Psalm 89, 18 July 21

No committees here. This psalm, like many others, focuses the spotlight on the responsibilities of rulers — OK, in those days they were all kings — not only the mortal kind but divine rule as well.

Unlike the Greek gods, who were often imagined as having a foot in both human and heavenly camps, many psalms are either extolling the original and continuing value of divine influence and guidance, or giving a push to earthly leaders to lift their game. Plenty of scope for that.

In this long psalm, we hear some of both sides of this story. The opening section to verse 18 rejoices in the wonders of divine reign. It sets the pace early with the opening verse:

1 I will sing of your steadfast love, O God, for ever;
    with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

The second section is the reading set in the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday (20 to 37). Essentially a restatement of God’s covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7, it affirms divine favour and faithfulness:

24 My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him;
    and in my name his horn shall be exalted.
25 I will set his hand on the sea
    and his right hand on the rivers.

An ongoing reign of justice is imagined as continuing beyond David’s life, into a heritage of following divine standards and precepts.

35 Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness –
    and I will not lie to David –
36 that his line will continue for ever
    and his throne endure before me like the sun;
37 it will be established for ever like the moon,
    the faithful witness in the sky.’

The third section is a lament for subsequent failures of leadership and faith in and around the years of exile. Together with many other psalms, leaders are urged to turn away from the pursuit of power towards principles of justice, love and equity as laid down in the Bible.

🎵

The set reading this week starts way after that opening verse. Seems it was too good to miss, however, as many refrains and hymn settings use that one as their main theme. It’s a good line, though, and it still fits in with the later reading starting at verse 20.

At Woden Valley this Sunday we shall follow suit, borrowing for the refrain a phrase from ‘I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever’ in Psalms for All Seasons 89A.

As for the verses, they are not to be found in most settings. That is one of the reasons the responsorial tradition of singing any chosen verses to a lightly embellished chanting tone has been a standard practice over many centuries.

This chant is a little more than ‘lightly embellished’. Simple and complex chant styles such as the Gregorian chant evolved such that simper versions based on old psalm tones are widely used today. [Confession time: this is Psalm 89 in the Vulgate numbering system, so it’s actually Psalm 90 modern.]

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