Psalm 59

King David and harp
King David playing his harp

In Psalm 59 as in many others, context and time are important. 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. 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.

Old Music

Ps59 antiphon SarumBreviary Add MS 52359

Decoding the antiphon shown in this old Sarum manuscript from about 1300 (British Library Add MS 52359) 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-antiphon1300Then 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 Ps. 58 upon which a recent post commented, including a quote from St Augustine on walking the talk. In some translations, ‘sons of man’ is interpreted as the Ruler.Prague Astronomical clock
  • 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’.

Note: This is the final post about individual psalms, each of the 150 having now been discussed in at least one blog post. Future posts will be relevant only to the set readings and local choices, or updated consolidations of multiple earlier posts. Refer to the index pages to find discussion of particular psalms.

Psalm 58

FIRE_01David is certainly angry in Psalm 58, primarily against rulers who are wicked, unjust and violent. Although this poem does not appear in the Lectionary, this feature alone makes it entirely relevant in today’s world as an expression of indignation and as a prayer for improvement in the rule of law and equity.

However, anger can lead to intemperate raging, often later regretted. David’s outburst, which he may or may not have later retracted, is the charge that the wicked are perverse from the womb. This is surely no more true of ‘the wicked’ than any human being. We all have our weaknesses but no one is thoroughly bad from the beginning. In the same mood, David desires that their fangs be pulled and worse, a sentiment we heard about way back in Psalm 3. Anger against evil is justified. But thank God for the balm of the New Commandment. The magnanimous interpretation is that David was really asking that the fangs to be extracted are those of wicked words and behaviour.

This and the next two psalms, 59 and 60, are all skips which continue the tirade against evil, its source and its perpetrators. Online and hard copy sources both classical and modern largely ignore these three psalms or treat them cursorily. If you want to sing this one, use a tone in a minor key, of which there are many in most books, and use Everett’s refrain in TEP based on verse 1:

Rulers what do you  decree? Do you judge with equity?

Sixteen hundred years ago, Augustine in his commentary said of this first verse:

But hear ye the Psalm. “If truly therefore justice ye speak, judge right things, you sons of men.” Be it not a justice of lips, but also of deeds. For if you act otherwise than you speak, good things you speak, and ill you judge.

Psalm 137, 2 Oct 16; Babylon

Note: The readings this week are from Lamentations, with the alternative choices of Psalms 137, the subject of this post, or 37. See an earlier post for Psalm 37.

By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. (Ps. 137:1)

We may not remember Zion, but having often sung the 1972 reggae song made famous by Bob Marley and the Melodians, this lament of a people in exile will not be too far from the surface of our memories. To the psalm singer, however, the next verse it he one that hits home:

On the willows there we hung up our harps. For our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing a song of God in a strange land?

An instrument broken by conflict. Found in Berlin after WWII.
An instrument broken by conflict. Found in Berlin after WWII.

You would think that the singing of songs would be a powerful feature of grief and remembrance in exile. Some of our folk favourites are songs of people in another land, from the more hearty Botany Bay to a plaintive Isle of Innisfree (Dick Farrely, 1950), an oft-recorded song about Irish emigrants:

And when the moonlight creeps across the rooftops of this great city, wondrous though it be / I scarcely feel its wonder or its laughter; I’m once again back home in Innisfree.

In Babylon, it seems the Israelites could not muster the inspiration. Was it just to deny the captors? It may have sprung from an anger so strong as to banish all thought of song, generating vicious thoughts against the captors and their children. (v. 9) We may wish to dismiss this sting in the tail as classic outdated Old Testament vengeance; however it does give us a glimpse of what anger can do and how hard it is to manage. Deal with it we must if society is to avoid such dominoes of damage.

Psalm 106, 12 Oct 14

Psalm 106 is related to the previous one, 105, about which we heard and sang much in recent weeks. The story of Exodus is again rehearsed in this psalm at some length but with a stronger flavour of an awareness of human weakness. The shorter lectionary reading is here — and you might have to read it yourself this time, since I admit this post is more about what’s not included that what is.

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd
Moses and the rock, Arthur Boyd

One of the many stories we heard in Psalm 105 was Moses striking the rock, where we heard this and other exploits in which the people were heading for a downfall

— had not Moses, the chosen one, stood in the breach to turn away God’s wrath from destroying them.

The backstory is a little more complex (see also Blind faith). Had we read on we’d find that the provocation of the people made Moses angry and he acted in haste:

By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD and trouble came to Moses because of them, for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips. (V. 33)

Moses spoke ‘unadvisedly’ and suffered for it. There’s a study here about anger, control, deliberation, leadership, pressure — interesting but we are not going there now since it’s not in our reading. That great rock story doesn’t feature either but I couldn’t miss the opportunity to pop in Arthur Boyd‘s vibrant painting, currently on show along with his Nebuchadnezzar series and lots more at the National Gallery of Australia in the excellent Boyd retrospective — highly recommended.

So what is included in this reading? A warning against selfishness and a plea for divine guidance and grace.

Music options

(i) The people’s refrain in Psalms for all seasons 106B invites us to sing:

Cast every idol from its throne

Good idea if you are troubled by unhealthy fixations but the theme does not appeal to me as timely.

(ii) The response in The emergent psalter is nice and syncopated but maybe a little too long to learn in the short period available.

(iii) Thomas Tomkins wrote a swag of psalm settings in the early 1600s, including 106, for four male voices. Would be fun if we could do it but it presents verse 4 alone. Nice as an incidental.

(iv) New century hymnal has a simple refrain but no sung verses.

(v) PFAS 106A is by John Bell, so is prima facie worthy of attention. I’d go that way because for a start it emphasises the enduring patient nature of divine love and forgiveness. Secondly, it offers a sung verse. And finally, the refrain is in nice four-part harmony which will be great if we have enough singers. Roll up, roll up.

Psalm 2, 2 March 2014

The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons
The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons

Psalm 2 has a very modern message, as

nations conspire and people plot in vain; the rulers of the earth set themselves and leaders take counsel together … ‘Let us cast their cords from us’. (v.1-3)

Rulers seeking to throw off the ‘bonds’ of God.

This author will be the first to recognise that there is a lot to be said for separating church and state. That is not the same as governments ignoring or running counter to ethics and values recognised by humanists, Christianity and most major religions of the world.

The excellent exhibition Mapping our world at the National Library of Australia is redolent with the manoeuvring and politics of exploration and possession, sometimes in the name of God, sometimes in that of nationalism, empire or commerce.

Back to music. In amongst the sheep going astray, feeding of the flock and the hallelujahs of The Messiah by George Frederic Handel (1685 to 1759, so almost an exact contemporary of J S Bach), behold this text turns up in full force.

It’s not so surprising, perhaps, as you sing along with the story of this oratorio to find that the maestro has snuck in some of this rage to wake us up in a furious chorus Let us break their bonds asunder (from v. 3).  It’s one of the show-stoppers, sometimes omitted since it’s fiendishly difficult when taken at a gallop.

Maybe we should slip this in as the antiphon this Sunday to keep us on our toes! What say you? Have a listen here >>

Then again, we might actually take a much easier response (final choice to be confirmed) from The New Century Hymnal by Carolyn Jennings, with much milder but more comforting words from the final phrase of the psalm (v. 12):

Happy are all who take refuge in God

A light burden

who promises, according to Matthew 11: 30 and another chorus in The Messiah

my yolk is easy and my burden is light.