Psalm 17, 2 Aug 20

Wet cobbles at night, Weimar

In Psalm 17 (click here for the text) David, for it is attributed to him, asks for purity and protection. Continuing the idea of transparency heard recently in Psalm 139 — ‘ Search me O God’ — David is confident that examination will prove his faithfulness.

My footsteps hold fast to the ways of your law; in your paths my feet shall not stumble. (v.5)

A warm climax in the middle of the psalm brings a sense of being cherished. Assured of being loved, the psalmist goes on to ask for security from all sorts dangers — wicked enemies, the wealthy and greedy, even lions and marauders get a mention, if not specifically pandemics. His central prayer is personal and rich:

Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings (v.8)

Apple of your eye


Isaac Everett’s refrain in The emergent psalter is unusual but easy to sing; the refrain is sung to one note throughout. He chose to use the poetic phrases in verse 8 quoted above. Images such as these help to make the sung psalms inspirational.

This nice little verse is actually just outside the Lectionary selection (1-7, 15). However, it appears again in Together in Song 6. Unlike PFAS, TiS was not designed around the RCL readings and often uses different verse selections. That’s the case again here in TiS 6 but it is a nice setting and that’s probably our choice for this coming Sunday.

In the realm of oldies and classics, the big name composers of Renaissance and Romantic eras are notably absent in the lists for Psalm 17. A dozen or so later composers used the widely accepted metrical paraphrases from 1719 by Isaac Watts. If used at all, these are best served up in SATB, the harmonies somewhat ameliorating the dated and sometimes fanciful language.

This Watts stanza, for example, is supposed somehow to relate to the opening verse (‘Hear a just cause, O God; give heed to my cry; listen to my prayer which does not come from lying lips’):

Arise, my gracious God,
And make the wicked flee;
They are but thy chastising rod,
To drive thy saints to thee.

Hmm. To be fair, a reference to ‘the wicked’ does appear around verse 9 but not, as Watts would have it, as a ‘chastising rod’. (Chastising rods are not allowed these days anyway, are they?)

Still, if Watts just three centuries ago could be fanciful, and fruitfully allow wandering and exploratory thoughts to be triggered by the lines of the Psalter, so can we — while still retaining our status as the apple of the divine eye, secure in the shadow of the wings of love. Is that not fanciful, while somehow providing welcome assurance?

Psalm 17:1 in the Howard Psalter, early 14th c: Exaudi, Domine, justitiam meam. The line of antiphon music above the verse shown here attaches to the previous psalm, while overleaf is another antiphon for this psalm beginning with ‘Ecco virgo concipiet‘ in Matt.1:23, ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive …’, then quoting Psalm 17. British Library MS Arundel 83, f.20r.

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