of — another evidence of his calling. 

You can trace the parallelism and inversion of the words and phrases.  I know that if unfamiliar, and impatient, you come to these writings and think, they already said that, why do they have to keep saying the same thing?  Why can't they just get on with it?

But if you can shift gears and go with how the meanings flow and build, you get a lot more out of it.  As it ceases to be strange, it begins to be peaceable.

Some of the psalms quote others of them.  There are so many images that are often repeated in the scriptures, not because the writers are lazy, but because those images fit so well.  Eagles' wings, sheep and shepherds, fruit and vineyards, fountains of water in a desert place.

I like Psalm 96, "sing to the Lord a new song," and number 77.  We went to Alma 5: 26: “And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” and talked about songs. 

My first column for the Nauvoo Times ends with this verse.  The Lord told Emma that the song of the heart was a prayer unto him.  The heart and mind filled with the Spirit will soar, and sing. It is a universal impulse in answer to the heart and spirit opening to the Spirit of the Lord.

Psalm 101 begins, “I will sing of mercy and judgement: unto thee, O Lord, will I sing. I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way. O when wilt thou come unto me? I will walk within my house with a perfect heart.”

Perhaps we know that feeling of perfect, certain peace; yet we will later find ourselves, as the writer in other psalms, pleading for help to return and repent when we falter or slip back into spiritual distance. Some songs rejoice, some implore, others are somber in reflection.

The Redeemer gave Joseph Smith this psalmic declaration as part of a grand revelation on priesthood in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 84:98-102

Until all shall know me, who remain, even from the least unto the greatest, and shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, and shall see eye to eye, and shall lift up their voice, and with the voice together sing this new song, saying:

The Lord hath brought again Zion; The Lord hath redeemed his people Israel, According to the election of grace, Which was brought to pass by the faith and covenant of their fathers.

The Lord hath redeemed his people; And Satan is bound and time is no longer. The Lord hath gathered all things in one. The Lord hath brought down Zion from above. The Lord hath brought up Zion from beneath.

The earth hath travailed and brought forth her strength; And truth is established in her bowels; And the heavens have smiled upon her; And she is clothed with the glory of her God; For he stands in the midst of his people.

Glory, and honor, and power, and might, Be ascribed to our God; for he is full of mercy, Justice, grace and truth, and peace, Forever and ever, Amen.

Many hymns in the book quote the Psalms, but one, it seems to me, is a psalm. Hymn # 129:

Where can I turn for peace?
Where is my solace
When other sources cease to make me whole?
When with a wounded heart, anger, or malice,
I draw myself apart,
Searching my soul?

Where, when my aching grows,
Where, when I languish,
Where, in my need to know, where can I run?
Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish?
Who, who can understand?
He, only One.

He answers privately,
Reaches my reaching
In my Gethsemane, Savior and Friend.
Gentle the peace he finds for my beseeching.
Constant he is and kind,
Love without end.

Members of the class had a chance to share some of the Psalms that spoke to them.  One brought a musical setting for one that someone she knew had composed, which was beautiful. I had sent out advance materials, such as the Ensign link, and the question of whether anyone wanted to try writing one of their own.  No one in my class had, though apparently two people in the evening class did.  I wrote this, as the Psalm of Marian: 

My way is not swift, but it is sure.  You lay it out before me, day by day, and I go forward.  When I begin to fear, you touch me with peace.  I cast but a thought to heaven and you calm my troubled heart.  Your name is comfort, comprehension, and hope, your touch on my soul is light and love.  Your arms encircle me to keep me from stumbling.

Darkness cannot touch me if your light shines ‘round. Evil cannot conquer, and despair cannot overcome.

You show me promises I cannot see the way to find, yet I know they are true, for you speak only truth.  I will wait upon them in patience and hope, and in each step I will be led, until I gain all and arrive indeed at joy. 

How then can I lack for any thing at all?  I will rejoice even in trial and sing even in grief, for you are with me always, and your promises will not fail.  Though I must pass through pain and trouble, you will at last bring me home.

Next time you open your scriptures, perhaps you might browse through the Psalms. Maybe you will write your own psalm, and cherish the experience.

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About Marian Stoddard

Marian J. Stoddard was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in its Maryland suburbs. Her father grew up in Carson City, Nevada, and her mother in Salt Lake City, so she was always partly a Westerner at heart, and she ended up raising her family in Washington State. Her family took road trips all over the United States and Canada, so there were lots of adventures.

The adventures of music, literature, and art were also valued and pursued. Playing tourist always included the local museums as well as historical sites and places of natural beauty. Discussions at home, around the dinner table or working in the kitchen, could cover politics, philosophy, or poetry, with the perspective of the gospel underlying all. Words and ideas, and testimony and service, were the family currency.

Marian graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, and attended the University of Utah as the recipient of the Ralph Hardy Memorial Scholarship, where she was graduated with honors, receiving a B.A. in English. She also met the love of her life, a law student, three weeks after her arrival; she jokes that she had to marry him because her mother always wanted a tenor in the family. (She sings second soprano.) They were married two years later and have six children and six grandchildren (so far). She treasures her family, her friends, and her opportunities to serve.

Visit Marian at her blog, greaterthansparrows.  You can contact her at bloggermarian@gmail.com. 

Marian and her husband live in Tacoma, Washington. Together they teach those who are preparing to go to the temple for the first time, and she also teaches a Stake Relief Society Institute class.

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