Psalm 74: Justice for the environment

‘They came with axes to a grove of trees.’ (5)

Looking through the ‘Justice’ lens, it is immediately evident that this communal lament rails against all who ignore or oppose the rule of justice and love as derived from the creator. Asaph prays that God will ‘arise and maintain your cause’. (22) In practical terms:

Let not the oppressed turn away ashamed, let the poor and needy praise your name. (21)

What about axes and the link to justice? The psalmist deplores irresponsible destruction of holy places, places where God dwells. Verse 5 quoted above captures the idea of careless regimes attacking the beauty of creation. The relevance for today, as contractors and farmers continue to strip trees from vast fertile areas, is painfully clear. The psalms make it clear that we have a responsibility to care for the environment. Together with the psalmist we cry:

How long, O God, will the adversary scoff? (10)

đŸŽ”Book 3, as mentioned previously, is the home of the songs of the musician Asaph. His first five are not included in the lectionary, the next five are.

Psalms for all seasons offers but one setting, the well-known O come, Emmanuel (VENI EMMANUEL 88.88 with refrain). This is an interesting choice, since it uses ancient antiphons rather than the text of the psalm. In particular, it draws on the ‘O Antiphons’, named for the invocations:

Male voices VĂ©zelay
O ancient antiphons
  • O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (O Lord)
  • O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
  • O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)

In the Catholic tradition, these antiphons are sung at vespers during Advent. Here, the call upon God’s various names reflects the communal despair and lamentation of Psalm 74, particularly at the destruction of the temple, which leads Asaph to turn to God on behalf of the people.

There are various sets of words for this old hymn translated from a Jesuit collection in Latin, Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, published in Cologne in 1710. Other verses (such as O Wisdom) were added later. The translation in PFAS (Augsburg, 2006) shows some slight improvements over the version in Together in Song (Neale, 1851).

PFAS usefully suggests using both verses and refrain of this hymn as congregational song, with the sections of verses spoken or chanted in between. A combination of this haunting early French plainsong (mentioned in a 15th century manuscript in the National Library of France), together with the early antiphonal references, provide a conducive ‘music space’ in which to contemplate the messages of words and music.

John Blow (1648-1708) wrote a motet O God wherefore art thou absent, drawing on the ‘How long?’ theme in the first few verses (see also Psalm 13). It’s arranged for SSATB and basso continuo, so won’t be heard in many congregations.