This is a rich song. Opening with a confident claim that divine assistance is assured in time of trouble, David goes on to pray for blessings and prosperity. In the original setting, it seems to have been addressed to the king, seeking that God would ‘fulfil all your plans’. (4)
The Psalms make frequent references to special cities or places in the Holy Land that represented a special degree of spiritual blessing or holiness. Jerusalem’s very name declares itself as the city of peace, albeit regrettably underachieved in practice. Zion, Mount Hermon and the temple are variously cited as holy places where the divine Spirit dwells.
This psalm is no exception. Geographic and ancestral connections to spirituality are evident in the opening verses:
- David calls upon ‘the God of Jacob’ for protection, (1) drawing strength from the historical tales of guidance and protection
- In verse 2 he anticipates divine help ‘from the sanctuary’, and ‘support from Zion’.
Australians might note well. We regularly in our gatherings acknowledge with respect the traditional owners of the ancient lands. The spirituality of these first peoples was powerfully linked to both land and to dreamtime stories of the ancestors, as may be perceived here in these opening verses.
Human experience is situated. The Spirit is unlimited.
After this gracious prayer for safety, strength, acceptance and prosperity in difficult times, the psalmist goes on to warn against relying on weapons and warfare in achieving victory:
7 Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God. 8 They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.
And what is the nature of that victory? David just prays for the ability to ‘arise and stand upright’. (v.8) It would be easy to sing this little throw-away line without really noticing its importance. However, taking account of the recurrent theme of justice and equity running throughout the Psalter, this little line is profitably caught up and celebrated.
This Sunday at Woden Valley, the simple Byzantine chant in Psalms for All Seasons 20B is sung. Orthodox harmonies are always inspiring; the connection to the musical traditions of the ancient Eastern church is of the same order; and the refrain and tone is ‘scalable’, in that it can be a simple unison chant with few voices or in full harmony if part-singers are available.
The refrain with its parallel thirds lends itself well to congregational singing of the refrain in two parts. Its prayer ‘May the blessing of God be upon us (you)’ also renders it useful as a sung blessing for prayers or for a general or specific cause.
While the Spanish and Afro-American songs presented in PFAS are also enticing, more modest goals must be set when short of singers and rehearsal time.
Drawn from such early centuries as the Byzantine chant are many other rich pickings. From the English tradition in the 16th century many fine psalms setting were written, including one by Robert White (1538 – 1574). At just 34, White with all his family died of a severe plague outbreak around Westminster Abbey, where he was the organist and director of choirs. His music would also die, to remain unsung for many years until rediscovered in the 18th century .Here is his motet on Psalm 20, Exaudiat Te Dominus, by the fine composer sung by Gallicantus:
Other music notes may be seen in the page Psalm 20: Stand upright – unarmed.