Psalm 119

Note: This post re-introduces the longest psalm, sections of which arise in the next two weeks. Subsequent posts will look more closely at sections as they appear in the Lectionary, starting with Aleph then He on the following Sunday.

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, Rice University

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, Rice University

Psalm 119 has at its heart the ‘law’, or the premises principles, and promises of God. At 176 verses, this is longest psalm — and the longest chapter in the Bible. The psalm is made up of a succession of 8-verse sections, 22 of them, each labelled acrostically with a Hebrew letter. The song is seldom sung in its entirety, save in the Orthodox tradition where it appears on the Saturday of Holy Week. Seven of these sections appear on a total of nine occasions during the three-year Lectionary cycle, sometimes two consecutively.

This extended lesson on divine law explores how it might influence the life of the follower: from the opening lines, inviting the reader or listener to follow the ways and decrees of God; through the great centrepiece of verse 105 declaring this “Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path”; to the last verse 176 suggesting that in remembering the commandments, sheep who have gone astray may be returned to the fold.

This all sounds good — but exactly what is that ‘way’? The psalm constantly refers in each verse, depending on the translation, to decrees, ways, precepts, statutes, judgements and commandments. Immediately following David’s era, the several tribal Abrahamic descendants would naturally have read this as references to the writings in the Torah, be they commandments or narrative elaborations. Later descendants may have turned to the Bible as a whole or sections of the Qur’an. Today however, an integrated view (and the word ‘integrity’ will be found elsewhere in the Psalter and these deliberations) of scriptural concepts is an asset in deciding just what constitutes ‘God’s way’, whether taken metaphorically or theologically. Just as Renaissance writers like Erasmus savoured classical philosophies and updated them by adding a healthy dash of humanism, the modern reader is inevitably influenced by graceful New Commandment principles. This is an attractive approach, at least as a common-sense check.

Each octet may inspire an appropriate musical response according to text and context. However, even if the readings are taken separately their source from that great central psalm, each section linked thematically by the importance of Godly principles, can still be acknowledged by a common refrain. Here are some of the refrains which are applied to the whole psalm or several sections.

  • PFAS 119B provides verses for four of the Lectionary selections set to an old hymn ST CRISPIN. But there are fifteen settings in PFAS. 119F similarly takes a sprinkling of verses, spoken not sung, with the refrain: “Order my steps in your word”; while those that follow (119G to M) assume the full section of the week is read. Plenty of flexibility.
  • TiS applies verse 105 (the ‘light and lamp’ mentioned above) to a pleasing refrain, while the sprinkling of verses taken from the whole psalm are sung to a double tone.
  • NCH limits the readings to RCL sections, offering a nice, short and simple refrain for all by Elaine Kirkland, 1994.
  • Everett has clearly pondered this situation. His solution in TEP is to integrate the separate sections by providing a refrain system throughout, two alternating tunes in fact. Verses are drawn from the section of the week. These refrains can be added together at the end to form a hymn in their own right — well thought out and effective.

Another person who pondered this dilemma was Isaac Watts, (1674 – 1748, a few years ahead of the life of JS Bach.) Watts was a nonconformist English theologian and logician who was also a prolific and popular writer of hymn lyrics. His solution to this smorgasbord of delights in Psalm 119 was to pull the verses apart and reassemble them thematically in a new order of sections or ‘Parts’, as he called them. Part 1 for example included verses 5, 29, 33, 35-37, 133 and 176. He also took the liberty of updating the paraphrased psalms as though the original writers had knowledge of New Testament scriptures. As mentioned above, this seems sensible for interpretation by the modern reader, but goes a step too far for faithful translation. Many composers such as Thomas Clark grasped this alternative arrangement and wrote settings for these parts, although these days the overly liberal translations and dated language argue against their use.

Amongst the classical composers of years gone by, it is interesting that Lassus wrote at least ten settings of various selected verses from Psalm 119, while but one is attributed to Tomas Luis de Victoria, and then doubtfully. Robert White also wrote four or five settings including one for the last half-dozen verses, with incipit as follows:

Appropinquet deprecatio mea / Let my complaint come before thee

Ps119 169 White incipit

Psalm 119:169, Robert White, 16th C.

Psalm 77 again, Solstice

Solstice in the south

The shortest (and longest) day has just passed (as has the Solstice reference at South Woden last Sunday — but here are a couple more ideas anyway.) It’s cold in Canberra but from now on, those dark evenings will gradually lighten.

