Psalm 111 is a song of praise in honour of the creative divine spirit whose very nature and deeds are awash in high standards of justice and goodness, “wrought in truth and equity”.(8)
These important attributes — standing out like sustaining pillars throughout the Psalter and thus much remarked upon in this blog, much desired in a selfish materialistic world — flow on to the ‘works’ or evidence on earth of divine influence. Bring it on; the pressing need for love and justice is patently obvious.
Introit verse 1 in Psalm 111, Salmos de Vísperas by Tomàs Luis di Victoria, c 1600. “I will give thanks to you Lord with my whole heart.”
A final verse notes that reverence to this divine nature is ‘the beginning of wisdom’. Most translations say ‘the fear of God’, which seems to this author to be a rather inadequate rendition of the honour and loving respect due to revealed divine principles and their source, as the psalmist would have intended. Either way, this final verse seems to set up the transition to the next Psalm 112, which starts: “Happy are those who fear God, who delight in the commandments.”
Early composers such as Claudio Monteverdi, Wolfgang Mozart, Heinrich Schütz and Tomas Victoria all wrote several settings to this psalm, probably because this is one of the vespers psalms. (The introit shown above is from Victoria’s setting for odd verses. The previous psalm, 110, was included in Monteverdi’s famous Vespers of 1610; illustration at right>)
In modern sources:
A useful refrain by Jane Marshall, with a double tone for the verses, appears in Together in Song 68.
That in The Emergent Psalter is probably a little tricky for congregations to pick up on the fly.
Marty Haugen’s relatively simple refrain in The New Century Hymnal draws on verse 2: ‘Great are the works of God’.
A local adaptation of Haugen’s composition has been retrofitted with new words for the wisdom theme: ‘To honour God is the beginning of wisdom.’ Was it a little wimpy to avoid ‘the fear’?
‘O mighty ruler, lover of justice, you have established equity.’ (v. 4)
At last, Psalm 99! This is worth waiting for. The verse quoted above with its key words of ‘justice’ and ‘equity’ is one of the most vital and important statements in the Psalter. It says that justice and equity are pillars of creation, a fundamental element of the blueprint. This unobtrusive gem of a verse is just 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 that God is holy, just and righteous (3), leading to the cited explication: “Justice, equity!” (4)
Unlike rulers of earthly nations, who not infrequently display nepotism, favouritism, vengeance, inconsistency or just plain selfish evil in their ruling, here the psalmist imagines a set of standards for human equality for rich and poor, for high-born and low, for female and male. 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 Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)
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, an essential element of creation that is not hidden in heavy books of law nor remote and unachievable humanist theories.
Sure it’s hard to be triumphal about the inequities 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. We have a responsibility to both. The implication is that we are not fighting a losing battle, that spiritual support and delight are not far away. Isaac 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:
All rather faint. When this song offers that gem of verse 4, surely it must be the centrepiece? Isaac Everett, whose comments have been quoted above, is on the money with his antiphon in The Emergent Psalter. He uses the now-glowing verse quoted at the outset. His tune and chords roll nicely around B minor then D major and related progressions; but as usual for him, verses are spoken.3
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 to be celebrated on 22 October 2017 at Pearce in the Australian Capital Territory, a new setting has been 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.
‘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.
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 (5, 6)
Then (12-16) come reminders of the wonderful escape through the Red Sea, the guiding pillar of cloud and fire, and the water from the rock. Imagery is a powerful aspect in the psalms. Scientists have offered various explanations on the Red Sea’s behaviour under Moses’ rod, such as local wind conditions altering the tides in the shallows so that sandbanks were revealed. The psalmist sniffs at that and, whether realistically or impressionistically, writes with bold hand:
God split open the sea and let them pass through; the waters stood up like walls. (18)
Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd
The image of water gushing from rock in a desert land certainly captures the attention of dwellers in the great dry south land. The outcome was superb, sings the psalmist. However, stories of folly and failure deserve to be told just as much as the heroic or the parable.
I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known; we will not hide them (2-4)
The associated Exodus 17 reading gives the full unedifying detail of Moses and the rock, including the complaints and Moses’ entreaty for guidance when the people were ‘almost ready to stone me’. It looked very much as though the wheels were falling off and there was no Plan B; just follow some sort of woolly pile of cloud and do what that old unelected leader with a walking stick said. Like being surrounded by alligators in the swamp, when you are parched in the desert it’s hard to focus on the good times, the miracle of the plagues and the Passover, the sea parting and the fall of the pursuing horse and rider. This is not intended to encourage blind faith or recklessness. We are responsible for ourselves after all, bearing our own and one another’s burdens.1 A little planning is not a bad thing but the psalm reminds us to draw faith and guidance from absorbed biblical values.
