Patience is a high virtue, certàin,
For it vanquisheth, as this clerk seyn,
Things that regour should never attain.
— Chaucer, The Frankeleyns Tale
People love categorising and sorting. The psalms have been labelled in various ways (see the Home page)
- Penitential Psalms
- Songs of Ascents
- Songs by David
- Songs of Asaph
- Psalms by the Sons of Korah
- Vespers psalms
- Royal psalms
- Laments, individual and collective
- Maskils or wisdom songs
About half contain a plea for justice and equity. So one can almost classify the whole Psalter as Songs for Justice.
But what about patience, so necessary in times of social distancing and even isolation? Sure enough, in the sense that the psalms reflect life in all its facets, many call for hopeful endurance.
The biblical letter of James, having been written “to the twelve tribes scattered around the world” — that is, everyone — is timely and relevant. His stated aim is declared at the outset:
Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing, to encourage patience in the face of trials. (James 1:2-4)
Recalling Job, he continues:
Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (James 5:11)
Throughout the Bible, voices that ask the question ‘How long … ?” vent frustrations or impatience. Sometimes it’s God waiting for people to lift their game:
God said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? (Num. 4:11)
Often, people are cranky at injustice, suffering or just inaction, a result of blocking the human impulse to get on with things; this may be causing you anxiety during lockdown.
The psalms reflect these feelings. In more than a dozen psalms the writers have asked the question ‘How long?’ It starts as early as Psalms 4 and 6, which lament some present agony and call for relief in distress. Similarly, in Psalms 72, 79, 80, 82 and 94 the call is for intervention against unjust rulers or the absence of compassion. However, almost invariably (Psalm 88, a classic case of singing the blues, is an exception) expressions of trust soon follow:
In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone make me dwell in safety. (Ps 4:8)
In Psalm 13 and others, psalmist and reader impatiently wait for justice against some unspecified enemies, whether ‘an army awfully arrayed’ or vexing vicious virus.
In some psalms, the ‘How long?’ theme is just a passing thought, albeit uttered seriously. In Psalms 6 and then 13, it dominates through most of the song. How have composers attempted to convert poetry into sympathetic song? You guessed it, by a thousand different ideas.
The early composers like Monteverdi and des Prez, restrained by church convention and culture, had to keep it decidedly cool, especially for a song labelled ‘Penitential’ such as Psalm 6, the first in this classification. you will find several such on the web either under ‘Psalm 6’ or ‘Domine ne in furore‘
More recent composers consider that, dark though the mood may be, the song does not need to be dismal. The Sons of Korah, a modern band singing the psalms, have a nice moderate version. Of Psalm 6 they say:
Possibly the most astounding aspect of many of the laments is their movement out of sorrow into joy. Some of the most jubilant expressions of praise in the book of psalms are found at the end of lament psalms.
Even more upbeat in style, Canadian singer songwriter Steve Bell manages to convey a light-hearted sense of hope by lively guitar picking interspersed with moments of almost peaceful quietude.
By way of contrast, many vespers and vigils such as the Rachmaninoff All-night vigil intend to set a peaceful and reflective tone in the long watches of the night before sleep. We at South Woden have enjoyed singing and listening to his Blogoslovi dushe moya, Psalm 104, even a modified ‘lite’ version for three parts compared with the original of up ten voices.
Now listen to the peaceful sounds of another Rachmaninoff Russian song, Тебе поем, We praise Thee, this time from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, sung here by the Kovcheg Male Voice ensemble:
Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy’ (Psalm 126:5)