Psalm 138, 6 June 2021

King David playing the harp, in an early manuscript held in Zürich; Swiss digitised collection, VC1220.

David, or whoever wrote this song, is obviously feeling quite chipper in Psalm 138. He or she will praise ‘with my whole heart’, bowing to the holy temple and confident that his or her calls are heard:

3 On the day I called, you answered me,
    you increased my strength of soul.

Hang on to that optimism. Looking around the world just now — widespread disease, starvation, greed, guns or rockets causing suffering and death — it’s quite hard to believe the vision that is confidently introduced in the middle of this short psalm:

4 All the rulers of the earth shall praise you, O God,
    for they have heard the words of your mouth.
5 They shall sing of your ways
    for great is your glory.
6 For though you are high, you care for the lowly;
    and  he perceive the haughty from afar.

The psalmist is laying down the gold standard. In the ideal world, rulers would take account of, indeed be strongly guided by, the precepts laid down in Scriptures. To be fair, these precepts have strongly influenced Western legal and governance structures.

But feet of clay in positions of power have corrupted the implementation, if not the foundations. Now is the time for parliaments and the powerful to pay more heed to the pillars of the Psalter, namely justice and equity. Justice may be hard to define in practice. But surely equity is not as complex as all that?

This is not to suggest that governments should follow religious dictates. Noting the variety of religious enthusiasms around the societies and cultures of the world, the separation of church and state has great merit. But this does not absolve communities and states of the responsibility to follow legal, ethical and behavioural codes of respect, justice and equity. (See, for example, Psalm 99:4).

Though they are high, do they care for the lowly?

🎵

Early this year as we emerged from hibernation in the frosts of pandemic isolation, this psalm was presented online by one of our CoVideos. On that occasion, the refrain from the New Century Hymnal was used as the foundational structure.

This week, more freely and happily gathering together in person once more at Woden Valley, we turn to the refrain from The Emergent psalter. This response underlines the hope of governance accepting divine ideals of justice and equity (verse 5):

They shall sing of the ways of the Lord, ‘Great is the Glory of God’.

Harmonised version of Isaac Everett’s refrain to Psalm 138. The Emergent Psalter, arr. Webmaster. [Erratum: slur missing in bar 4 alto part.]

From a different era, here is a lovely early music setting by Adrain Willaert of the whole psalm — many composers just picked a verse or two about which to wind their magical musical moments. Willaert (1490 – 1562) was Flemish, from the western region of what is now Belgium. By 1515 he had moved to Italy after studying in Paris. In 1527 he was appointed as maestro di cappella of St. Mark‘s at Venice, a post he held until his death in 1562. A highly influential composer in his time and beyond, he founded the Venetian school, which evolved to feature two choirs and antiphonal compositions suited to St Mark’s two choir lofts.

Several other psalms begin with the Latin word Confitebor, ‘I will praise’ (or Confitemini) including 9, 105, 111 and 136.

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