Fire and waterPreviously at the Solstice we have picked up a common theme in the psalms of relief after stress, peace after conflict, safety after danger. In Psalm 77, sure enough, it comes up right at the start of the selection for this Sunday 26 June:

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. / I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old / I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds. (vs 10 – 12)

Note verse 11 is the one Isaac Everett uses in his refrain, as pointed out in the previous post. For the Solstice refrain used two years ago The psalm was 86, with a tune that dips to a slow low then rises to greet the spring:

However, a rework for Ps 77 is easy enough. Refitting with a selective paraphrase of the verses quoted above, it goes:

Cantor: In our troubles | we seek God || People: We meditate on | all your work re- | membering your mighty deeds.

A chord is omitted there, I see; insert G7 after the third chord Eb. A full SATB arrangement, with a parallel tone for chanted verses, is in our library.

ListenersNorthern light

The majority of followers and readers of this blog are, in fact, in the northern hemisphere,  where it’s summertime and, for the most part, the livin’ is easy.

Jorge Portuguese bass voiceIn many of the lively evening streets in Berlin last night a festive air was quite palpably abroad. The Fête de la Musique (not sure why the title is in French) was in full swing. I am told it is held on the same date each year to coincide with the summer solstice. Crowds were out late to celebrate. The recognition is not religious but clearly follows an ancient spiritual awareness in the community of our being connected to the life cycles of creation.

Duo in BerlinThe Turkish market was bustling. Musicians sang in the streets. A group of spirited young women sang on the banks of the canal, accompanied by clapping and listeners joining in familiar folk tunes. Young people in baggy tie-dye and dreads sat chatting, drinking and listening to the music and the song of the solstice spirit.

The concave tune shown above does not fit so well in this context, at least to the degree that shape matters a jot. Someone will have to rewrite to a concave rise and fall tune to suit the joy of a rising summer and the prospect of a fruitful autumn before the winter frosts. Perhaps the succeeding verses of Psalm 77 would be better:

Your way, O God, is holy. You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples (vs 14, 15)


And behind it all is the symmetry of human experience in north and south, east and west, as cycles repeat, generations follow. The creative spirit is pervasive and infectious.

Psalm 111, 16 August 2015

Psalm 111 this week is quite short but dense. It’s full of big statements such as:

Great are the deeds of God, studied by all who delight in them.

Full of honour and majesty is the work of God, whose goodness endures forever (verses 2 and 3)

A previous post on Psalm 111 focused on themes of wisdom and — another key word appearing in verse 8 — equity.

All this strong evidence is used as the basis for something of a challenge in the last verse:

The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding (v.10)


Blake’s Ancient of Days. Illustration from the British Museum.

This familiar verse can slide past unremarked by the experienced reader. It did not escape Trish’s attention. Aware that this week our children lead the service, she immediately commented on the Crystal Ball mention. How do the children read the word ‘fear’.

Few bible translations, and I looked at more than a dozen, capture the positive dimension of this claim. One even uses the word ‘dread’. The Good News Bible tries this:

The way to become wise is to honour the Lord

I bow to the weight of learned opinion here but cannot feel that that’s the end, let alone the heart, of the matter. It has the ring of the ten, rather than the two, commandments.

Does not a wiser and richer life flow from valuing and directing our lives towards sources of love — divine and human, however we discern them — in our lives, our community, our universe? This may be a little loose but, like wisdom, it shares consistency with the fruit of the spirit. It certainly counterbalances the fear and trembling impression.

Perhaps the clue is in the immediately preceding verses:

God … worked with truth and equity; and sent redemption to the people, and commanded the covenant forever; holy and awesome is the name. (vv. 8, 9)

In fact, read the whole psalm again with this point in mind; more joy than fear there.


Cherub playing lute, AugMus FbgNone of the response tunes I have seen try to paraphrase the ‘fear of God’ along the lines suggested. This is not to suggest that the older children can’t appreciate the nuances of fear, reverence and honour. They are smart. However, more positive terminology would help. Rather than sing about fear with the children it may perhaps be useful to use one of the refrains that draw on other themes. The emergent psalter, for example, is on safe ground using verse 1:

With my whole heart I thank you Lord.

This little composition is nice but may be too syncopated to use as a children’s song unrehearsed.  It’s a fine opportunity for someone to make up a nice little tune with the children on the spot, using a short text that fits the leaders’ chosen theme. [This author-cantor, regrettably, is unable to attend what will be a rich occasion with the young people.]

