What you see is what you get in this simple song of praise and awe. The poem is all about divine creativity, influence and majesty, poetically characterised as the voice of God.
That high-octane voice is declared to be in thunder, in the breaking down of cedars and shaking of lands; we hear of fire, flood and awesome power; and in the end, there is a moment of peace, the still small voice of calm, as the singer prays:
May God give strength to the people and bless them with peace! (verse 11)
Many questions, some of them discussed previously, surround the reality or otherwise of a divine voice in the world today, and how we might perceive such a presence. This psalm sets epistemological issues aside and confidently points to some of the evidence for divine action.
Several good tuneful approaches are readily available to make this relatively simple song come alive and fire the imagination of singer and listener alike. Not surprisingly, the verse quoted above is a favourite choice for the antiphon in many settings.
This psalm has been sung in January over several recent years at South Woden, choosing from:
- The simple Taizé chant Dona nobis pacem cordium (also in TiS 713 with different verses and a change of the final word from Dominum); the verses have been moulded into the same chant tune and can be sung against the ostinato of the refrain.
- TiS 17, covering most of the verses, is a Christopher Willcock setting of refrain and verse.
- Psalms for all seasons 29D; the main and alternate refrains, drawing on different verses, are both attractive.
- Available but not used so far is a short one from New century hymnal. It is an even simpler tune that might be somewhat flavourless without the good supporting chord changes.
A paucity of classical settings over the centuries may be due to the repetitive simplicity of the poem, although the various resonant phrases — fire, forest, flood and the like — would offer a composer the opportunity for dramatic imagery in music. Either way, it’s a poem that really needs to be sung.
*(More from Thomas…)
As hinted at last year, the apostle Thomas, and perhaps many others, would find this ‘Voice of God’ paean unconvincing. Without going as far as Scrooge’s ‘Bah! Bunkum!’, even the faithful will admit The Voice and divine interventions are pretty hard to identify — a classic case of faith being hope, the evidence of things not seen (Heb.11:1).
The direct approach in this psalm may itself constitute an obstacle. The tone almost smacks of ‘Take it or leave it, don’t bother me with your doubts’.
Whether God exists solely in the eye of the beholder of nature, or in the imagination of the psalmist, humankind continues to search for and find a well-spring of original good in a world of bad news.
The succession of bald statements in this poem might not answer the epistemological questions — Who is God? How can one know her? Are not experience and opinion too subjective…?
But as soon as the poem is sung thoughtfully, it can step up to a higher plane of mysticism or allegory. It thereby speaks more to the spirit of hope, becomes more engaging, inspiring. This is something for the leader or cantor to think about in selecting and presenting music for this uncompromising Psalm 29.