Psalm 51, 18 March 2018

Image Wikimedia commons

St Patrick’s Day slides by largely unremarked. (I did have a Celtic style song based on last week’s Psalm 107 up my sleeve; however, our singers’ rendition of Everett’s three-part refrain for 107, repeated in PFAS, was a pleasing and inspiring addition.)

This week we preview that well-used Psalm 51, thereby moving into more sober territory of the fourth of the seven Penitential Psalms. It is also an important addendum to the powerful story of David, Bathsheba and the brave prophet Nathan who called him out. (2 Samuel 11)

Psalm 51 ‘Miserere mei’ in the 10th C. Bosworth Psalter, British Library MS 37517 f32r. A gloss in Old English has been added later in the margins of the original Latin Text.

Well-used it is; for centuries it has been a popular choice. Often sung during Lent, here on Lent 5 but also on Ash Wednesday and Tenebrae services, the poem is the source of many texts, such as that concluding vespers or other ‘Propers’. Fragments appear frequently in matins and other prayers:

“Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me”. (v.10)

Anyone who sang in the Anglican tradition will remember this, for example, from the first 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, still in use in the rite for morning prayer:

Officiant: O Lord, open thou our lips.
People: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.

Let’s not forget the hyssop in verse 7. In the Latin it begins: Asperges me (see the chant extract shown from the Liber Usualis). This is not an admission by David that he has an unusual personality condition, but:ps51-aspergesme-lu

Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.


Being a famous penitential song of David and widely quoted, settings of this poem abound:

More humbly, South Woden will hear a simple refrain using the well-known verses 10 and 15 quoted at the outset.

Psalm 107, 11 Mar ’18

Many threads to a story. ‘Songlines’ exhibition at National Gallery of Australia, Feb 2018.

Many of the psalms seem to have fag ends of widely varying ideas, statements and twists tossed in that at first sight seem to confuse. Sometimes they meld into a tasty, herbal mix: others just coexist, leaving the reader to ponder.

Psalm 107, the first of Book V of the Psalter, has sections that depict different scenes in life — wanderers in desert wastes, people gathering from all points of the compass, people in darkness or sick, those at sea like ‘boat people’, others settling new land, planting, thriving.

Traditional Provençal names of the winds from all quarters; plaque in Orange, France.

The unifying thread through this mix is the various experiences of exiles and refugees, blown to the shores as by variable winds of life. The song recalls with thanks the end of the era of exile in Babylon. It describes the experience of various groups in distress, a theme sharply relevant to today’s disaster areas such as  Syria, Burma, Sudan — the full effects of global warming are yet to be seen — and dreams of safer havens.

This week’s reading includes the first few verses celebrating not only divine mercy, but also this veritable melting pot of humanity — “God gathered them from the east and the west”. (v.3)

Then follow 17 to 22 about people afflicted by sickness due to poor choices, or perhaps in tough times like the Israelites enduring privation after escaping from Egypt.

For more commentary on this psalm, see several earlier posts such as that of Nov 2017>.


Earlier posts also canvassed various music associated with this long (43 verse) song. At South Woden, we make another approach to Isaac Everett’s three-part refrain from The Emergent Psalter. We sang it back in 2013 and enjoyed the bluesy feel, as well as the admixture, as indicated at the outset, of various ideas that reflect the multiple voices, demands and pressures impinging on our consciousness from all angles. Composer Isaac Everett has taken the psalm’s two internal antiphons, then added a tag:

  1. Let them give thanks to God for mercy and love, for wondrous deeds for humanity (verses 1, 15 and 31); and secondly
  2. Then they cried to their God in their trouble, delivered from their distress (found no less than four times, in verses 6, 13, 19 and 28);and
  3. May those who are wise give heed to these things; consider the love of God (the final verse 43)

These three voices reflect thanksgiving for relief and divine love, the cry of people in distress, and finally the moral of the story — consider. Everett has woven them together to good effect.

All singers welcome.

Psalm 19, 4 March ’18

Psalm 19 is soaring and thoughtful poetry. I’m tempted to say ‘fantastic’:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

People in any era have been fascinated by the mysteries of the universe. Gods, elemental matter, dreaming, creative spirits good and evil, magic and more have been devised in many mythologies to tame, explain or narrate. In more recent years, the Schrödinger wave equation, the little-understood W-boson carrying the weak force, and now gravity waves have equally fascinated as wordless signals “go out to the ends of the world”. But this is not science. Any single interpretation of this soaring imaginative poetry will surely serve to blinker and constrain. Readers dream afresh according to their history, situation and current cognitive settings.

