Psalm 104, 17 Sep 17

‘You make springs gush forth in valleys, they flow between hills.’ (10)

Here we have epic demonstrative poetry, the poet overcome by the glory and power of the creation — and the Creator. The author’s feelings are quite infectious:

You are clothed with honour and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. (2-4)

Kanga on the Keys with Joyful Joey? A creation full of wonders.

The song continues relishing the diversity and complexity of creatures and the environment. As in several other psalms (145 for example) divine love also sustains and provides for this diverse living planet. In these days of global warming, extinction of many species and desertification, this picture can be lost in the fear. However, the psalms long for times when divine love working through people can regenerate and fulfil the intention of the blueprint.

The poet is certain that our world is wonderful and enduring: “You have set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never move.” (5) Psalm 102 counters that all things shall pass,1 however this poor little verse had the dubious honour of being one of those the church cited to condemn evidence of heliocentricity. For more on Copernicus, see Psalm 86; and beware literal doctrines.2

The settings in TEP, PFAS and the NCH are all suitable. The refrain from TiS 65 perfectly suits the theme of caring for our environment to  be taken up this week by our leader, Keith. Versification will be modified to the lectionary selection rather than that in the book. We shall also sing the verses to a different, home-grown tone — with a little swing added.

The hair-raising setting by Rachmaninoff mentioned under Psalm 103 is also relevant here as it shares similar text.

And just for interest, we have in years gone by used a Gregorian chant (no 8) for this psalm, again with different verses, to accompany a Hildegard song, complete with that marvellously atmospheric hurdy gurdy.

1Psalm 102:26.

2Refer also to Psalm 93:1

Psalm 149, 10 Sep 17

‘God takes pleasure in people.’ (4)

Cantate Domino, from Psalm 149 in the an 8th century Psalter. Latin uncial script with Old English gloss between lines. British Library MS Vespasian A1

This is the penultimate psalm in the book, short and bitter-sweet. Four verses of praise, singing and dancing, including the important statement of love quoted above; four verses of wreaking vengeance on enemies; and in the middle, it appears, a good lie down!

Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; let them be joyful on their beds. (5)

An odd little verse, and indeed it struck Isaac Everett to the point that he chose this for his responsive refrain. He wonders whether it implies that the people routinely slept in the Temple, that praise at home as well as in the Temple is fine, or perhaps just relishing being in bed.1

Despite its central location, the bed verse is not the key to the song and its use as the refrain seems a little idiosyncratic. Scanning for meaningful and respectful ways to praise in song, verse 1 is a better bet:

Sing to God a new song; sing praise in the congregation of the faithful.

A little further on there’s a nice statement of why psalm tragics do this:

… sing praise making melody with timbrel and lyre; for God takes pleasure in people and adorns the poor with victory. (3, 4)

The second half of the psalm is less comfortable. ‘Wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the people … inflicting judgment.’ (7) Is not this just the sort of cry we, well, decry when it leads to the extremist religious violence that seems increasingly to dominate the news? Remember that the historical reference is to the Exodus and the early opposed establishment of Israel, which was a fight for survival.

Today, in the light of the New Testament modifier to love your enemies, the reader regards it metaphorically. Most commentators see it now as a fight against evil. Any enthusiasm for holy war against other people sounds bizarre. For as we just saw, God takes pleasure in people. (And by the way, what a marvellous difference it makes taking the ‘his’ out of that phrase from the RSV.)

A cautionary note on this passage in PFAS says: ‘It is, then, a psalm to handle with great care.’ However, the note continues that the psalm is instructive about the nature of faithful obedience in a world of injustice.2 The psalm again encourages the fight for justice and equity, for ‘God loves people’ as we do, and ‘adorns the poor’, as we should. Tom Wright has this insight relating to both 148 and 149:

To put it in modern shorthand, you find the political message within the ‘creational’ message. Once you summon the whole of creation to praise the maker, you can begin to see clearly where the fault lines lie within the world of human power.3

Bach wrote two impressive works on this psalm, both entitled Singet dem Herrn. BWV190 is an lengthy cantata written for New Year’s Day in Leipzig in 1724. BWV 225 is scored for double choir. Both are demanding works for amateur singers.

The Everett refrain has already been mentioned. PFAS has a nice responsive setting (149B) with a contemporary sound even though the music was written back in the 18th century.

TiS 95 has a good setting by reliably valued Sydney-born composer Christopher Willcock SJ. The response is simple, and the stacked triads of the tone (the simple tune for the verses) is enticing. It only presents half the lectionary, however, and ducks that confronting second section discussed above.

