Psalm 85: Justice and Earth

‘Justice goes before God, and peace is a road for God’s feet.’ (13)

Kanga on the keys?

The first Australians have been conscious of and connected to the land in much stronger and deeper ways than more recent arrivals can comprehend. Their livelihood was far more intimately bound up with their natural environment. Features in their traditional territorial landscapes have longstanding narrative and spiritual importance.

Somehow, this atmosphere permeates Psalm 85, declaring that “truth springs up from the earth”. (11) Justice is associated with the very heart of the creation, an idea that resonates with Psalm 99. The first verses speak of restoration and forgiveness but these blessings are anchored in a context:

… that God’s glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. (10, 11)


Palestrina, Lassus and others employed such melifluous verses for five-part settings for the Offertory during Advent or other liturgical uses. Readers familiar with the BCP texts will recognise this chant from verses 7 and 8:

Ostende nobis, Domine, misericordiam tuam, et salutare tuum da nobis. / Shew us thy mercy, O Lord: and grant us thy salvation.

Everett draws attention to those important images of righteousness and peace quoted above; however he chooses verse 7, a prayer for mercy, as his refrain.

PFAS 86B is the lovely Taizé chorus Dona nobis pacem, adorned with a lilting rendition of the verse phrases in a cantor’s descant over the refrain ostinato. This is very effective. A local refrain is included below.

Verse 7 of Psalm 85 used as an antiphon by the author

No 45 in TiS would be a good choice; easy response, interesting harmonies for SATB in the verses. It does not quite cover the lectionary readings and the inclusion of verses 1 and 2 is advisable to set the scene. This simple but effective setting was one of many songs by Betty Carr Pulkingham, who died at the age of 90 in 2019. She used verse 7 as the refrain, almost in a chant:

Show us your mercy O God, and grant us your salvation.

Those who grew up in Anglican traditions may recognise this text. The sung morning and evening prayer liturgy from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer quotes the psalm in the plainsong response chant following the Lord’s prayer:

Chanting in Vézelay, on one of the old pilgrim routes to Spain.

While Pulkingham’s refrain does not exactly follow this old pattern, it nonetheless exhibits some strong similarities. For example, disregarding a refreshing touch of syncopation in her refrain (which technique would have been frowned upon “in Quires and Places where they sing”, as the 1662 BCP continues), a single chanting note leads to minor third cadences in both call and response sections.

The BCP version, in turn, was drawn from the even more ancient Liber Usualis of the Roman rite, which looks similar. Here is the modern edition of that same prayer in the Gregorian chant Missal issued by the monks of Solesmes. The chant is similar but has a different tenor note, and resolves by whole tone rather than minor third cadences.

Our recorded version of the verses using Pulkingham’s rather sedate but more tuneful double tone (four bars rather than two) tries to capture some of the feeling of the old chants used by millions over the centuries. With that great cloud of witnesses, time rolls on.