You refreshed the land when it was weary. Your people dwell there, O God, you have made provision for the poor.Psalm 68:9, 10
In the ‘bookends’ at beginning and end of this long psalm, the psalmist calls for the great kingdoms of the earth, their flags proudly flying in the national capitals of the world, to recognise the divine supremacy of ‘the rider in the ancient heavens’ and invites us to lift songs of thanks and praise. Between these bookends of praise for divine power comes a recitation of providence and caring for people over the centuries:
Parent of orphans and protector of widows is God in a holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in, and leads out the prisoners to prosperity. (5, 6)
Such verses are followed by others emphasising care for the needy, homeless and destitute. (10) As Jesus observed, regrettably the poor are always with us. (Mark 14:7) So how does a government, or political or religious group that aspires to govern, honour that call and at the same time deny the homeless, refugee and persecuted? Withdraw education and basic rights of freedom to women and girls; or weaken the social safety-net and leave these things to market forces? As discussed in Psalms 2, 119 and others, the aim is to recognise and rule by ethical standards outlined in ‘the Word’. The final verse promises that divine power be given to the people, rather than kings, to approach this improved realm of ‘holy places’. (34-5)
In bold imagery typical of early cultures and beliefs, he praises God as powerful warrior riding the ancient heavens. (v.33)
Without undermining this thrilling picture, several other psalms clearly refute reliance on weapons and armies as misguided and useless. Psalm 76 for example:
God broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword, and the weapons of war (v.3)
So under all this power and supremacy, the psalmist trusts in a caring and protective spirit who yet makes ‘provision for the poor’.
For David, these twin contrasting attributes become the basis for thanks and supplication. Calling for praise for a divine spirit that is ‘guardian of orphans and protector of widows’, he prays:
As wax melts before the fire, so let evil perish before God (v.2)
Such standards are reflected in the later New Testament encouragement:
… to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.Ephesians 4:1-3
The writer of a responsorial musical setting must choose a verse as text for the congregation to sing. Either for didactic or exegetical purposes, it will often contain a prominent, pithy or significant message in the psalm, which the people are likely to remember by repetition in song.
For this psalm, many sources (PFAS, NCH and TEP) use triumphal verses for the repeated refrain. “Let God arise; (1) lift up your voices, shout and sing to God (4, 24, 32) who rides the ancient skies above.” (35)
Together in Song 38, however, in a refrain that refers to but does not quote verses 5 and 6, brings out the protective and nurturing intent of the divine spirit:
God in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.(TiS 38, A P Watt.)
In these verses God is seen as ‘guardian of orphans’ and carer of the down-trodden. So if you have TiS at home turn to 38, a simple short song. However, without situating the text too much during lock-down, it is tempting to use verse 6 more literally as an antiphon:
God gives the solitary a home, and leads forth prisoners to freedom.
These words and the selected verses can easily be sung to a tune you make up on the spot in your solitary home, freely fitting the enjoyable words to a few simple notes or a quote from another song that rides the skies of your imagination from time to time.
Old and Bold
The psalms have been central to spiritual life for thousands of years. They entered Western liturgical use largely through the Roman rites, translated from Hebrew into Latin and other tongues. Early translation into Old English was from the Latin by learned monks or scribes, usually writing between the lines in the vernacular.
Here, for example, is the incipit (‘it begins’) to Psalm 68 in the Vespasian Psalter. Over a thousand years old, this document according to the British Library (BL) “is the earliest surviving example of St Jerome’s first translation of the Psalms (the Roman version), first written c. 384. It was copied during the second quarter of the 8th century.”
At first glance it’s just a quaint design with some indecipherable characters. What can we decode?
- In the top line in dark red-brown letters is LXVII, Roman for 67 which is the psalm number in the Vulgate.
- To the right, the next word ‘INF.. ‘ is the beginning of In finem. Psalmus cantici ipsi David. This is the introductory heading, ‘To the end, a psalm of David himself.’ Some modern translations say: ‘To the leader. Of David. A psalm. A song.
- An illuminated capital introduces Exsurgat, arise. Later Latin usage omits the s: Exurgat
- The next word looks like OS with a line over it. It is actually ‘DS’. The superscript line indicates contraction or omission. So the word is DS and it means Deus, God. Scribes routinely used a wide range of abbreviations thus annotated to save space. Readers knew the rules and sang on without hesitation.
That wasn’t too painful was it? But wait, what about the smaller squiggles between lines 1 and 2 in lighter coloured ink? Referring again to the BL description of this manuscript:
An Old English gloss was added around the second quarter of the 9th century by the Royal Bible Master Scribe, whose hand appears in other manuscripts owned by or made at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. This gloss is the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text.
On close inspection the words can almost be identified as ‘Arise God’.
There is no music in this original Psalm 68 script; musical notation was not settled at the time of writing around 750 CE. However, BL further notes that sometime later:
Cadences were added to selected verses of Psalms 148-150: Anglo-Saxon neumes have been placed to the right of the final word of a verse or half-verse, with accents also inserted by the same scribe.