This song arises on the first Sunday in Lent (in Year B). The reader will find no sack-cloth and ashes, lamentation or the parched airs of the wilderness. Of course, the psalmist was writing long before church administrations established traditions such as Lent. However, someone chose to pop this poem into the Lectionary in this seasonal context. The first ten verses are chock full of inspiration, trust, love and guidance. True, it’s not a loud acclamation of thanks and praise like many psalms, but it’s still a thoughtful and uplifting way to start Lent.
The poet gets to darker feelings in the second half of the song, essentially a personal lament, but this section never comes up in the Lectionary in any year. Nevertheless do not miss the last two verses, reminding the reader that integrity, justice and deliverance are part of the plan for God’s people.
For further description of this psalm and a summary of some music recommendations, please refer to a post in November 2015. The coincident beginning of the Lenten season may influence some leaders towards the more sedate end of the spectrum.
For the people’s response, a fresh tune to be introduced at South Woden uses the powerful theme of verses 4 and 5: “Show me your ways, teach me your paths, guide in truth all day long”, a suitable prayer for the Lenten season:
Both this refrain and the verses, set to a different but similar and compatible tune, are based on the simple descending chords of D min, CΔ, Bb, A7. The arrangement for four voices can be reflective or swing along happily in its 6/4 time. Variation is introduced by having voices 1 and 2 in double time feel (3+3=6) while the supporting Voices 3 and 4 are in triple (2+2+2=6). No voice recording available but the electric version — which unfortunately cannot bring out this play the way human voices can — sounds like this:
‘The statutes of God are just and rejoice the heart’ (6)
Psalm 19 declares the glory of the divine as seen in the creation. It smoothly progresses to how this declares the presence and influence of the creator, specifically the theme of the similarly-numbered Psalm 119, the importance of divine guidance to humankind — the ‘law’, to those who are so influenced, and our own ability to turn a blind eye to our faults. It concludes with that prayer heard so often:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (14)
The very first verse challenges our spiritual framework: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The question of whether the wonders of creation do or do not prove the existence of an omnipotent Creator and intelligent design will always be debated. The psalmist is definitely in the ‘do’ team, the theme appearing strongly in many other psalms (8, 24 and 104 just for starters). Tom Wright says:
Our modern Western world-views have made it seriously difficult to hear Psalm 19.1-2 as anything but a pretty fantasy.1
He refers primarily to the age of materialism and science. Things like gauge theory and the breaking of electro-weak symmetry are daunting — definitely not ‘pretty fantasy’. However, leaving aside the heavy mathematics and hyperreality, the last century of unravelling the scientific clues to the universe has been a fascinating journey. Yet in poetry and spirit, a scientific mind can still find it easy, on a clear night under the stars, to go with the psalmist’s opening declaration about the heavens — provided you are no post-modern anti-foundationalist or similar.
So Psalm 19 starts in an affirmative frame of mind. Then, we read more phrases that resonate in our experience and memories. Anyone who has sung Handel’s The Messiah will certainly recognise ‘Their sound is gone out’ and have the tune of that chorus in mind (an exciting sing — even if it sometimes feels a little like practising your scales and arpeggios.) From verse 7 on we are reminded by this ‘Psalm of David’ how valuable in the search for an upright yet humble life is the divine guidance in the word, which is More to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (10)
These references to God’s law and commands might be taken as a nod to the ten commandments. However, in the light of all the subsequent guidance and New Testament teaching on love, that’s like harking back to the technology of the phonograph or to black and white silent movies. The spiritual framework has moved from a few rules on tablets of stone to a river of gracious wisdom.
The winner for complexity probably goes to Hans Leo Hassler (1564 – 1612) in the late Renaissance, a German composer and organist who learned the polychoral style during his studies in Venice, and brought it back to influence German music. He knocked out an arrangement of the first five verses for 13 parts in three choirs entitled Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei.
Thirteen voice parts may not be unlucky but it’s certainly unusual. There are plenty of 8 to 12 part pieces around; a lovely one by Hassler contemporary Tomás Victoria comes to mind. These are nowhere as ambitious as the earlier Thomas Tallis work Spem in alium for 40 parts.2 But really, Mr Hassler, prime number 13? Ah! — there are five voices in choir II. In all these pieces the choirs or quartet/quintets often leave each other a fair bit of space, stay silent to listen or answer from time to time before joining for a homophonic finale. Silence is an important part of music.
In contrast, the slightly earlier (c. 1560) Psalm XIX from the Genevan Psalter was in the spare Calvinist tradition, sung as a monophonic tune unaccompanied.
An all-Australian version of the psalm, albeit in hymn format, is found in TiS 166, Sing a new song, by Richard Connolly (1927-). Connolly was also the composer of the well-known ABC Play School theme, There’s A Bear in There. In our regular sources:
Songs no. 7 and 8 in TiS refer to this psalm, although neither covers the full lectionary reading.
Isaac Everett draws on verse 1 in an easy, singable refrain. As usual, he assumes the verses will be spoken rather than sung to a background vamp.
PFAS presents a whole six options; 19C is responsorial, introducing the viewpoint that creation and the word ‘show the way to the kingdom of light’. The 19E refrain emphasises the concluding prayer (verse 14) quoted at the beginning of this section. It is also a reminder that:
A good reggae version of ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ picks up another much-quoted verse (the last): ‘Let the words of my mouth…’ Children will enjoy this little chorus and perhaps even remember it. This song sits equally well with Psalm 137, from which the main verses and title are taken.
‘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)
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.