As to these ‘dark sayings’ (‘hard sentences’ in the BCP), previous posts (September 2014 and November 2014) have commented on tales like the the folly of the Berlin Wall. Few sections of this wall are still extant, most having been reinstated years after being unceremoniously pulled down. Meanwhile, however, walls are still seen by some as solutions to inequity in places like Palestine and Mexico.
This song arises twice in the Lectionary within weeks, but that only every three years. Here are some suggested refrains, mainly drawing from verses 1 to 4 of Psalm 78:
Give your ears to the lessons of the past (Everett)
We shall listen (TiS 41). [At SWUC, assured of an interesting and encouraging time together under Roger’s capable leadership, the full gathering will sing this song antiphonally.]
God has spoken (TiS 636 traditional Hasidic or PFAS 78c)
Forget not the works (NCH)
Linnea Good proposes this response: “Stay awake with me, listen carefully.”
Just as historical narrative is a central theme in the psalms, so this psalm is pretty much in the middle of the Psalter, which is surely just one big river of stories, tales, and reflections on the flow of history of people seeking divine blessing.
How good and how pleasant it is when kindred live together in harmony. That’s it, folks; the message of this psalm in a nutshell — or as an immigrant friend used to say unawares: “… in a nutcase.” Like most of the psalms of ascent, it’s short and sweet. There are a couple of images thrown in to help us savour the psalmist’s case — and they are typical of the psalms, images that stir your imagination, make you think:
Fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard, upon the collars of Aaron’s robe. The pristine state of the high priest’s fine robes just don’t count against the value of a holy blessing.
The dew of Hermon flowing down upon the hills of Zion. Familial harmony is a blessing spreading gently down from the snowy heights upon the villages and streets of everyday dwellings in the foothills.
The scene gets more complex if, like Jesus, you open the question of who is kin, who is your brother or sister? (Matthew 12:49-50) Do you have to be Tutsi, Jewish, Sunni, Russian, Protestant … ? However we define the tribe and non-discrimination, we have a long way to go in establishing habits of equity. In the original historical setting, the references to the hills of Hermon in the north and Zion in the south (verse 3) suggest this is a prayer for national unity. Fine, but nationalism unchecked is also a danger to peace. The psalms taken together suggest that it is only in seeking the rule of divine principles, love and justice that we start to see others in a clear light.
Psalm 133 in the Vespasian Psalter; British Library, Cotton MS Vesp A1.
A beautiful old Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the British Library from the 8th Century, shown above, records the psalms in Latin in an insular uncial script (capital letters) in common use around 700 CE. Easily seen, the initial capital begins the word Ecce, ‘Behold’. The text line in dark red gives the psalm number (132 in the Vulgate system) and the descriptor ‘Song of ascents’ (canticum graduum). This text then follows:
Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity. (V.1, BCP)
The British Library description goes on to reveal in matter-of-fact tone some quite impressive information:
The text is the earliest surviving example of St Jerome’s first translation of the Psalms (the Roman version), first written c. 384. It was copied during the second quarter of the 8th century.
A close examination reveals some smaller writing in a brown ink between the lines. BL continues:
An Old English gloss was added around the second quarter of the 9th century by the Royal Bible Master Scribe, whose hand appears in other manuscripts owned by or made at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. This gloss is the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text.
This manuscript reaches right back to earliest steps on the path taken by the psalms in reaching out to readers and singers across the world. What paths did the psalms trace in finding their way into hundreds of other languages and cultures? This universality of life experience inspires the search for cultural sampling in our music. An interesting mix of styles can be found for Psalm 133, ranging from a William Byrd’s Ecce quam bonum to Samuel Wesley’s Behold how good it is, for male voices in three parts. Many of them present just verse 1. (Together in Song skips Psalm 132 to 135 altogether.) However, in the interests of variety and a good sing, a fine modern choice for this psalm might be a Spanish setting in PFAS 133D:
¡Miren qué buono, qué buono es! / Oh, look in wonder how good it is!
Psalm 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
All 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.
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.
For 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.
An 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:
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)
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,
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.