Note: This post re-introduces the longest psalm, sections of which arise in the next two weeks. Subsequent posts will look more closely at sections as they appear in the Lectionary, starting with Aleph then He on the following Sunday.
Psalm 119 has at its heart the ‘law’, or the premises principles, and promises of God. At 176 verses, this is longest psalm — and the longest chapter in the Bible. The psalm is made up of a succession of 8-verse sections, 22 of them, each labelled acrostically with a Hebrew letter. The song is seldom sung in its entirety, save in the Orthodox tradition where it appears on the Saturday of Holy Week. Seven of these sections appear on a total of nine occasions during the three-year Lectionary cycle, sometimes two consecutively.
This extended lesson on divine law explores how it might influence the life of the follower: from the opening lines, inviting the reader or listener to follow the ways and decrees of God; through the great centrepiece of verse 105 declaring this “Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path”; to the last verse 176 suggesting that in remembering the commandments, sheep who have gone astray may be returned to the fold.
This all sounds good — but exactly what is that ‘way’? The psalm constantly refers in each verse, depending on the translation, to decrees, ways, precepts, statutes, judgements and commandments. Immediately following David’s era, the several tribal Abrahamic descendants would naturally have read this as references to the writings in the Torah, be they commandments or narrative elaborations. Later descendants may have turned to the Bible as a whole or sections of the Qur’an. Today however, an integrated view (and the word ‘integrity’ will be found elsewhere in the Psalter and these deliberations) of scriptural concepts is an asset in deciding just what constitutes ‘God’s way’, whether taken metaphorically or theologically. Just as Renaissance writers like Erasmus savoured classical philosophies and updated them by adding a healthy dash of humanism, the modern reader is inevitably influenced by graceful New Commandment principles. This is an attractive approach, at least as a common-sense check.
Each octet may inspire an appropriate musical response according to text and context. However, even if the readings are taken separately their source from that great central psalm, each section linked thematically by the importance of Godly principles, can still be acknowledged by a common refrain. Here are some of the refrains which are applied to the whole psalm or several sections.
- PFAS 119B provides verses for four of the Lectionary selections set to an old hymn ST CRISPIN. But there are fifteen settings in PFAS. 119F similarly takes a sprinkling of verses, spoken not sung, with the refrain: “Order my steps in your word”; while those that follow (119G to M) assume the full section of the week is read. Plenty of flexibility.
- TiS applies verse 105 (the ‘light and lamp’ mentioned above) to a pleasing refrain, while the sprinkling of verses taken from the whole psalm are sung to a double tone.
- NCH limits the readings to RCL sections, offering a nice, short and simple refrain for all by Elaine Kirkland, 1994.
- Everett has clearly pondered this situation. His solution in TEP is to integrate the separate sections by providing a refrain system throughout, two alternating tunes in fact. Verses are drawn from the section of the week. These refrains can be added together at the end to form a hymn in their own right — well thought out and effective.
Another person who pondered this dilemma was Isaac Watts, (1674 – 1748, a few years ahead of the life of JS Bach.) Watts was a nonconformist English theologian and logician who was also a prolific and popular writer of hymn lyrics. His solution to this smorgasbord of delights in Psalm 119 was to pull the verses apart and reassemble them thematically in a new order of sections or ‘Parts’, as he called them. Part 1 for example included verses 5, 29, 33, 35-37, 133 and 176. He also took the liberty of updating the paraphrased psalms as though the original writers had knowledge of New Testament scriptures. As mentioned above, this seems sensible for interpretation by the modern reader, but goes a step too far for faithful translation. Many composers such as Thomas Clark grasped this alternative arrangement and wrote settings for these parts, although these days the overly liberal translations and dated language argue against their use.
Amongst the classical composers of years gone by, it is interesting that Lassus wrote at least ten settings of various selected verses from Psalm 119, while but one is attributed to Tomas Luis de Victoria, and then doubtfully. Robert White also wrote four or five settings including one for the last half-dozen verses, with incipit as follows:
Appropinquet deprecatio mea / Let my complaint come before thee