This poem is all about the Exodus, the release from slavery in Egypt, and the transit to a new life across the Red Sea. There is no mention of resurrection, nor Easter of course. Indeed we read no reference to any divine influence until the very last verse. Was it, then, an April Fool’s Day virus that set Psalm 114 to be sung on 1 April, Easter Sunday?
The psalm was written, of course, long before any thoughts of April fools or Easter. It celebrates freedom in any age, escape from bondage into a promised land, one flowing with of milk and honey. So Easter Sunday with its message of hope is an appropriate context for this song, as are many other situations of relief and thanksgiving for escapes from burdens of whatever hue to freedom and new beginnings.
Music for this song presents a slight challenge. Apart from many tempting but demanding early music settings (which, besides the detail shown above, must include those listed for Psalm 113 in the Vulgate numbering system) good refrains are few. There’s nothing enticing in our fairly extensive online Dropbox library, and nothing in Together in Song. The usually reliable New Century Hymnal invites us to tremble before God, while The Emergent Psalter asks us “What alarmed you that you fled?” These are fine if you have time to explain the context and reasoning, but not to sing as musical gems in isolated splendour.
PFAS has the best bet with a South African refrain ‘Freedom is coming’. Verses will roll out to a tone similar to the tune. Singers welcome.
Why that rather sombre picture above of the Psalm board waiting for the Verger to affix the numbers? The great humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam has nothing specific to say on April Fool’s Day, but he did write Praise of Folly. (Stay with me, we’ll get there.) That title, like the Ship of Fools, was a literary device that would have been well understood during the Renaissance as a vehicle for satire and even pointed criticism, some of which was directed at the established, perhaps over-established, church in Rome. This work was influential at a time of reformation.
In more reverent mood, Erasmus designed the beautiful stained glass windows, including texts chosen or written by him, that adorn St Jan (John) cathedral in Gouda, location of the modest psalm notice board illustrated. (He was actually born and lived for a while with his brother in Gouda, a city which thus makes a strong claim to ‘own’ him.) The Psalm board depicted stands in the midst of this impressive stained glass display.