Psalm 16: Heritage and equity

‘A goodly heritage’ (6)

Like the twenty-third, this is a song of trust and protection in divine presence, the source of goodness and guidance. David describes God as his portion and cup, evoking familiar imagery in themes that connect well with daily life.

He recognises his fortunate heritage:

Landscape in the Kimberley
My boundaries enclose a pleasant land

Less familiar but interesting are some other phrases that might easily pass unnoticed in a quick reading.

First, in verse 6: The boundary lines have fallen for me in (or enclose) pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. Most of us in the developed world can rejoice in having been dealt good cards — a well-favoured estate, physical and otherwise, as inherited by the psalmist. We seldom think of our situation as defined by boundary lines, but inequities are implicit in inherited circumstances. It is up to us to seek equity for others as much as for ourselves.

Secondly, in the next verse, we find a point of contact with many meditative and mindfulness observances practised in many cultures around the world: it is by listening reflectively to our own hearts that we may often find divine guidance. The apostle Peter quoted the later verses of the psalm in Acts 2, declaring that David was foretelling Christ and the resurrection. David concludes the song by affirming: “You show me the path of life. … there are pleasures for evermore.


A precious old hymn, When in the night I meditate, to the tune MAITLAND by George Allen (a8a2-1877) follows the theme of meditation. [2] This is the first of four songs listed in Psalms for All Seasons, 16A. While the text may reflect outdated English expression and concepts of the 19th century, yet the meditation and ideas are relevant and thought-provoking in the 21st.

The familiar tune, perhaps better known as Precious Lord, hold my hand by Allen, is easily sung alone or with a family member at home, especially with the following clip: [3]

[Musical aside; skip this bit if you are not into the chords. This old edition shown above is in Ab, while the PFAS version is in G, where I have played it for years, often with ‘There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place’ — which I hope there is.

If there are no seriously accurate harmonisers singing, I have usually slipped in a III7 chord at the end of bars 1 and 5; and a little vi-ii7-V9-I or tri-tone subs turnaround across bars 3 and 4. Oh, and bar 6 goes well with a V diminished at the transition back to I in bar 7. No don’t try that at home but look; the classic Amen at the end. How long since we sang those?]

Should you be in a classical frame of mind, an earlier setting of Psalm 16 (listed as 15 in the Vulgate) by Parisian composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) may be the answer. This one is not listed in the CPDL psalms pages, but is hidden in a Mass for Four Choirs — heavy!

From several on the internet, a Canadian recording has been chosen here for its overall quality and slightly crisper pace rather than clarity; the words are harder to discern than in some others — but it’s not in English anyway. Additionally, how could we pass the associated cover image? Crown of thorns or Corona, it fits the times. Listen>

Of the four settings in PFAS, three follow our preferred format of a refrain with sung verses. All of these three emphasise the theme of refuge and protection:

  • 16B has a slightly longer refrain and verses set to a lively tune
  • 16C introduces a simple refrain by Christian Strover (© 1973) with an equally simple but effective chord line of Gm-EbΔ-Dm7-Gm.
  • 16D uses the same refrain as 16C but verses are sung to a tone.
  • 16D Alt (a new tune which departs from the protection theme, and might therefore have been better listed separately as 16E) also follows that familiar pattern of verses sung to a simple tone, with a refrain quoting verse 9. This could be sung as call and response if desired:
Cantor: My heart is glad and my spirit rejoices
People: My body shall rest in hope.
Detail of Conserva me, Psalm 16 by Lassus; published 1604

TEP also uses this verse 9 quoted above in an easy refrain; find your own verse treatment as usual in this source. The New Century refrain, this time by Carolyn Jennings, quotes the final phrase: In your right hand are pleasures for evermore. A home-grown setting by the author also uses these closing phrases.

There are a couple of songs in the ether that are suitable for male voices. A good example is Benedicam Domino (Psalmus 15) by Lassus (1532 – 1594). It’s only a verse or two, and that in Latin, but very enticing.

And having earlier revealed the Charpentier opus magnus for four choirs, an even more obscure setting for three choirs comes to mind. This one, Bewahre mich, Herr, was written by German composer Johann Sommer, whose only other work seems to be another 12-voice piece for Psalm 8. He must have liked the dynamic range and full sound of many voices.

If you wish to be remembered for generations for your triple-choir compositional skills, you should lay down the public records more deliberately than did Johann Sommer, whose days in the Choral Public Domain are shown as 1570 to 1627.

Unless these dates are wrong, a purported link to the Wikipedia entry for this composer leads to a different Johann Sommer, an earlier theologian from Transylvania. And several others appear in different eras and centuries. So the life and times of this JS remains regrettably obscure.

In more modern usage, several good options are available in Psalms for All Seasons (including mentioned above) — though not in Together in Song. At Woden Valley we choose a refrain used previously at South Woden:

This couplet for the call-and-response antiphon is the second half of a longer composition by the cantor, to which the verses are sung — in a rather more free and lyrical style than the following sound clip:

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