Psalm 116: How can I repay?

‘God watches over the innocent.’ (6)

Like Psalm 30 and others, Psalm 116 is a paean of thanks for deliverance from the power of darkness and the hold, anguish or ‘entangling cords’ of the grave. So the psalmist resolves to walk in the divine presence in the land of the living (9) – a fine suggestion.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) whose paraphrases of the psalms are used in many songs.

The song quotes the psalm’s opening lines in which the author, perhaps David, declares that God hears the cries of the faithful when in severe difficulties:

I love God who hears my voice, my supplication; / for God inclines an ear to me whenever I call. (vs. 1, 2)

Dark times

In the first part of the poem (text>) the writer, having suffered sorely from ‘the grip of the grave’, celebrates divine compassion and sighs in relief that:

God watches over the innocent; I was brought low, and God helped me. (v.6)

The second half of the psalm is an act of dedication, so strongly felt that the psalmist’s declarations of trust and invocation are to be made ‘in the presence of all God’s people’. The writer resolves to “walk in the presence of God in the land of the living”, (v.9) and asks: “How shall I repay God for all the good things done for me?”

I shall lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of God. (vs. 12, 13)

Despite the palmist’s recent suffering and pain, the song is yet classified as one of the Hallel, or praise psalms; just add YHWH and you get Hallelujah, the last word of the song.

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Credidi propter quod locutus (I believed even when I said). Psalm 116 in the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1330. Image: British Library MS 42150 f.208v. [No, I’ve no idea what it is.]

Here is one of those confusing points of discontinuity between the numbering of the Latin Vulgate Psalter and the modern western translations. 114 and 115 were combined into what is now 116 in our Psalter. This explains why some Ps 116 settings over the years are listed as quoting from Psalms 114 and 115. The incipit Credidi in a setting by the Spanish composer Victoria, for example, appears as Psalm 115:1 in the Vulgate. (See below)

Paschal de l’Estocart (about 1538 – 1587) was a French Renaissance composer from Noyon. Considered to be quite an innovator, he wrote a set of all 150 psalm settings including this one, J’aime mon Dieu, (Delixi quoniam which is Vulgate 114:1) from 1583. The melody is in the tenor, fauxbourdon style. The transcription bears the sub-heading: “Mis en musique pour quatre, cinq, six, sept et huit parties par Paschal de l’Estocart, de Noyon en Picardie.” His Psalm CXVI is for five voices.

Modern sources also call on different verses for the antiphon. As usual, the choice of medium will be influenced by the message:

  • The five entries in PFAS, two being responsorial, are marked by simplicity, perhaps too much if measured purely on the musical scale — which of course is not the main game. So 116D offers eight notes for eight words: “I love the Lord who heard my cry.” (1) An alternate refrain is alike in brevity: “I will walk in the presence of God“, quoting verse 9. Verses are sung to a tone.
  • The next choice, 116E, uses that alternate refrain of 116D with a melody (again simple) for verses added.
  • NCH uses the final phrase of verse 1, “I will call on God as long as I live“, in a refrain with a little more interest — a swing feel, the chords alternating between Bb and Ab, and an echo voice.
  • Everett’s refrain in TEP is predictably more syncopated. He goes for verse 8, focused on deliverance and guidance. (He notes that it was sung “over a heavy trip hop beat”.)
  • TiS 71 avoids the prosaic by providing a double tone for the verses, and two refrains. These are drawn from verses 9 quoted above, and 12: “How can I repay?
  • And finally, a home-grown chant uses verse 1. It features the verses sung on a single note, against a falling bass line and some relatively unusual chords in the world of psalm settings. Verses have been paraphrased to sit more comfortably in this double-tone type of arrangement. Two cantors may sing a half of each verse antiphonally. No ornamentation is shown here but may be used in moderation in accordance with the cantors’ inspiration, or perhaps to subtly reinforce the chords changes moving around underneath. ‘Superficial simplicity’:

Inspired by the life, courage and vision of Joseph Lowery, a great civil rights champion who died in 2020 age 98, a good way to bring these words to life is with an African-American song, 116C in Psalms for All Seasons.

Listen to a moving modern tune by Richard Smallwood of verses written long ago by Isaac Watts in 1719. Whitney Houston souled it out in the film The Preacher’s Wife, but this one might be easier to join in:

Here is one verse of the ten originally written by Watts:

I love the Lord; he heard my cries,
And pitied every groan;
Long as I live, when troubles rise,
I’ll hasten to his throne.

You may feel this is all a little over the top. However, you surely could not miss the unity in the choir despite the apparent physical diversity of the singers. Demonstrations against racism since then have laid bare our deep-seated prejudices. Regrettable violence has fractured social cohesion in many regions, underlining human weaknesses under stress. And where there is no overt violence, often there are small arrogant gestures or slights, as one of our members in a recent morning tea zoom related about a loved daughter-in-law.

This psalm and others, and a review of that video, reaffirm in our troubled minds the Psalter’s insistence that the Creator founded the universe on principles of love, justice and equity.

O mighty ruler, lover of justice, it was you who established equity. (Ps 99:4)

Joseph Lowery, Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, Eddie and Bonita Mabo and many others shone the spotlight on racism years ago. It seems not to have improved. In every nation and every society including Australia, people are suffering discrimination, oppression or fear if they are ‘different’.

Suddenly it seems less OTT. In PFAS 116C the lectionary verses are added, set to a tone which just repeats the first line of Richard Smallwood’s nicely harmonised song using the words by Isaac Watts.

A vespers psalm (odd verses) in an SSAT setting by 16th century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria; Credidi (I believed) from Ps 115:1 (in the Vulgate: 116:10 in the modern version.)

Credidi, propter quod locutus sum; ego autem humiliatus sum nimis / I believed, and therefore will I speak; but I was sore troubled.”

This is a nice four-part arrangement of odd verses only, identifiable as a vespers psalm. This verse now appears in the English Bible as Psalm 116:10, not even an odd verse. Besides this tempting piece from Victoria, those by Lassus and Monteverdi are titled with the same incipit Credidi.

And now this rendition of Psalm 116 by Victoria, as described above.

Victoria’s Credidi, detail of music shown above. A male voice group located in Valencia, Spain.