11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
So there it is, the taunt from ‘The Devil’, who or whatever that was, to Jesus in the wilderness. “Jump; you’ll be fine!” (Luke 4)
And so begins Lent with the wilderness narratives. Back in the day of the psalms, and the wider view of this week’s readings, these verses just fit into the general hymn to divine protection.
Despite the resonance of verses 11 and 12 in the Gospel story, the psalmist was not prescient, prophesying events centuries in the future. The reader takes anew what can be drawn from the psalm text today, reading it as poetry rather than literal prediction, and not becoming too caught up locally in the stresses of the moment. For example, verses 5 and 6, which do not appear in the Lectionary selection, could be seen as written for the pandemic or the attacks on Ukraine or … and so it goes on:.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, 6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
This is not to deny the possibility of a helpful personal revelation perceived by a worried individual at a critical moment. However, the long and more generalised view, defining no method of relief specific to the trials of the day, is more often a sensible and realistic reading:
15 When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honour them.
I have never noticed it before but the refrains suggested in The Emergent Psalter and Psalms for All Seasons exhibit unusual similarities. The tunes are not the same but follow similar patterns of a series of a few notes in sequential rising and falling scalar groups. Both assume the verses will be spoken or sung to a plain vanilla tone. Nothing startling there but I could not help but smile: both happen to be built on the same chord structure in same key:
Gm – Gm/F – EbΔ – Dm.
Well, I’m not going to say it’s a sign. However, the coincidence invites use of this sequence for not only the refrain but also the verses in a more freely improvised session. Use the tunes written by Isaac Everett (TEP) or Val Parker (PFAS) or make up your own. [Note: no sung psalm at WVUC this week.]
Johann Michael Haydn (1737-1806) wrote a nice setting entitled Angelis suis Deus mandavit for this psalm. Mendelssohn’s Denn Er hat seinen Engeln befohlen über dir is also about the angels of verses 11-12. This performance by Voces 8 singing from memory in a lovely setting — and conveying a deceptive casual air enabled no doubt by significant talent, experience and concentration — is delightful: