One of the best-known and loved metrical psalms still in wide use today is this setting of Psalm 100. Metrical psalms used to be the core of what was sung in Protestant worship services (by Presbyterians, Anglicans, congregationalists and others). Metrical psalms are biblical psalms that have been versified to fit the various standard meters of tunes in common use for singing in congregational worship. The Protestant reformers wanted to restore congregational singing to the worship of the church, and they wanted Christians to know and sing the psalms as the main “hymnbook” of the church, so they deliberately sought to compile good, singable renditions of biblical psalms and suitable tunes for churches to use in public worship.
This metrical psalm text is first found in Fourscore and Seven Psalms of David (published in Geneva, Switzerland: 1561). It is attributed to William Kethe (whose birth date is unknown but who died June 6, 1594, in Dorsetshire, England). Kethe was (we think) from Scotland. He is recorded among the Marian exiles (that is, Protestant’s who had to flee England during the religious persecutions by the Roman Catholic Queen Mary Tudor, after the death of her Protestant brother King Edward VI). He was in Frankfurt, Germany in 1555 and in Geneva, Switzerland in 1557. This suggests he was part of the company of those loyal to John Knox. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Kethe served as Rector to the parish of Child Okeford in Dorset, (1561–1593).
Kethe helped translate the Geneva Bible in 1560 and contributed twenty-five psalms to the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, all of which were later included in the 1564 Scottish Psalter. His version of Psalm 100 is known as “Old Hundredth.” If you have never heard it before, you really should listen to the majestic arrangement of if by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The tune that Kethe’s text is usually sung to was probably composed by the famed Louis Bourgeois. Bourgeois was born, circa 1510, in Paris, France and followed John Calvin to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1541, where he became a cantor at the Church of St. Pierre, and edited the Genevan Psalter. At one point, he was jailed for modifying some well known tunes. Being a church musician has always had its challenges. The tune was composed before Kethe’s metrical psalm, but they are the perfect match.
Kethe’s rendering is very faithful to the flow of the biblical text. Here are how three English versions that were near contemporary’s of Kethe translate. Miles Coverdale, in the Great Bible (1539), puts it this way Psalm 100 A Psalm for thanksgiving:
Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell; Come ye before Him and rejoice.
We are His folk, He doth us feed, And for His sheep He doth us take.
Praise, laud, and bless His Name always, For it is seemly so to do.
His truth at all times firmly stood, And shall from age to age endure.
I love the progression of this psalm. It calls us to worship, to worship God only, with thanksgiving and gives us a reason for doing so. That is, it gives us the that of worship [vv. 1-2, the psalm is a call to worship, and thus reminds us THAT we should worship], the who of worship [v. 3, the object of worship is the most important thing in worship, verse three tells you WHO to worship], the how of worship [v.4, this sentence tells you HOW to approach the Lord, with thanksgiving and praise] and the why of worship [v. 5, and the psalm concludes with an explanation of WHY you should come to God with thanksgiving, praise and blessing, or more broadly, it explains WHY you should worship God – because he is good, his covenant love is everlasting and his truth is enduring]. So you learn a theology of worship as you worship!