‘God is ruler of all the earth; sing a psalm!’ (7)
Journals and web-sites are usually crowded with advertisements, often blinking and distracting our attention from the object of interest. Whether the sponsorship is identified or not, the reader soon learns to recognise the difference. Some of the psalms, like Psalm 47, have an uncomfortable ring of triumphalism or nationalism about them.
When the poem calls us to “clap our hands … because God subdues the nations under our feet” (1, 3), the reader has this same sense that someone is trying to sell something, in this case the royal supremacy line. Admittedly by the end of the song, all nations are imagined to gather as one, and the song can be explained today as lauding a spiritual rather than temporal sovereignty.
One explanation is the authors were the Korahites, a group of poets and musicians associated with the court. These artists were funded by the king. They thus tend to advocate the glories and sovereignty of the king and God, rather than those major themes so prevalent elsewhere in the psalter proclaiming the need for love, justice and equity for all. Maybe the preamble should include: ‘Message from our sponsors’.
Most composers have written settings that focus on one of two phrases: in verse 1 (‘clap your hands’), or 5 (‘God has gone up with a shout’). The lectionary cleverly uses this psalm at Easter to celebrate the ascension of Jesus, providing a more universally recognised application.
The showpiece amongst the classical arrangements is one by Gabrieli published in 1597 for no less than four choirs of four voices, XVI parts in all as shown in the illustration. In all probability it was generally performed by choirs of perhaps seven voices, the other nine parts being carried by various instruments — no hand claps save in the text.
Most of the settings in Psalms for All Seasons similarly invite clapping of hands with varying degrees of pull. 47D, transcribed from the Nigerian Yoruba people — known for the use of the dùndún, an hour-glass shaped drum — is perhaps the most interesting. Both The Emergent Psalter and the New Century Hymnal settle for the simpler “Sing to God” approach.