Psalm 40: Proclaim goodness

‘I have not hidden righteousness or your faithful love.’ (9, 10)

Psalm 40, which comes up in March each year and in Epiphany of Year A, is a rich and captivating poem, said to be by David. It begins with patience, awe, thanks and song: God set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. God put a new song in my mouth. (2, 3) The poem continues with the image of a parent stooping to hear and comfort a child. It then evolves like a harbinger of Mary’s song the Magnificat, before concluding with a prayer, repeated verbatim in Psalm 70 and elsewhere, for continued blessing.

Responsive refrains are often drawn from a key verse in the psalm being sung, or a related or derivative text from other biblical references.

Antiphon for Psalm 39(40) in the Howard Psalter, early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83.

The beautiful early manuscript of the Howard Psalter in the British Library,1 digitised and illustrated here, reveals an interesting departure from the practice of using a verse of the psalm being sung. It takes a little unravelling. Those familiar with Latin and the medieval scribes’ habits of abbreviation in manuscripts will have a head start.

The decorated text at the top of the page is the final verse of the Psalm 40, the rest of the psalm appearing on the previous page:Adjutor meus et protector meus tu es; Deus meus, ne tardaveris / Thou art my helper and redeemer: make no long tarrying, O my God. (17, BCP)

Then the music is appended, with its ‘antiphona‘ heading, in square notes on a four-line C clef. A close look reveals that the second staff casually switches to an F clef. That must have kept the monks alert.

Now what about those words underlying the music? Are they plucked from this psalm for emphasis or from elsewhere? Ut non delinquam in lingua mea / (I will take heed to my ways) that I offend not in my tongue

You will not find these antiphon words in this psalm. The first phrase, starting with the tall decorated ‘U’ and up to that a (which is a kind of pointing, a cue for alternating responses by groups, or answering a priest or cantor) is borrowed from the previous Psalm 38:2 in the Vulgate; our 39:1. These words also appear in the previous illustration of the Grandisson Psalter in Psalm 39. Then, the last little phrase beginning with a fancy S looks extraordinarily like a much abbreviated quote from the next sequential Psalm 40:5 (our 41:4):Sana animam meam Domine / Lord, heal my soul

Reaching out thus to neighbouring psalms may have been intended to help learning and to reinforce the continuity of the Psalter. Whether coincidentally or deliberately, both of these quotes from the preceding and following psalms happen to begin with “Dixi / I said”.


Leaping forward a century or two to 1564, Claude Goudimel writing in middle French stuck to the text of Psalm 40. Lassus (1585) then Mendelssohn (19th century) both wrote nice four-part inventions on the opening verses that they probably regarded as modest affairs. In the Lassus work, that Latin phrase ‘I waited patiently for God’ appears as the tasty title Expectans Expectavi.

And finally, to the present day:

  • The first of the three songs in PFAS, the responsorial setting 40A, uses verses 7 and 8: “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will”. Verses may be sung to the tone supplied
  • A snappy tune in PFAS 40C, longish but easy and repetitive, uses the opening verses: “I will wait upon the Lord”. Paraphrased verses are set to an equally nice tune.
  • Marty Haugen’s pleasant refrain in New Century also chooses verse 8: “I delight to do your will”
  • TiS No. 23 selects verse 11, (“Do not with-hold your mercy”)
  • Everett in TEP goes for the final verse 17, illustrated and quoted above. Note that Lectionary readings stop at verse 10 (in March) or 11 (Epiphany). Pointing out how much they make of two chords, he also urges consideration of the chorus of U2’s song “40”.

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