Psalm 123 is a song of ascent. These short and hopeful songs, sometimes called degrees or Graduals, are grouped as Psalms 120 to 134. The songs of ascent have a particular fascination. They have a message and it’s economical. They challenge. This one, with only four verses, is short and bitter-sweet. Isaac Everett says of this psalm:1
The thing I love about the psalms of ascent is that they are so simple and short, yet they say everything they need to say.
Two themes are mingled: the psalmist declares (i) trust in divine love and protection, while (ii) hoping for mercy and relief from injustice from the ‘indolent rich’ and proud. (4) Unfortunately, progress against oppression is often slow. Ascent towards justice is not straight-forward or easy. Climbers are motivated by hope and belief that the effort will be worthwhile. Often it’s a long drag.
So the psalm could just as well have been written for today’s inequalities; it uses the image of looking faithfully to a benevolent authority, seeking a time when the dominance of the proud and the rich might be at least ameliorated, if not completely countered. ‘We have had more than enough of contempt’ (3) from those who should be statesmen and leaders.
Musical settings of Psalm 123, perhaps due to its brevity, are relatively few. Together in Song skips this one; there are a couple of early settings by Palestrina and Hassler that are beyond our reach; and the Genevan and similar psalters have hymns rather than responsorials. However, some regular sources include nice congregational refrains:
TEP offers the penitential theme, ‘Have mercy on us’, with simple tune and chords
Linnea Good in a nice SATB setting concentrates on the single phrase, ‘To you I lift up my eyes’, from verse 1.
David Haas in PFAS takes a hopeful view: Our eyes rest on you, awaiting your kindness.
‘With upright heart God tended them, guided them.’ (72)
This long psalm of Asaph in 72 verses covers many of the high points in the Torah, including the plagues and the exodus, subsequent trials and the calling of King David, great tales also to be found in Psalm 114 and elsewhere. Psalm 78 is a plea, a promise and a pledge to tell the old, old stories — for those who went before us, for ourselves, and for those who will follow…
Stories of old; even better when sung
But wait, I wrote all this and more in a post just recently, so go there to read the rest. This saves space and effort for the web-master; however a close inspection shows that this psalm reading selects different verses. So while it’s close, TiS 41 sung on 1 October does not quite cover the territory. Near enough for the average thematic leader but strictly, the reading is verses 1-7; again, review the other choices suggested in that earlier post>.
Here is the chosen refrain and verse tune for this week at South Woden:
Worship and song leaders may also be enticed by the alternative readings this week from the Wisdom of Solomon, a book which is not universally accepted as part of the canon. This nice passage could be sung by women to good effect.
Why the quote at the outset from that last verse 72? Here is another reminder of the strong thread of divine justice and goodness that runs through both the Psalter and the stories of old.
‘Let those who are wise consider the steadfast love of God’ (43)
This first song in the last book of the psalms recalls the gathering in from all points of the compass of a fragmented and wandering people, hungry and thirsty’. They gain safety under the ‘steadfast love’ of the divine hand. The catalyst may originally have been the deliverance of the Israelites from exile. People are displaced and look for homes
gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town (3, 4)
This picture remains sharply relevant to the present days of displaced persons, fragmented and suffering families and even tribes seeking a refuge in troubled places of the world. Steadfast love and mercy are much needed against rising fears and harsh responses. The song goes on to enumerate other crises, storms at sea and sickness, in which comforting divine love is to be found and acknowledged in praise.
That evocative phrase ‘Those who go down to the sea in boats’ in verse 23 inspired Henry Purcell to write a motet on those middle verses. A few of the usual composers like Ravenscroft and Lassus also appear in the listings, though none seem quite right for the attention of small groups. A short piece on the first two verses by Paschal de L’Estocart published 1583 may suit a quartet, although the original calls for a countertenor:
Suitable refrains in the normal sources seem to have been discouraged by the infrequent appearance of this and the two succeeding psalms in the Lectionary. Fortunately, Isaac Everett in TEP provides an interesting three-verse, three-part setting that is thoughtful and fun to sing with a little practice. This excellent trio refrain is repeated in PFAS 107C. (If accompanying the singing with guitar, the chords in TEP will be found to differ slightly from the PFAS piano accompaniment. The former reflects the B dominant seventh tonalities of the lead voice part, while the piano takes that accidental as a sus 4 in a passing sub-dominant E. Either works well.)
