Divine standards of perfect love and peace seem far off and unattainable in a world full of strife, refugees, war and deceit:
As high as heaven is above the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways (Is. 55:9)
The good news in the psalms, here and in other songs like 31, is that higher and hopeful levels are not out of reach:
Lead me to a rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower (Ps 61:2,3)
(Incidentally, it is worth reading on into the passage from Isaiah 55 for a beautifully poetic and more encouraging assurance of sustainment and fruitfulness.)
In Psalm 61 David, the author, seems to pray for himself as king, though he adds more humbly: ‘before God’ and with ‘love and faithfulness for protection’.(6, 7) This is not just self-importance; David assumed that he and his people were charged with the responsibility of not only caring for the creation (Psalm 8) but also bringing a message of divine caring to a benighted world.
This is the last in a large group of ‘skips’ from 55 to 61 that do not appear in the weekly Lectionary. Thus Psalm 61 is ignored in TiS and NCH, while PFAS offers, apart from a couple of hymns, one setting with a response, originally in Tamil to a Punjabi tune, in 61B.
Whilst classical settings are also fairly few, in somewhat grander style Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) produced a setting of the first four verses, Exaudi Deus for two choirs of four voices, in a collection called Musae Sioniae: Deudsche Psalmen und Geistliche Lieder (1607; see illustration).
And in the ‘little-heard’ category is a Portuguese SATB by Brazilian composer Dr Jorge Moreira (1948-) that is worth a try by your local quartet.
Note in the Spanish manuscript illustrated at the outset, an 11th century script from the Monastery of Silos in northern Spain, that the antiphon here appears to precede the psalm text. The text is drawn but diverges from the first part of verse 2:
A finibus terrae ad te clamavi, dum … / From the ends of the earth will I call upon thee: when my heart is in heaviness.
Compare this with another later manuscript known as the Howard Psalter which is discussed in the posts on Pss. 122 and 129. First, note that the musical notation has progressed significantly, from a line of neumes to a four-line staff with square notation. Secondly, in Howard the chant and antiphon may have been sung at the end of each psalm rather than the beginning, although this is not clear, and often uses excerpts from psalms before and after the antiphon.