Psalm 139, 14 Jan ’18

The number 139, at first glance, is an unprepossessing, even lacklustre numerical label; what can be remarkable about 139? But wait! 139 is a prime number and (perhaps at the risk of giving undue credence to biblical numbers games) here we have a prime example of a fine psalm of primary teaching:

God you have searched me (1)
Where can I go from your Spirit? (7)
I thank you because I am wonderfully and fearfully made (14)

Such gems are accompanied by fine poetic imagery  entirely characteristic of the Psalter:

If I climb up to heaven you are there; … if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast. (8-10)

Climbing to the heavens with the wings of the morning in far-flung places might too readily leap out of the page for this former pilot. Many verses however, such as those which refer to God’s hand in the development of the unborn child, will have universal impact. Wonderfully and fearfully made indeed.

An earlier post reflected at greater length on this psalm, matters of transparency, deceptive appearances and some music associated with Psalm 139. The comment was made there that regardless of your image of God — a dark remote benevolent idea somewhere out there on the face of the waters, or a personal spirit who numbers hairs and counts sparrows — the psalms seem to cater for all. Here, whether as a result of an active if belated conscience or as an expression of belief, David sees the divine spirit as all-seeing, discerning.


A home-grown antiphon with verses ad lib to a similar tune is available:

However, music choice locally this Sunday is Michael Card’s Search me, with a refrain inserted into the original form catering for both high and low voices:

Psalm 78, 12 Nov 2017

‘With upright heart God tended them, guided them.’ (72)

This long psalm of Asaph in 72 verses covers many of the high points in the Torah, including the plagues and the exodus, subsequent trials and the calling of King David, great tales also to be found in Psalm 114 and elsewhere. Psalm 78 is a plea, a promise and a pledge to tell the old, old stories — for those who went before us, for ourselves, and for those who will follow…

Stories of old; even better when sung

But wait, I wrote all this and more in a post just recently, so go there to read the rest. This saves space and effort for the web-master; however a close inspection shows that this psalm reading selects different verses. So while it’s close, TiS 41 sung on 1 October does not quite cover the territory. Near enough for the average thematic leader but strictly, the reading is verses 1-7; again, review the other choices suggested in that earlier post>.

Here is the chosen refrain and verse tune for this week at South Woden:Ps78 Listen tune

Worship and song leaders may also be enticed by the alternative readings this week from the Wisdom of Solomon, a book which is not universally accepted as part of the canon. This nice passage could be sung by women to good effect.

Why the quote at the outset from that last verse 72? Here is another reminder of the strong thread of divine justice and goodness that runs through both the Psalter and the stories of old.

Psalm 144, a gross skip

While we have the bookmark at Psalm 148 for 24 April 2016, let’s pick up Psalm 144 (text>), the nearest ‘skip’ or omission from the Revised Common Lectionary.

144gridGross? Young readers, if any, may not realise that way back in pre-metric times (excuse me Americans), 144 or a dozen dozen was called a gross. [Quiz of the day: how many sheets in a ream, imperial and metric?]. The skip may be thought gross because it’s a pity to miss one so solid, a heavyweight amongst psalms by virtue of some important themes.

First, some get stuck on the first verse; ‘Blessed be God, my rock, who trains my hands for war’. It has been misused to justify the Crusades. Some take it as a concept of spiritual warfare. But this is a psalm of David, so we can also take it as a simple declaration of thanks for support in the many battles David had to face. A strong balancing theme throughout the Psalter is divine preference for justice, peace and reconciliation.

Second is the temporary nature of our lives. A puff of wind, a passing shadow (v.4) — these are common themes in poetry and philosophy that touch us all. At the Shakespeare concert last weekend (after a beautiful rendition that morning of Psalm 23 in Spanish by our men — thanks gentlemen!) we sang again that sonorous setting by Ralph Vaughn Williams of Those cloud capp’d towers, from The Tempest:

Towers and palaces

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and …
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.  — The Tempest, act iv, sc. 1.

With a sense of wonder the psalmist, looking for an additional dimension to this evanescence, reaches out for connection with the creator:

What are humans, that you regard them? Bow your heavens, O God, and come down; touch the mountains so that they smoke. Stretch out your hand from on high; rescue me. (vv. 3-7)

Third, another demonstration that the psalms were songs:

I will sing a new song to you O God, upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you.

Hurdy-gurdyWell, the Singers in the South have sometimes sung a cappella with not a string in sight — and, it must be said, with great beauty. They have sometimes been accompanied by instruments. These have ranged from the hurdy-gurdy, ukulele and double-bass with but few strings, through guitar to 8-string mandolin and, of course piano. The accompaniment, if any, is a matter for creative choice; keep singing them, and note the last phrase — they are played to heaven.