Marty Haugen’s apposite and enjoyable Consider the steadfast love of God (43) is a simpler alternative in The New Century Hymnal.
‘Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.’ (12)
Psalm 90 (89 Vulgate) Gregorian chant
Book IV opens with the only contribution by Moses to the psalter. Psalm 90 displays his grand vision: ‘For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night’. (4) It warms forsaken feelings experienced by Job and the saddened psalmist with hope, promise and light:
How long? Have compassion on your servant. Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so we may rejoice and be glad in all our days (13, 14)
A promise, a prayer, a connection, if not the full state of grace. In times of darkness we can still feel hope, in touch with life and people.
Such grand vision seems to call for a broad historical perspective in the choice of music, whether Gregorian chant such as that shown above from the Liber Usualis, through Orthodox drawing on rich early harmonies, to African-American and the simple tone. Varied offerings from different eras form a dialogue of musical traditions. In the primary modern sources used in this study, several useful refrains are offered. In the classical area there are at least thirty SATB settings for Psalm 90 on the Choral Public Domain site, many employing the well-worn Isaac Watts paraphrase O God our help in ages past. There are also several for larger choirs and groups such as those for six voices by Lassus and Matthieu Le Maistre, both published around 1566.
From the major cultural centre of Byzantium, the Eastern Orthodox Church spread in its various forms, largely through south-east Europe, Greece, Turkey, Eastern Europe and Russia, now rejoicing in some 300 million adherents. How many psalm singers in such lands draw on this rich historical culture? Orthodox music is rich. Think Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s All-night Vigil, the ‘Vespers’. Modern singers and listeners alike still savour this ancient spiritual and musical stream.
Tucked away in Chevetogne in Belgium is a Catholic monastery that devotes considerable effort to bridging the gap between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches caused by divergent calendars, traditions and observances. These many differences have caused competition over centuries, but many shared beliefs and practices remain. The Benedictine monks of Chevetogne have made a contribution to this cause by recording some great songs of the Slavonian and other Orthodox liturgies. A local arrangement of one of their chants, originally a setting for the Beatitudes but here employed for Psalm 90, starts thus:
This tune is best presented by four similar voices. For those without such resources to hand:
The old favourite hymn O God our help in ages past, found at Together in Song 47 is an easy solution. However, the text covers only the first six verses, missing much poetry of value.
The antiphons in The Emergent Psalter and New Century, both using the opening verse savouring the eternal nature of God, are fine.
For a more personalised and intimate refrain, with pleasing tone harmony for the verses, PFAS 90C calling attention to verse 12 wins by a length: ‘Teach us to know the shortness of our days; may wisdom dwell within our hearts.’
‘O mighty ruler, lover of justice, you have established equity.’ (v. 4)
At last, Psalm 99! This is worth waiting for. The verse quoted above with its key words of ‘justice’ and ‘equity’ is one of the most vital and important statements in the Psalter. It says that justice and equity are pillars of creation, a fundamental element of the blueprint. This unobtrusive gem of a verse is just waiting to be noticed amongst the dazzle of the grand parade. An apparently modest but meaningful verse is tucked away in the middle of the shouting and show. What is it that the people are actually proclaiming between the earth shaking and the pillar of cloud? Not “Lift up your heads ye gates”, or “Bow low ye princes of the earth”, or “Glory glory”, but that God is holy, just and righteous (3), leading to the cited explication: “Justice, equity!” (4)
Unlike rulers of earthly nations, who not infrequently display nepotism, favouritism, vengeance, inconsistency or just plain selfish evil in their ruling, here the psalmist imagines a set of standards for human equality for rich and poor, for high-born and low, for female and male. Implicit in the creation of the universe and humankind was an intention for equity … ‘created equal’. Inequities and iniquities come from human weakness and selfishness, not from any flaws in the divine goodness that is somewhere within us all. Note the word ‘established’. Created, devised, part of the plan.
