Singing Scripture: Suggestions for singing the readings for Advent and Christmas

Singing Scripture has always been a cherished part of Reformed worship. In fact, most of the early Reformed Christians limited their singing to scriptural texts, concentrating on the psalms. John Calvin himself said, "Singing [the psalms] we may be sure that our words come from God just as if he were to sing in us for his own exaltation."

Since Calvin's time, the practice of singing Scripture has been maintained in Reformed churches through the use of a variety of metrical Psalters published first in Scotland, England, the Netherlands, France, and Hungary—and later in North America. Today some Reformed churches continue to sing exclusively scriptural texts (the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, for example) while others have nearly abandoned the tradition, often ignoring even the rejuvenated Psalm sections of recent hymnals.

Yet several reasons commend reinvig-orating the practice of singing Scripture today. For one, singing Scripture focuses our attention on God's Word, capturing both the text and the mood of a given scriptural passage. As Reformed Christians, our worship centers around the Word of God as it is read and preached.

For another, choosing to sing scriptural songs sensitizes us to remain faithful to God's Word in our church music. The more we sing scriptural texts, the more leery we become of trite and unfaithful texts, and the more appreciative we become of poets who capture anew the power of a biblical image or theme in a new hymn or song. In this regard, special care must be given to choose musical settings that do justice to the context of a given biblical text.

For yet another, singing Scripture is a practice that every congregation is capable of joining in. The following listings, for example, include both ancient chants and contemporary African-American gospel psalm refrains, both large-scale choral settings and intimate settings for a single voice, both Genevan metrical settings and contemporary hymns. Singing Scripture is possible in every musical dialect.

Finally, singing the songs of Scripture has immense devotional value. It is a poignant way of putting us in touch with the many emotions and aspirations of the scriptural writers. Singing Scripture is also the surest way to memorize Scripture, to write the words of Scripture on our hearts. Think of the memory of many an aged saint whose childhood efforts to memorize the Psalter allowed him or her to sing Psalms long after the faculty of reading had faded.

The following list provides suggestions for singing the passages of Scripture found in Cycle A of the Revised Common Lectionary for Advent and Christmas. While many congregations may choose to sing only the psalms, musical settings for the other passages are suggested as well to aid in planning other aspects of the service. Since the Lectionary passages follow themes intrinsic to the Advent and Christmas seasons, congregations who do not follow the Lectionary will nevertheless be able to draw from this list.

The suggestions are grouped according to the following genres:

  • Metrical Settings are poetic recastings of the biblical text. They retain as much of the literal biblical text as possible, allowing for variation in order to maintain regular meter and rhyme. They most often are set to hymn tunes.
  • Responsorial Settings use the literal text of the Bible. They are often accompanied by an antiphon or refrain, which usually consists of one line of music that articulates the central theme of the text. The words "antiphon" and "refrain" are often used interchangeably. They are sometimes distinguished by reserving antiphon ("sung before") for a longer response that is only sung twice, before and after a given Scripture passage. The word refrain then appropriately refers to a shorter response that is sung not only before and after, but that is interspersed throughout the Scripture text. While the congregation may sing the entire text, a choir or soloist is often used to sing the scriptural text (see "Hymn of the Month," p. 23), with the congregation responding by singing the suggested refrain (thus the term "responsorial").
  • The Congregational Antiphons are suggestions for possible responsorial settings of the listed Scripture passages. They are one line of text and music that capture the central theme of a given passage. The antiphons can be used as a refrain by the congregation, choir, or soloist after a given passage is read or sung (see an example in the February "Hymn of the Month," pp. 25-26).
  • Choral Settings and Vocal Solo Settings use literal biblical texts, though some allow for minor rearrangement of the text for musical purposes.
  • The suggested Related Hymns and Scripture Songs are not settings of the given scriptural text but do relate to the theme or use a key image suggested by a text. Some of these hymns or Scripture songs may be used as a congregational antiphon, as described above. Choral arrangements and concertatos based on these hymns are also listed for many of the selections.

FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT

Isaiah 2:1-5

Congregational Antiphon

"Crown him the Lord of peace; his kingdom is at hand."
["Crown Him with Many Crowns," v. 3, first line (PH 151, PsH 410, RL 600, TH 295)]

Related Hymns

Behold the Mountain of the Lord"
[RL 166]

Christ Is the World's True Light"
[PsH 600,RL 181]

"Crown Him with Many Crowns"
[PH 151, PsH 410, RL 600, TH 295; eoncertatos by Walter Pelz (Augsburg), Richard Proulx (Augsburg), S. Drummond Wolff (Concordia)]

"O God of Every Nation"
[PH 289, PsH 606]

"O God of Love, O King of Peace"
[PH 295, PsH 608, RL 491, TH 712]

"Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples"
[PH 434]

Psalm 122

Metrical Settings

"I Was Glad They Came to Call Me"
[PsH 122]

"O 'Twas a Joyful Sound to Hear"
[TH 344]

"With Joy I Heard My Friends Exclaim"
[PH 235]

Responsorial Settings

Celebration Psalter, p. 94

"I Rejoiced When I Heard Them," Joseph B Smith
[G.I.A. G-2775]

"Let Us Go Rejoicing," Haugen
[in Psalms for Oie Church Year Vol. I]

"Psalm for Advent"
[Lead Me, Guide Me, p. 503]

Psalm Refrains, Hopson, pp. 2,7

Congregational Antiphon:

"I Will Enter His Gates," Leona Von Brethorst
[Maranatha Praise, 197 (Maranatha! Music)]

Choral Settings

"I Was Glad When They Said to Me," Richard Hillert
[Concordia 97-5545]

"I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me," James Engel (SATB)
[Concordia 11-4677]

"I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me," C. Hubert Parry
[H.W. Gray CMR 2404]

Related Hymn

"Gladly to God's Holy Temple"
[RL 500]

Related Scripture Song

"I Will Enter His Gates," Leona Von Brethorst
[ Maranatha Praise , 197 (Maranatha! Music)]

Romans 13:11-14

Choral Setting

"Rejoice, O Jerusalem, Behold Thy King Cometh," Healey Willan
[Concordia 98-1506]

Related Hymns

"Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding"
[PsH 332; SATB descant in Hymns pr Clwirs, Willcocks (Oxford)]

"Lo! I Come with Joy"
[RL 470]

"Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying"
[PsH 613, TH 317; choral settings by Bach/John Rutter
(Oxford, Carols for Choirs 2)]

■ Matthew 24:36-44

Choral Settings

"Jesus Christ Is the Way", Walter Hawkins

"Let Your Eye Be to the Lord," Daniel Moe
[Augsburg 11-0544]

SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT

Isaiah 11:1-10

Congregational Antiphon

Refrain of "O Come, O Come, Immanuel"
[PH 9, PsH 328, RL 184, TH 194]

Choral Settings

"Fanfares," Daniel Pinkham
[E.C. Schirmer 4209]

"The Peaceable Kingdom," Dolores Hruby (unison)
[Concordia 98-2098]

Related Hymns

"Eternal God, Whose Power Upholds"
[PH 412,RL 481]

"Isaiah the Prophet Has Written of Old"
[PH 337, PsH 616]

"Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming"
[PH 48, PsH 351, RL 204, TH 221; choral settings by Hugo Distler (Concordia), Alf Houkom (Concordia), Robert Sholz (Morning Star), and Roy Zimmerman (Shawnee)]

"O Come, O Come, Immanuel"
[PH 9, PsH 328, RL 184, TH 194; choral setting by John Rutter (Oxford)]

"O Day of Peace"
[PH 450]

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Metrical Setting

"Hail to the Lord's Anointed"
[PH 205, PsH 72, RL 232, TH 311; concertato by Roy Hopp (CRC Publications)]

Responsorial Settings

Celebration Psalter, p. 48

"Every Nation on Earth Will Adore You," Haugen
[Psalms for the Churth Year, Vol. I]

"Justice Shall Flourish"
[PH 204]

"Psalm for Epiphany"
[Lead Me, Guide Me, p. 506]

Psalm Refrains, Hopson, pp. 5, 9

Choral Setting

"Hail to the Lord's Anointed," Seth Bingham
[Flammer 84910]

Related Hymns

"Christ Shall Have Dominion"
[PsH 541, TH 439]