Psalm 111, 1 Feb 15

Bibliothèque Humaniste, SélestatWisdom is a coveted but slippery commodity, something to which we aspire but seldom feel we have achieved.

Is the getting of wisdom genetic, The Force, or Destiny? Do you need to be christened Solo?

Or does it seep in from wide reading, learning, and debate, as suggested in this alcove in the Humanist Library in Sélestat, established by Beatus Rhenanus a friend of Erasmus? (His librarians seem not to have read Proverbs 4 in which wisdom is feminine).

Erasmus, at least in his Praise of Folly, was quite dismissive of wisdom in terms of learning for knowledge superiority (vanity?). There is indeed a whole discussion on Jesus’ tendency to invert social hierarchical values.

Wisdom really kicks in, we are told in the last verse of this full-on psalm (text here >), only with full recognition of the divine order:

The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding (verse 10)

The preparation for this announcement is a strong statement in the psalm of belief in divine goodness and protection, based on the evidence of majesty and splendour all around – the creation, its bounty and the rightness of the commandments (vv. 3-6).

Physical evidence is only part of it. The psalmist points out that one of the works of God’s hands is faithfulness. So Thomas O Chisholm was inspired to write:

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above join with all nature in unspoken witness to your great faithfulness, mercy and love. (TiS 154 v.2, based on Lamentations 3)

Justice and equity leap out of many psalmsThe psalmist then moves on to some more demanding precepts: justice and equity. These concepts come around time and time again in the psalms. They certainly catch this author’s attention and act as a reminder of just how far we have yet to go.


A drop of Mozart (Confitebor tibi) would go down well but I think it’s the orchestra’s day off.

Back in the ‘red book’, in TiS 68 we find another Jane Marshall refrain that would suffice, together with one of those four-line tones we described, and the men sang, last week.

Other alternatives abound as usual in Psalms for all seasons. (Reminder to singers: draw out your shiny new copy of PFAS from Lib the Librarian.)

However, a simple refrain emphasising divine wisdom that we have sung previously is our bread this week:Ps111 response


We welcome again our visiting friend and ministry partner Jean, whose leadership we value.

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Psalm 139, 18 Jan 2015

IMG_2316 TanglesComplexity of situations, relationships or internal feelings can sometimes create such a tangled web that we are ensnared and immobilised. It would be easier if someone would just sweep in and ditch the unimportant things, whatever they are, and say: “Well, clearly, this is what you should be doing!”

In such times, Psalm 139 has much to say, acknowledging from the outset our essential transparency:

O God, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. (verses 1-3)

Attitude and Altitude

Complex patternsThe spotlight of divine wisdom, if we can find the switch, helps us see through the tangles of our own or others’ making. How that can happen is a personal matter that no set of rules, certainly not a psalm blog, can describe or prescribe.

Attempting to align our frame of reference, our moral compass or our ethical sensibilities with divine wisdom, the creative spirit of verses 13 to 16 quoted below, is surely a good start.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8, 9)

Easier said than done, of course, but hope springs eternal. This is not formally a ‘psalm of ascent’ but that broad sweeping idea of dreaming on a higher plane is certainly present in stirring language typical of psalm poetry. Our selection (verses 1-6, 13-18) straddles but misses this:

Where can I go from your spirit? … If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (verses 8-10)

… and Alternative Angles

What is not missed out, however, is the imagery of intimacy — pre-natal transparency, ultrasound plus. It’s at once captivating and unsettling:

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret … (vv. 13-15)

Incredible, even allowing for doubts about the original textual meaning and interpretation from various sources. This would have been an appropriate song for the gentle leadership of some of our young women and mothers but circumstances, mostly joyful, have intervened.

The concluding lines draw on this transparency and seek that ‘righteousness’ that’s at the heart of Psalm 1 and also here:

Search me, O God, and know my heart … lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139:23, 24)

Sacred music, BnFFor even more alternative angles on this rich psalm, see also the post on 20 July 2014.


We respond to the verses and in a very short, transparent response from the New century hymnal by Jane Marshall:

Search me O God and know my heart.

All singers welcome as usual, please join in. Short rehearsal Sunday morning. 

*  *  *

Final image: from 6-part music in Recueil de plusieurs messes, Psaumes, motets, Te Deum & c.a.  MS dated 1630-1682, Bibliotèque Nationale de France

Psalm 105, 21 Sep 14

What, Psalm 105 again? Yes, here we are again, or still, telling the story of the exodus and the legendary events along the way — the Red Sea, water from the rock, moments of trust or lack of, complaints and joyful moments, highs and lows. There are many angles to explore.

