‘O mighty ruler, lover of justice, you have established equity.’ (4)
Psalm 99 is worth waiting for. The verse quoted with its key words of ‘justice’ and ‘equity’ was the ringing statement at the heart of writing this web-site and blog. Justice and equity are pillars of creation, a fundamental element of the blueprint, and of the Psalter. This unobtrusive gem is just waiting to be noticed amongst the dazzle of the grand parade of vibrant declarations of God’s greatness.
An apparently modest but meaningful verse is tucked away in the middle of the shouting and show. What is it that the people are actually proclaiming between the earth shaking and the pillar of cloud? Not “Lift up your heads ye gates”, or “Bow low ye princes of the earth”, or “Glory” glory, but “Justice, equity!”
Unlike rulers of earthly nations, who not infrequently display greed, nepotism, favouritism, vengeance or just plain inconsistency in dealing justice or favours, an underlying set of standards for human equality for rich and poor, for high-born and low, for female and male is ordained. Implicit in the creation of the universe and humankind was an intention for equity … ‘created equal’. Inequities and iniquities come from human weakness and selfishness, not from any flaws in the divine goodness that is somewhere within us all.
Note the word established. Created, devised, part of the plan.
The long-winded Anglo-Saxon law code – issued by King Cnut, influenced by the Bible, discussed at Psalm 118 – is a foundation of English law. Here in the psalms is another cornerstone declaration on the nature of our world and our lives, essential elements of creation that are neither heavy books of law nor remote and unachievable humanist theories.
Sure it’s hard to be triumphal about the inequities and iniquities painfully evident in the world around us. But the psalm reveals that justice and equity were in the plan from the outset, for the creation and for humankind. The implication is that we are not fighting a losing battle, that spiritual support and delight are not far away. Everett comments:
Equity didn’t exist in the days of Moses and Aaron, nor in the days of Samuel, nor does it exist in our world today. There are still rich and poor, masters and slaves, oppressors and oppressed. Where other psalmists would pray for an end to such things, however, this psalmist boldly declares that they’ve already ended, seeing the world as it ought to be rather than as it is. I love it.1
For Professor Tom Wright, the ‘cosmic drama’ of Psalms 93 to 99 thus includes:
‘… the human dramas of actual injustice that produce the longing that the cosmic promises might come true in smaller human situations.’2
Our challenge is to make the vision of the psalm more real.
Most settings celebrate the sovereignty of God proclaimed in the early verses. Admirable enough but, surprisingly to this author, few sources pick up this seminal verse 4 on justice to create the ringing response that it deserves. Even the reliable PFAS suggests that we ‘trembling bow in worship’; while in the redoubtable CPDL online at the date of publication, here is the only offering, an early work by Heinrich Schütz:
Things look up with Everett’s antiphon in The Emergent Psalter. He is on the money using the justice verse quoted at the outset. His tune and chords roll nicely around B minor then D major and related progressions.3
However, informed by the encouragement in many psalms to ‘sing a new song’, and in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the South Woden Uniting Church celebrated on 22 October 2017 in Canberra, a new setting was written for the occasion. (View score>)
Truly, this verse codifies a theme that should often be heard in our gatherings, a reference song in any tune in our hearts, an example for the rulers of nations.
1 ‘The Emergent Psalter’ page 189
2 Tom Wright, ‘Finding God in the Psalms’, 2013, page 141