If you really want to sing of vengeance upon the forces opposing a rule of love, try a solo by Catalan composer and contemporary of Bach, Francisco Valls. Best with its original figured bass, the sharper edges are modestly veiled in Latin:

1 TEP page 275

2 Psalms for All Seasons, page 989 footnote.

3 Wright, N T, Finding God in the Psalms, page 150-1

Psalm 133, 20 Aug 17

How good and how pleasant it is when kindred live together in harmony. That’s it, folks; the message of this psalm in a nutshell — or as an immigrant friend used to say unawares: “… in a nutcase.” Like most of the psalms of ascent, it’s short and sweet. There are a couple of images thrown in to help us savour the psalmist’s case — and they are typical of the psalms, images that stir your imagination, make you think:

  • Fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard, upon the collars of Aaron’s robe. The pristine state of the high priest’s fine robes just don’t count against the value of a holy blessing.

  • The dew of Hermon flowing down upon the hills of Zion. Familial harmony is a blessing spreading gently down from the snowy heights upon the villages and streets of everyday dwellings in the foothills.

The scene gets more complex if, like Jesus, you open the question of who is kin, who is your brother or sister? (Matthew 12:49-50) Do you have to be Tutsi, Jewish, Sunni, Russian, Protestant … ? However we define the tribe and non-discrimination, we have a long way to go in establishing habits of equity. In the original historical setting, the references to the hills of Hermon in the north and Zion in the south (verse 3) suggest this is a prayer for national unity. Fine, but nationalism unchecked is also a danger to peace. The psalms taken together suggest that it is only in seeking the rule of divine principles, love and justice that we start to see others in a clear light.

Psalm 133 in the Vespasian Psalter; British Library, Cotton MS Vesp A1.

A beautiful old Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the British Library from the 8th Century, shown above, records the psalms in Latin in an insular uncial script (capital letters) in common use around 700 CE. Easily seen, the initial capital begins the word Ecce, ‘Behold’. The text line in dark red gives the psalm number (132 in the Vulgate system) and the descriptor ‘Song of ascents’ (canticum graduum). This text then follows:

Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity. (V.1, BCP)

The British Library description goes on to reveal in matter-of-fact tone some quite impressive information:

The text is the earliest surviving example of St Jerome’s first translation of the Psalms (the Roman version), first written c. 384. It was copied during the second quarter of the 8th century.

A close examination reveals some smaller writing in a brown ink between the lines. BL continues:

An Old English gloss was added around the second quarter of the 9th century by the Royal Bible Master Scribe, whose hand appears in other manuscripts owned by or made at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. This gloss is the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text.

This manuscript reaches right back to earliest steps on the path taken by the psalms in reaching out to readers and singers across the world. What paths did the psalms trace in finding their way into hundreds of other languages and cultures? This universality of life experience inspires the search for cultural sampling in our music. An interesting mix of styles can be found for Psalm 133, ranging from a William Byrd’s Ecce quam bonum to Samuel Wesley’s Behold how good it is, for male voices in three parts. Many of them present just verse 1. (Together in Song skips Psalm 132 to 135 altogether.) However, in the interests of variety and a good sing, a fine modern choice for this psalm might be a Spanish setting in PFAS 133D:

¡Miren qué buono, qué buono es! / Oh, look in wonder how good it is!

Psalm 145, 6 Aug 17

For comment on the primary psalm reading for this week, see a previous post on Psalm 17

Thank you so much to our male voice quintet who presented Psalm 105 last Sunday. What lovely sounds. We hear the same refrain, with different verses, in coming Sundays.

Antiphon after the last verse of Ps 145; then Ps 146:1 ‘Lauda anima mea’. Note change from C to F clef at response. The Howard Psalter, British Lib. MS 83, f.89r

Psalm 145, the alternative reading for this week, is the last of the many songs attributed to David, and the first of a closing bracket of six songs of praise. The central theme is the ultimate sovereignty of God. However, each time the psalm appears in the Lectionary – five times in all but mostly as a complementary reading – different verse selections offer different points of emphasis; praise to a great power, grace, faithfulness, love and even the matter of food on the table:

The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. / You open your hand, satisfying the need of every living thing. (verses 15, 16)

So there is a time for lamentation, and a time for lamingtons. Many psalms cater for both moments. As well as the greatness of divine purposes, the power of love and that recurrent theme of justice are celebrated in this song (17).

The psalms also convey a sense of freedom from burdens, an interesting undercurrent detected in the third century CE by commentator and theologian Hippolytus of Rome, who opined:

David gave the Hebrews psalmody. This abrogated Moses’ sacrificial system and introduced a new form of jubilant praise.

