Psalm 31: Refuge when besieged

‘The wonders of love in a besieged city’ (21)

This psalm combines many common themes of supplication, distress, trust and courage in diversity. It is a rich psalm, combining feelings of confidence and security together with a sense of danger, sorrow and dismay in which the divine refuge and blessing are earnestly sought and highly valued: “I have taken refuge (v.1) … incline your ear to me (v.2) … be my strong rock (v.3)”.

What siege, what net, we wonder, has been set for David this time? Intrigue, hatred and jealousy amongst competitors or unbelievers, or just common old greed and selfishness? Inequity, poverty, discrimination against minorities and plain ignorance in our communities create the ‘affliction and distress’ felt by the song-writer. (7)

Enduring all this, David recognises the need for some assistance from the ‘tower of strength’ and the ‘God of truth’ (4, 5) Then in verse 5 we find words that the dying Jesus quoted: Into your hands I commend my spirit.

Needless to say, the thread of justice arises. And when besieged by fears, slander or Covid-19, David’s conclusion applies:

Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for God. (24)


As always the choice of music depends on a leader’s chosen theme. Thus:

  • If resignation of the spirit to divine power and care along the lines of verse 5 is preferred, the refrain from The Emergent Psalter would suit. It swings along quite nicely but has a definite air of lamentation about it. The psalm itself mixes that feeling with strong lines of petition and trust.
  • NCH has two refrains, the first emphasising the rock and fortress of faith, and the second asking for heavenly grace: “Let your face shine upon your servant.”
  • Celebrating hope and help in time of trouble is a favourite, the beautiful and thoughtful two-part antiphonal setting in PFAS 31C by AnnaMae Meyer Bush and Kathleen Hart Brumm. The response is strong, picking up a rather mysterious but powerful promise in verse 15: “My times are in your hands.” That’s only one of four good statements of belief rolled into this antiphon, which continues: “… You strengthen me in strife. My hope is in your word. Your love preserves my life.” This nicely harmonised response follows an easy, descending path of similar phrases. Easily learned, nice to sing. Verses may be sung to a similar chord progression. The main tune is quite a high setting but there is a second lower part acting as an echo voice which adds an excellent dynamic and antiphonal element.

In the classical arena, the winner in the Big Choir section is Hassler’s In te Domino, verses 2 to 6 for 12 voices in three choirs of high, medium and lower voices. Mendelssohn wrote more modestly for four voices, and Lassus two motets, each for five voices.

Try this one from Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck:

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