Psalm 136 and Repetition

A couple days ago, I posted about the hymn “Days of Elijah” and my complicated perspective on it.  Even though I didn’t introduce the topic myself, at one point, the conversation drifted to the bridge of “Days of Elijah”, which repeats the phrase “There’s no God like Jehovah,” about 20 times.  Lots of people don’t care for the repetition, said so, and provoked the usual online discussion/argument about repetition in hymns. 

REPETITION IN PSALM 136

Also as usual, one of the pro-repetition folks introduced Psalm 136 into the back-and-forth.  For those who haven’t participated much in the worship wars, Psalm 136 is the most overtly repetitive psalm in the book of Psalms.  Other psalms use repetition (here, I think particularly of Psalm 42/43), but commonly, the repeated phrase is as long as one of our verses.  Psalm 136 stands out for its use of a much shorter phrase, “for His steadfast love endures forever” in alternate lines throughout the psalm.  As a result, it looks much more like a contemporary praise chorus than Psalm 42/43 does.

Clearly, Psalm 136 doesn’t support the argument that all repetition in sacred song is bad.  I don’t think anybody actually believes that it is, even though shorthand condemnations of “repetition” might lead to that conclusion.  On the other hand, I don’t see it supporting the argument that all repetition is good either.

The problem is that Psalm 136 is using repetition in a particular way for a particular purpose.  I agree with those who argue that it was originally a responsorial psalm, with a cantor singing the odd-numbered lines and the congregation responding each time with “for His steadfast love endures forever”.  Even in print, though, with all the musical directions stripped out, the psalm continues to make the same point.  It begins with God’s actions in creation, goes through the history of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, and concludes with examples of God’s everyday providence.

Why did God do these things?  Why did He spread out the earth above the waters?  Why did He overthrow Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea?  Why does He give food to all flesh?

Because His steadfast love endures forever, that’s why!

Psalm 136, then, doesn’t use repetition for repetition’s sake.  It uses it to make a thematic point.  Because God’s steadfast love endures forever, it reveals itself in all of His actions.  Everything that God does, we can trace back to His enduring, steadfast love.  How profound!

REPETITION IN “GIVE ME THE BIBLE”

Repetition in sacred song is most effective when it makes a similar point.  The entire song isn’t repetitive; instead, only part of it is.  The rest of the song examines a variety of circumstances in which the repeated line remains true.

Consider, for instance, my favorite hymn, the 19th-century gospel standard “Give Me the Bible”.  The hymn is undeniably repetitive, and the line that it repeats isn’t even a Scriptural quotation.  However, repetition is effective in “Give Me the Bible” because it employs the Psalm 136 strategy.  It considers a variety of circumstances and prompts us to demand the Bible in each one of them.

I’m sad and fearful?  Give me the Bible!  I’m being tempted?  Give me the Bible!  I’m dying?  Give me the Bible!  Because the Bible is God’s lamp to our feet and light to our way, it is useful in every time of our lives, and it will continue to be useful to God’s people for as long as this world continues.  That too is a profound thought highlighted by repetition.

PROBLEMS WITH REPETITION

Hymns that follow this diverse-circumstances same-truth pattern will never be problematic in their repetition.  However, repetition stops being as purposeful and powerful if either half of the pattern breaks down.

This happens first of all when the repeated truth isn’t particularly powerful.  This is the case with the Stamps-Baxter two-pager “It Won’t Be Very Long”.  It uses a structure very similar to Psalm 136, but unlike Psalm 136, the repeated phrase is weak and possibly untrue.

“It won’t be very long till all the saints get home”?  How can we possibly know that, unless the definition of “not very long” is expanded to the point of meaninglessness?  I don’t think there’s premillennialism in “Days of Elijah”, but I suspect it’s present in “It Won’t Be Very Long”.  If we could know the day and the hour, “It Won’t Be Very Long” would be a useful reminder (assuming, of course, that the Last Judgment was indeed imminent), but as it is, the hymn doesn’t have much to offer.

Problems also arise when a strong truth isn’t tied to diverse circumstances that reinforce its universality.  Psalm 136 doesn’t read, “For His steadfast love endures forever, for His steadfast love endures forever, for His steadfast love endures forever” (x36).  The psalm gains its power from the interplay between the repeated phrase and all the other lines, which aren’t repeated.

For this reason, I’m not a big fan of the repetition in “Days of Elijah”.  I think the hymn is much stronger without it.  I have no objection to the phrase, “There’s no God like Jehovah!”  I simply wonder what it’s doing there.

Imagine, for instance, a hymn with the structure,

[God did X impressive thing.]
There’s no God like Jehovah!
[God did Y impressive thing.]
There’s no God like Jehovah!

That would be very repetitive.  It would also be very Psalm 136-like, and I think it would make for a strong hymn.

However, that’s not how the bridge in “Days of Elijah” uses the phrase.  Instead, it’s repeated against itself, over and over again.  Certainly, in worship, I do my best to attach content to the repetition, but it would be much easier to worship with the bridge if the writer had done that for me, especially when the content of the hymn doesn’t tie directly to the repetition (the point of “Days of Elijah” isn’t really that God is above all other gods).  It’s tough to use Psalm 136 to justify the bridge when the bridge doesn’t function like the psalm does.

MUSICALLY DRIVEN REPETITION

It’s also worth noting that in many repetitive praise songs, the repetition is present for a different reason than in Psalm 136.  It’s commonly driven by music.  Because praise songs often don’t have a regular meter (a consistent number of syllables per line), repetition of a lyrical phrase allows for musical repetition (at least of rhythm, possibly of melody and harmony too), which makes the song easier for a congregation to learn.

To put things another way, repetition in contemporary sacred song is generally a way of creating structure at the expense of content.  This is not necessarily a problem, but it does tend to limit a song’s usefulness in teaching.  Simple messages work well for simple minds, which is why many children’s songs are ultra-repetitive.  The minds of adults, though, will benefit from more content to chew on.

Content like the content of Psalm 136.

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