Psalms 107 and 49, 31 July 2016

NSEWPsalm 107 (we read the first nine verses with 43 tacked on the end) recalls the gathering in from all points of the compass of a fragmented and wandering people, hungry and thirsty, into safety under the ‘steadfast love’ of the divine hand.

It’s likely that the catalyst was originally the deliverance of the Israelites from exile. The song goes on to enumerate other crises, storms at sea and sickness, in which comforting divine love is to be praised.

The post for March 2015  drew attention to the relevance of this picture to the present days of displaced persons, families and even tribes seeking a home in troubled places of the world. Steadfast love is much needed in Australia and elsewhere against rising fears and harsh responses. (1)

Music

A still earlier post (November 2014) referred to some suitable refrains by regular writers:

  • Isaac Everett provides a great three-part setting that is thoughtful and fun to sing with a little practice.
  • Marty Haugen’s simple Consider the steadfast love of God (v.43) is found in the New Century Hymnal
  • Paul Kelly’s Meet me in the middle of the air is a great song — but is not based on Ps 107.

I even find one in the Library that I wrote, using slightly differing verses, for St Patrick’s Day — I now have no idea why, nor whether we ever sang it. Must be the Irish in me.

And speaking of different verses, that evocative phrase ‘Those who go down to the sea in boats’ inspired Henry Purcell to write a motet on those middle verses.

Carved saints, AugMusPsalm 49

Psalm 107 concluded by urging some deep thought:

Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of God (v.43)

Psalm 49, in the alternative readings, invites the same, but to music:

The meditation of my heart shall be understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp (vs 3, 4)

The song continues with a reminder that all people, of estate high or low, are equal and subject to mortality. Riches, pomp, status and wealth count for nothing.

Giving heed to these things, solving this riddle with or without the harp will surely lead to a conclusion that people should be treated equally and with steadfast love while, as the Dalai Lama says, we are visiting this planet.

Few classical settings appear for either of these psalms. Our more modern psalters similarly have few good antiphonal settings available; PFAS 107C is actually a repeat of one by Everett from The Emergent Psalter (2), telling us we can’t take it with us.

Timbrels

A good way to consider this psalm in depth would be to write your own tune. You may have to imagine the harp. Or as the psalmists often say (see comments on 150 for example), find any stringed instrument, trumpet, cymbal, timbrel or tambourine — whatever is to hand.

Notes:  Continue reading

Psalms 76, 77, 26 June 16

Psalm 76 makes a strong plea for a peaceable world where divine power and justice are the forces to be revered. In the city of God:

… God broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword and the weapons of war … none of the warriors can lift a hand. (v.3, 5)

Just as we saw in Psalm 44.6:

I do not rely on my bow, and my sword does not give me the victory; surely you gave us victory (vs. 6, 7)

Psalm 77 goes on to emphasise how powerful divine love and influence are — the psalmist cites not only elemental forces evident in creation, but also the miracles and guidance on display during the escape from Egypt.

The sword

When the psalms seem violent and vindictive, they reflect the outpourings of a soul in anguish and in times of conflict, a lament like the blues. However if the pen is mightier than the sword, so is love. The insistent and unmistakable message of the psalter is of a creator who loves justice, equity and peace.

An F-86 Sabre with a DH Vampire

Coincidentally, the ‘sword’ was the nickname for the F-86 Sabre, the aircraft your Webmaster flew in a first Air Force posting after graduation from university and pilots’ course. Also quite coincidentally, 76 and 77 are the numbers of a couple of the Air Force squadrons which flew the Sabre and then Mirage III aircraft (pictured below with an F-4 Phantom high over the Arafura Sea).

Mirage III and Phantom F4 returning to DarwinAll the aircraft I flew are now in museums, of course. Without undervaluing this military career, or denying the importance of a strong national security policy in this uncertain world, we can still wish that all such swords should be in museums or beaten into ploughshares. Untrained, uncontrolled and undisciplined, humans with guns are dangerous, as we see in the news all too frequently.

The psalms indicate that in a regime where divine love dominates, weapons are be discarded as useless. They will win no lasting peaceful victory. The psalm points out that the shield is broken too; so the same rule applies to attacker and defender alike; giving people more guns in defence is no answer. Unfortunately, until society values justice, equity and love as key values, we must keep locking our doors and controlling guns.

Music

These two psalms appear little in the Lectionary; 76 is a ‘skip’ and 77 makes it once into Year C. Classical settings are rare, so the value of our modern psalters and collections is underlined.

Gregorian peaceFor Psalm 76 a peace prayer, also appropriate with Psalms 50 and 120, would be relevant. The illustration shows one in the Roman tradition from Corpus Christi Watershed,(1) who suggest that the Gregorian chant will serve to unify people in this cause.