"Jesus Shall Reign"
[PH 423, PsH 412, RL 233, TH 441; anthem by S. Drummond Wolff (Morning Star), concertato by James Engel (Augsburg)]

"O God, Your Judgments Give the King"
[TH 312]

Related Scripture Song

"Jesus Is Our King," Sherrell Prebble and Howard Clark

Romans 15:4-13

Related Hymns

"God Is in His Temple"
[RL 613]

"Hope of the World"
[PH 360, PsH 524, RL 414, TH 594]

Matthew 3:1-12

Related Hymns

"On Jordan's Banks the Baptist's Cry"
[PH10, PsH 327, RL187; choral setting with alternate text by Willcocks in Carols for Clioirs II (Oxford)]

"Wild and Lone the Prophet's Voice"
[PH 409]

THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT

Isaiah 35:1-10

Metrical Setting

"The Desert Shall Rejoice"
[PH 18]

Choral Settings

"Springs in the Desert," Arthur Jennings
[Novello 290599]

Vocal Settings

"The Ransomed of the Lord," Don Humphreys
[in Sing to the Lord (Willis)]

"The Ransomed of the Lord," James MacDermid
[Forster]

"The Wilderness," Eric Thiman
[Novello]

Related Hymns

"Hail to the Brightness of Zion's Glad Morning"
[RL 180,TH 346]

"Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand"
[PsH 619, RL 580, TH 323]

Psalm 146:5-10

Metrical Settings

"I'll Praise My Maker"
[PH 253]

"Praise the Lord! Sing Hallelujah!"
[PsH 146, TH 57 (alt. text)]

Responsorial Settings

Celebration Psalter, p. 106

"I Will Praise My God"
[PH 254]

"Praise the Lord, My Soul," Rory Cooney
[in Psalms for the Church Year, Vol. IV]

"Praise the Lord, O My Soul," Michael Sullivan
[G.I.A. G-2370]

Psalm Refrains, Hopson, pp. 2,7

Choral Settings

"A Song of Hope," Raymond Haan (unison)
[AMSI 280]
[or, in place of the psalm, sing the Song of Mary, Luke 1:47-55 (see p. 22)]

James 5:7-10

Related Hymn

Be Still, My Soul
[RL154,TH 689]

Matthew 11:2-11

Choral Setting

"Go and Tell John," Lloyd Pfautsch
[available in SATB, SAB, TTBB, and SSA from Hope Publishing Company]

FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT

Isaiah 7:10-16

Related Hymn

"O Come, O Come, Immanuel" [PH 9, PsH 328, RL 184, TH 194; see earlier choral settings]

Related Scripture Song

"Emmanuel," Boby McGee
[Mamnatlia Praise, 16 (Mamnatha! Music)]

Psalm 80:1-7,17-19

Metrical Settings

"Hear Us, O Shepherd of Your Chosen Race"
[PsH 80]

"O Hear Our Cry, O Lord"
[PH 206]

"O Thou Who the Shepherd of Israel Art"
[TH 349]

Responsorial Settings

Celebration Psalter, p. 52

"Lord, Make Us Turn to You," Haugen
[in Psalms for the Church Year, Vol. II]

Congregational Antiphon

Refrain of "Protect Me, God: I Trust in You"
[PsH 16]

Choral Setting

"Matin Responsory" Palestrina (adapted)
[in Carols for Gioirs 11 (Oxford University Press)]

Vocal Settings

"Psalm 79," Daniel Pinkham
[Composers Facsimile Edition]

Romans 1:1-7

Related Hymn

"God of the Prophets"
[PsH 521, RL 429; settings by Paul Bunjes (Concordia) and James Engel (Augsburg)]

Matthew 1:18-25

Vocal Settings

"Behold, A Virgin Shall Be With Child," John La Montaine
[in Songs of the Nativity (H.W Gray)]

"Christmas Prophecy" Bob Burroughs
[in New Testament Songs (Hope Publishing 501)]

Related Hymn

"O Come, O Come, Immanuel"
[PH 9, PsH 328, RL 184, TH 194; see earlier choral settings]

CHRISTMAS DAY

Isaiah 9:2-7

Metrical Setting

"The People Who in Darkness Walked"
[PsH 192]

