God said to my ruler ‘Sit at my right hand’ (1)
This short psalm by David is one of praise for divine power and transcendence. He paints a picture of a ruler who recognises divine authority (1) and a priestly responsibility for the lives of the people.(4) The opening line above is quoted freely in the gospels and other books:
David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ 1
Quoted also in the Epistle to the Hebrews several times, this poem clearly implies that the ruler is chosen and powerful, but only as one who follows divine precepts of justice and love, almost as a priest. One verse includes reference to that enigmatic priestly status ‘after the order of Melchisedek’.3 The name may mean ‘like a just ruler’ or ‘king of righteousness’.
Benedictines and other faithfuls sang this psalm every evening at vespers. This repetition and the traditional designation as a vespers psalm in the Roman Liturgy, is probably why Psalm 110 attracted far more composers than the previous two. Victoria, for example, has an excellent four-part composition of the odd verses, Confitebor tibi, Salmo Vesperas No 2, that slips between three and four time.
Many other big names like Buxtehude, Mozart, Vivaldi bent their considerable talents to this text. Monteverdi included Dixit Dominus not only in a mass but also, together with several other psalms, in his famous Vespers of the Blessed Virgin of 1610. The author’s early encounter with this work singing in the Bromley Singers was richly attended by cornetti, portative organ and theorbo in action.
A more recent joy as listener was a performance by the Luzern Theatre Company which was remarkable on several counts. First, the ten singers – a minimalist force for this work – sang completely from memory, a lesson for choristers everywhere. Secondly, the audience stood or moved around in a space in the baroque church which had been prepared with several small stages as transient locations for wandering minstrel and singer alike. Then to cap it off, modern dancers moved amongst the assembly of players, singers and listeners, interacting and improvising their movements to the music. This mixture of early instruments, unencumbered singers and modern dance was most effective, demonstrating the value of a fresh imaginative interpretation.2
In modern sources, PFAS 110B seems to be infected with this inspired fervour from years gone by, with verses set to a sort of modernised chant and optional instrumental or voice backing.
Everett’s interpretation takes this paraphrased line into his refrain, while NCH has a very simple pluck from verses 1 and 5: “God is at your right hand.”
1 Mark 12:36. See also in Acts and Ephesians
2 See further comment under Psalm 127
3 Verse 4 of the psalm and Genesis 14.