Psalm 32, 6 March 2016

International Women’s Day on 8 March is an important day in many churches including South Woden, a community who has long valued inclusive and egalitarian policies and practices.

Beguinale, Brussels
Beguinale, Brussels

One cannot define the divine in terms of our own human gender. Our practice here as we sing psalm verses is carefully to paraphrase the sung text to avoid referring to God (and people) in the male terms common in most biblical translations; The emergent psalter is a favoured source for its inclusive language.

However, the psalms recognise images of God as feminine spirit and creator, as well as ideas of mothering or midwife (22:9, 113:9, 127), the prophetic (68:11) and other female influences. This includes the provision of shelter and care (22:9-10) as beautifully seen in the ancient Beguinale women’s order and their houses of refuge and faith in many cities.

Psalm 131 sounds as though its author may well have been a woman.The author’s experience of the divine is related directly to the mother rather than the father, affirming the mother’s strong and beautiful role in nurturing confident, content and independent children.

On the other hand, the psalms omit some courageous women when equivalent male prophets are mentioned by name (Miriam in Ps. 99). Pity, but perhaps this just reflects the pattern of other records and writings in those early cultures when men wrote the poetry, policy and history. This is no reason to discount this ancient poetry. An inclusive linguistic, contextual and poetic interpretation —  and recalling the esteem with which Jesus regarded women as recorded in John’s gospel — helps balance and fill in the gaps for modern sensibilities.

The Psalm

Psalm 32 itself is one of the psalms of penitence (the second after Ps. 6; this theme takes up the first half of the song), and also of refuge (vv. 6 -7; see comment above). But then it changes direction, breaks into other riffs of guidance or wisdom (8-9) and finally thanksgiving. A brief tweet by Ben Myers sweetly summarises:

When I finally got the courage to confess my sins, I discovered You weren’t even listening. You were singing to me. #psalmtweets

The music

At South Woden this Sunday there will be no sung psalm. Elsewhere, readers and singers might well draw on the guidance thread in verse 8 with a memorable and lilting Isaac Everett antiphon, chords slipping easily from minor to relative major sequences and back again in a short space:

Show me which way to go, counsel me with your eye upon me

Ps32LassusPsalms for all seasons suggests You are my hiding place, which many groups will enjoy. If a few good sight-readers are available, two short trios are worth a look:

  • Orlando di Lasso, Dixi confitebor, verse 5 only; starts simply but becomes more complex; excerpt shown in the illustration. Readers may recall that Lassus wrote a famous and much more ambitious set of Penitential Psalms, including this one.
  • Thomas Tomkins, Blessed is he, verses 1 and 2.

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