A brief blog post can not do it justice; so stop now and read the psalm for yourself here> (NIV). And for more discussion on this poem and associated music — which ranges blithely from Händel and Hans Hassler and even, sort of, to There’s a bear in there — please see the post on 3.10.2017.

None of the text and music mentioned therein might happen at your meetin’ house this Sabbath; International Women’s Day 2018 — an important day to those who recognise the strong threads of justice and equity in the psalms and in this blog — is nigh. It deserves attention and might displace the psalm.


The inattentive visitor looking up at the vaulted cathedral of Siena might step on this simple but beautiful marble unawares. A wondering Mary?

The near absence of direct reference to the role of women in the Psalter was acknowledged and discussed in a March 2017 post. Psalm 19 is a lovely song but again, quite generic.

If an alternative is sought, songs and chants celebrating women may be found in many traditions:

  • The song of Mary, Magnificat, is an obvious choice:
    • several are offered in PFAS (pages 1018-1022) including one from Taizé
    • And holy is your name sung to the traditional Wild mountain thyme
    • also a tone and refrain chanted setting
    • in NCH a simple tune by a female writer My soul gives glory is at No 119.
  • Hildegard of Bingen was prolific. At South Woden, O frondens and O rubor by Hildegard have been presented, although these are not an easy sing
  • A Shaker song, Simple gifts, might appeal

Admiration of Mary is embedded in much of Christian thinking, although Reformed theology draws the line at an intercessory role for the mother of Jesus. As well as the Magnificat, the Roman and high Anglican traditions, exemplified by Hildegard’s compositions, are replete with Marian songs.  Evensong or compline/vespers liturgies regularly include a Marian hymn or antiphon, such as the one shown below, first line only. The theology of asking Mary to pray for us may not sit comfortably with UCA tastes but those who enjoy plainsong might not object too strenuously:

Hail, Queen of Heaven, Hail mistress of the angels. Hail, holy root, hail holy gate from whom came light to the world. Rejoice, glorious virgin, beautiful above all others. Hail and farewell, most gracious one, plead always with Christ for us.

Then [have I kept the best wine till last?] an excellent set of words by John Bell of the Iona Community has great appeal:

There is a line of women extending back to Eve
whose role in shaping history God only could conceive
And though, through endless ages their witness was repressed,
God valued and encouraged them through whom the world was blessed.

The song goes on to acknowledge many unsung but brave, loving and influential women in the biblical record: Sarah, Tamar, Hannah, Mary, Puah, Rahab, Esther …

Psalm 22, 25 Feb ’18

This psalm appears on Good Friday due to verse 1, which Jesus quoted on the cross, and subsequent predictions:

My God, why have you forsaken me?

However this reading on Sunday 25 (Lent 2) starts much later in the poem in verse 23. A different kettle of fish altogether, as the psalmist sings a hymn of praise to a powerful and just God who, ultimately, rules over the nations despite the  evidence of chaos all around. This is a divine kingdom of love in which “the poor shall eat and be satisfied”, and future generations will “proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn.”

Several previous post have canvassed ideas arising in this song: see Mar’15Oct’15 and Mar’16. This year at SWUC we return to In the presence of your people, a Hebrew song in TiS 727 that fits the theme but actually draws on verses throughout the psalm.

Psalm 25, 18 Feb ’18

“Ad te Dominum”, the opening lines in gold lettering of Ps 25 in the Rutland Psalter, British Library Add MS 62925

This song arises on the first Sunday in Lent (in Year B). The reader will find no sack-cloth and ashes, lamentation or the parched airs of the wilderness. Of course, the psalmist was writing long before church administrations established traditions such as Lent. However, someone chose to pop this poem into the Lectionary in this seasonal context. The first ten verses are chock full of inspiration, trust, love and guidance. True, it’s not a loud acclamation of thanks and praise like many psalms, but it’s still a thoughtful and uplifting way to start Lent.

The poet gets to darker feelings in the second half of the song, essentially a personal lament, but this section never comes up in the Lectionary in any year. Nevertheless do not miss the last two verses, reminding the reader that integrity, justice and deliverance are part of the plan for God’s people.

