I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. (v.1)
Or so went this familiar line from Psalm 121 in the dusty old King James version, still beautiful but little used.
This is the second of the songs of ascent (120 to 134). Originating perhaps as pilgrimage songs, the psalms of ascent depict the journey figuratively, a rising access to a higher plane, lifting eyes to the hills. This rising ground is reminiscent of Psalm 15: “Who may abide on the holy hill?”
Here, the answer is in verse 2: “My help comes from God, maker of heaven and earth“. The ground is thus prepared for an assurance, in the last four verses of the song, of divine care and protection: “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” (6) The moon? Symbolic, no doubt. But also, remember that in pre-scientific times the physical arrangement of the heavens was little understood and subject to much speculative superstition.
The innovation prize for music goes to Isaac Everett who suggests using Help! by John Lennon of The Beatles. The chorus goes:
Help me if you can I’m feeling down,And I do appreciate you being ’roundHelp me get my feet back on the groundWon’t you please, please help me?
This works well as an antiphon. Definitely not in the King James tradition, but a great idea if you are feeling innovative. Your own in-house rock band is not required, since the psalm will be best sung at a slower and more reflective and expressive way than the original Beatles’ number from 1965.
Musicians over many centuries have often ignored the categorisation of secular and sacred in respect of music, writing for either or both, recycling material from one genre to the other. Tunes, after all, have no religious meaning. Tones borrowed from the church chants sometimes formed a basis for tales sung by trouvères and minstrels. JS Bach borrowed from Lutheran hymns, which in turn sometimes used German popular tunes, the secular words being replaced by scriptural or liturgical references.
This is exactly what we at South Woden will do for Psalm 121, substituting the set text for the Lennon/McCartney words. However, the chorus quoted above sits quite happily as a prayer in the sacred context without modification. Singers will naturally recognise the shift in vocative attention to include divine influence, without excluding the important dimension of community support when help is needed.
Selection of a psalm tune is informed by setting and style. Choosing a pop song like this should never be driven by a desire for special attention or indulgence on the part of the musicians; the music must enhance rather than impede the aims of worship. Clearly, one must choose the moment, style and mode of presentation in a way which will draw attention easily to the message of the poem, in this case an expression of trust in divine care, protection and guidance.