By Jesse Halsey
McCormick Speaking | c1950
Many contemporary efforts to “adorn” the service fall miserably short because of inadequate musical facilities, but the use of Holy Scripture for the enrichment of worship never fails to accomplish its purpose. Invitations to worship, introductions to hymns, calls to prayer, use of passages in prayers, responsive readings, versicles, litanies, and benedictions—each and all in Scriptural language—help to lead the worshiper into the presence of God.
Such uses of Holy Scripture help to elevate the language of the petitioner. Phrases from ancient litanies, by sheer contrast, will expose the thinness of thought and relative crudity of expression in the language of the average minister, but the introduction of Holy Scripture never humiliate but rather tends to ennoble the verbiage and to redeem the angularities in the speech of the petitioner. Biblical language, with its main reliance upon strong verbs and nouns, will help to clip the wings of fancy and eliminate extravagant adjectives. Anyone who will live with the glorious language of the King James version for a month, reading aloud, devotionally, and appropriating the great phrases, will unconsciously be developing more meaningful and more beautiful forms of expression for himself.
The leader in public worship seeks, both for himself and for those who follow, to make the soul conscious of God. Words are his instrument, and a carefully chosen phrase of Holy Scripture that expresses some attribute of the Eternal, brought into the opening sentences of a petition, creates an impression, an idea, a thought-channel by which the Eternal God is in some definite way made available to human thought. “In whose hand our breath is and whose are all our ways,” immediately suggests the dependence of the creature upon the Creator. In a short phrase, it glorifies God, and at the same time, expresses a requisite humility on the part of the worshiper.
Relative phrases, linking one definite attribute in the character of the all-sufficient God and Father to a specific human need, tend to keep the thought from wandering and make the petition definite. Each succeeding portion of the pastoral prayer—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication—may well be introduced by such a relative phrase.
The introduction of a hymn of praise might appropriately take some such form as the following: “O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.” (Ps. 95)
Instead of always saying, “Let us pray” (much better in the simple form than its uncertain variations), why not preface prayer with a word of Scripture: e.g., “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; . . . they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31); or, “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’”; or, “The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in Truth” (Ps. 145:18); or, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7). Then add, “Let us pray,” or, “Let us lift up our hearts with our voices unto God.”
The Versicle is a short responsive prayer. It is the most obvious way to give the people some part in the worship. It can be used effectively as a responsive call to prayer. For example:
V. “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8).
R. “Underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:27).
V. “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”
R. “And renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).
Responsive Readings, now generally included in all hymn books, give the whole congregation an opportunity to participate. Those who cannot sing, thus have an opportunity to take a vocal part in the worship.
Litanies of varying length with Scriptural responses such as “For his mercy endureth forever” (Ps. 136), or, “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Ps. 103:1), or, “Lord, have mercy upon us” (Luke 17:13), (the response fitting the context), are cumulatively rewarding in deepening congregational participation and devotional expression.
No “man-made” exhortation can equal a Scriptural “cento” for emphasizing the obligations of stewardship and for introducing the Offertory: e.g. “Neither will I offer unto the Lord my God of that which cost me nothing . . .”; “Owe no man anything, but to love one another” (II Sam. 24:24, Rom. 13:8); or, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift”; “Freely ye have received, freely give” (II Cor. 9:15, Matt. 10:8).
The note of adoration should always be sounded early in the service. The Scriptures furnish an abundance of material such as: Thou, Lord, “of old hast laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands . . .”; and “Thou art the same and thy years shall have no end” (Ps. 102: 25-27); “Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power . . .” (Rev. 5:13); “Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty . . .” (Rev. 15:3). Numerous other passages suggest themselves: I Tim. 1:17; II Thess. 2-16; Eph. 3:20; Rom. 9:33-36. For thanksgiving in Scriptural form there is an abundance of material not only in Psalms like the 103rd, but in New Testament passages such as II Tim. 1:9-10; Col. 2:14-15; Eph. 2:14-21; Col. 1:12-13; Eph. 1:3-12.
Minor editing, such as changing pronouns to the plural, will make available numerous prayers such as those found in Eph. 1 and 3, Phil 1, Gal. 3, etc. What could be more effective than the confession of national sins in the words of Daniel 9:4-6, 17-19, or of Nehemiah 1!
Scripture lessons should be chosen, not only to emphasize the points of the sermon, but also to introduce the congregation to the broad compass of Holy Writ. Each service of any length should have an Old Testament lesson, as well as one from the New Testament, also some portion of the Psalms. This will require selection and study, and every leader of worship should begin to perfect his own Lectionary, wherein he records appropriate combinations of Scripture under special headings. For example, A Goodly Heritage, Ps. 16; Gen. 28: 10-19; Eph. 3; Fearlessness, Ps 27; Esther 4:10; 5:4; Acts 4:1-13; True Worship, Ps. 42; I Kings 20: 9-12; John 4: 15-26; God’s Presence, Ps 139; Rom. 8:35-39; God Over All, Isa. 40: 12-31; Acts 17:22-31.
Ascriptions, benedictions, and doxologies are numerous in the New Testament and should be introduced to break the monotony of the staid few that are constantly used. The exact use of the Scriptural wording is far superior to the profuse clerical improvisations so often heard! An ascription is an appropriate and impressive and reverential ending for the sermon: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever” (I Tim. 1:17); or, “now unto him that is able to keep you from falling . . .” (Jude 24, 25). Benedictions such as the following are suggested: “Grace be unto you and peace from him which is, and which was, and which is to come . . .” (Rev. 1: 4ff); or, “Now our Lord Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work” (II Thess. 2:16-17); or, “The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patient waiting for Christ” (II Thess. 3:5); or, “Now the Lord of peace himself give you peace always by all means. The Lord be with you all” (II Thess. 3:16).
Searching the Scriptures in this manner, one develops increasingly a facility of expression and a devotional appreciation that elevates one’s own language and makes it more definite. A loose-leaf notebook should be kept, and as one reads the Bible for devotional or homiletical purposes, the verses that have liturgical value should be noted (and then used). There is nothing that one would like to say to God or about God, or concerning the deep things of the Spirit, that is not said better somewhere in the Old Book.
To “read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest” the great passages of Holy Writ is the most rewarding exercise for liturgical and devotional purposes in which the minister ever engages.