Psalm 131: Contented child

‘Wait upon God.’ (3)

Like most songs of Ascent, this is brief and to the point. Three verses extolling simplicity, honesty and humility, with a fourth calling for Israel, or the people of God, to wait in reverence.

And as one of the songs of ascent (120 to 134), the poem is said to be one of pilgrimage (see also the comment on 122 regarding the pilgrimage series of 120 to 123) though such a construct is not obvious from the evidence of this text alone.

Psalm 131 in the Bedford Hours, c. 1420.

I have taught myself to be contented, like a child upon its mother’s breast. (2)

This verse of the short illustrates how the song uses maternal images of divine love. While it is said to be by David and there is no evidence to the contrary, from the text it sounds as though it may have actually been written by a woman. This feminine touch is regrettably rare in the psalter. Such were the times.

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Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter paraphrases this into a nice refrain using his characteristic syncopation and modern chord voicings, in this one with lydian mode atmospherics based around Cmaj#11:

I have taught myself to be content. I am like a child with its mother.

The responsorial setting in PFAS 131C by Loretta Ellenburger — again on verse 2 and the quiet child — is more conventional, but creatively adds ATB parts in a different rhythmic pattern behind the refrain melody.

The setting in NCH, despite its female authorship, skips the maternal theme in favour of ‘Hope in God’ from verse 4.

Equally pleasing but in a different style and more demanding are rather lengthy classical settings by Schütz, Lassus and White, for four to six voices. Schütz wrote a motet for each of the first three verses.

Section of the Incipit to Ps 131 à5 by Lassus

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