Psalms 18, 21 and 28

Esztergom manuscript

The contents of Book 1 of the Psalter have been quite well covered here over the last few years. These next three ‘skips‘, all attributed to David, will colour it in a little further —  but not detain us long.

Psalm 18

This song is a long one, 50 verses celebrating David’s deliverance from the clutches of Saul and other nasties, accompanied, as in other psalms featured recently, by the atmospherics of clouds, thunder, fire and water. David’s message is that reliance on truth and divine guidance will lead to freedom and security. He is confident in the result that ‘God makes me sure-footed’ (v.33), a foretaste of ‘the truth shall set you free’ (John 8:32).

Music. The long psalms naturally invited a degree of selectivity by early composers, most of whom chose a verse or two, usually in Latin, for a delectable motet. Psalm 18 must have been a little daunting as there are not many songs to choose from in the classical files, nor responsorial settings in modern psalters. If you can field five good voices, go for a piece by mid-Renaissance Spanish composer Cristóbal di Morales (1500-1553) that draws, rather darkly, on verse 4; ‘The pains of hell came about me: the snares of death overtook me’. Gulp. That’s it, no promise that There, there it will be all right. So you’d do it for the music rather than the inspiring message.

Psalm 21 illuminated capital from the Henry VIII psalter, with marginal notes in the king's hand

Psalm 21 with illuminated capital from the Henry VIII psalter, with marginal notes in the king’s hand

Psalm 21

Ah, now this one is a shoe-in for a skip. Both 18 and 21 are labelled ‘Royal’ psalms — ‘the king’ is definitely up there. Triumphalism and violent undertones pose difficulties to modern readers schooled in values of democracy and the new commandment — and rightly so.  We have to remember that times have changed. This was an era of an eye for an eye, and the modern nation state had not been invented. Machiavelli probably would have sounded tame. David also had in mind the promise, with implied kingly responsibilities, that the children of Abraham in Israel were chosen as the vehicle eventually to bring reconciliation to a degenerate world.

Music. This is all very well, but I don’t imagine anyone is going to sing this whole psalm with relish. So nothing further need be said, save perhaps to note that Händel picked up this gift of a text, in Royalist celebration, for one of his four anthems for the coronation of King George II in 1727. Henry VIII (see pic above, click to enlarge) probably thought this was good stuff too. Relevance: zero, but the old manuscripts are interesting.

Psalm 28

Drawing for Ps. 28, Harley psalter

Psalm 28 falls into two sections. First, David calls for help and prays to be heard; verse 6 declares joyfully that God has heard, blessed be God.

Like the preceding Royals, attractive songs are sparse in our books and online — though a search including ‘youtube’ dishes up its usual grab-bag. Try this one>

Acknowledgements:

Illustrations:

  1. 15th c. Antiphonary in library of Esztergom, Hungary. Image by the author.
  2. Illuminated initial ‘D'(omine), at the beginning of Psalm 20 (in the Vulgate, Psalm 21 in modern psalter) with decorated initials and line-fillers, and with notes in Henry VIII’s hand. England, S. E. (London). British Library MS Royal 2 A XVI, f. 23
  3. British Library MS Harley 603. Description (www.bl.uk): ‘Pen drawing illustrating Psalm 28: the Lord in a mandorla surrounded by six angels, above, with three personifications of the winds below and the unicorn, calf and hinds on the hills; the Psalmist points to the right, where a procession of young men are bringing sheep and lambs to the sanctuary. England, S. E. (Canterbury), Christ Church Cathedral Prior.’

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