Psalm 19, 4 March ’18

Psalm 19 is soaring and thoughtful poetry. I’m tempted to say ‘fantastic’:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

People in any era have been fascinated by the mysteries of the universe. Gods, elemental matter, dreaming, creative spirits good and evil, magic and more have been devised in many mythologies to tame, explain or narrate. In more recent years, the Schrödinger wave equation, the little-understood W-boson carrying the weak force, and now gravity waves have equally fascinated as wordless signals “go out to the ends of the world”. But this is not science. Any single interpretation of this soaring imaginative poetry will surely serve to blinker and constrain. Readers dream afresh according to their history, situation and current cognitive settings.

A brief blog post can not do it justice; so stop now and read the psalm for yourself here> (NIV). And for more discussion on this poem and associated music — which ranges blithely from Händel and Hans Hassler and even, sort of, to There’s a bear in there — please see the post on 3.10.2017.

None of the text and music mentioned therein might happen at your meetin’ house this Sabbath; International Women’s Day 2018 — an important day to those who recognise the strong threads of justice and equity in the psalms and in this blog — is nigh. It deserves attention and might displace the psalm.

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The inattentive visitor looking up at the vaulted cathedral of Siena might step on this simple but beautiful marble unawares. A wondering Mary?

The near absence of direct reference to the role of women in the Psalter was acknowledged and discussed in a March 2017 post. Psalm 19 is a lovely song but again, quite generic.

If an alternative is sought, songs and chants celebrating women may be found in many traditions:

  • The song of Mary, Magnificat, is an obvious choice:
    • several are offered in PFAS (pages 1018-1022) including one from Taizé
    • And holy is your name sung to the traditional Wild mountain thyme
    • also a tone and refrain chanted setting
    • in NCH a simple tune by a female writer My soul gives glory is at No 119.
  • Hildegard of Bingen was prolific. At South Woden, O frondens and O rubor by Hildegard have been presented, although these are not an easy sing
  • A Shaker song, Simple gifts, might appeal

Admiration of Mary is embedded in much of Christian thinking, although Reformed theology draws the line at an intercessory role for the mother of Jesus. As well as the Magnificat, the Roman and high Anglican traditions, exemplified by Hildegard’s compositions, are replete with Marian songs.  Evensong or compline/vespers liturgies regularly include a Marian hymn or antiphon, such as the one shown below, first line only. The theology of asking Mary to pray for us may not sit comfortably with UCA tastes but those who enjoy plainsong might not object too strenuously:

Hail, Queen of Heaven, Hail mistress of the angels. Hail, holy root, hail holy gate from whom came light to the world. Rejoice, glorious virgin, beautiful above all others. Hail and farewell, most gracious one, plead always with Christ for us.

Then [have I kept the best wine till last?] an excellent set of words by John Bell of the Iona Community has great appeal:

There is a line of women extending back to Eve
whose role in shaping history God only could conceive
And though, through endless ages their witness was repressed,
God valued and encouraged them through whom the world was blessed.

http://www.iona.org.uk

The song goes on to acknowledge many unsung but brave, loving and influential women in the biblical record: Sarah, Tamar, Hannah, Mary, Puah, Rahab, Esther …

Psalm 147, 4 Feb ’18

This psalm, like others in this final handful in the Psalter, is a song of praise, calling us to rejoice in the creation and the ubiquitous evidence of divine love and care.

‘Starry Night’ by V van Gogh. Wikimedia commons

With sudden shifts of focus, a visionary sweep of the universe, the selected text (verses 1 to 11 in Year B) alternate between the earthbound to the heights, the present day to the distant past, from the stars to personal reassurance of the exile and outcast:

God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. God counts the number of the stars; and calls them all by name. (3, 4)

We are encouraged to pull out our lyres again in order to sing those praises (7).

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Being a vespers psalm and therefore appearing frequently in evening prayer services in the Roman and other rites, classical settings abound. Guerrero, Lassus, Monteverdi, Victoria and others wrote several settings. In the vespers liturgy and the Anglican Compline, up to five psalms were accompanied by the Magnificat or other Marian verses.

