Psalm 129

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.
Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the Howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

The tenth of the Psalms of Ascent (text) regrets the oppression of the people of God. The psalmist recognises that God is the source of goodness but seeks shame on the oppressor. At the distance of some millenia, it’s easy to suggest sniffily that he or she should have been more forgiving of Israel’s enemies. However, the psalm was probably written in the midst of dire threats to the very survival of the nation and the people. Nevertheless, the poet urges their downfall in quite a poetic, if not forgiving, manner, by imagining the enemy as withered grass on the housetops

… which does not fill the hand of the reaper, so that passers by do not say so much as “God prosper you. We wish you well in the name of God” (vs. 7, 8)

This final blessing, Benediximus vobis in nomine Domini, is repeated in the antiphon in the early manuscript of Psalm 129 illustrated. (The last phrase of the antiphon appears to be a shorthand reference to the incipit of the next psalm 130: De profundis / Out of the depths.) The blessing quoted here seems to have been a customary greeting between workers in the fields, as Augustine points out in his commentary on the psalms:

For ye know, brethren, when men pass by others at work, it is customary to address them, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you.” And this was especially the custom in the Jewish nation. No one passed by and saw any one doing any work in the field, or in the vineyard, or in harvest… without a blessing.

The two sentences in the psalm may have been a type of call and response, as when Ruth met Boaz:

A light burdenJust then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “God be with you.” They answered, “The God bless you.” (Ruth 2:4)

Psalm 129 does not appear in the Lectionary so is not likely to be often sung. If it is, that reapers’ blessing should surely be the focus of the song, as it is in The Emergent Psalter. Sung as a reciprocal blessing of the people by the people it would grace any gathering.

Sweelinck Psaumes coverOtherwise, this is something of a musical orphan that has attracted little compositional interest. However, the mention above of 130 reminds me we recently heard The Song Company perform in the purest tones two psalms by the Dutch composer Sweelinck. (1562-1621) The familiar lines of Pss. 130 ‘Out of the Depths‘ and 24 ‘Lift up your heads‘ took on quite a new character at the hands of Sweelinck and Song Company and in Latin. (This encounter gave added delight since, while these works are found in many versions on YouTube and IMSLP, no score appears in CPDL, which boasts toward ninety other settings of Psalm 130 alone.)

Thus inspired, I include a fragment of a short piece on Psalm 129 emanating also from the Low Countries but a hundred years earlier, by Josquin des Prez:

A setting of Psalms 128 and 129 by Josquin des Prez.
A setting of Psalms 128 and 129 by Josquin des Prez.

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