‘Nurtured like plants, sculptured cornerstones cut for a palace’
The book of psalms is actually incredibly well represented in the Lectinoary compared with many other biblical texts. However, in some ways skipping Psalm 144 seems a gross omission.
Gross? Young readers, if any, may not realise that way back in pre-metric times (excuse me Americans), 144 or a dozen dozen was called a gross. [Quiz of the day: how many sheets in a ream, imperial and metric?]. The skip may be thought gross because it’s a pity to miss one so solid, a heavyweight amongst psalms by virtue of some important themes.
First, some get stuck on the first verse; ‘Blessed be God, my rock, who trains my hands for war’. It has been misused to justify the Crusades. Some take it as a concept of spiritual warfare. But this is a psalm of David, so we can also take it as a simple declaration of thanks for support in the many battles David had to face. A strong balancing theme throughout the Psalter is divine preference for justice, peace and reconciliation.
Second is the temporary nature of our lives. A puff of wind, a passing shadow (v.4) — these are common themes in poetry and philosophy that touch us all. At the Shakespeare concert last weekend (after a beautiful rendition that morning of Psalm 23 in Spanish by our men — thanks gentlemen!) we sang again that sonorous setting by Ralph Vaughn Williams of Those cloud capp’d towers, from The Tempest:
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and …
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. — The Tempest, act iv, sc. 1.
With a sense of wonder the psalmist, looking for an additional dimension to this evanescence, reaches out for connection with the creator:
What are humans, that you regard them? Bow your heavens, O God, and come down; touch the mountains so that they smoke. Stretch out your hand from on high; rescue me. (vv. 3-7)
Third, another demonstration that the psalms were songs:
I will sing a new song to you O God, upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you.
Well, the Singers in the South have sometimes sung a cappella with not a string in sight — and, it must be said, with great beauty. They have sometimes been accompanied by instruments. These have ranged from the hurdy-gurdy, ukulele and double-bass with but few strings, through guitar to 8-string mandolin and, of course piano. The accompaniment, if any, is a matter for creative choice; keep singing them, and note the last phrase — they are played to heaven.
Fourth, perhaps recalling the earlier reference to our transience, David sings a prayer for heritage and children in delightful and powerful, perhaps surprising, imagery:
May our sons be like plants nurtured from their youth,
and our daughters like sculptured cornerstones cut for the building of a palace.
Fifth and finally, there’s a little twist in the tail regarding the name of God. Verse 15 evidently includes both Hebrew words elohim (gods) and YHWH. So Isaac Everett puts both in his refrain:
Happy are those whose God is Yahweh.
There’s much more to be said on this issue (read his notes in The emergent psalter) but that’s beyond the scope of this slight reverie. In aggregate, Psalm 144 is truly weighty, the whole being greater than the sum of parts.
Composers often cited in these pages are largely silent; apart from complete psalters such as Ravenscroft’s Whole book of Psalmes or that by Archbishop Parker, I have had no calls from the usual suspects like Bach or Victoria.
Reliable Lassus and Schütz (see illustration) present nice settings for five and four voices.
Choice for a modern refrain are slim. That by Everett, quoted above in relation to grander motets, offers a good refrain that uses the last verse.