For Psalm 77, Everett in The Emergent Psalter offers a simple refrain:

I call to mind your deeds, remembering your wonders of old. (2)

Fishing into the Dropbox library, I find (I had quite forgotten — it was three years ago) that I have written a paraphrase to facilitate singing the text to the same tune as the refrain (Everett assumes you will read the words to a background vamp, but this seems to miss the idea that the psalms are fundamentally songs.) The singer can use this as a guide but improvise the tune as inspired by the words of each verse. This is easier if you accompany yourself, of course.

Otherwise, here’s a good chance to write your own.

Notes: Continue reading

Psalm 146, 5 June 2016

IMG_3012An article in the local paper today tells me that polls — in Australia at least, though I do not doubt that readers in other countries will nod in agreement — are revealing a loss of confidence in governance. Part of that is due to perceived weaknesses in both national leaders and opposing aspirants.

People are, in this respect at least, doing just what Psalm 146 recommends:

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish (vs. 3, 4)

There’s a second reason why people might follow this psalm. It’s suffused with calls for equity and justice for all people, a situation that is certainly not being provided by current leadership and governments. Many would be delighted to see a social, community, health, justice and financial structure that:

Image: Wikimedia commons

executes justice for the oppressed; gives food to the hungry; sets the prisoners free; opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down; loves the righteous; watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow (vs. 7 – 9)

Sounds very much like Jesus quoting Isaiah in Luke 4:18. I am compelled to insert that image of the scales of justice again. It appears in so many posts (sometimes I have used a different image of the scales) as an indicator of how often this theme leaps out of the psalms at us, contrasting with the reality we see about us and challenging us to work harder for outcomes based on love rather than selfish interests.

However, that’s probably as far as the parallel goes. Indeed in governance terms, separation between church and state is good insurance against these human weaknesses. The average voter is not likely to take it a step further by praising a divine spirit who promises that all these things are a fundamental part of creation, and therefore of humankind however compromised.  The song finishes with a system of governance for that purpose, in which “God shall reign forever, for all generations. Praise God!” (v.10)

Music

Hymns (we prefer antiphonals) on this theme are manifold. TiS 90 is the old favourite (1719) hymn by Isaac Watts, I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath. Regrettably, we cannot quite muster the time and resources this Sunday to introduce a nice piece à4 by Lassus, Lauda anima mea,Ps146Lauda

let alone his longer setting à6 under a similar title.

Antiphonal settings often feature refrains full of Hallelujahs. Why? The final handful of psalms from 146 to 150 are songs of praise, all starting and finishing with a ringing Hallelujah – praise YHWH. That last line in verse 10 quoted above is just one example.

  • Everett in TEP emphasises this as well as the prince thing and its alternative.
  • Psalms for all Seasons includes three hymns (146A, sure enough, is the Watts hymn) as well as 146B with Taizé refrain. Note also the alternate Refrains 1 (traditional Muscogee Creek Indian) and 2 (Indonesian, in Phrygian mode) for interest and additional tempting musical experiences.

At South Woden Continue reading

Psalms 87, 88

Yin YangHere are a couple of very contrasting songs: one looking out happily to ‘Zion’; the other lamenting, no silver lining. Both are ‘skips’ in the Lectionary but should not be ignored — and indeed are not by those traditions that regularly sing all of the psalms within a short period of a month or so.

Psalm 87

Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God (v.2)

The psalm praises ‘Zion’, the city of Jerusalem, representing God’s presence. A psalm of global vision, disregarding tribal or national identities, it connects people of the world to this spiritual home, describing a diaspora of those who acknowledge a divine and benevolent creator spirit however named or imagined. It concludes joyously:

Singers and dancers alike say: ‘All my springs are in you’ (v. 7)

As to the music, there are few classical setting available but several more hymns including Haydn’s traditional AUSTRIAN HYMN tune starting with verse 2 quoted above. The Emergent Psalter uses the same verse. PFAS 87F is a swinging refrain picking up the idea of the Creator as source, water in the life-giving springs.

Psalm 88

This psalm is the only lament in the Psalter that includes no silver lining, no ray of hope, no statement that it will be OK.  Why not skip it? Because, like singing the blues (see post on Psalm 14), it’s a valid and comforting way to externalise distress and share individual pain.

Otis_ReddingFor other reasons not associated with the psalms, I have been thinking lately of the great American singer Otis Redding (1941-1967).  Dock of the Bay by the ‘King of Soul’ is another song of unrelieved weariness:

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun, I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes; watching the ships roll in, and then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah … watching the tide roll away, wasting time. / Looks like nothing’s gonna change; everything still remains the same / Sittin’ here resting my bones and this loneliness won’t leave me alone / It’s two thousand miles I roamed just to make this dock my home.

