Why Are They Singing? A hymn festival celebrating Covenant history

Each year near the end of October the congregation at LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church gathers for an evening hymn festival. Last year the festival was called “Songs of the Covenant,” a service focusing on various biblical characters with whom God kept covenant. While the hymns and anthems were central to the festival, the pastor’s brief meditation entitled “Why Are They Singing?” set the tone and explained the theme for the entire service.

The short sermon (available here) based on Psalm 137 addressed the centrality of the covenant in the life of exiled Israel, and spoke of that covenant as the reason to sing the Lord’s song, even in a land of oppression. The pastor read various Scripture passages that represented moments in the covenant, or rather people with whom God kept covenant.

Because of its large size, our congregation is blessed with abundant musical gifts. With a bit of creativity, however, the hymn festival could easily be modified to accommodate any size church. Through Scripture and song, we celebrated our covenantal relationship with our faithful and unchanging God. The service was, in the words of one worshiper, “Reformed theology set to music.”

Service Notes

1 The service began on a festive tone with a brass, timpani, and organ prelude. Any piece with a praise theme would be equally appropriate. Our junior choir, accompanied by piano and flute, called us to worship using Harriet Ziegenhals’s “You Shall Have a Song,” based on Isaiah 30:29 and Psalm 100.

2 The brass quartet and timpani joined the organ and congregation in the stately processional hymn “The God of Abraham Praise.”

3 Our chancel choir sang a carol used frequently in the traditional service of Lessons and Carols, “The Lord at First Did Adam Make,” set by Stephen Cleobury.

4 We added a soprano descant on the final stanza of this wonderful hymn (see p. 19). If your soprano section is not large or strong enough to sing the descant, try assigning it to a woodwind or string player.

5 The call-and-response format of the spiritual “When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land” lent itself well to singing antiphonally, a fun practice that congregations of any size can master.

6 This anthem (GIA G-2950; call 1-800-496-3800) works best with piano and/or guitar accompaniment, with the choir singing the verses and the congregation joining on the prayerful refrain (which was reproduced in our bulletin from the back cover of the anthem).

7 The New Testament part of our covenantal journey began with George Dyson’s setting of the Magnificat in the English choral tradition. Several choral settings of this text are available; you may also wish to substitute a hymn such as “Song of Mary,” “Tell Out, My Soul,” or the Taizé chorus “Magnify the Lord.”

8 In celebrating the Song of the Angels, the congregation sang the well-known and loved refrain of “Angels We Heard On High” a cappella (with the exception of the organ zimbelstern) in harmony. On the final stanza we used a soprano descant and free harmonization by Larry Visser (see p. 32).

9 A brass and percussion interlude (from E. Power Biggs, Treasury of Early Organ Music) enhanced the strong hymn tune deo gracias, also known as “Agincourt Hymn.” In the absence of brass players, let the organ play this interlude on fiery reed stops.

10 The testimony of the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 1:12 is paraphrased in this hymn “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace.” Because there are very few, if any, settings of this hymn, our organist composed a free harmonization and descant for two trumpets.

11 We concluded with a concertato for congregation, choir, organ and handbells by Hal Hopson of the much-loved hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” The final lines were particularly fitting: “Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife: joyful music leads us sunward, in the triumph song of life.”

12 The choral benediction echoed the Song of Aaron from Numbers 6:24-26.





“Royal Brass Music” by Nicholas Guy (Concordia, 1987)
“Allemande” by Anthony Holborne (Concordia, 1983)

Call to Praise: “You Shall Have A Song” by Harriet Ziegenhals (Hope, 1985)

Processional Hymn: “The God of Abraham Praise” PsH 621; PH 488; RL 595; TH 34; TWC 66 st. 1-2, all; st. 3, men; st. 4, women; st. 5, all

Greeting from God


Scripture: Psalm 137

Meditation: “Why Are They Singing?”

Song of Adam: “The Lord at First Did Adam Make” by Stephen Cleobury (Oxford University Press, 1988)

Scripture: Genesis 9:8-16

Song of the Patriarchs: “You Are Our God; We Are Your People” PsH 272, SFL 203

st. 1, choir; st. 2, all; st. 3, women; st. 4, all with soprano descant

Scripture: Exodus 3:1-10

Song of Moses: “When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land” PsH 476; PH 334; SFL 103

st. 1, sing antiphonally; st. 2, choir; st. 3, women; st. 4, men; st. 5, sing antiphonally

Scripture: Psalm 28:6-9

Song of David: “Shepherd Me, O God” by Marty Haugen (GIA, 1986)
congregation joins on the refrain

Offering: “The Organ and Trumpet Offertory Processional” by David N. Johnson

Song of Mary: “Magnificat” by George Dyson (Novello)

Scripture: Luke 2:6-13

Song of the Angels: “Angels We Have Heard On High” PsH 347; PH 23; RL 206; SFL 133; TH 214; TWC 152

st. 1, all; st. 2, all (refrain a cappella); st. 3, all

Scripture: Ephesians 3:17b-21

Song of Christ: “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High” PsH 364; PH 83; RL 342, 343; TH 155; TWC 193

Brass and Percussion interlude; st. 1, all; Brass and Percussion interlude; st. 2, men; st. 3, women; st. 4, choir; Brass and Percussion interlude; st. 5, all; Brass and Percussion interlude

Scripture: 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Song of Paul: “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace” PsH 495; TH 705; TWC 493

st. 1, all; st. 2, choir (a cappella); st. 3, all

Closing Prayer

Closing Hymn: “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” arr. Hal Hopson (Laurel Press, 1999)

st. 1, all; st. 2, women; st. 3, men; st. 4, all

Song of Aaron: “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” by Larry Visser (Wayne Leupold Editions, 1999)

Moment of Silence

Postlude: “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” arr. Paul Manz (MorningStar, 1990).

Stanley R. Mast is minister of preaching at La Grave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Larry Visser is minister of music and organist at LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 57 © September 2000, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.