Psalm 17: Apple of the eye

‘My footsteps hold fast to your ways’ (5)

Psalm 17, attributed to David, asks for a just life and protection. Perhaps with Psalm 119:105 in mind (a lamp to the feet, a light for the path), David spins a variation on the theme :My footsteps hold fast to the ways of your law; in your paths my feet shall not stumble. (5)

A warm climax in the middle of the psalm is a sense of being cherished. It’s not just a dramatic hand-wringing for security from all sorts nasties — wicked enemies, the wealthy and greedy, even lions and such marauders get a mention. It’s much more personal and rich:Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings (8)

Proverbs 7:2 links these two verses and asks us to keep divine moral guidance, ‘God’s word’, as the apple of our eye.


A few things about Isaac Everett’s refrain in TEP:

  • First, he chose to use the phrases ‘apple of your eye’ and ‘shadow of your wings’; these are just the sort of classic expressions that make the poetry of the psalms so meaningful, so memorable.
  • Secondly, the structure of this little composition is based on a very simple two-chord structure; the tune, like the One Note Samba, is all on one note. It’s backed by a second voice part which is just as plain but introduces a tiny element of cadence. The first voice singing C is higher than I usually set for a congregational response; it is Sunday morning after all. Lower voices can sing the second part.
  • Then thirdly, after the first phrase there’s an instrumental filler. In family worship children might have fun here with recorders and percussion.

In fact, there’s a fourth reason to take notice of this piece, but it’s for the musos, and is a subset of the second. Everett uses just two minor and major sevenths (Amin7, Fmaj7) throughout and then uses the second voice to highlight the colour within these harmonies, repeating exactly the same notes in first and second lines but against different chords, subtly introducing different colours and passing discords.

How powerful that by changing only one note of a chord by a mere semi-tone one can imply a completely new chord altogether. The bass or root note is needed to anchor it.

Psalm 17:1 with a preceding antiphon, in the Howard Psalter, early 14th c. BL MS Arundel 83, f.20r.

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