Fourth, perhaps recalling the earlier reference to our transience, David sings a prayer for heritage and children in delightful and powerful, perhaps surprising, imagery:IMG_0235

May our sons be like plants nurtured from their youth,

and our daughters like sculptured cornerstones cut for the building of a palace.

Fifth and finally, there’s a little twist in the tail regarding the name of God. Verse 15 evidently includes both Hebrew words elohim (gods) and YHWH. So Isaac Everett puts both in his refrain:

Happy are those whose God is Yahweh.

There’s much more to be said on this issue (read his notes in The emergent psalter) but that’s beyond the scope of this slight reverie. In aggregate, Psalm 144 is truly weighty, the whole being greater than the sum of parts.

Schutz PsDavid1619

Cover page of Psalmen Davids, Heinrich Schütz, 1619


We don’t even have a folder in the music library for this skip and, by definition, are not likely to need one.

Composers often cited in these pages are largely silent; apart from complete psalters such as Ravenscroft’s Whole book of Psalmes or that by Archbishop Parker, I have had no calls from the usual suspects like Bach, Victoria, Lassus or Schütz (see illustration), though they may well have drawn on this text here and there.

Having quoted Everett above, I’d have to go with his refrain that uses this last verse. It’s nice … and the choices are slim.

Psalm 111, 16 August 2015

Psalm 111 this week is quite short but dense. It’s full of big statements such as:

Great are the deeds of God, studied by all who delight in them.

Full of honour and majesty is the work of God, whose goodness endures forever (verses 2 and 3)

A previous post on Psalm 111 focused on themes of wisdom and — another key word appearing in verse 8 — equity.

All this strong evidence is used as the basis for something of a challenge in the last verse:

The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding (v.10)


Blake’s Ancient of Days. Illustration from the British Museum.

This familiar verse can slide past unremarked by the experienced reader. It did not escape Trish’s attention. Aware that this week our children lead the service, she immediately commented on the Crystal Ball mention. How do the children read the word ‘fear’.

Few bible translations, and I looked at more than a dozen, capture the positive dimension of this claim. One even uses the word ‘dread’. The Good News Bible tries this:

The way to become wise is to honour the Lord

I bow to the weight of learned opinion here but cannot feel that that’s the end, let alone the heart, of the matter. It has the ring of the ten, rather than the two, commandments.

Does not a wiser and richer life flow from valuing and directing our lives towards sources of love — divine and human, however we discern them — in our lives, our community, our universe? This may be a little loose but, like wisdom, it shares consistency with the fruit of the spirit. It certainly counterbalances the fear and trembling impression.

Perhaps the clue is in the immediately preceding verses:

God … worked with truth and equity; and sent redemption to the people, and commanded the covenant forever; holy and awesome is the name. (vv. 8, 9)

In fact, read the whole psalm again with this point in mind; more joy than fear there.


Cherub playing lute, AugMus FbgNone of the response tunes I have seen try to paraphrase the ‘fear of God’ along the lines suggested. This is not to suggest that the older children can’t appreciate the nuances of fear, reverence and honour. They are smart. However, more positive terminology would help. Rather than sing about fear with the children it may perhaps be useful to use one of the refrains that draw on other themes. The emergent psalter, for example, is on safe ground using verse 1:

With my whole heart I thank you Lord.

This little composition is nice but may be too syncopated to use as a children’s song unrehearsed.  It’s a fine opportunity for someone to make up a nice little tune with the children on the spot, using a short text that fits the leaders’ chosen theme. [This author-cantor, regrettably, is unable to attend what will be a rich occasion with the young people.]

Psalm 78, 9 November 2014

Psalm 78 is a plea, a promise and a pledge to tell the old, old stories — for those who went before us, for us, and for those who will follow.

God … appointed a law in Israel and commanded our ancestors to teach to their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children (vv. 5, 6)

This Sunday our children lead us in our gathering, our thoughts and our prayers. Ably guided by some very dedicated mentors, they have frequently surprised and delighted us with the quality and range of their ideas, stories, insights and sentences. This week we are no doubt in for another treat as they become the storytellers.

Just as historical narrative is a central theme in the psalms, so this psalm is pretty much in the middle of the book, which is surely just one big river of stories, tales, and reflections on the flow of history of people seeking divine blessing. Such stories are necessary, says Where the stories begin, a blog by Jan Richardson quoting Psalm 78, and shared for us today by Rev R.

The psalm will be sung in the form of TiS 636 God has spoken, to a great traditional Hasidic Jewish tune.


I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known; we will not hide them (vv. 2-4)

Graffiti on a remnant of the Berlin Wall, East Side Park.

Stories of folly and failure deserve to be told just as much as the heroic or the parable. The psalms pull no punches, but their poetical commentary helps us lift our vision and hopes.

I cannot help but notice that this Sunday is also the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. What a story surrounds that folly, built in 1961 and standing for nearly three decades as an arrogant symbol of human narrowness, selfishness and intolerance.

