Psalm 33: Love justice

‘God loves righteousness and justice’ (5)

Praise God with the harp; play upon the psaltery and lyre (verse 2). Statue at Sans Souci, Potsdam

This is a song of praise, one of the few in the first two books of the psalter. It reads as an immediate response to the final verse of the previous psalm 32, calling for the faithful to be glad and rejoice. A casual reading of this broad-ranging psalm suggests that it has been fully discussed before. So many themes appear – including justice, of course – familiar from other songs:

  • Praise with harp, psaltery and lyre (Ps. 49)
  • Sing a new song (96)
  • God loves righteousness and justice (146)
  • Let all who dwell in the earth stand in awe (111)
  • A ruler is not saved by a big army (76)
  • We set our hope in God who is our shield (3)

One of the strengths of the psalms is this revisiting of precepts that are remote and hard to fathom, approaching from different angles or saying the same thing different ways. Just as there are two quite different creation stories in Genesis, different angles provide additive pictures of realities that are difficult to imagine. One set of words, however poetic, cannot capture the full depth of many eternal concepts.

‘No ruler can be saved by a mighty army’ (verse 16). Bas relief in Pergamon Museum, Berlin

So the psalms often remind us to love justice. As in Psalm 99, justice is associated closely in verses 5 to 7 with pervasive divine love, and the very creational foundations of the universe.

Many songs also remind us one way or another that resorting to weapons of war, chariots, horses, and strength alone, eventually is a waste of effort. Even shields are of little comfort (let alone arming teachers); we just heard in Psalm 33, echoing half a dozen others, that God is our shield. In this psalm, the formula is: ‘No ruler can be saved by a mighty army; no person saved through strength.’ (16)

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Turning to early music, one finds many settings of sections of Psalm 33 for four and more voices. Perhaps because it is a song of praise whose scope encompasses many fundamental themes, composers have pulled out a few more stops.

Andrea Gabrieli wrote a Latin setting for two choirs of five voices

The more obscure Tiburtio Massaino (Augustinian monk, 1550-1609) took the same approach of 2 x 5.

Hans Leo Hassler had all stops out with one in German for four choirs of SATB (Exultate, justi, in Domino, published in Nuremberg 1615).

More modestly, a quartet by Schütz caught my attention as it is chock full of hemiolae; the piece slips constantly between triple and duple metre, two groups of three beats alternating with three beats of two. This would be fun to sing, quartets, though English words would have to be provided to listeners somewhere:

Extract, Psalm 33 ‘Freut euch des Herrn’, by Heinrich Schütz

In simpler and more contemporary style:

  • The Everett refrain in The Emergent Psalter has characteristically relevant words using the last verse, and interesting chords
  • The same can be said for PFAS 33A, on the same verse: ‘Let your loving-kindness be upon us as we have put our trust in you’ (Everett paraphrases to ‘constant love’ and nicely puts it into the present tense.)
  • Even further into informality, Sinead has her own take in Sing, oh, you righteous to the Lord. Her lyrics are free-ranging: Sing to Jah with your guitar. Turn up your bass amp, whack it up all the way …

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