There’s something mysterious about high mountains. As Philip Marsden writes:
Sacred mountains crop up in most traditional cosmologies… Olympus, Tabor, Sinai, Ararat, Fuji … it’s hard to think of a great mountain that is not linked with the gods or even a distinctive hill that has at some stage generated a local belief. (1)
Marsden was writing from Cornwall, but it certainly rings true of the traditional owners of the land in this ancient Australian continent.
Psalm 48 features one, the ‘holy mountain of God, beautiful in elevation’ (verse 1). It’s on the one hand:
the joy of all the earth,
but at the same time, a fearful prospect to opponents of divine goodness:
Then the kings assembled. As soon as they saw it they were astonished; they were in panic, they took flight. (vv. 4, 5)
The psalm weaves a song of praise around this main theme, the vision of a lofty yet immediate presence. The psalms often speak of divine ‘power’ and the fear of a supreme being. Australian theologian Ben Myers, reflecting on the Trinity, provides useful grammar to have in mind whenever you read this language [emphasis added]:
The “power” of God is not domination but God’s infinite capacity to achieve love’s purposes
Two additional themes
A second idea in the middle of the psalm, a brief sparkle, picks up Myers’ point:
We ponder your steadfast love in the midst of the temple (verse 9)
Thirdly, there’s succession planning. The twist at the end is an exhortation to become fully familiar with ‘Zion’ — the figurative city of God, love-space central — and to tell the next generation of those who will follow.
Pick and choose
Psalm 48 provides a good case study in picking your music and response from the many sources. As I point out on the Styles page and elsewhere, words are important. We are not really here for the music, which should serve the message. So the worship leader might pick from those three themes mentioned above whichever response best suits the chosen theme of the day.(2)
This has to be balanced with musical judgements, in particular the art of the possible and style of music that will best inspire and energise those gathered.
Just working on a few of the many settings available, here’s a sample matrix:
|1. ‘Great is the Lord’||Settings by Elgar and J. Smith; TiS 626||Traditional SATB, 18-19th century; Hymn|
|2. Love in the temple||PFAS and NCH(3)||Simple responsive|
|3. Tell the next generation||TEP(4)||Modern|
- Rising ground: a search for the spirit of place. Philip Marsden, Granta 2014, page 71
- This post was written last year but put on hold as we did not use this psalm. But it’s not much good in draft hiding its light under an internet bushel, so out it goes to fill one of the gaps in the new index pages.
- Psalms for all seasons, and New Century Hymnal. For some reason the refrain in PFAS changes ‘love’ to ‘word’, thereby missing an important sub-theme.
- The Emergent Psalter, Isaac Everett.