Tomas Luis de Victoria‘s setting of this psalm would be appropriate if singers were available. Lauda Ierusalem, Salmo de Vísperas No. 6 (illustrated) is a series of short sections, one for each of the odd verses. It would have been sung antiphonally by a choir in the vespers service, the priest chanting the even verses. This motet is in Latin rather than the preferred English; so in the modern environment it could be used to inspirational effect as incidental music or anthem. It could also be interposed as reflective antiphons between readings or prayers.

If relishing that idea of naming each of the myriad stars, a refrain by Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter would be an excellent choice: ‘Jehovah with immeasurable wisdom calls each star by name’.

PFAS rolls out several responsive options, frequently just picking the ‘hallelujah’ theme. One (147A alt.) is even a familiar tune by Mozart. Mozart’s music is supposed to soothe the troubled breast: this is a canon in three parts, so it will keep the congregation awake and alert as they learn and enjoy their woven harmony.

Together in Song No 92 covers most of the set verses and, being by John Bell, is reliably tuneful and easy to learn. Although the composition includes a chorus it is presented, and will be sung at South Woden, as a congregational hymn rather than a responsorial psalm with cantor.

Psalm 29, 7 Jan 2018

These days, voices frequently heard are those of political arrogance, religious friction, the rich getting richer, vigorous and exclusive nationalism and faint calls for assistance to the suppressed. While such evidence seems to support the ‘God is dead’ theory, much of it is the bad news, unbalanced if not fake, served up by commercial interests to a readership hungry for the sensational.

Image by Libby O’Loghlin, Switzerland

Where is the voice of God in all this? At the personal, local and community level, optimism and inspiration are still alive, as many readers will attest. The psalmist, said to be David in this Psalm 29, is in no doubt that a sovereign creator, a dominant eternal divine influence, reigns supreme and glorious across the world. In the previous psalm, David lamented the press of wickedness that we hear about abundantly today. Here, however, God’s powerful voice speaks through a vibrant, energetic, beautiful environment.

When you tire of the bad news, turn up Psalm 29 and refresh your sense of a creation and a human race that is designed, according to Psalm 99 and many others, for love and justice. Sing David’s final verse:

May God give strength to the people. May God bless the people with peace. (11)

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Together in song 17 offers an easy refrain, with verses sung to a double tone, by Christopher Willcock — safe hands. For more on this psalm and music, please turn to a previous post twelve months ago here>>

Psalm 19

‘The statutes of God are just and rejoice the heart’ (6)

Psalm 19 declares the glory of the divine as seen in the creation. It smoothly progresses to how this declares the presence and influence of the creator, specifically the theme of the similarly-numbered Psalm 119, the importance of divine guidance to humankind — the ‘law’, to those who are so influenced, and our own ability to turn a blind eye to our faults. It concludes with that prayer heard so often:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (14)

The very first verse challenges our spiritual framework: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The question of whether the wonders of creation do or do not prove the existence of an omnipotent Creator and intelligent design will always be debated. The psalmist is definitely in the ‘do’ team, the theme appearing strongly in many other psalms (8, 24 and 104 just for starters). Tom Wright says:

Our modern Western world-views have made it seriously difficult to hear Psalm 19.1-2 as anything but a pretty fantasy.1

He refers primarily to the age of materialism and science. Things like gauge theory and the breaking of electro-weak symmetry are daunting — definitely not ‘pretty fantasy’. However, leaving aside the heavy mathematics and hyperreality, the last century of unravelling the scientific clues to the universe has been a fascinating journey. Yet in poetry and spirit, a scientific mind can still find it easy, on a clear night under the stars, to go with the psalmist’s opening declaration about the heavens — provided you are no post-modern anti-foundationalist or similar.

