Psalm 147, 2 Jan 22

This psalm, like others in this final handful in the Psalter, is a song of praise, calling the faithful to rejoice in the creation and in the ubiquitous evidence of divine love and care.

‘Starry Night’ by V van Gogh. Wikimedia commons

With sudden shifts of focus and a visionary sweep of the universe, the song alternates between the earthbound to the heights of heaven, the present day to the distant past, from the stars to personal reassurances for the exile and outcast:

God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. God counts the number of the stars; and calls them all by name. (3, 4)

We are encouraged to pull out our lyres again in order to sing those praises (7).

The second half of the psalm, which constitutes the Lectionary selection for this Sunday, directs Jerusalem and Zion to delight in their favoured protection, peace and prosperity. (vs 12-14) The poet then goes on to picture world, weather, wind, and waters activated by a creative divine power.

The evident exceptionalism of the Israelites and their holy city may have been a reality in the minds of writer and target audience at the time. At the time of singing this Sunday, a reasonable interpreter might prefer to see this munificence and favour as bestowed upon people of faith wherever they be.

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In the vespers liturgy and the Anglican Compline, up to five psalms were accompanied by the Magnificat or other Marian verses. Psalm 147 is a vespers psalm and therefore appears frequently in evening prayer services in the Roman and other rites. Partly for this reason, classical settings abound.

Guerrero, Lassus, Monteverdi, Victoria and many others wrote several settings. Vivaldi’s Lauda Jerusalem in E minor, RV609 is a lively and impressive piece. Monteverdi’s gets along at a similarly bright clip.

Antonia Nola wins the prize for Most Massive Musical Mass Moment with his 1674 setting for four choirs and basso continuo. Neapolitan Nola was not one of the greats but he obviously liked the big choir sound — three of his seven surviving works are in this structure, one even ‘con violini‘.

Here’s the beginning of Victoria’s more modest but no less impressive setting:

 Lauda Ierusalem, Salmo de Vísperas No. 6 (illustrated above) is a series of short sections, one for each of the odd verses. As the following YouTube video clearly demonstrates, the odd verses (‘Versos impares’) are sung antiphonally by a choir in the vespers service, the priest or cantor chanting the introit and even verses.

This motet is in Latin rather than English; so in the modern environment a translation should be provided. It could be used as inspirational incidental music or anthem. It could also be interposed as reflective antiphons between readings or prayers.

There will not be a sung psalm at Woden Valley this Sunday but here are some more modern suggestions for those who have emerged from their Covid-constrained Christmas couches.

Even though it is outside the set verses, if you relish that idea of naming each of the myriad stars, a refrain by Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter would be an excellent choice: ‘Jehovah with immeasurable wisdom calls each star by name’.

PFAS rolls out several responsive options, frequently just picking the ‘Hallelujah’ theme. One (147A alt.) is even a familiar tune by Mozart. Mozart’s music is supposed to soothe the troubled breast but this one is no simple little melody. It’s a nice canon in three parts, so it will keep the congregation awake and alert as they learn and enjoy their woven harmonies.

Together in Song No 92 covers most of the set verses and, being by John Bell, is reliably tuneful and easy to learn. Although the composition includes a chorus it is presented as a congregational hymn rather than a responsorial psalm with cantor.

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