The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)
The long-winded Anglo-Saxon law code – issued by King Cnut, influenced by the Bible, discussed at Psalm 118 – is a foundation of English law. Here in the psalms is another cornerstone declaration on the nature of our world and our lives, an essential element of creation that is not hidden in heavy books of law nor remote and unachievable humanist theories.
Sure it’s hard to be triumphal about the inequities painfully evident in the world around us. But the psalm reveals that justice and equity were in the plan from the outset, for the creation and for humankind. We have a responsibility to both. The implication is that we are not fighting a losing battle, that spiritual support and delight are not far away. Isaac Everett comments:
Equity didn’t exist in the days of Moses and Aaron, nor in the days of Samuel, nor does it exist in our world today. There are still rich and poor, masters and slaves, oppressors and oppressed. Where other psalmists would pray for an end to such things, however, this psalmist boldly declares that they’ve already ended, seeing the world as it ought to be rather than as it is. I love it.1
For Professor Tom Wright, the ‘cosmic drama’ of Psalms 93 to 99 thus includes:
‘… the human dramas of actual injustice that produce the longing that the cosmic promises might come true in smaller human situations.’2
Our challenge is to make the vision of the psalm more real.
Most settings celebrate the sovereignty of God proclaimed in the early verses. Admirable enough but, surprisingly to this author, few sources pick up this seminal verse 4 on justice to create the ringing response that it deserves. Even the reliable PFAS suggests that we ‘trembling bow in worship’; while in the redoubtable CPDL online at the date of publication, here is the only offering, an early work by Heinrich Schütz:
All rather faint. When this song offers that gem of verse 4, surely it must be the centrepiece? Isaac Everett, whose comments have been quoted above, is on the money with his antiphon in The Emergent Psalter. He uses the now-glowing verse quoted at the outset. His tune and chords roll nicely around B minor then D major and related progressions; but as usual for him, verses are spoken.3
Informed by the encouragement in many psalms to ‘sing a new song’, and in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the South Woden Uniting Church to be celebrated on 22 October 2017 at Pearce in the Australian Capital Territory, a new setting has been written for the occasion. (View score>)
Truly, this verse codifies a theme that should often be heard in our gatherings, a reference song in any tune in our hearts, an example for the rulers of nations.
‘Happy are those who act with justice, who do what is right.’ (3)
Psalm 106 drawing to a close the powerful Book IV of the Psalter is related to the previous song. The story of Exodus is again rehearsed at some length but with a stronger flavour of an awareness of human weakness. A warning against selfishness accompanies a plea for divine guidance and grace. As a good leader, Moses “stood in the breach to turn away God’s wrath.” However, provocation made Moses angry and he acted in haste:
By the waters of Meribah they angered God and trouble came to Moses because of them, for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips. (33)
Moses spoke ‘unadvisedly’ and suffered for it. Verse 3 quoted above is a reminder of the insistence on the centrality of justice that runs throughout the Psalter. In the frustratingly faltering pursuit of social justice today, here also are lessons for the worker about anger, control, deliberation, leadership, pressure. (See also Psalm 81)
Incipit to Psalm 106 by Thomas Tomkins; B and TII entries only.
As to the music, in the early 1600s Thomas Tomkins wrote a swag of psalm settings, including 106 for four male voices. This would be a satisfying sing and edifying contribution, probably as incidental music since it presents verse 4 alone.
In more modern sources:
The refrain in PFAS 106B invites us to sing: “Cast every idol from its throne”. This might be a good song if you are troubled by unhealthy fixations but the theme does not always appeal as timely.
The response in TEP is nice and syncopated but maybe a little too long to learn in the short period generally available in weekly gatherings.
NCH has a simple refrain but no sung verses. Use a tone.
PFAS 106A is by John Bell, so is prima facie worthy of attention. First, it emphasises the enduring patient nature of divine love and forgiveness. Secondly, it offers a sung verse. And finally, the refrain is in nice four-part harmony if enough singers are available.
