Book 3 of the psalter (73 to 89) opens with eleven psalms of Asaph, a temple musician referred to in Chronicles. The first five do not appear in the lectionary.
I warm to Asaph. Admittedly, we don’t really know for sure who he was. Probably a musician and official in the temple during the reign on David and Solomon, he must have seen a fair bit of drama and the associated internal manoeuvring within the administration. Musical, leadership and political sensibilities were no doubt abundant.
Asaph was reportedly one of three Levites appointed by David as in charge of singing in the temple community. Those of us active in singing the psalms and gathering like-minded singers to interpret these songs are bound to feel a degree of kinship with Asaph. He may not have had undelivered emails and children’s sport fixtures to contend with, but from reading Psalm 73 there were obviously many other and bigger concerns in his mind.
Withal, he brought the psalms in song to people over many years. Innovation is important in supporting afresh the message of the poem. I wonder what musical ideas and inspiration he pulled out of the hat for young listeners in those days. (It wasn’t Eurovision, I’ll wager.)
This psalm is both a ‘wisdom psalm’ and an ‘individual lament’, both being categories that someone has applied to the psalter. It speaks of corruption in the ruling system and how easy it is to envy the powerful, how easy to stumble in such an environment. (v.2)
How does one respond to corruption within the ranks of wealth, power and influence, especially when they get away with it? Asaph is initially confused and ’embittered’ (v. 21) until he ‘entered into the sanctuary’ (v. 17). There he reflects, guided to the realisation that corruption will somehow be judged (18, 19). Worldly concerns fade. (25)
Assuming you don’t have the full professional ensemble available to perform the pieces that Schütz, Lassus and Hassler wrote for verses from this psalm, have a good look at the selection — admittedly limited — in Psalms for all seasons. I love the innovation and musicality in these three settings, not denying that it would take some good musicians to make the most of them:
73A; any music that comes from a source called ‘Brier Patch Music’ is bound to be interesting. This one is based on a popular American folk tune, ‘It takes a worried man’, somehow quite appropriate to this lament by Asaph when he was fed up to his back teeth in frustration at the great and powerful (just like today?) Ken Madema has fitted some great words — ‘All my life I’ve sung a jealous song; the evil people flourish and the good folks suffer wrong.’ Then it goes into an interesting, if rather long refrain, in which ‘ … God has changed my vision.’
- 73B is a sweet little three-chord, 3/4 song in old fashioned hymn form, In sweet communion. Nice, but not for us.
- 73C lets us have it in the title; Why do the Powerful Have it so Good? Then the compositional structure by Andrew Donaldson ©2010 is unique and innovative, full of rhythmic spoken word and nice little musical vamps in the background. His paraphrase interpretation of the psalm is worth reading.
The tradition of Asaph is surely still alive.