Psalm 123, 5 July 2015

Col leads walkers on an ascent

Psalm 123 (text here>) is a song of ascent, sometimes called degrees or graduals. These short and hopeful songs are grouped as Psalms 120 to 134.

This one, with only four verses, is short and bitter-sweet. Two themes are mingled: the psalmist declares (1) trust in divine love and protection, while (2) hoping for mercy and relief from oppression.

Unfortunately, progress against oppression is often slow. Ascent, as pointed out in a previous post, is not always straight-forward or easy. The weather is not always as kind as shown in our illustration. Climbers are motivated by hope and belief that the effort will be worthwhile: but often it’s a long drag.

So the psalm could just as well have been written for today’s inequalities; it uses the image of looking faithfully to a benevolent authority, seeking a time when the dominance of the proud and the rich might be at least ameliorated, if not completely countered.


Musical settings of Psalm 123, perhaps due to its brevity, are relatively few. Together in song skips this one; there are a couple of early settings by Palestrina and Hassler that are beyond our reach; and the Genevan and similar psalters have hymns rather than the responsorials that we prefer.

However, some regular sources include nice congregational refrains:

  • Isaac Everett in The emergent psalter uses the (2nd) penitential theme, ‘Have mercy on us’, with simple tune and chords; Everett assumes the text is read against a quiet instrumental vamp – although we seldom follow this practice and sing the verses.
  • Linnea Good in a nice SATB setting concentrates on the single phrase, ‘To you I lift up my eyes’, from verse 1. [Can we assemble enough SATBs?]
  • David Haas in Psalms for all seasons slightly extends this more hopeful view of Theme 1. Maybe that’s why we have used it before:

Our eyes rest on you Lord, awaiting your kindness

All singers welcomed to lead the refrain and present the verses, with or without a harmony part. Verses are sung to a simple tone. Copies of PFAS are in the SWUC library.

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