Psalm 19: Good guidance

‘The statutes of God are just and rejoice the heart’ (6)

Psalm 19 declares the glory of the divine as seen in the creation. It smoothly progresses to how this declares the presence and influence of the creator, specifically the theme of the similarly-numbered Psalm 119, the importance of divine guidance to humankind — the ‘law’, to those who are so influenced, and our own ability to turn a blind eye to our faults. It concludes with that prayer heard so often:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (14)

The very first verse challenges our spiritual framework: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The question of whether the wonders of creation do or do not prove the existence of an omnipotent Creator and intelligent design will always be debated. The psalmist is definitely in the ‘do’ team, the theme appearing strongly in many other psalms (8, 24 and 104 just for starters). Tom Wright says:

Our modern Western world-views have made it seriously difficult to hear Psalm 19.1-2 as anything but a pretty fantasy.

Wright, NT, Finding God in the Psalms, page 119

He refers primarily to the age of materialism and science. Things like gauge theory and the breaking of electro-weak symmetry are daunting — definitely not ‘pretty fantasy’. However, leaving aside the heavy mathematics and hyperreality, the last century of unravelling the scientific clues to the universe has been a fascinating journey. Yet in poetry and spirit, a scientific mind can still find it easy, on a clear night under the stars, to go with the psalmist’s opening declaration about the heavens — provided you are no post-modern anti-foundationalist or similar.

Standard model; Image: University of Zurich

So Psalm 19 starts in an affirmative frame of mind. Then, we read more phrases that resonate in our experience and memories. Anyone who has sung Handel’s The Messiah will certainly recognise ‘Their sound is gone out‘ and have the tune of that chorus in mind (an exciting sing — even if it sometimes feels a little like practising your scales and arpeggios.) From verse 7 on we are reminded by this ‘Psalm of David’ how valuable in the search for an upright yet humble life is the divine guidance in the word, which is More to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (10)

These references to God’s law and commands might be taken as a nod to the ten commandments. However, in the light of all the subsequent guidance and New Testament teaching on love, that’s like harking back to the technology of the phonograph or to black and white silent movies. The spiritual framework has moved from a few rules on tablets of stone to a river of gracious wisdom.

A medieval rabbit hole takes us into an antiphon to Psalm 19 in the old Breviary of Marguerite de Bar, from Verdun in France. How old? The manuscript in two parts is over seven hundred years old and carefully preserved and digitised.

Detail of an antiphon preceding Psalm 19 in the Yates Thompson 8, Breviary, British Library f.14r. Verdun, France, 1302. Eripuit me de inimicis meis; Deliver me from my enemies.

Eripuit me de inimicis meis looks like an offertory text Eripe me set to a psalm tone, or a chant that is quite close to a standard tone with extras. Eripe me quotes Ps 143:9, 10.

Closer examination reveals this not to be the case. We might overlook the variation eripuit (he delivers) and eripe (deliver, vocative case). But after that first line the texts diverge. So it is not Psalm 143, and it’s not psalm 19 either. Still, I’ve taken the liberty of throwing in a soothing clip of Lassus’ setting of Eripe me (below) for those interested.

Secondly, in the middle of third line of music, (protector meus . euouae) we notice a couple of almost vertical black marks, similar to bar lines, over the word euouae. — though they too had not been invented in that day. As for the ‘dotted’ i, that last word is not a word. The letters are the vowels of the final phrase of the Gloria, saeculorum, amen. This commonly told the singers which chant ending to use for that final phrase.

This text has interesting examples of the widespread use of shorthand codes for singers accustomed by daily use to this music. First, at top centre of this image is an elaborated ‘Glia‘. The dot over the i is not, in fact, a dot over the i, which is a more recent practice. In this case it is an indication of a contraction. So the word is Gloria. Further, it tells the assembled faithful to say (it precedes the music of the antiphon) the full Gloria (Gloria in excelsis dei … saecula saeculorum. Amen.) The same thing happens in the first line of the psalm (second bottom line) where gliam means gloriam.

Caeli enarrant gl[or]iam dei, et opera manuum; The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament sheweth his handywork. BCP)


The pull of the early imagery and oft quoted verses in Psalm 19 has drawn many composers to bend them to music. G F Händel used verse 4 quoted above in one of his choruses in The Messiah. Perhaps you have enjoyed singing this grand piece. You can feel the broad sweep of these opening verses, even if it does at times seem a little like practising your scales:

The winner for complexity probably goes to Hans Leo Hassler (1564 – 1612) in the late Renaissance, a German composer and organist who learned the polychoral style during his studies in Venice, and brought it back to influence German music. He knocked out an arrangement of the first five verses for 13 parts in three choirs entitled Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei.

Thirteen voice parts may not be unlucky but it’s certainly unusual. There are plenty of 8 to 12 part pieces around; a lovely one by Hassler contemporary Tomás Victoria comes to mind. These are nowhere as ambitious as the earlier Thomas Tallis work Spem in alium for 40 parts, eight choirs of five each. [The author had the frightening but exciting pleasure of singing both these motets together with members of the Tallis Scholars under the direction of Peter Phillips.]

But really, Mr Hassler, prime number 13? Ah! — there are five voices in choir II. In all these pieces the choirs or quartet/quintets often leave each other a fair bit of space, stay silent to listen or answer from time to time before joining for a homophonic finale. Silence is an important part of music.

Psalm 19 Genevan

In contrast, the slightly earlier (c. 1560) Psalm XIX from the Genevan Psalter was in the spare Calvinist tradition, sung as a monophonic tune unaccompanied.

An all-Australian version of the psalm, albeit in hymn format, is found in TiS 166, Sing a new song, by Richard Connolly (1927-). Connolly was also the composer of the well-known ABC Play School theme, There’s A Bear in There. In our regular sources:

  • Songs no. 7 and 8 in TiS refer to this psalm, although neither covers the full lectionary reading.
  • Isaac Everett draws on verse 1 in an easy, singable refrain. As usual, he assumes the verses will be spoken rather than sung to a background vamp.
  • PFAS presents a whole six options; 19C is responsorial, introducing the viewpoint that creation and the word ‘show the way to the kingdom of light’. The 19E refrain emphasises the concluding prayer (verse 14) quoted at the beginning of this section. Which leads on to:
  • A good reggae version of ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ picks up that much-quoted last verse: ‘Let the words of my mouth…’ Children will enjoy this little chorus and even remember it. This song sits equally well with Psalm 137, from which the main verses and title are taken.

Back in the present day, here is a nice modern composition and performance by the Sons of Korah, an Australian band dedicated to singing the psalms: