Psalm 1, 16 May 21

How often have you heard a parent say: “I’m so worried Jenny/Johnny is hanging out with a bad crowd”? Well, it’s a parent’s job to watch out for their offspring. But often, there’s more to the story. Jenny rolls her eyes and fights back. Johnny goes below the radar. Parents resist the latest social trends.

Opening the Psalter, you could be forgiven for thinking that’s the theme of Psalm 1:

1 Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
Psalm 1 in the Bedford psalter. This psalm, being first up in the book, attracted special attention for illuminated and historiated initial capitals in the old manuscript psalters, such as this initial upper case capital B from the opening phrase in Latin, Beatus vir qui non abiit in consilio (Blessed is the one) in the Bedford Hours. The image shows Samuel anointing David. MS 42131 British Library.

The first verse certainly seems to accommodate that parental concern. But the psalms often introduce an idea then restate it a different way, as in this case. Thereby, the scenario is broadened, viewed from different angles (maybe even Jenny and Johnny’s) and given wider applicability.

‘Two ways’ — though here one takes both. [By the way, can you tell which way they are actually riding? There is only one correct answer. Vote below.]

So it’s not just a bad crowd. ‘Advice’, ‘paths’, ‘seats’, whether wicked or worthy, surround. More important than the ‘bad crowd’ are personal choices. The psalm’s heading in some translations is: ‘Two ways’.

Verse 2 quickly provides the alternative as to our choices, how we focus our interests and energies; we are urged to extract from those musty old biblical writings exactly what is a ‘law’, or system of living, that is worthy and positive for the present moment. What guidance can we draw from the psalms, ancient though they be? As author of The Emergent Psalter Isaac Everett says:

The Psalter opens by telling us that those who study the teaching of God (literally “the Torah of God”) will be happy and blessed. It’s not an accident that this psalm was placed first — it’s meant to be an introduction to the rest of the book, and it tells us why studying the psalms is a good idea in the first place.

– p.28
Trees stand proud by the waters of a canal near Bruges

The psalmist then in verse 3 goes into further restatements in metaphoric expressions of pleasure. Those who study divine principles of justice will be like trees planted by streams of water, like prosperous trees laden with fruit.

The psalm concludes be declaring that “God knows the way of the righteous”. Whether you imagine the divine spirit as personalised or an ethereal creative force somewhere out there, the point is that there has to be a better way of doing things — living well together, governance for equity and justice, seeking love not war — than that which surrounds us in a struggling world.

That odd word ‘righteous’, little used outside the liturgical context, still has a powerful if debatable message for those who aspire to set standards and reach towards justice, a central pillar of the Psalter.

🎵

As a popular and meaningful song, Psalm 1 or extracted texts in various languages have been set to music by prolific masters such as Schütz, Sweelinck and Tallis. Rachmaninov uses it in his wonderful All-Night Vigil, Op.37. Listen to this heavenly Russian choir singing this wonderful composition.

Another setting rejoices under the rather unpromising title of: “The man is blest that hath not lent, by Uriah Davenport“. His rather plaintive setting for Psalm 1 appeared in London in 1755 in ‘The Psalm-Singer’s Pocket Companion’. You have a copy always on your person, no doubt?

Initial capital for Psalm 1, manuscript c. 1220. Bell ringer and King David playing harp. The text of verse 1, being almost the same as in the first illustration above, slides down the right-hand column and continues at the bottom of the frame. Swiss digitised collections, http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch

In Psalms for All Seasons, the very first song is a hymn to trees, and other ideas, to the well known tune DIX (As with gladness). The purists will note that the text draws on several other psalms, and not just Psalm 1. PFAS 1E a few pages over is a responsorial and swinging Spanish song; it might take a little learning to get the groove.

Anyone who wished could easily use a simple refrain as shown in last week’s post on Psalm 98, fit words and sing the verses to any tone you like. Easy peasy and effective.

At Woden Valley UC this week, with your cantor absent, a ready choice is Together in Song 1, a Thai melody. A pentatonic Asian tune for the introductory psalm? Why not? Thai is no less related to the Abrahamic or Hebraic tribes than to the Anglo-Saxon and Gallic, or to all the Latin Gregorian chants in China. (Hmm, that does not quite work does it?) Anyway, we really have no idea what the original Hebrew tunes were.

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