‘The statutes of God are just and rejoice the heart’ (6)
Psalm 19 declares the glory of the divine as seen in the creation. It smoothly progresses to how this declares the presence and influence of the creator, specifically the theme of the similarly numbered Psalm 119, the importance of divine guidance to humankind — the ‘law’ to those who are so inclined, and our own ability to turn a blind eye to our faults. It concludes with that prayer heard so often:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (14)
The very first verse challenges our spiritual framework: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The question of whether the wonders of creation do or do not prove the existence of an omnipotent Creator and intelligent design will always be debated. The psalmist is definitely in the ‘do’ team, the theme appearing strongly in many other psalms (8, 24 and 104 just for starters). Professor Tom Wright says:
Our modern Western world-views have made it seriously difficult to hear Psalm 19.1-2 as anything but a pretty fantasy.1
He refers primarily to the age of materialism and science. Things like quantum mechanics, gauge theory and the breaking of electro-weak symmetry are daunting — definitely not ‘pretty fantasy’. However, leaving aside the heavy mathematics and hyperreality, the last century of unravelling the scientific clues to the universe has been a fascinating journey. Yet in poetry and spirit, a scientific mind can still find it easy, on a clear night under the stars, to go with the psalmist’s opening declaration about the heavens.
So Psalm 19 starts in an affirmative frame of mind. Then, we read more recognisable phrases. Anyone who has sung Handel’s The Messiah will certainly recall ‘Their sound is gone out’ and have the tune of that chorus in mind (an exciting sing — even if it sometimes feels a little like practising your scales and arpeggios.)
From verse 7 on we are reminded by this ‘Psalm of David’ how valuable in the search for an upright yet humble life is the divine guidance in the word, which is
More to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (10)
These references to God’s law and commands might be taken as a nod to the ten commandments. However, in the light of all the subsequent guidance and New Testament teaching on love and the simplification of the commandments, that’s like harking back to the technology of the phonograph or to black and white silent movies. The spiritual framework has moved from a few rules on tablets of stone to a river of gracious wisdom.
The winner for complexity of musical setting probably goes to Hans Leo Hassler (1564 – 1612) in the late Renaissance, a German composer and organist who learned the poly-choral style during his studies in Venice, and brought it back to influence German music. He knocked out an arrangement of the first five verses for 13 parts in three choirs entitled Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei.
Thirteen voice parts may not be unlucky but it’s certainly unusual. There are plenty of 8 to 12 part pieces around; a lovely one by Hassler contemporary Tomás Victoria comes to mind. These are nowhere as ambitious as the earlier Thomas Tallis work Spem in alium for 40 parts.2 But really, Mr Hassler, prime number 13? Ah! — there are five voices in choir II. In all these pieces the choirs or quartet/quintets often leave each other a fair bit of space, stay silent to listen or answer from time to time before joining for a homophonic finale. Silence is an important part of music.
In contrast, the slightly earlier (c. 1560) Psalm XIX from the Genevan Psalter was in the spare Calvinist tradition, sung as a monophonic tune unaccompanied.
An all-Australian version of the psalm, albeit in hymn format, is found in TiS 166, Sing a new song, by Richard Connolly (1927-). Connolly was also the composer of the well-known ABC Play School theme, There’s A Bear in There. In our regular sources:
Songs no. 7 and 8 in TiS refer to this psalm, although neither covers the full lectionary reading.
Isaac Everett draws on verse 1 in an easy, singable refrain. As usual, he assumes the verses will be spoken rather than sung to a background vamp.
PFAS presents a whole six options; 19C is responsorial, introducing the viewpoint that creation and the word ‘show the way to the kingdom of light’. The 19E refrain emphasises the concluding prayer (verse 14) quoted at the beginning of this section. It is also a reminder that:
A good reggae version of ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ picks up another much-quoted verse (the last): ‘Let the words of my mouth…’ Children will enjoy this little chorus and perhaps even remember it. This song sits equally well with Psalm 137, from which verses and title are taken.
1 Wright, NT, Finding God in the Psalms, page 119.
2 Eight choirs of five each; it was a frightening but exciting pleasure to sing both these motets together with members of the Tallis Scholars under the direction of Peter Phillips at one of their Summer Schools