So Psalm 19 starts in an affirmative frame of mind. Then, we read more phrases that resonate in our experience and memories. Anyone who has sung Handel’s The Messiah will certainly recognise ‘Their sound is gone out’ and have the tune of that chorus in mind (an exciting sing — even if it sometimes feels a little like practising your scales and arpeggios.) From verse 7 on we are reminded by this ‘Psalm of David’ how valuable in the search for an upright yet humble life is the divine guidance in the word, which is More to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (10)

These references to God’s law and commands might be taken as a nod to the ten commandments. However, in the light of all the subsequent guidance and New Testament teaching on love, that’s like harking back to the technology of the phonograph or to black and white silent movies. The spiritual framework has moved from a few rules on tablets of stone to a river of gracious wisdom.

The winner for complexity probably goes to Hans Leo Hassler (1564 – 1612) in the late Renaissance, a German composer and organist who learned the polychoral style during his studies in Venice, and brought it back to influence German music. He knocked out an arrangement of the first five verses for 13 parts in three choirs entitled Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei.

Thirteen voice parts may not be unlucky but it’s certainly unusual. There are plenty of 8 to 12 part pieces around; a lovely one by Hassler contemporary Tomás Victoria comes to mind. These are nowhere as ambitious as the earlier Thomas Tallis work Spem in alium for 40 parts.2 But really, Mr Hassler, prime number 13? Ah! — there are five voices in choir II. In all these pieces the choirs or quartet/quintets often leave each other a fair bit of space, stay silent to listen or answer from time to time before joining for a homophonic finale. Silence is an important part of music.

Psalm 19 Genevan

In contrast, the slightly earlier (c. 1560) Psalm XIX from the Genevan Psalter was in the spare Calvinist tradition, sung as a monophonic tune unaccompanied.

An all-Australian version of the psalm, albeit in hymn format, is found in TiS 166, Sing a new song, by Richard Connolly (1927-). Connolly was also the composer of the well-known ABC Play School theme, There’s A Bear in There. In our regular sources:

  • Songs no. 7 and 8 in TiS refer to this psalm, although neither covers the full lectionary reading.

  • Isaac Everett draws on verse 1 in an easy, singable refrain. As usual, he assumes the verses will be spoken rather than sung to a background vamp.

  • PFAS presents a whole six options; 19C is responsorial, introducing the viewpoint that creation and the word ‘show the way to the kingdom of light’. The 19E refrain emphasises the concluding prayer (verse 14) quoted at the beginning of this section. It is also a reminder that:

  • A good reggae version of ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ picks up another much-quoted verse (the last): ‘Let the words of my mouth…’ Children will enjoy this little chorus and perhaps even remember it. This song sits equally well with Psalm 137, from which the main verses and title are taken.

Notes: Continue reading “Psalm 19”

Psalm 104, 17 Sep 17

‘You make springs gush forth in valleys, they flow between hills.’ (10)

Here we have epic demonstrative poetry, the poet overcome by the glory and power of the creation — and the Creator. The author’s feelings are quite infectious:

You are clothed with honour and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. (2-4)

Kanga on the Keys with Joyful Joey? A creation full of wonders.

The song continues relishing the diversity and complexity of creatures and the environment. As in several other psalms (145 for example) divine love also sustains and provides for this diverse living planet. In these days of global warming, extinction of many species and desertification, this picture can be lost in the fear. However, the psalms long for times when divine love working through people can regenerate and fulfil the intention of the blueprint.

The poet is certain that our world is wonderful and enduring: “You have set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never move.” (5) Psalm 102 counters that all things shall pass,1 however this poor little verse had the dubious honour of being one of those the church cited to condemn evidence of heliocentricity. For more on Copernicus, see Psalm 86; and beware literal doctrines.2

The settings in TEP, PFAS and the NCH are all suitable. The refrain from TiS 65 perfectly suits the theme of caring for our environment to  be taken up this week by our leader, Keith. Versification will be modified to the lectionary selection rather than that in the book. We shall also sing the verses to a different, home-grown tone — with a little swing added.

The hair-raising setting by Rachmaninoff mentioned under Psalm 103 is also relevant here as it shares similar text.

And just for interest, we have in years gone by used a Gregorian chant (no 8) for this psalm, again with different verses, to accompany a Hildegard song, complete with that marvellously atmospheric hurdy gurdy.

1Psalm 102:26.

2Refer also to Psalm 93:1