Psalm 13: How long?

How long must we wait?

A watched pot, so the saying goes, never boils. How frustrating is seemingly interminable waiting — for news, for decisions, for guidance or for inspiration. Here we find a simple but urgent lament in Psalm 13, in which the key question is ‘How long?’ How long will that internal anxious silence last before an inkling of an answer, some source of relief, comfort or bounty emerges – and these are all ideas that jostle into the six short verses of this lament.

How long have you forgotten me O Lord? How long will you hide your face from me? (1)

In three short sections, it moves in the rather classic sequence from lament to petition, and finally a vow to trust and rejoice in divine love.

A companion theme here is divine mercy, with the implication here and in other psalms that this value should be reflected in society. One could say mercy is necessitated by regrettable failures to live for justice, again worth waiting for. (5)

These values of love, mercy and justice are of course widely appreciated and sought after, if not universally instituted, across the human social experience. Further the psalms, and therefore their messages, are accepted and sung across different faith communities.

The psalms are sung in all three major monotheistic and Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is Psalm 13, How long? Usque quo Domine oblivisceris, in a Psalter in the British Library, MS 5786; in parallel Greek, Latin and Arabic versions.


Plenty of good modern settings are to hand:

  • The Taizé refrain O Lord hear my prayer is actually a paraphrase of words from Ps. 102, but is cleverly suggested in PFAS for this psalm as PFAS 13E.
  • In NCH, a simple refrain setting by David Hurd, 1994, looks on first appearances to be unremarkable. He uses verse 3, Consider and answer me O God. However, on playing the refrain through, the innovative chord sequence suddenly attracts a second glance: Em FΔ G7 CΔ F C D9 E.
  • A paraphrase and tune by Canadian singer song-writer Steve Bell is something of a favourite. The people’s refrain is, you guessed it: O Lord how long?

This last song has a bluegrass feel about it, at least the way Bell sings it. This country touch and the blues have both been mentioned elsewhere — see the next psalm. So many styles are on offer, so why not sample them all? Song selection should seek a meaningful medium for the message of the psalm. It’s also informed by the need for a balance between familiarity and freedom, inheritance and innovation.

“Something old, something new, often borrowed, sometimes blue”.