Psalm 99, 18 Oct ’20

If you read last week’s entry on Psalm 106 you will know that, for this author, justice and equity are foundational themes, if not prominent ones, in this psalm and many others. As in 106, the psalmist in the first few lines declares the greatness and goodness of the divine creative spirit. Then Psalm 99 picks up the last line in the previous psalm:

God will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

Psalm 98:9

In 99, the idea of equity is cast in a slightly different light:

O mighty ruler, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed righteous justice in Jacob. (4)

This is an important statement, somewhat hidden away in a relatively short song of praise. The concept of equity, says the psalmist — all persons being seen as of equal value and worth — was established in the original grand creative plan, whatever or however that was devised or evolved. Despite depressing evidence to the contrary in history and in the world today, moral ‘rightness’ and equality were and are still intended to guide humanity for the long term.

Opening verses of Psalm 99 in Latin. The last line shown begins with an illuminated T for the latter part of verse 4: Tu parasti directiones; judicium et justitiam... As the old BCP translation went: “Thou hast prepared equity; thou hast executed judgement and righteousness.” The Rutland Bible, c. 1260, British Library MS6295.

The psalmist calls on us to acknowledge this concept and the pervasive and fundamental holiness behind the whole push. Yet at the same time the psalm depicts a divine spirit that is not far way, that responds, answers guides. (Verses 6 to 8)

In real life, such prompting may be harder to discern than in poetic flights of biblical rhetoric. The psalmists stick to their story with trusting optimism; we need to stick to trying to make justice and equity more of a reality.

For more on this subject, and comments from the writings of Isaac Everett and Professor Tom Wright, see the main page on Psalm 99.

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While this important statement in Psalm 99:4 seems so central and vital a message for a world riven with injustices and inequities, composers seem to have passed by without a glance. Few settings are listed online. Half of those don’t even include verse 4. Most favour verse 9 which, though rather grand, is a fairly generic call to worship.

Heinrich Schütz produced a hymn based on a Cornelius Becker Psalter, but as it is in German it may not grace our worship services this week:

Psalms for All Seasons has been a valued resource for our small group of Psalm Singers in the South. However, it too brushes past this psalm, thereby missing the opportunity offered by this quietly powerful verse. Hence at South Woden as in previous years, a setting that uses verse 4 in the refrain is preferred. This home-grown tune is available:

The tune settles on a final chanting note for the last few bars, as I wanted to create a sympathetic ‘level playing field’. The chord progression has its own mind and won’t be thus constrained; it moves along towards an ending cadence of a half-diminished and flat 9 (or tri-tone sub in the recording) as the tune levels out. It goes like this:

Finally, here is an interpretation presented by the Sons of Korah, an Australian band. Even they repeat sections of the psalm before dropping in a single brief reference to that admirable verse 4 right at the end:

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