Here is one of those confusing points of discontinuity between the numbering of the Latin Vulgate Psalter and the modern western translations. 114 and 115 were combined into what is now 116 in our Psalter.
This explains why some Ps 116 settings over the years are listed as quoting from Psalms 114 and 115. The incipit Credidi in a setting by the Spanish composer Victoria, for example, appears as Psalm 115:1 in the Vulgate:
“Credidi, propter quod locutus sum; ego autem humiliatus sum nimis / I believed, and therefore will I speak; but I was sore troubled.”
This is a nice four-part arrangement of odd verses only, and thus identifiable as a vespers psalm, amongst other uses. This verse now appears in the English Bible as Psalm 116:10, not even an odd verse. Cope.
Like Psalm 30 and others, Psalm 116 is a paean of thanks for deliverance from the power of darkness and, in particular in this psalm depending on the translation, the hold, anguish or entangling cords of the grave. So the psalmist resolves to walk in the divine presence in the land of the living (v.9) – a fine suggestion. The second half of the psalm is an act of dedication, so strongly felt that the psalmist’s declarations of trust and invocation are to be made ‘in the presence of all God’s people’.
Besides this tempting piece from Victoria, those by Lassus and Monteverdi are identified with the same incipit Credidi. Such numbering disparities appear in the lists of other classical arrangements.
… but Nice Notes
Paschal de l’Estocart (about 1538 – 1587) a French Renaissance composer from Noyon, who was considered to be quite an innovator, wrote a set of all 150 psalm settings including this one, J’aime mon Dieu, (Delixi quoniam which is Vulgate 114:1) from 1583. The melody is in the tenor, falsobordone style. The transcription bears the sub-heading: “Mis en musique pour quatre, cinq, six, sept et huit parties par Paschal de l’Estocart, de Noyon en Picardie.” His Psalm CXVI is for five voices.
Modern sources also call on different verses for the antiphon. As usual, the choice of medium will be influenced by the message:
The five entries in PFAS, two being responsorial, are marked by simplicity, perhaps too much if measured purely on the musical scale — which of course is not the main game. So 116D offers eight notes for eight words: “I love the Lord who heard my cry.” (v. 1) An alternate refrain is alike in brevity: “I will walk in the presence of God“, quoting verse 9. Verses are sung to a tone.
The next choice, 116E, uses that alternate refrain of 116D with a melody (again simple) for verses added.
NCH uses the final phrase of verse 1, “I will call on God as long as I live“, in a refrain with a little more interest — a swing feel, the chords alternating between Bb and Ab, and an echo voice.
Everett’s refrain in TEP is predictably more syncopated. He goes for verse 8, focused on deliverance and guidance. (He notes that it was sung “over a heavy trip hop beat”, whatever that is.)
TiS71 avoids the prosaic by providing a double tone for the verses, and two refrains. These are drawn from verses 9 quoted above, and 12: “How can I repay?“
And finally, a home-grown chant uses verse 1. It features the verses sung on a single note, against a falling bass line and some relatively unusual chords in the world of psalm settings. Verses have been paraphrased to sit more comfortably in this double-tone type of arrangement. Two cantors may sing a half of each verse antiphonally. No ornamentation is shown here but may be used in moderation in accordance with the cantors’ inspiration, or perhaps to subtly reinforce the chords changes moving around underneath. ‘Superficial simplicity’:
Such a wide choice allows for a refrain and style suitable to most occasions, whatever the dominant themes.
The alternate reading in the Lectionary is Psalm 100. For one example of what has been done at South Woden in the past, please see the blog for 23 Nov 14.
Light rises in darkness when justice rules our lives.
During a yacht delivery through the Barrier Reef a while ago, an overnight anchored in a remote cove was a welcome break. A refreshing sleep rocked by the movements of the boat in wind, wave and tide was a perfect precursor to a pre-dawn start. With anchor a-weigh, still dripping salt water and sand, the early light of dawn crept over the outcrops of the uninhabited island that was our silent but comforting host for the night. In such a tale, light and darkness are equally appreciated, necessary and used to advantage. No moral values either negative or positive are attributed.
When metaphorical dimensions arise in literature, darkness usually comes off worst by a country mile. Light is good, dark is evil. So it appears in Psalm 112 at first glance: but the implied moral values are by no means black and white. Light is valued in verse 4 but darkness is not necessarily bad, just limiting. There’s a time to sleep, and a time to pull up anchor. Illumination, as in Psalm 119:105, seems here to be a lamp to the feet and a light to the path of those who seek goodness, day or night. Translations differ. The New International Version is attractive:
Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.
The paraphrase used as antiphon for a setting of Psalm 112 in Together in Song 69 is: “Light rises in darkness when justice rules our lives.” Strongly in its favour is the direct link to justice, a word wielding much more force in a modern context than the jargon of ‘righteousness’. The music for the opening phrase of the response rises step by step, like the sun rising from behind those dark outcrops, preparing for the final call later in the psalm to a life of justice and faith. The verses may be sung freely to the tone in the hymn book, perhaps with guitar accompaniment. A nice variation is to use the tune of the refrain as a tone, varying the pointing as desired.
Using the first line of verse 1, the refrains in both NCH and TEP say: “Happy are those who fear God”. (See remarks on ‘fear’ in the comments on the previous psalm, 111.) PFAS 112B skips fear and selects the second idea, that ‘those who delight in the law of God’ are happy. And while referring back to 111, the comment made there regarding Victoria’s vesper psalms could be repeated verbatim for this psalm, save for the title Beatus vir qui timetDominum.
Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord: he hath great delight in his commandments. (v.1, BCP)