Several of the classical arrangements, such as those by Lassus and Gibbons, start with verse 15 quoted above. In modern sources:

  • TEP and PFAS 145D reflect the main theme of Psalm 145, namely praise for divine sovereignty and grace.
  • In NCH, Vérne de la Peña from the Philippines University meditates on God’s ‘wondrous works’, employing both simple tune and pleasing harmonies. [This refrain, with paraphrased verses to the same or a similar tune, will be used in South Woden this week.]
  • A local composition presents a vehicle for both verses and response, depending on which selection is set:

Psalm 105, 30 Jul 17

Psalm 105 is a song of praise, as indeed are 106 and 107 that follow. The opening lines sound familiar, as such phrases occur throughout the Bible: Confitemini Domino et invocate nomen ejus / Give glory to God, and call upon his name

The next verse narrows the focus to set the theme as historical narrative, evidence that has provided confidence for such praise: Annuntiate inter gentes opera ejus / Declare God’s deeds among the peoples. A psalm singer in the temple or perhaps by a campfire in early times would have known that his audience would conjure up a host of stories and images relating to the era, the plagues, the Passover and the escape from Egypt. By telling and repeating, singing the familiar tunes and lyrics, people learned their history, culture, lessons from tales of the past and, osmotically perhaps, values. The song goes on to enumerate these tales but even so, one of the morals of the story is all the more striking: leaders must arise who are right for the time.

Perhaps this repetitive approach is why the lectionary provides the opportunity to revisit this psalm three times, with slightly differing verse selections, in the space of a little over a month. The music leader can achieve continuity by using the same style and response for all three appearances of this psalm.

A beautiful five-part setting of Psalm 105 by Lassus has been mentioned previously. Lassus, together with Palestrina in Italy, Byrd in England and Victoria in Spain, was one of the pillars of Late Renaissance music. The full work may be beyond the resources of small churches but extracts can be useful for a thematic refrain:

Verses associated with this refrain might best be sung to a traditional psalm tome. These tones were designed to allow clarity of the words in the vast spaces of cathedrals and monasteries with their reverberant acoustics. Sung by voices in unison they have their own special atmospherics. A quick scan through the Missal published by Monks of Solesmes does not reveal any particular tone associated with Psalm 105. However, Tone VIII is used for various other sung liturgical elements.

A common approach was the use of a particular tone during one service for several psalms. The author has attended a couple of Tallis Scholars summer schools, during which the order of service for Compline — the last office of the day usually at 9:00 pm — used Tone VIII for all psalms sung each night. Singing several psalms morning, noon and night, the monks would complete the cycle of singing all 150 psalms in the space of a fortnight.

As to more modern sources:

  • PFAS suggests a refrain comprised entirely of the word Alleluia repeated several times.
  • TEP’s refrain does something similar, preceding that celebration with an invitation to sing praise.
  • Still on a joyful theme but less exuberantly, NCH uses verse 3, ‘Let the hearts of those who seek God rejoice’, set to a refrain whose 5/4 time renders it more unusual.
  • Some years ago at South Woden the Lassus quintet mentioned above was a source of great joy. This year, a home-grown refrain and verses in gospel style will be used on all three occurrences of Psalm 105.

Psalm 139, 23 July 2017

What you see and what you think you see are not always the same thing. Is this an image of smoke-rings, a bicycle or a piece of post-modern art? Have you ever thought you knew someone well only to find out they have a very different side to them from that which you have known? This may be true of ourselves too. We don’t always analyse our own character and behaviour as objectively as we might. This, according to Psalm 139, is why we need to submit ourselves to the spotlight of loving but frank scrutiny:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (verses 23, 24)

Fine, but it’s not as simple as that, is it? It’s not as though you have a direct line or interactive web-site to fill in a survey form, get instant feedback. Steve Bell’s bluegrass version of Psalm 13 is entirely relevant here. It was all about that frustrating silence from the heavens. How long do we have to wait to get some sort of answer, comfort, guidance or voice on our doubts and dilemmas, let alone a personal report card? “How long, O God, will you turn your face from me?”

Who is God anyway?

Lurking behind these apparently conflicting poetic ideas is the question of how personal is your God. Is YHWH a powerful but vague force out there somewhere, a spirit moving upon the face of the waters sweeping silently in grand scale across the vast universe, unconcerned by a Western preoccupation with individualism yet benevolent toward the aggregate fate of a flawed humanity? Or an intimate and individual God whose eye instantly notices the fall of the sparrow, numbers the hairs of your head, and knows when you sit or stand? And somewhere in the middle is that still small voice of calm.

