Psalm 146: Care for strangers

‘God cares for the stranger, sustains the orphan and widow.’ (9)

This is a powerful and delightful psalm, the first of the group of five songs that conclude the Psalter. Each of these starts and ends with ‘Hallelujah’, Hebrew for ‘Praise God’.

Reading serious news and commentary recently one concludes that polls — in Australia at least, though I do not doubt that readers in other countries will nod in agreement — are revealing a loss of confidence in governance. Part of that is due to perceived weaknesses in both national leaders and opposing aspirants.

People are, in this respect at least, doing just what Psalm 146 recommends:

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish (vs. 3, 4)

There’s a second reason why people might follow this psalm. It’s suffused with calls for equity and justice for all people, a situation that is certainly not being provided by many authorities in current leadership and governments. Many would be delighted to see a social, community, health, justice and financial structure that:

Image: Wikimedia commons

executes justice for the oppressed; gives food to the hungry; sets the prisoners free; opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down; loves the righteous; watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow (vs. 7 – 9)

Sounds very much like Jesus quoting Isaiah in Luke 4:18. The theme of justice appears again, as it appears in so many posts, in contrast with the reality we see about us, challenging us to work harder for outcomes based on love rather than selfish interests.

This is not to suggest that governments must be religious or organisationally linked to the church. Separation between church and state is good insurance against ideological extremism. But separation of their value systems will inevitably lead to conflict. Ministers get advice from all quarters. Some of them hopefully recognise humanist and equitable values like those quoted above and variously expressed elsewhere throughout ‘the word’, if not the original beliefs from which they are drawn.  

The psalm finishes with recognition that those who ‘have the God of Jacob for their help (5), and revere the attributes described, (6 to 9), then effectively “God shall reign forever, for all generations.” (10)


The setting in Together in Song 90 is the much-loved MONMOUTH by Gabriel Davis from the early 19th century. Like so many others of the era, he turned to the popular paraphrases by Isaac Watts, I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath. Like the King James Version of the Bible, these texts are dated and non-inclusive but retain a lovely turn of phrase.

Antiphonal settings often feature refrains full of Hallelujahs. Why? The final handful of psalms from 146 to 150 are songs of praise, all starting and finishing with a ringing Hallelujah – praise YHWH.

  • Everett in TEP emphasises this as well as the prince thing and its alternative.
  • Psalms for all Seasons includes three hymns (146A is the Watts hymn) as well as 146B with Taizé refrain. Note also the alternate Refrains 1 (traditional Muscogee Creek Indian) and 2 (Indonesian, in Phrygian mode) for interest and additional tempting musical experiences.
Incipit, Alleluia refrain from Taizé, Jacques Berthier

The Taizé refrain is one of a variety of interesting settings included in Psalms for All Seasons. Chant the verses to the tone provided, or sing a paraphrased text to fit the tune of the refrain.

The music for this refrain is available from the Taizé web page. If you visit the site you will find that there are a baker’s dozen of Taizé Alleluia choruses. This one is number 7.

The peaceful access to the village of Taizé, France. Yet just past the houses and to the right up the hill, the community area is bustling with many buses, campers, searchers, singers and visitors young and old from many countries.

Several classical and modern Scandinavian compositions can be unearthed by searching Lauda anima mea dominum (Praise the Lord, O my soul), including one by Lassus.

For choristers who want a little sight-reading time, try this motet by Dieterich Buxtehude (1637 – 1707), presented by early music specialist Ton Koopman, who in 2014 finished a demanding project to record the complete works (‘Opera Omnia’) of Buxtehude:

You have not heard much of Buxtehude and his work? The name of this Danish organist must have been well known in musical circles in his day. This was the much older organist for whom the young J S Bach walked nearly 400 kilometres from Arnstadt to Lübeck in the winter of 1705, just to hear him play.

Bach went on to write many wonderful pieces including psalm settings. On this early occasion he was on his first proper gig as organist and choir director in Arnstadt (see illustration at the top of the page; the organ was brand new in 1703 when Bach was appointed at age 18).

Young J S Bach in Arnstadt.

He rather fudged his leave form. Granted four weeks off, he stayed away for four months. The experience was obviously worth the walk.

Despite his extended AWOL and other youthful infractions that upset the local authorities, the city of Arnstadt was impressed enough to install a statue in a leafy square on Unterm Markt, near what is now the Bach Church.

Wisdom in hindsight of course — Bach’s fame was established long after the faltering start of his career in Erfurt and Arnstadt, culminating in his famous and redeeming reign at St Thomas church, Leipzig. He was 20 in 1705 when he impetuously headed off for his Long March to Lübeck.

Admittedly the figure of Johann in Arnstadt imagined by the sculptor must be speculative, but he is nothing if not thoughtful, assured and confident — a message for all musicians as we approach the interpretation and presentation of the psalms.

Happy the choir who could introduce a nice piece à4 by Lassus, Lauda anima mea, or his longer setting à6 under a similar title.

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