For further description of this psalm and a summary of some music recommendations, please refer to a post in November 2015. The coincident beginning of the Lenten season may influence some leaders towards the more sedate end of the spectrum.


For the people’s response, a fresh tune to be introduced at South Woden uses the powerful theme of verses 4 and 5: “Show me your ways, teach me your paths, guide in truth all day long”, a suitable prayer for the Lenten season:

Both this refrain and the verses, set to a different but similar and compatible tune, are based on the simple descending chords of D min, CΔ, Bb, A7. The arrangement for four voices can be reflective or swing along happily in its 6/4 time. Variation is introduced by having voices 1 and 2 in double time feel (3+3=6) while the supporting Voices 3 and 4 are in triple (2+2+2=6). No voice recording available but the electric version — which unfortunately cannot bring out this play the way human voices can — sounds like this:

Psalm 50, 11 Feb ’18

Psalm 50 by Asaph is quite long. Three sections broadly cover (i) the greatness and justice of God, (ii) the doubtful value of sacrifices and superficial or procedural worship, and (iii) a heavy admonishment to the ‘wicked’.

The lectionary reading covers the first half-dozen verses only. It boils down (though psalms should never be boiled down) to a vibrant description of divine eminence, power and identification with the people. The link to the week’s theme of the Transfiguration, while quite direct in the associated 2 Kings selection, is more oblique and atmospheric in the psalm.

Many early settings of the psalm, following 17th and early 18th century translations such as that by Isaac Watts, tend to emphasise the fearful, thunderous and judgmental nature of God. The opening section certainly includes ‘consuming fire’ and ‘raging storms’ associated with the imagery of the transfiguration and the power of the divine seat, depending on your translation. However, the concluding verses (5, 6) speak more gently of gathering the faithful before a God who is the source of rightness and justice.

For more on this theme, see an earlier post for Feb 2015.


That earlier post also outlines just a few of the musical options, including the preferred choice Psalms for All Seasons 50B or 50 C. A little recent history: the cantors’ song sheet in our library says: “PFAS 50B, SW male voices 11 August 2013; mixed voices, 15 Feb 15.”

TiS 30 also covers the required territory. Most of the settings on CPDL online are SATBs of dated translations such as the Watts text mentioned above. The music, like the Haydn piece that follows, is usually more pleasing:

Psalm 50 for three voices, incipit by Josef Haydn

Continue reading

Psalm 147, 4 Feb ’18

This psalm, like others in this final handful in the Psalter, is a song of praise, calling us to rejoice in the creation and the ubiquitous evidence of divine love and care.

‘Starry Night’ by V van Gogh. Wikimedia commons

With sudden shifts of focus, a visionary sweep of the universe, the selected text (verses 1 to 11 in Year B) alternate between the earthbound to the heights, the present day to the distant past, from the stars to personal reassurance of the exile and outcast:

God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. God counts the number of the stars; and calls them all by name. (3, 4)

We are encouraged to pull out our lyres again in order to sing those praises (7).


Being a vespers psalm and therefore appearing frequently in evening prayer services in the Roman and other rites, classical settings abound. Guerrero, Lassus, Monteverdi, Victoria and others wrote several settings. In the vespers liturgy and the Anglican Compline, up to five psalms were accompanied by the Magnificat or other Marian verses.

Tomas Luis de Victoria‘s setting of this psalm would be appropriate if singers were available. Lauda Ierusalem, Salmo de Vísperas No. 6 (illustrated) is a series of short sections, one for each of the odd verses. It would have been sung antiphonally by a choir in the vespers service, the priest chanting the even verses. This motet is in Latin rather than the preferred English; so in the modern environment it could be used to inspirational effect as incidental music or anthem. It could also be interposed as reflective antiphons between readings or prayers.

If relishing that idea of naming each of the myriad stars, a refrain by Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter would be an excellent choice: ‘Jehovah with immeasurable wisdom calls each star by name’.

PFAS rolls out several responsive options, frequently just picking the ‘hallelujah’ theme. One (147A alt.) is even a familiar tune by Mozart. Mozart’s music is supposed to soothe the troubled breast: this is a canon in three parts, so it will keep the congregation awake and alert as they learn and enjoy their woven harmony.

Together in Song No 92 covers most of the set verses and, being by John Bell, is reliably tuneful and easy to learn. Although the composition includes a chorus it is presented, and will be sung at South Woden, as a congregational hymn rather than a responsorial psalm with cantor.