Depends on your viewpoint?Maybe like the bike in the water, our perspective will change with the light and times? Only you can answer that but the god’s-eye view, it would seem from the psalms, is crystal clear and all of the above, yesterday, today, forever. We trust that reflecting on the psalms from week to week —  How long? in Psalm 13, You see me in Psalm 139 and many other songs — will somehow clarify the picture.

As to the bike it’s real, visible through the cold waters of Lake Luzern from the long 15th century wooden foot-bridge over the lake. Just as the image is confused and masked by the waters, so we cannot know its story. Did age and infirmity or a nasty slide on gravel justify this watery grave? Was it thrown in anger, vengeance, or frivolous or drunken caper? The Psalms tell us that Divine omniscience has all this covered — but is often silent: waiting, busy on another line but your call is important, distant, leaving it to us to sort, time not yet come? Do we need to know? In any event, somehow music will soothe, enrich and catalyse the whole process.

IMG_2316 TanglesComplexity of situations, relationships or internal feelings can sometimes create such a tangled web that we are ensnared and immobilised. It would be easier if someone would just sweep in and ditch the unimportant things, whatever they are, and say: “Well, clearly, this is what you should be doing!”

In such times, Psalm 139 has much to say, acknowledging from the outset our essential transparency:

O God, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. (verses 1-3)

Attitude and Altitude

The spotlight of divine wisdom, if we can find the switch, helps us see through the tangles of our own or others’ making. How that can happen is a personal matter that no set of rules, certainly not a psalm blog, can describe or prescribe. Attempting to align our frame of reference, our moral compass or our ethical sensibilities with divine wisdom, the creative spirit of verses 13 to 16 quoted below, is surely a good start.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8, 9)

Easier said than done, of course, but hope springs eternal. This is not formally a ‘psalm of ascent’ but that broad sweeping idea of dreaming on a higher plane is certainly present in stirring language typical of psalm poetry. Lectionary readings sometimes straddle but miss this:

Where can I go from your spirit? … If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (verses 8-10)

… and Alternative Angles

What is not missed out, however, is the imagery of intimacy — pre-natal transparency, ultrasound plus. It’s at once captivating and unsettling:

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret … (vv. 13-15)

Incredible, even allowing for doubts about the original textual meaning and interpretation from various sources.  The concluding lines draw on this transparency and seek that ‘righteousness’ that’s at the heart of Psalm 1 and also here:Sacred music, BnF

Search me, O God, and know my heart … lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139:23, 24)

Music

PFAS 139C also uses that same verse 1 with an easy tune for the refrain. Everett however focuses on the ‘wonderfully made’ line in verse 14 in a refrain that is at once, typically, more interesting and slightly more challenging.

There is a nice setting of this psalm by Michael Card.  The response, repeating a couple of bars of the tune after each verse, is:

Ps139 RefrainThe lower line is a plain pedal note on g that can be sung in harmony if the upper note is too high. If singing to a tone, another suitable response is a very short, transparent refrain from the New century hymnal by Jane Marshall.

Final image: from 6-part music in Recueil de plusieurs messes, Psaumes, motets, Te Deum & c.a.  MS dated 1630-1682, Bibliotèque Nationale de France

Psalm 65

Thanksgiving, following a rich summer and autumn harvest, is quite an event in some countries. It is not observed as a holiday in this country down under. However, often in our autumnal season, April and May, a harvest festival of some sort graces church or home in appreciation of the richness of our world.  Psalm 65, set for this Sunday amongst the alternate set of readings, is full of this sense of happiness at the fruitfulness of creation despite the fact that it falls in the middle of the southern winter.

Katherine Gorge

After a prayer for forgiveness, the song goes on to remark upon the wonders of our world – fertile lands softened with good rains, mountains, roaring seas, amazing dawns.

Then, delight at what is going on within that scene – the river of God is full of water, flocks thrive, grains grow, the year is crowned with bounty, paths (or, rather quaintly in some versions ‘your wagon-tracks’) overflow with plenty.

Several of our sources pick up this theme.

  • PFAS likes those paths that overflow with plenty.
  • NCH chooses verse 5, (“God is the hope of all the ends of the earth”) for its refrain.
  • An easy but tuneful little antiphon from The Emergent Psalter by Isaac Everett uses the final verse: “The fields are clothed with grain; the hills are bursting with song.” [This is the choice for SWUC this Sunday]