Swiss kidsBy telling and repeating, singing the familiar tunes and lyrics, people learned their history, culture, lessons from tales of the past and, osmotically perhaps, values.

A Swiss story

That ancient exodus journey doubtless looked and felt more chaotic and uncertain than the little group of Swiss kids depicted here, going on one of their regular outings to the nearby woods with their equipment and supplies.

The idea here is not to re-imagine a group on excursion or exodus, but to draw attention to the oral tradition through this snapshot of early learning practice in Switzerland. These children at Kindergarten level will spend much of their time on social and group activities, projects like lantern festivals and group meals, and — importantly for psalm singers — singing and storytelling.

Horgenberg farmHere, they are going off for the day to identify trees or birds, safely build a fire to make tea, perhaps visit a local farm and enjoy group stories and singing.

Australian children have excellent opportunities and experiences too, as Bette and others are fully aware. However, we do tend to regard literacy and numeracy as an important early goal and even measure of progress. The Swiss pay little heed to the 3 Rs until much later; they will not turn seriously to these formalities until these little lovelies enter primary grades at age 7. By that time, they know what it is to be Swiss.


So while we might be tempted to think that Psalm 105, with or without Lassus, has had more than its fair share of air, we are reminded of the value of singing our stories in different ways and on different occasions. Given that the psalm occupies but three minutes once a week, you’d hardly say it’s reached saturation level.

A light to our path

A light to our path

Repetition and reflection are important, particularly as our children absorb psalm verses and tunes that will hopefully return and warm their hearts throughout their lives, a lamp to their feet and a light to their path. (Psalm 119:105)

By chewing these poems over and making them our own, as Psalm 119 also suggests for example in verse 104, we absorb laudable values.


With some Lassus singers away, we will not repeat Cofitemini, although the associated home-grown response and Gregorian chant that we have been using for this psalm would work well. The relevant refrain from The Emergent Psalter may be a little long, while TiS 66 and PFAS options such as 105B might also suit.

Farm Wädenswil

Psalm 17, 3 Aug 14

Wet cobbles at night, WeimarPsalm 17 (click here for the text) this week looks like a continuation of recent lectionary readings. David, for it is attributed to him, asks for purity and protection.

Having heard recently from Psalm 119:105 about the lamp to the feet and the light for the path, David runs up a variation on the theme :

My footsteps hold fast to the ways of your law; in your paths my feet shall not stumble. (v.5)

A warm climax in the middle of the psalm is a sense of being cherished. It’s not just a dramatic hand-wringing for security from all sorts nasties — wicked enemies, the wealthy and greedy, even lions and such marauders get a mention. It’s much more personal and rich:

Apple of your eyeKeep me as the apple of your eye;

hide me under the shadow of your wings (v.8)

By the way, Proverbs 7:2 links these two verses and asks us to keep God’s word as the apple of our eye.


Three things caught my eye about Isaac Everett’s refrain in The emergent psalter.

  • First, he chose to use the phrases ‘apple of your eye’ and ‘shadow of your wings’; these are just the sort of classic expressions that make the poetry of the psalms so meaningful, so memorable.
  • Secondly, I liked the structure of this little composition. Based on a very simple two-chord structure, the tune, like the One Note Samba, is all on one note. It’s backed by a second voice part which is just as plain but introduces a tiny element of cadence. The first voice singing C is higher than I usually set for a congregational response; it is Sunday morning after all.  Lower voices can sing the second part.
  • Then thirdly, after the first phrase there’s an instrumental filler. It’s a family worship Sunday so I could imagine children having fun here with recorders and percussion.*

So I jumped at this option — then discovered that the lectionary reading desists at verse 7, one stop short of those golden phrases. Bah! We’re still doing it. Free gift, gratis, for nothing, y compris. Anyway, I just had to add in verse 8 to round it up to 4+4.

Statue at Sans Souci palace, Potsdam DEWomen singers will lead this week, adding a home-grown tune for the verses with guitar, paraphrased to be more accessible for young participants in a family service.

Children are invited to bring a recorder or other instrument to contribute that instrumental section — making a joyful noise. We shall have a practice at 4pm Saturday. I wonder if they have come across those golden phrases and learned to cherish them yet?

Coming up next week, 10 August: Lassus à 5. Can’t wait. Sell tickets now!

* OK there’s a fourth reason but it’s for the musos.

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