Psalm 39

The Somme
The Somme

Psalm 39 is a song reflecting on the short span of life — ‘a few hand-breadths … a mere breath’. (verse 5)  It is not formally included, as is the preceding Psalm 38, in the list of seven penitential psalms. (Neither 38 nor 39 make it into the Lectionary.)

39 could well qualify, however, as one of those laments that would go well with the blues (see comments on Psalm 14). The writer, said to be David, pours out feelings of confession, resignation, even anger, but mixes them with admissions of patience and trust in divine goodness. He asks:

Let me know my end and the number of my days, so that I may know how short life is. (v.6)

Clearly the brevity of life on this earth was an incentive to take up an instrument, as many composers chose the psalm as their lyric. Most quote either that sobering theme in verses 5 and 6, or go to the closing verses which ask for comfort as we travel on the way:

Hear my prayer O God, and give ear to my cry … for I am but a sojourner with you, a wayfarer, as all my forebears were. (v. 12)

African gospel in BerlinHow many African-American spirituals sing about travelling on, packing up, being on the way or crossing over?

Thomas Tomkins, whose airs are generally enticing, wrote two settings of small sections of this psalm, one à4 and another à5. Both feature short introductions and accompaniment by organ, both have the bass line as the entry voice.

Orlando Gibbons also wrote a setting for a longer section, verses 6 to 13, published in 1620. The modern version is for five voices and organ, in this case the entry carried by the alto. The original would have included viol or consort continuo, with entry and verses sung by a counter-tenor.

Three centuries later Hubert Parry, composer of the English favourite Jerusalem, published another notable song for almost the same selection of Psalm 39, this time for two choirs and entitled ‘Lord let me know my end’. It is the last of a set of ‘Six Songs of Farewell’, which were indeed Parry’s last compositions before his death at a time of many farewells, just weeks before the armistice was signed in 1918 ending the Great War.

There are no responsorial setting in TiS or PFAS. The Emergent Psalter is focused on the virtue of controlling the tongue, and indeed all other doubtful behaviour:

I will guard my ways. I will keep a muzzle on my mouth. (v.1, Isaac Everett)

Well, we are not here for long, it seems; so pick a song, sing it, and travel on!

3 thoughts on “Psalm 39

  1. Great to have you back – in person. You hit a particular nerve in this blog. Listened to a radio program recently that discussed the slaves’ songs that we now sing. One in particular caught me, because I love Eva Cassidy’s version: Wade in the Water. Like many of the songs, it was actually a way of the slaves passing on information by song, that they couldn’t do by talking (they weren’t allowed to). “Wade in the Water” tells escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water to make sure the dogs slavecatchers used couldn’t sniff out their trail. People walking through water did not leave a scent trail that dogs could follow. Etc. Fantastic.

    1. Yes, I played ‘Wade in the water’ many times for singer Rose with our band Cooler Climes — until she went back to the Netherlands 😦 Eva sang it so well too of course, such a loss. Thanks for the comments.

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