Psalm 5: Price of injustice

‘The price of injustice’

A Stolpersteine, memorial plaque in Fuldastraße, Berlin

Psalm 5 reminds the reader that divine goodness opposes all forms of wickedness. At times during the lectionary cycle, it appears after Old Testament reading from Kings, in which one in a position of great power together with a collusive wife have Naboth killed for the sake of a convenient veggie garden.

In a very different era and situation, the same wickedness is remembered with sorrow in the Stolpersteine, (literally ‘stumbling block’), a small commemorative plaques embedded in pavements across Europe in memory of Holocaust victims.

The psalmist reminds us forcefully that divine standards are not compatible with deceit, lying and injustice. Then, recognise this?

Lead me, Lord, lead me in thy righteousness,
make thy way plain before my face.
For it is thou, Lord, thou, Lord only,
that makest me dwell in safety.

Samuel Wesley

It’s a paraphrase of Psalm 5:8, sometimes used as a short sung prayer. Both words and tune are compelling, although in the original Eb it can soar a little high for lower voices in the last line. The harmony of this song is particularly pleasing in a simple but flowing way.

The central idea of being guided towards upright ways in life is found frequently throughout the Psalter. That is equally true of verse 1:

Hear my words, O God; listen to my cry

This is reminiscent of a lovely setting by Henry PurcellHear my prayer O Lord. It’s actually quoting Psalm 102:1 but could be from several places. Being written for eight parts, Purcell’s motet will not be common repertoire for most small congregations but it’s a beautiful piece.

The selection above of the top three voices is included since it shows how Purcell introduces an innovative and effective device to create an interesting and captivating lilt to the prayer. Where the word ‘crying’ appears — shown here in bars 4 and 5 but recurring throughout the work — the voice rises a full tone from the minor third to the fourth degree before sinking back half a tone to the major third. These successive shifts from minor to major create a memorable and distinctive sound (a little like a sprinkling of tierces de Picardie, although this sequence normally adorns the final cadence.)

There are several other nice classical settings of these verses by big names like Tallis, Monteverdi, Lassus and so on. If you want a real challenge, try the 6-part Verba mea (1603) by Carlo Gesualdo. I’ve not sung it but it looks, shall we say, ‘interesting’.