Psalm 105: Lessons from history

‘God gave the people lands … that they might keep God’s statutes, observe God’s law.’ (45)

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 the Name

The next verses set the theme as historical narrative, adducing evidence that has provided confidence for such praise: ‘Declare God’s deeds among the peoples.’ (2) A psalm singer in the temple or perhaps by a campfire in early times would have sung this shorthand, knowing that his or her audience would conjure up a host of stories and images relating to the era, the plagues, the Passover and the escape from Egypt which is again the main narrative. Justice rather takes a back seat until the final verses. However, one striking message is the essentiality of visionary leaders right for the time. Another, as the last verse quoted above says, is that freedom assumed the observance of the principles and practice of love and equity.

Psalm 105 is a frequent visitor when it appears in Year A. It makes up for its long absence by arising on four Sundays over the space of two months, usually from July to September in what is rather prosaically called ‘Ordinary Time’. Ordinary in this context comes from ordinal, as the weeks are numbered, rather than boring. Still, there’s a suspicion that it fits pretty well in both senses as we tick off the slow weeks of COVID distancing.

Exodus tales. Moses strikes the rock, by Arthur Boyd

To be fair, it’s a long poem at 45 verses, suitable to be tasted in small portions. However, the theme throughout is praise for God’s faithfulness to a people of faith over times of drama and hardship, times of persecution and trial, times of comfort and abundance.

It harks back to the rather mythical and culturally remote stories of Joseph, sold as a slave, then Israel’s arrival and hard times in Egypt before their eventual Exodus. Exotic and a different cultural world, perhaps, but the allegory still holds messages for these days of oppression.

In the final section included in this fourth and last Lectionary appearance of Psalm 105 until Year A again in 2023, Psalm 105 then reminds the hearer of bread from heaven in the wilderness, water from the rock and the land of promise. The conclusion states — and with didactic clarity unadorned by the characteristic poetic flights found elsewhere throughout the Psalter — that all of this was so “that they might keep the statues and observe the laws.”

Psalm 119, all about the divine standards or ‘the law’, in an old family Bible

This reference to revealed biblical standards of moral and social behaviour, including concepts of justice and equity, also reappears throughout the psalms. Last week a seminar held by the Australian National University investigated the complex nature and extent of the ‘Rule of Law’ in the Asian region. Under a ‘thin’ definition, rule of law means minimally the facilitation of fair transactions. The ‘thick’ definition, closer to the biblical principles, spans concepts of equity, human rights and fair and open governance and justice.

Regrettably, but perhaps unsurprisingly as reports of information warfare, hacking, protests, suppression and brutality appear on our screens nightly, the observed trend is towards rule by, rather than of, law. Law becomes a tool for control rather than a standard for aspiration. Thick or thin is increasingly applied purely for expedience, security of régime and retention of power. These circumstances alone should encourage us to raise the poetic voice of the psalm songs with fervour.


Each occurrence includes the first six verses, then adds a small section from progressively later points in the story. If this were a bible study, then each and every verse should be included fully. Here, an impressionist approach will serve the cause, leaving space for worship leaders to draw on specific verses as suits their message each week.

In past years, we have chosen a common antiphon refrain for all occurrences, our small group of Singers in the South leading with a harmonised quote from the first part of a setting for five voices by Lassus:

‘Give glory to the Lord, and call upon his name’. Verse 1 quoting a Lassus psalm setting. Arrangement by the author of a theme from Lassus Psalm 105

Verses associated with this refrain might be sung to a traditional psalm tone. 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 common approach was the use of a particular tone during one service for several psalms. Singing several psalms during the various services morning noon and night, the cycle of all 150 psalms could be sung in the space of a fortnight. An example is Tone VIII is used for various psalms during Compline:

Gregorian chant Tone XIII
Confitemini Domino, the setting by Orlando di Lasso. Patroclinum musices was the title of a series of publications of the extensive oeuvre of Lassus in Munich from 1573.

Limitations during isolation and online worship preclude this approach, which really sought collegiate and enjoyable participation and learning, group exploration of largely unknown musical territory.

An easy approach is to recite the verses and then sing the Taizé setting Confitemini Dominus (listen>) each week. However, this does not quite achieve the idea of singing the psalm itself.

Taking a simplified and economical approach, we shall use one recording of the psalm for all four Sundays. It will include that opening section and a few verses selected from the other Lectionary brackets. This is one of those songs that concludes with a Hallelujah. The refrain therefore includes a prayer from verse 3 together with the final Hallelujah.

Like all measures to economise, there are some disadvantages. Both leaders and worshippers may have to adjust: the former may find that a favoured verse or two have been omitted; the latter may need to read the Lectionary verses of the day separately to gain the full spread of the psalmist’s commentary on the sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus to the promised land.

Amongst many settings of scriptural texts, Lassus’ set of 7 penitential psalms is highly regarded. However, it is his relatively obscure arrangement of Psalm 105 that attracted attention for performance at South Woden. This is a beautiful work for five voices, a combination used often in that period but infrequently within our grasp.

Evensong, Basilica Vézelay
Evensong at Vézelay

During 2014, selections from the psalm appeared no less than four times. So we characterised this a season of dipping into Renaissance music. We presented the Lassus work in Latin, the people responding in the same language.

Our male voice group once introduced this sequence of readings with a small quote from the Lassus work used as the response. True to the style of the era we sang the verses to a Gregorian chant. This set a pattern for all occurrences of this psalm. A cantor invited the congregation for the response:

Cantor: Invocate nomen Dei / Call upon the name of God

People: Confetimini Domino / O give thanks unto the Lord

Lassus wrote this work in two parts, stretching and elaborating the first two short verses into a couple of minutes of flowing melismatic song.  Part 1 starts thus:

A five-part setting by Orland de Lassus. Source cpdl

The tenor enters with a statement of the first phrase. A common practice of the era was to have the melody in the tenor voice; old hymn books included special settings of psalms as ‘Fauxbourdon’ versions, the tenor being the leading voice. Sometimes this melody was a quote or based on a well-known tune from the standard church tones of those and earlier days. Other voices enter in sequence repeating the same phrase in imitation.