Here are a couple of very contrasting songs: one looking out happily to ‘Zion’; the other lamenting, no silver lining. Both are ‘skips’ in the Lectionary but should not be ignored — and indeed are not by those traditions that regularly sing all of the psalms within a short period of a month or so.
Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God (v.2)
The psalm praises ‘Zion’, the city of Jerusalem, representing God’s presence. A psalm of global vision, disregarding tribal or national identities, it connects people of the world to this spiritual home, describing a diaspora of those who acknowledge a divine and benevolent creator spirit however named or imagined. It concludes joyously:
Singers and dancers alike say: ‘All my springs are in you’ (v. 7)
As to the music, there are few classical setting available but several more hymns including Haydn’s traditional AUSTRIAN HYMN tune starting with verse 2 quoted above. The Emergent Psalter uses the same verse. PFAS 87F is a swinging refrain picking up the idea of the Creator as source, water in the life-giving springs.
This psalm is the only lament in the Psalter that includes no silver lining, no ray of hope, no statement that it will be OK. Why not skip it? Because, like singing the blues (see post on Psalm 14), it’s a valid and comforting way to externalise distress and share individual pain.
For other reasons not associated with the psalms, I have been thinking lately of the great American singer Otis Redding (1941-1967). Dock of the Bay by the ‘King of Soul’ is another song of unrelieved weariness:
Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun, I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes; watching the ships roll in, and then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah … watching the tide roll away, wasting time. / Looks like nothing’s gonna change; everything still remains the same / Sittin’ here resting my bones and this loneliness won’t leave me alone / It’s two thousand miles I roamed just to make this dock my home.
The words are a blues lamentation, a way of singing out your woes. The music is vaguely like the old twelve-bar blues, but has a unique and recognisable character; I loved playing it with the band. Redding was actually rich and successful by the time he wrote this song. That did not stop him empathising with many others less fortunate who could see no silver lining. And then, Redding died in an aircraft crash a few days after recording this classic. It’s hard to see a silver lining there but for the great legacy that his music lives on. Indeed, both Dock of the Bay and Psalm 87 have a timeless feeling about them, suggesting in Ps. 88 that the silver lining is out there somewhere, just not at this moment.
As with Psalm 87 above, there are few classical settings listed, save for a nice short piece by Orlando de Lassus, Domine Deus salutis meae, quoting verses 2 and 3.
Many readers will recall with pleasure singing the Taizé chant Dans nos obscurités.