Psalm 124, 24 Aug 14

A song of ascent
A song of ascent

If God be for us, who can be against us?

This well-known verse is found not in the psalms but in Romans 8:31. It contains the same message as Psalm 124, and in particular the last verse which has become a standard line in many liturgies:

Our help is in the name of the Lord.

As another song of ascent (the fifth), Psalm 124 recalls and relishes divine protection and deliverance as good grounds for trust and a confident approach.

Imagery is typically vivid, picturing first raging waters that would have swept over us without such protection, if God were not ‘on our side’ (verses 1, 4, 5).

Then, imagine a bird avoiding the fowler’s trap:

The snare is broken and we have escaped (v. 7)


... while I walk this path
… while I walk this path

Dipping into the archives, I find Brian and I sang this psalm eighteen months ago using a gospel tune called Guide my feet, one sung for many years by our friends in The Gospel Folk. There are other responsorial settings available but they often rely on verses either spoken or sung to a simple chant tone.

Since we are giving our old friend Gregory a good airing in our Renaissance music series associated with Psalm 105, we have been interlacing those moments of sedate beauty with lighter variations. The African-American tune certainly does that.

The ascent is sometimes steep and indirect
The ascent is sometimes steep and indirect

A close reading of the psalm reveals no direct link to the words of Guide my feet (while I walk this path) other than the appellation of a psalm of ascent and a plea for divine protection.

However the song builds by implication on the psalm’s theme, inviting us not to take the low road, not — as we find in another reading for the day — to be conformed to the world, allowing ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our minds towards higher ideals. (Rom: 12:2)

It’s also suggested in Singing from the Lectionary and is a well-known and enjoyable sing.

Our men’s group will lead us this week using a modified arrangement of the old tune.

The modifications to Guide my feet add some additional chords to the second half of the simple ‘major, dominant seventh’ structure to take advantage of the sonority of the men’s voices in harmony. It’s nothing exotic but the song sounds as though the final cadences should follow the old ‘circle of fifths’ — I-III-vi-II-V-I-IV-I — with a couple of transitional chords. Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

The image of overwhelming waters  sprang to mind in a different situation recently. At the funeral service for Michael Sawer, academic, linguist, musician, singer and friend through The Oriana Chorale, we were to sing the lovely piece by J S Bach Rest well, which comes at the end of his St John Passion. The preceding reading was a beautiful quote from the Song of Songs, extending the rushing waters image with a focus on love:

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm;

for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave …

Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. (Ch 8:6, 7)

You might have heard a beautiful and popular arrangement of this text by René Clausen.

And if you got this far, here’s your reward >>


3 thoughts on “Psalm 124, 24 Aug 14

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