Psalm 59: Fight evil, celebrate love

‘I will celebrate your love’ (16)

In Psalm 59, as in many others depicting an ongoing fight against evil whether personal or ethical, context and time are important. Saul was clearly out to get rid of David. So no wonder David asks for protection and an unhappy ending for his “enemies”, declaring that his eyes are fixed on God, haven and strength, of whom he will sing.The situation is referred to in the introduction:

To the leader: Do not destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him.

The phrase “Do not destroy”, like “Miktam”, is obscure but may mean that the tune was used for several different songs. Maybe it was the name of the tune (see NIV translation) which was associated with several other songs. Other psalm introductions also say they were written as David hid in caves to evade Saul’s pursuit — for example 52, 54 and 57.

Old Music

Ps59 antiphon SarumBreviary Add MS 52359
Antiphon detail in the Sarum Breviary, Psalm 59. c.1300 (British Library Add MS 52359

Decoding the antiphon shown in this old Sarum manuscript is tricky but interesting. The psalm text is pretty clear: at the beginning of this particular extract is the last verse of Psalm 59:

Adjutor meus, tibi psallam, quia Deus susceptor meus es; Deus meus, misericordia [abbreviated] mea / Unto thee, O my strength, will I sing: for thou, O God, art my refuge, and my merciful God. (BCP)

ps59-antiphon1300

Then comes the antiphon. The music itself is also fairly easy. The simple series of single notes starts on C — the C clef is at top left, almost invisible  — and there is only one podatus or double-note. It would sound something like this in modern notation.

As to the text, the words below the four-line staff appear to read:

Juste iudicate filii hominis / Judge fairly, sons of man

Besides the frequent mentions of the amazingly strong thread of justice that appears time and time again in the Psalter, two other references come to mind:

  • First and most obviously, it seems to hark back to the first verse of the preceding Psalm 58 (see comments including a quote from St Augustine on walking the talk.) In some translations, ‘sons of man’ is interpreted as the Ruler.
  • And second, this text is the quote that appears above one of the great tourist attractions of Prague, the iconic Astronomical Clock in the façade of the Old Town Hall that dates from 1410. This old clunker indicates the movement of the sun, moon and stars, and a monthly calendar. Statues of the apostles march out every hour. The High Gothic facade features an angel with the inscription “Juste Iudicate Filii Hominis”.

Finally, the antiphon is then followed by the decorated capital D (Deus repulsisti nos /O God, thou hast cast us out) the first verse of the following Psalm 60.

The few classical pieces, including motets by Sir Arthur Sullivan and Orlando de Lassus, stick to safe verses like 2, 9, 16 and 17 which might have been quoted from any one of a dozen psalms.

Ps59 Lassus
Psalm 59 by Lassus

This illustration shows only the first two entries of the four voice parts of a motet in which Lassus elaborates on verse 2:

Eripe me de inimicis meis / Deliver me from mine enemies

New music

NCH, TiS and PFAS all skip this psalm. It is left to Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter to point out that the text has two separate inbuilt antiphons. Responding to this structural feature, Everett offers a refrain in duet using both of the repeating verses against each other. The first is in verses 6 and 14, while the second appears in verses 9 and 17. These he renders as:

They run around every night like snarling dogs (v.6)
I sing to you. You are my strength and haven. (v.9)

This is an approach that is at once both thoughtful and contrasting; it is also, somewhat courageously, true to the original text. David was evidently satisfied to choose the themes uppermost in his mind. These days, however, little inspiration or edification would seem to flow from having people sing about enemies — or anyone for that matter — as ‘snarling dogs’.

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