‘The statutes of God are just and rejoice the heart’ (6)
Psalm 19 declares the glory of the divine as seen in the creation. It smoothly progresses to how this declares the presence and influence of the creator, specifically the theme of the similarly-numbered Psalm 119, the importance of divine guidance to humankind — the ‘law’, to those who are so influenced, and our own ability to turn a blind eye to our faults. It concludes with that prayer heard so often:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (14)
The very first verse challenges our spiritual framework: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The question of whether the wonders of creation do or do not prove the existence of an omnipotent Creator and intelligent design will always be debated. The psalmist is definitely in the ‘do’ team, the theme appearing strongly in many other psalms (8, 24 and 104 just for starters). Tom Wright says:
Our modern Western world-views have made it seriously difficult to hear Psalm 19.1-2 as anything but a pretty fantasy.1
He refers primarily to the age of materialism and science. Things like gauge theory and the breaking of electro-weak symmetry are daunting — definitely not ‘pretty fantasy’. However, leaving aside the heavy mathematics and hyperreality, the last century of unravelling the scientific clues to the universe has been a fascinating journey. Yet in poetry and spirit, a scientific mind can still find it easy, on a clear night under the stars, to go with the psalmist’s opening declaration about the heavens — provided you are no post-modern anti-foundationalist or similar.
So Psalm 19 starts in an affirmative frame of mind. Then, we read more phrases that resonate in our experience and memories. Anyone who has sung Handel’s The Messiah will certainly recognise ‘Their sound is gone out’ and have the tune of that chorus in mind (an exciting sing — even if it sometimes feels a little like practising your scales and arpeggios.) From verse 7 on we are reminded by this ‘Psalm of David’ how valuable in the search for an upright yet humble life is the divine guidance in the word, which is More to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (10)
These references to God’s law and commands might be taken as a nod to the ten commandments. However, in the light of all the subsequent guidance and New Testament teaching on love, that’s like harking back to the technology of the phonograph or to black and white silent movies. The spiritual framework has moved from a few rules on tablets of stone to a river of gracious wisdom.
The winner for complexity probably goes to Hans Leo Hassler (1564 – 1612) in the late Renaissance, a German composer and organist who learned the polychoral style during his studies in Venice, and brought it back to influence German music. He knocked out an arrangement of the first five verses for 13 parts in three choirs entitled Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei.
Thirteen voice parts may not be unlucky but it’s certainly unusual. There are plenty of 8 to 12 part pieces around; a lovely one by Hassler contemporary Tomás Victoria comes to mind. These are nowhere as ambitious as the earlier Thomas Tallis work Spem in alium for 40 parts.2 But really, Mr Hassler, prime number 13? Ah! — there are five voices in choir II. In all these pieces the choirs or quartet/quintets often leave each other a fair bit of space, stay silent to listen or answer from time to time before joining for a homophonic finale. Silence is an important part of music.
Psalm 19 Genevan
In contrast, the slightly earlier (c. 1560) Psalm XIX from the Genevan Psalter was in the spare Calvinist tradition, sung as a monophonic tune unaccompanied.
An all-Australian version of the psalm, albeit in hymn format, is found in TiS 166, Sing a new song, by Richard Connolly (1927-). Connolly was also the composer of the well-known ABC Play School theme, There’s A Bear in There. In our regular sources:
Songs no. 7 and 8 in TiS refer to this psalm, although neither covers the full lectionary reading.
Isaac Everett draws on verse 1 in an easy, singable refrain. As usual, he assumes the verses will be spoken rather than sung to a background vamp.
PFAS presents a whole six options; 19C is responsorial, introducing the viewpoint that creation and the word ‘show the way to the kingdom of light’. The 19E refrain emphasises the concluding prayer (verse 14) quoted at the beginning of this section. It is also a reminder that:
A good reggae version of ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ picks up another much-quoted verse (the last): ‘Let the words of my mouth…’ Children will enjoy this little chorus and perhaps even remember it. This song sits equally well with Psalm 137, from which the main verses and title are taken.