Psalm 39: Brevity

‘I will keep watch on my ways’ (1)

The Somme
The Somme

Psalm 39 is a song reflecting on the short span of life — ‘a few hand-breadths … a mere breath’. (verse 5)  It is not formally included, as is the preceding Psalm 38, in the list of seven penitential psalms. (Neither 38 nor 39 make it into the Lectionary.)

39 could well qualify, however, as one of those laments that would go well with the blues (see comments on Psalm 14). The writer, said to be David, pours out feelings of confession, resignation, even anger, but mixes them with admissions of patience and trust in divine goodness. He asks:

Let me know my end and the number of my days, so that I may know how short life is. (v.6)

Clearly the brevity of life on this earth was an incentive to take up an instrument, as many composers chose the psalm as their lyric. Most quote either that sobering theme in verses 5 and 6, or go to the closing verses which ask for comfort as we travel on the way:

Hear my prayer O God, and give ear to my cry … for I am but a sojourner with you, a wayfarer, as all my forebears were. (v. 12)

How many African-American spirituals sing about travelling on, packing up, being on the way, crossing over or, as illustrated below, as a pilgrim?

Psalm 38, illuminated capital D(eus) with a pilgrim walking with staff and pointing at his mouth, i.e. referring to Posui ori meo custodiam (line 3), ‘I will keep my mouth’. The words of the opening phrase (‘Dixi: custodiam vias meas / I said, I will take heed to my ways’) are vertically at right, starting IXI in the top right hand corner. Illustration from The Grandisson Psalter, Exeter, c.1270. British Library MS 21926, f.66v


Thomas Tomkins, whose airs are generally enticing, wrote two settings of small sections of this psalm, one à4 and another à5. Both feature short introductions and accompaniment by organ, both have the bass line as the entry voice.

Orlando Gibbons also wrote a setting for a longer section, verses 6 to 13, published in 1620. The modern version is for five voices and organ, in this case the entry carried by the alto. The original would have included viol or consort continuo, with entry and verses sung by a counter-tenor.

Three centuries later Hubert Parry, composer of the English favourite Jerusalem, published another notable song for almost the same selection of Psalm 39, this time for two choirs and entitled ‘Lord let me know my end’. It is the last of a set of ‘Six Songs of Farewell’, which were indeed Parry’s last compositions before his death at a time of many farewells, just weeks before the armistice was signed in 1918 ending the Great War.

There are no responsorial setting in TiS or PFASThe Emergent Psalter is focused on the virtue of controlling the tongue, and indeed all other doubtful behaviour:

I will guard my ways. I will keep a muzzle on my mouth. (v.1, Isaac Everett)

Well, we are not here for long, it seems; so pick a song, sing it, and travel on!

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