Psalm 50, 11 Feb ’18

Psalm 50 by Asaph is quite long. Three sections broadly cover (i) the greatness and justice of God, (ii) the doubtful value of sacrifices and superficial or procedural worship, and (iii) a heavy admonishment to the ‘wicked’.

The lectionary reading covers the first half-dozen verses only. It boils down (though psalms should never be boiled down) to a vibrant description of divine eminence, power and identification with the people. The link to the week’s theme of the Transfiguration, while quite direct in the associated 2 Kings selection, is more oblique and atmospheric in the psalm.

Many early settings of the psalm, following 17th and early 18th century translations such as that by Isaac Watts, tend to emphasise the fearful, thunderous and judgmental nature of God. The opening section certainly includes ‘consuming fire’ and ‘raging storms’ associated with the imagery of the transfiguration and the power of the divine seat, depending on your translation. However, the concluding verses (5, 6) speak more gently of gathering the faithful before a God who is the source of rightness and justice.

For more on this theme, see an earlier post for Feb 2015.


That earlier post also outlines just a few of the musical options, including the preferred choice Psalms for All Seasons 50B or 50 C. A little recent history: the cantors’ song sheet in our library says: “PFAS 50B, SW male voices 11 August 2013; mixed voices, 15 Feb 15.”

TiS 30 also covers the required territory. Most of the settings on CPDL online are SATBs of dated translations such as the Watts text mentioned above. The music, like the Haydn piece that follows, is usually more pleasing:

Psalm 50 for three voices, incipit by Josef Haydn

Continue reading “Psalm 50, 11 Feb ’18”

Psalm 29, 10 Jan 16

What you see is what you get in this simple song of praise and awe. The poem is all about divine creativity, influence and majesty, poetically characterised as the voice of God.FIRE_01

The voice

That high-octane voice is declared to be in thunder, in the breaking down of cedars and shaking of lands; we hear of fire, flood and awesome power; and in the end, there is a moment of peace, the still small voice of calm, as the singer prays:

May God give strength to the people and bless them with peace! (verse 11)

Many questions, some of them discussed previously, surround the reality or otherwise of a divine voice in the world today, and how we might perceive such a presence. This psalm sets epistemological issues aside and confidently points to some of the evidence for divine action.


Several good tuneful approaches are readily available to make this relatively simple song come alive and fire the imagination of singer and listener alike. Not surprisingly, the verse quoted above is a favourite choice for the antiphon in many settings.

This psalm has been sung in January over several recent years at South Woden, choosing from:

  • The simple Taizé chant Dona nobis pacem cordium (also in TiS 713 with different verses and a change of the final word from Dominum); the verses have been moulded into the same chant tune and can be sung against the ostinato of the refrain.
  • TiS 17, covering most of the verses, is a Christopher Willcock setting of refrain and verse.
  • Psalms for all seasons 29D; the main and alternate refrains, drawing on different verses, are both attractive.
  • Available but not used so far is a short one from New century hymnal. It is an even simpler tune that might be somewhat  flavourless without the good supporting chord changes.

Entering Taizé village

A paucity of classical settings over the centuries may be due to the repetitive simplicity of the poem, although the various resonant phrases —  fire, forest, flood and the like —  would offer a composer the opportunity for dramatic imagery in music. Either way, it’s a poem that really needs to be sung.

*(More from Thomas…) Continue reading “Psalm 29, 10 Jan 16”

Psalm 29, 11 Jan 2015

ImageVoices are distinctive. When you hear a familiar voice from someone out of sight, you automatically recognise and identify. You don’t need to analyse the pattern of frequencies, the combination of harmonics, or the different degrees of resonance. The subconscious sifts.

The psalms, poetic and mystical though they may be, are full of voices. The fact that we do not always immediately identify them may be something to do with familiarity but it’s also because they are indeed poetical and mystical, not physical.

Take the voice of the divine power. In the business of daily life we seldom pull up short and say: ‘That’s a heavenly voice speaking.’

Psalm 29 says the voice of God:

  • is over the waters
  • powerful
  • full of majesty
  • breaks the cedars of Lebanon
  • flashes forth flames of fire
  • shakes the wilderness
  • causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare;

How much of that would we instantly recognise as not just the weather or global warming? Those who have suffered severe losses in recent bushfires raging in South Australia and Victoria may find it hard to hear a voice of comfort and strength from that source. It may come from that or another direction. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them.

John Greenleaf Whittier‘s prayer was: “Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm!”

We need to listen, of course. But the psalmist seeks more than just hearing: the final verse of Psalm 29 is a prayer:

May God give strength to his people! May God bless his people with peace!

A prayer for peace, graffiti on the Berlin Wall
A prayer for peace, graffiti on the Berlin Wall

Psalm 66, 25 May 14

This psalm is a cry of joy for divine guidance and deliverance.

Come and hear, you who fear our maker, as I tell how God rescued my soul

I cried to God and was answered; God’s praise is ever on my lips (vv. 8, 9)

Fire and water
Fire and water may look enthralling – until you are in the middle of it

The psalmist feels that he has been pulled through the briar bush backwards, expressing that experience somewhat more elegantly as being ‘tried as silver is tried’, rescued and refined.

In another image we have encountered previously, he feels downtrodden and ‘went through fire and water‘ (v. 12 – and two of the elemental foundations of our existence as seen by Aristotle) probably not as peaceful an experience as the illustration of the sun sinking quietly into the majestic Indian Ocean. And after that ordeal, God led him to ‘a spacious place’ (NRSV).

This is an enticing phrase – we relish somehow the idea of entering a spacious place. Architects live and breathe this idea, not because they are architects but because people feel comfortable and open in such a space. Other translations say ‘a place of refreshment’.IMG_1633.JPG

And for an off-the-wall take on Psalm 66 from Australian theologian Ben Myers in his #psalmtweet summaries of the Bible:

The water lifted itself up in a heap and gave a bow, and all Your people marched across on dry land


Music to suit this poem could be from a thousand angles. One source suggests songs as widely spread as ‘O little town of Bethlehem‘ and ‘All hail the power‘. Hmm; I’m still looking for good connections on those.

Image: Wiki commons

Far more cogently, Isaac Everett as usual in The Emergent Psalter has fresh ideas. He firstly invites us to sing one of his characteristically syncopated swings about the fire and water experience – an attractive option. Then another off-the-wall idea with Buffy the vampire slayer’s Walk through the fire.

Opting for familiarity and the residual glow of post-Easter rejoicing, the chosen antiphonal response is from PFAS 66A by Stephen Warner, which we sang in October 2013 but to a different selection of verses:

Cry out to God in joy all the earth, give glory to the name of the Lord.

Simplicity has its own power, and this is manifested in this response by overlaying a simple tune over alternating chords of F major and Eb major. The tune for the verses expands on this slightly.

Adding a little more fuel to the fire, it’s the last Sunday of the month so our male voice group, whom I thank warmly, will lead this psalm.