May barriers fall for us all again on Sunday as stories unfold.

(More on The Berlin Wall … Continue reading

Psalm 105, 21 Sep 14

What, Psalm 105 again? Yes, here we are again, or still, telling the story of the exodus and the legendary events along the way — the Red Sea, water from the rock, moments of trust or lack of, complaints and joyful moments, highs and lows. There are many angles to explore.

Swiss kidsBy telling and repeating, singing the familiar tunes and lyrics, people learned their history, culture, lessons from tales of the past and, osmotically perhaps, values.

A Swiss story

That ancient exodus journey doubtless looked and felt more chaotic and uncertain than the little group of Swiss kids depicted here, going on one of their regular outings to the nearby woods with their equipment and supplies.

The idea here is not to re-imagine a group on excursion or exodus, but to draw attention to the oral tradition through this snapshot of early learning practice in Switzerland. These children at Kindergarten level will spend much of their time on social and group activities, projects like lantern festivals and group meals, and — importantly for psalm singers — singing and storytelling.

Horgenberg farmHere, they are going off for the day to identify trees or birds, safely build a fire to make tea, perhaps visit a local farm and enjoy group stories and singing.

Australian children have excellent opportunities and experiences too, as Bette and others are fully aware. However, we do tend to regard literacy and numeracy as an important early goal and even measure of progress. The Swiss pay little heed to the 3 Rs until much later; they will not turn seriously to these formalities until these little lovelies enter primary grades at age 7. By that time, they know what it is to be Swiss.


So while we might be tempted to think that Psalm 105, with or without Lassus, has had more than its fair share of air, we are reminded of the value of singing our stories in different ways and on different occasions. Given that the psalm occupies but three minutes once a week, you’d hardly say it’s reached saturation level.

A light to our path

A light to our path

Repetition and reflection are important, particularly as our children absorb psalm verses and tunes that will hopefully return and warm their hearts throughout their lives, a lamp to their feet and a light to their path. (Psalm 119:105)

By chewing these poems over and making them our own, as Psalm 119 also suggests for example in verse 104, we absorb laudable values.


With some Lassus singers away, we will not repeat Cofitemini, although the associated home-grown response and Gregorian chant that we have been using for this psalm would work well. The relevant refrain from The Emergent Psalter may be a little long, while TiS 66 and PFAS options such as 105B might also suit.

Farm Wädenswil

Psalm 17, 3 Aug 14

Wet cobbles at night, WeimarPsalm 17 (click here for the text) this week looks like a continuation of recent lectionary readings. David, for it is attributed to him, asks for purity and protection.

Having heard recently from Psalm 119:105 about the lamp to the feet and the light for the path, David runs up a variation on the theme :

My footsteps hold fast to the ways of your law; in your paths my feet shall not stumble. (v.5)

A warm climax in the middle of the psalm is a sense of being cherished. It’s not just a dramatic hand-wringing for security from all sorts nasties — wicked enemies, the wealthy and greedy, even lions and such marauders get a mention. It’s much more personal and rich:

Apple of your eyeKeep me as the apple of your eye;

hide me under the shadow of your wings (v.8)

By the way, Proverbs 7:2 links these two verses and asks us to keep God’s word as the apple of our eye.


Three things caught my eye about Isaac Everett’s refrain in The emergent psalter.

  • First, he chose to use the phrases ‘apple of your eye’ and ‘shadow of your wings’; these are just the sort of classic expressions that make the poetry of the psalms so meaningful, so memorable.
  • Secondly, I liked the structure of this little composition. Based on a very simple two-chord structure, the tune, like the One Note Samba, is all on one note. It’s backed by a second voice part which is just as plain but introduces a tiny element of cadence. The first voice singing C is higher than I usually set for a congregational response; it is Sunday morning after all.  Lower voices can sing the second part.
  • Then thirdly, after the first phrase there’s an instrumental filler. It’s a family worship Sunday so I could imagine children having fun here with recorders and percussion.*

So I jumped at this option — then discovered that the lectionary reading desists at verse 7, one stop short of those golden phrases. Bah! We’re still doing it. Free gift, gratis, for nothing, y compris. Anyway, I just had to add in verse 8 to round it up to 4+4.

Statue at Sans Souci palace, Potsdam DEWomen singers will lead this week, adding a home-grown tune for the verses with guitar, paraphrased to be more accessible for young participants in a family service.

Children are invited to bring a recorder or other instrument to contribute that instrumental section — making a joyful noise. We shall have a practice at 4pm Saturday. I wonder if they have come across those golden phrases and learned to cherish them yet?

Coming up next week, 10 August: Lassus à 5. Can’t wait. Sell tickets now!

* OK there’s a fourth reason but it’s for the musos.

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