Psalm 126, 13 March 2016

Sower with setting sun, Van Gogh 1888. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands.

Sower with setting sun (detail), Van Gogh 1888. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands.

Psalm 126, a song of ascent, contains one of the great scriptural narratives. The sower goes out with seed, responding to the ever-changing seasons, renewing a livelihood. It’s not easy. Drought comes — or floods, birds and animals. Weeds grow to choke the good seed. However:

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. (vv 5, 6)

Jesus memorably used this in one of his powerful parables (Mark 4). In a wider sense it is a metaphor for the renewal of a decidedly mixed human existence where yin and yang are evident at every turn, tears and joy never far away.

Both enter the poem from the outset, recalling the sorrows of a people in exile and their relieved delight at being restored to the freedom and familiarity of home. Essentially, it’s a song of hope. (See an earlier post for some other angles.)


The default choice for South Woden, partly because it’s sitting waiting there in the files, is our (somewhat liberal) arrangement of an Orthodox chant borrowed from the Slavonian liturgy as interpreted by the monks of Chevetogne.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 9.40.However there are good songs in PFAS and other sources. Some interesting settings hide in IMSLP such as the Jean-Philippe Rameau motet shown here, as well as pieces by more obscure composers rejoicing under names like Asola, Converse and Matho.

A while ago I got excited by the congruence of the availability of the male voice quartet and the listing of a Vesper Ps 126 by Tomás Luis Victoria. But the title, Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum (‘Except the Lord build the house’), does not match; it’s 126 in the Vulgate numbering. So it’s now salted away in our Ps 127 file awaiting its glorious moment.

In the year 1800, one Oliver Holden (1765-1844) wrote a tune for Psalm 126, a respectable little hymn, but not antiphonal so not high on our list. It is mentioned here to record the author’s name as one of the more prolific composers of psalms in the United States. He is credited with publishing around 70 psalm tunes in that one year alone, and many more.

The gentlemen’s quartet will present the Orthodox style chant. The refrain is: “And our hearts are filled with joy”.

We shall also repeat as an accessional reflection the anthem Thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts, by Henry Purcell (1659-95).

Song of songs, 6 July 14

Quilt detail VFIn place of the set psalm this week, we find a reading of that lovely poetry of The Song of songs, or of Solomon.  It’s a small emotional poem of love and devotion:

Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the young women

Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men. (Song 2:1)

On Sunday we will only hear half a dozen verses of chapter 2, not including those quoted above, so it’s worth reading the Song in full. We do hear some warmly familiar ideas (and, even though we are not quite up to spring yet, appropriate themes after our mid-winter solstice):

Now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.

Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

FigsCenturies of Christian theologians have drawn allegorical parallels to the relationship between Christ and the church, God and the people. A search of our hymn book Together in Song for songs based on this scripture draws only two references, including 223 How sweet the name of Jesus sounds. So it’s a good thought and worthy of reflection. (And if it is allegorical, then one of the considerations for exegesis must surely be that element of equality and dialogue that is evident between the partners?)

VIne flowersThis well-worn interpretation, however, is not strongly supported by the text itself and can thus seem a little theoretical. This does not invalidate the vision and the inspiraton that might follow: but on the other hand, the overt celebration of human love is much more direct, imminently resonant, part of our creation.

Either way, it’s cause for rejoicing.


There are some lovely settings of this lovely poetry around. It really calls for an approach that is more romantic than rock, more glad than trad, and — at the risk of pushing it — more emo than frozo.

We hear one of our young couples render a comely duet by Laura Farnell, Arise my love. Having no congregational refrain, the song is not actively responsive; but the force and beauty of the poetry, the power of love both human and divine, will inevitably evoke their own response.