The words are a blues lamentation, a way of singing out your woes. The music is vaguely like the old twelve-bar blues, but has a unique and recognisable character; I loved playing it with the band. Redding was actually rich and successful by the time he wrote this song. That did not stop him empathising with many others less fortunate who could see no silver lining. And then, Redding died in an aircraft crash a few days after recording this classic. It’s hard to see a silver lining there but for the great legacy that his music lives on. Indeed, both Dock of the Bay and Psalm 87 have a timeless feeling about them, suggesting in Ps. 88 that the silver lining is out there somewhere, just not at this moment.

As with Psalm 87 above, there are few classical settings listed, save for a nice short piece by Orlando de Lassus, Domine Deus salutis meae, quoting verses 2 and 3.

Entering Taizé village

Many readers will recall with pleasure singing the Taizé chant Dans nos obscurités.

Psalm 67, 1 May 2016

May Day has relatively recently become a day for the workers. Originally it just celebrated the coming of the northern hemisphere spring, bonfires at the end of April, singing and dancing. Such revelry is somewhat akin to what we have been hearing over several recent psalms — relief from the winter of oppression and conflict, safety after threat, peace after conflict.

Street art, Prague. DancingPsalm 67 also calls for singing and dancing, maypole or not. However, there’s no lamentation here. [No maypole photos either, but I was reminded of a surprise encounter with some street art of an aerial ballet in Prague a few years ago.]

The psalmist calmly calls for blessings and praise:

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah (vv. 1-4)

This short psalm (quite reminiscent of the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:24ff) is in a mirror structure, beginning and ending with a prayer for blessing. Equity, guidance — and singing —  nestle in the middle, verse 4.

It is surrounded in the lectionary by readings from Acts, John and Revelation, almost as if it is a song of praise offered to all the people mentioned in those tales:

  • Lydia in Philippi listening to Paul
  • The disciples hearing Jesus: “Peace I leave with you”
  • A sick main at the pool in Jerusalem, hoping for and finding healing
  • People in the city of God with its river of life, no need of lamp nor sun

Music

Tallis CanonThe eye-catcher here is Tallis‘s Canon, for ‘meane, countertenor, tenor and bass’, from The Whole Psalter Translated by Archbishop Parker, 1567. Catchy because it’s a well known round All praise to thee, my God, this night — but demanding to present with full harmony.

However, as we welcome good friend Rev Vicky Cullen (members of The Gospel Folk will remember from country visits some years ago), we turn to a simpler but pretty refrain by Isaac Everett from The Emergent Psalter. Guess what? Also a round, and can be sung like an Aaronic blessing upon each other. Music download here>. The paraphrased verses are sung antiphonally by a small group (Roll up, roll up!) using the same tune.Ps67 TEP refrain

Image of Tallis’s canon: www.katapi.org.uk. Note the tune is initially in the tenor, a common contemporary practice. Image of refrain music from The Emergent Psalter by Isaac Everett.

Psalm 99, 7 Feb 2016

 

At last, Psalm 99 comes up again! This is worth waiting for.

[You scan the verses to see what the urgency is all about. You find bold words about God being enthroned … high above all peoples … proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Well this is all fine but you have heard it before many times; is it really that for which we have been impatiently waiting?]

Image: Wikimedia commonsLet us not discount these expressions of praise; they are indeed a strong thread. But for me this week, that pales in the awareness of an unobtrusive gem waiting to be noticed amongst the dazzle of the grand parade. 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:

O mighty ruler, lover of justice, you have established equity (v.4)

The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

Justice, equity.

Note the word established. Created, devised, part of the plan. Here in the psalms is a cornerstone declaration on the nature of our world and our lives, essential elements of creation that are neither heavy books of law — the illustrated manuscript is the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–35) — 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 blueprint from the outset, for the creation and for humankind. As I have written before in this blog (see for example posts on this psalm and also on Psalm 125) this is an important verse for our confidence and understanding our nature. There’s a hopeful, helpful splash of this good oil in our DNA.

Music

The settings and responses in our books celebrate the sovereignty of God proclaimed in the early verse. Let’s not sniff at that but surprisingly, few sources pick up this seminal verse 4 to create the ringing response that it deserves.

Everett’s antiphon in The emergent psalter (download full score .pdf here>) is on the money:

Ps99 TEP tune

Oh mighty God, lover of justice, it was you who created equity

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.

For another commentator, 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’. (N T Wright 2013, p141)

Our challenge is to make the vision of the psalm more real. Everett’s refrain would make a good theme song for Lent this year.