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“My God and King” and the Beginning of the Timeless Psalter/Commentary Project

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My next several blog posts will be stories behind some of the songs from Timeless: Ancient Psalms for the Church Today Psalter/Commentary series. Timeless is a commentary set of all new translations and commentaries on the psalms by established Old Testament scholars for the layperson. Timeless also includes 2–3 new musical settings following each psalm to enhance worship and reflection, study and devotion. Timeless books may be purchased through acupressbooks.com, Amazon.com, or timelesspsalter.com. Professionally recorded CDs and booklets of the music may be purchased through CDBaby.com and timelesspsalter.com

In August 2005 I was asked to teach a series of classes in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the school at that time named “Institute of Theology and Christian Ministry.” I was to stay in an apartment designated for visiting faculty in a recently purchased building near the School of Philology of St. Petersburg University. My host, an American missionary, was going to be visiting the US for most of my three week stay. He requested that I teach my courses in the morning at the building shared by the ITCM and the School of Philology, then return immediately to the faculty apartment and remain there for the rest of each day. The apartment came replete with world war II and romance DVDs, which I amused myself watching those afternoons. 

The first week I was there, the students sang a Russian hymn in chapel, “Tsar Moi y Bog” (“My God and King”). I was immediately captivated by the hymn and thought it would do well in English translation. I mentioned this to the composer, Konstantin Zhigulin, and immediately set about trying to write such a translation. The next day or two, I heard a knock on the door of the faculty apartment. It was Konstantin, with other songs he wished to translate into English. For the balance of my stay in Russia, Konstantin would come by in the afternoons and we would try to come up with good translations of his hymns into English—me, with my non-existent Russian, and him, with his reasonably good, but shaky English. By the time the three weeks were up, we had translated about 15-20 of his hymns into English.

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James Tackett and Konstantin Zhigulin

Two years earlier, I had mentioned to Mel Witcher, Austin Grad alum and band director at Brentwood Christian School, that we ought to begin our own metrical psalter project, as such a thing did not then exist in churches of Christ. Mel smiled, but was non-committal at that time. We were working together on a “Metrical Psalter Review” project, spear-headed by David Worley, and many on the committee had expressed dissatisfaction with the metrical psalters then available, relative to lyrics, tune, and marriage of text and tune. My trip to Russia solidified my previous desire to compose new hymns from the psalms in a new metrical psalter. The very first song to be included in this project was “My God and King,” now sung around the world.

Besides some of Konstantin’s psalm hymns, I began composing in earnest alone, but with an eye towards including others in the project. The result, 13 years later, is Timeless: Ancient Psalms for the Church Today, a “Psalter/Commentary” published through ACU Press in two volumes, with a third volume and a hymnal on the way. Also, with the help of a vocal group in Orlando, FL, “Vocal Tapestry,” three professionally recorded CDs of Timeless music have been published, with a fourth on the way, through James Tackett and Austin Christian Acappella Publishing Company. Timeless now has an executive committee (including Randy Daw, D.J. Bulls, James Tackett, and myself), and over 100 contributors: composers, translators, commentators, lyricists, singers, committee members, producers, and engineers. What began as a frustrating, cloistered time in an apartment has eventuated in the first ever multi-volume “Psalter/Commentary,” with all new translations and commentaries, all new musical settings, and multiple CDs and other digital products.

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