Article

History of Hymns: “Blessed Be the God of Israel”

by Andrew Butler

"Blessed Be the God of Israel"
Michael Perry
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 209

Michael Perry

Blessed be the God of Israel,
who comes to set us free,
who visits and redeems us,
and grants us liberty.
The prophets spoke of mercy,
of freedom and release;
God shall fulfill the promise
to bring our people peace.*


Canon Michael Perry (1942-1996), a most beloved Anglican priest and hymn writer, was born in Beckenham, Kent, England. He was ordained to the ministry in 1965, and married Beatrice Mary Stott in 1967. 

He was elected to the General Synod of the Church of England in 1985 and again in 1994. In 1989 he was appointed to his last posting as Vicar of Tonbridge, Kent. He was appointed chairman of the Church Pastoral Aid Society in 1993. 

Beginning in early 1996, Perry was increasingly disabled by an inoperable brain tumor from which he died at home on Dec. 9, 1996. 

In the early 1960s, Michael Baughen founded the Jubilate group. According to Perry, the group pooled their talents to meet the challenge of a new generation in the UK who wished to extend their singing beyond the foursquare ways of metrical hymnody and the unpredictability of Anglican chant. With the newfound popularity of his “Calypso Carol” and the support of the Church Pastoral Aid Society, Youth Praise 2 was published in 1969. 

In that same year, Baughen began a new project to revitalize the use of Psalms. Perry had been working on paraphrases, including his famous paraphrase of the “Benedictus,” “O praise the God of Israel,” as well as several Psalms. Baughen asked him to join this project, which was published in 1973 as Praise Psalms

George Shorney of Hope Publishing Company took interest in their work and had already enlisted the independent cooperation of Timothy Dudley-Smith. By securing the publication rights in the United States of the greater Jubilate Hymns group, Shorney hoped to enrich hymn repertoires with English hymn writers. 

Perry felt that chant settings of the canticles were difficult for ordinary congregations to easily sing. Soon after his ordination, he began to render the canticles from the Book of Common Prayer (1662) into metrical paraphrases. He wanted not only to make them easier to sing, but also to be more easily understood. “Blessed be God” is one such paraphrase of the “Benedictus” or the “Song of Zechariah.” 

One of 300 hymns, Perry first published his paraphrase in Praise Psalms under the title “O Praise the God of Israel.” 

The text of the “Benedictus” comes from Luke 1:68-79. Zechariah had been made dumb during his wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. When he hears of his son’s birth, his tongue is loosed for his song of praise to the Lord God of Israel. 

The first eight verses of the “Benedictus” parallel the “Magnificat” and the last four identify John the Baptist as Jesus’ forerunner. Because of its imagery of Christ as the “dayspring” or “dawn” of God’s new creation, it became associated with the morning office of Constantinople and with lauds in the Roman and Benedictine offices. 

A variety of terms refer to John the Baptist in stanza two including “herald,” “forerunner,” “prophet of salvation” and “harbinger.” Perry condenses the metaphor in the canticle referring to Christ as the “day-spring from on high” and John as the messenger as the “harbinger of Day.” 

The last line of the hymn—“with songs that never cease!”—would seem to be a hyperbole at first glance, but the text is a literal understanding of eschatology. Our songs will never cease in heaven.
 

© 1973 Hope Publishing Co, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Mr. Butler is a student in the Master of Sacred Music program at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, and studies hymnology with Dr. Michael Hawn.

Categories: History of Hymns