Congregational Antiphon

Refrain of 'Arise, Shine, for Your Light Is Come"
[PsH 198]

Choral Settings

"Great Light," James Fritschel [Hinshaw HMC-147]

"Unto Us A Child is Born," Healey Willian
[in We Praise Thee, Part I (Concordia 97-7564)]

Vocal Settings "The People That Walked in Darkness,"Lillian V Klass
[Transcontinental Press]

Related Hymns

"Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light"
[PH 26, PsH 343]

"Christ Is the World's True Light"
[PsH 600, RL 181]

"O God of Every Nation"
[PH 289, PsH 606]

"The Race That Long in Darkness Pined"
[RL 167]

"To Us a Child of Hope is Born"
[TH 233]

Psalm 96

Metrical Settings

"Sing to the LORD, Sing His Praise"
[PsH 96, TH 62; anthem settings by Dale Grotenhuis (Dordt College)]

"O Sing a New Song to the Lord"
[PH 216]

Responsorial Settings

Celebration Psalter, 70

"O Sing a New Song"
[PH 217]

"Proclaim to All the Nations," Haas, Haugen
[in Psalms for the Church Year, Vol. III]

"Psalm for Christmas"
[Lead Me, Guide Me, 504]

Psalm Refrains, Hopson, pp. 10,13

"Today is Born Our Savior," Haugen
[in Psalms for the Church Year Vol. II]

Choral Settings

"Let the Whole Earth Stand in Awe," G.F. Handel/Hines (SAB)
[Concordia 98-2473]

"Psalm 96," Wilbur Held (SAB)
[in Seasonal Psalms for Congregation and Qioir (Augsburg 11-9376)]

Related Hymns

"Joy to the World"
[PH 40, PsH 337 RL 198, TH 195; setting by John Rutter (Hinshaw)]

"Let All The World in Every Corner Sing"
[PH 468, RL11, TH 20]

"Our God is Mighty, Worthy Of All Praising"
[TH 454]

Titus 2:11-14

Related Hymns

"Christ Is Coming!"
[TH 324]

"I Greet My Sure Redeemer and My King"
[PH 457, PsH 248, RL 366, TH 168]

"I Will Sing of My Redeemer"
[PsH 479, TH 650]

Metrical Settings

"From Heaven Above to Earth I Come"
[PH 54, PsH 339, RL 207 TH 220]

"While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks"
[PsH 215]

Choral Setting

"The Christmas Gospel," Martin Mayer
[in Third Morning Star Choir Book (Concordia 97-4972)]

Vocal Settings

Christmas Story, Heinrich Schutz
[Coburn Press (G. Schirmer)]

"There Were Shepherds," George E Handel
[from Messiah (Carl Fischer, G. Schirmer, Novello)]

Related Hymns

"Christians, Awake"
[PsH 350, RL 197 TH 209]

"It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"
[PH38,TH 200]

"Sheep Fast Asleep"
[RL 211]

"The Prophets Came to Israel"
[PsH 334]

"While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks"
[PH 58-59, PsH 215, RL 199-200, TH 222-223]

Related Scripture Song

"Glory to God"
[PsH 214]

FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS

Isaiah 63:7-9

Related Hymns

"Awake, My Soul, in Joyful Lays"
[TH 183]

"Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven"
[PH 478, PsH 475, RL 144, TH 76-77]

Congregational Antiphon

"I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever, I will sing of the mercies of the Lord."
["I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord Forever" v. 1, second line (PsH 169)]

Psalm 148

Metrical Settings

"Let the Whole Creation Cry"
[PH 256]

"Praise Him, Praise Him, Praise Him"
[TH 121]

"Praise the LORD! O Heavens Adore Him"
[PsH 148, RL 3]

"Praise the Lord Our God"
[TH 124]

"Praise the Lord, Sing Hallelujah"
[PsH 188, TH 110]

"Praise Ye, Praise Ye the Lord"
[TH 112]

"You Holy Angels Bright"
[TH 18]

Responsorial Settings

"Let All Praise the Name of the Lord," Joseph Smith
[G.I.A. G-2989]

Choral Settings

"Psalm 148," William Billings
[Concordia 98-2196]

