Psalms 43 and 43, 23 Jun ’19

The Bible gives us two separate psalms in 42 and 43. This week, the Lectionary gives us both to read together, because they were originally written as one song (see below).

At South Woden this Sunday: Together in Song offers three settings of this extended text at 25, 26, and 27.  We shall sing the last of these, using Gounod’s ‘Send out your light’ as the refrain. Volunteer cantors are invited.

For more information on each psalm, read on.

Australians, at least those who live or travel anywhere near the open dry spaces of this continent, know what thirst is all about. Indigenous plants and animals evolved to survive through hot summers and droughts. Aboriginal people were expert at finding water in dry creek beds, trees and grasses. Sooner or later in a long dry spell thirst will catch up with expert and novice alike.

Elijah in the Old Testament story linked with this psalm this week (1 Kings 19) must have felt it, as alone and fearful he fled from persecution far into the wilderness. Elijah finally came to the end of his tether, sat down under a broom tree — and even that was a ‘solitary’ broom tree — and wished for death. That reflects what the psalmist has in mind at verse 1:

As the deer longs for following streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

The famous episode of the still small voice following earthquake, wind and fire is matched in this psalm by ‘deep calling to deep in the thunder of cataracts’. Then, these evocative words:

By day God commands steadfast love, and at night a song is with me. (42:8)

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Psalm 42, especially the thirsty deers, captured the imagination of many composers over the years. Mendelssohn and Luther did their own translations of the poem, and many settings exist. Beside early Gregorian chants in the Roman liturgy or counterparts in the Mozarbic and Gallic liturgies, an early piece crops up in a mass written by 15th century Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem. He calls the thirsty deer verse into service for times of bereavement, when surely the soul seeks comfort.

This verse is set in a first section with suitably sparse sound, being for ‘superius and countertenor’ voices. It could be adapted, of course, but it’s not very suitable as the centrepiece for the singing of the psalm in the modern service. It’s also in Latin: Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

A setting connected with the psalm by JS Bach, ‘Freu dich sehr‘, demonstrates the effective use of the hemiola for rhythmical liveliness.

Tune based on Psalm 42; Bach’s Freu dich sehr

The tone and refrain from the New Century Hymnal is suitable. There are several other good choices in PFAS – Spanish, American, Korean, Genevan – and others.

Psalm 43

‘Send out your light and your truth, let them lead me.’ (3)

Psalm 43 is quite short at five verses, and quite like several other songs. The writer, of the Korahites, is seeking justification against nastiness of various flavours. Then, asking himself why he should moon around gloomily, the psalmist sings the prayer quoted above, lines frequently used in liturgies and hymns, including the one by Gounod already mentioned.

Taken together with Psalm 42, the song’s structure is in the form of a lament — complain (42), ask, trust, praise (43). This, plus the fact that 43 has no heading, is evidence that these two were probably written as one song. Further, both share the same antiphon:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again to the one who is my help (or saving presence, welfare, deliverance) and my God. (5)

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One would have thought that this inbuilt antiphon shared by Psalms 42 and 43 would be preferred for the refrain in modern sources:

  • Everett in TEP does choose this verse (43:5), but his tune a little long to learn on the spot
  • PFAS 43C, a nice setting from The Iona Community and Wild Goose, selects the sending of light and truth in verse 3;
  • NCH chooses the ‘soul thirsting’ in 42:1; and for 43 an unusual choice of 61 verse 2: ‘Why have you cast me off?’
  • TiS covers the territory with 25 and 26 (Ps 42) and 27 for Ps 43.

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