"Psalm 148," Gustav Holst
[E.C. Schirmer 1.5015]

"Song of Praise," Knut Nystedt
[Augsburg 11-0656]

Vocal Setting

"Praise Ye The Lord" (Psalm 148), Ned Rorem
[Southern Press, from Cycle of Holy Songs]

Related Hymns

"All Creatures of Our God and King"
[PH 455, PsH 431, RL 4, TH 115; concertato by John Rutter (Oxford)]

"All Things Bright and Beautiful"
[PH 267 PsH 435, RL 15, TH 120]

"God Created Heaven and Earth"
[PH 290]

"Let All Things Now Living"
[PH 554, PsH 453 TH 125]

"Praise the Lord with the Sound of Trumpet"
[PsH 569]

Hebrews 2:10-18

Related Hymns

"My Faith Looks Up to Thee"
[PH 383, PsH 262, RL 446, TH 528]

"The Head that Once Was Crowned"
[PH 149, PsH 411, RL 335, TH 298; concertatos by George Brandon (G.I.A.) and Carl Schalk (G.I.A.)]

Matthew 2:13-23

Related Hymns

"A La Ru: O Sleep, Dear Holy Baby"
[PH 45]

"In Bethlehem a Newborn Boy"
[PH 35]

"Unto Us A Boy is Born"
[RL 226]

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Metrical Setting

"I Am the LORD Your God"
[PsH 199]

Congregational Antiphon

"Sing Praise to God who reigns above, the God of all creation"
['Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above," first line (PH 483, PsH 465, RL146)]

Psalm 147:12-20

Metrical Settings

"Now Praise the Lord"
[PH 255]

"Sing Praise to Our Creator"
[PsH 147]

"With Songs and Honors Sounding Loud"
[TH 127]

Responsorial Settings

"Bless the Lord, My Soul," Marty Haugen
[in Psalms for the Church Year, Volume II (G.I. A.)]

Celebration Psalter, 108

Psalm Refrains, Hopson, pp. 10,13

Congregational Antiphon

"Sing praise to our Creator: How good his name to praise!"
["Sing Praise to Our Creator," first line (PsH 147)]

Choral Setting

"Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem," Malcom Williamson
[Boosey and Hawkes 5959]

Related Hymn

"Creating God, Your Fingers Trace"
[PH 134, PsH 605]

Ephesians 1:3-14

Metrical Setting

"Give Thanks to God, the Father"
[PsH 225; concertato by Jacobus Kloppers (CRC Publications)]

Related Hymns

"For Your Gift of God the Spirit"
[PsH 416, RL 382, TH 339; see alternate harmonization and descant, RW 3]

"Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather"
[PH 465, PsH 251]

"How Vast the Benefits Divine"
[PsH 497, TH 470]

"Lord, with Glowing Heart I'd Praise Thee"
[TH 80]

John 1:1-9, 10-18

Metrical Setting

"In the Beginning Was the Word Eternal"
[PsH 218]

Choral Setting

"The Word Was Made Flesh" Healey Willan
[in We Praise Thee, W. 2 (Concordia 97-7160)]

Vocal Setting

"In the Beginning Was the Word," McNeil Robinson
[in Eleven Scriptural Songs (Cobum Press)]

Related Hymns

"At the Name of Jesus"
[PH 148, PsH 467, RL 336, TH 163; choral setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford)]

"God, Your Glory We Have Seen in Your Son"
[RL 541]

"Of the Father's Love Begotten"
[PH 309, PsH 342, RL 190-191, TH 162; concertatos by John Behnke (Morning Star), Thomas Gieshen (Concordia); choral settings by Paul Christiansen (Augsburg), and Sir David Willcocks (Oxford, Carols for Choirs II)]

"O Word of God Incarnate"
[PH 327, PsH 279, RL 3S7, TH 140]

"Thanks to God Whose Word Was Written"
[PH 331]

"Thy Strong Word Did Cleave the Darkness"
[RL 386]

The hymns in this service were selected from the most recent editions of the following hymnals: The Presbyterian Hymnal (PH), Psalter Hymnal (PsH), Rejoice in the Lord (EL), and the Trinity Hymnal (TH).

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin College.