Psalm 121, 12 March 2017

Mt Taylor

I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. (v.1)

Or so went this familiar line from Psalm 121 in that old dusty King James version on the top shelf somewhere. This is the second of the songs of ascent (120 to 134). Originating perhaps as pilgrimage songs, the psalms of ascent depict the journey figuratively, a rising access to a higher plane. This rising ground is reminiscent of Psalm 15: “Who may abide on the holy hill?”   The answer in verse 2 (“My help comes from God, maker of heaven and earth“) prepares the ground for an assurance of protection in the last four verses of the song: “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” (6) The moon? Remember that in ancient times the physical arrangement of the heavens was little understood and subject to much speculative superstition.


The innovation prize goes to Isaac Everett who suggests using Help! by John Lennon of The Beatles. This would work well as an antiphon. Definitely not in the King James tradition, but a great idea if you are feeling brave – and have your own in-house rockers. For the less adventurous:

  • Everett in TEP also provides a refrain by Lacey Brown that looks quite tricky to learn but would settle into a groove. Unusually, the text is not actually taken from the psalm but the theme is certainly there, depicting the singer looking around for help.
  • The second of two settings of Psalm 121 found in Together in Song, No 77 offers other attractions (the first, 76 is a Ravenscroft hymn from the Scottish Psalter, 1615.) Responsive participation by both the lead voice(s) and people are neatly woven into a paraphrase and music setting by John Bell. Cantors may lift their eyes to the beauty of hills seen and unseen by singing the first two lines in the book, the people responding accordingly. That theme of protection and safety permeates this song.
  • PFAS 121D, amongst the nine choices for 121 in this excellent psalter, is a good responsorial setting. The refrain music, with attractive harmony changes (Dm-C-Eb7#11-D7#9-Gm-G-Bb7 …  sumptuous harmony shifts and chord extensions), is well worth a look.
  • NCH has a simple refrain: “My help comes from God who made heaven and earth.”
  • Michael Card has also written a nice anthem on this text, words in Hebrew, with phonetic transliteration, and English. (© Birdwing Music 1990)

Psalm 54

Ps54 Cormac MS36929
Psalm 54 ‘Deus in nomine’ from a Gallican Psalter (The ‘Psalter of Cormac’) of around 1300 CE. British Library MS 36929 f.61v

In seven short verses, David rehearses the themes encountered in many of the psalms, a cry for divine attention, safety and justice. At the end, reminded of past faithfulness and deliverance, he is moved to give thanks and more — a freewill offering and sacrifice.

Psalm 54 just squeaks into the lectionary in one year as an alternative reading, so there are relatively few modern settings available. Everett’s in TEP, drawing on verses 1 and 4, is perhaps the simplest and most easily sung by a congregation following a cantor.

Two classical medium-length settings entitled Deus in nomine tuo (God in your name, v.1) by Lassus and Hassler in four voices look quite accessible and rewarding for the local choir or quartet. Settings by the Gabrielis (Andrea and his more famous nephew Giovanni, one time student of Lassus) calling for 8 parts each might be a gig too far.

Psalm 46

This is one of those short songs studded with some quite memorable lines, such as:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble (v.1)
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God (v.4)
Be still then, and know that I am God (v.10)

It also has its own inbuilt antiphon, repeated in verse 7 and 11: “The God of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” That is frequently a key theme and the refrain in the antiphonal arrangements. However, Psalms for All Seasons generously offers seven in all, including two hymns, displaying excellent variety of style to suit many tastes:

  • 46A is to a Scottish hymn tune better known as a Christmas carol regarding a midnight clear.
  • 46B Dios es nuestro amparo is Spanish, with verses and refrain all in characteristic rhythm and three-chord harmony in E minor. It does have one little touch very common in Spanish songs of getting from the tonic minor to the sub-dominant minor via a transitional major on the tonic; i-I7-iv. However, it only happens once; and being on the whole less adventurous than much Latino music, particularly that with South American influences, it could lapse into the soporific.
  • 46D, the next one of interest, is a repeat of an Isaac Everett setting from The Emergent Psalter. As such, it’s definitely worth a close look. PFAS adds an additional tone to sing the verses, verse 7 and 11 being sung as the refrain (music here). Everett’s sensitivity for creating an interesting and unique backing leads him to use E minor and E diminished as alternating chords throughout. It’s quite short so is not in danger of lapsing into the soporific, especially with a rocking bass line and that unusual diminished chord that implies an A7 flat 9 on a syncopated E pedal.
  • 46D Alternate Refrain 1 is also attractive, coming from the Wild Goose stable and John Bell. He creates a simple two-part tune using verse 10 quoted above with a second echo voice. Many such songs just use a couple of chords so that the two parts jive: not so  in this case, with clever chord progression joining both. The associated tone follows the flow and feel of Bell’s refrain tune.
  • Finally, 46E uses a translation from the Book of Common Prayer, with the music of Ein Feste Burg by Martin Luther adapted to a chant. (See also Psalm 45) The text is fitted to the notes as underlay, rather than a separate text with pointing. This music is also in the exact form of a double Anglican chant with ten notes to each verse, four for the first phrase and then six for the second. More will be said on this topic in the forthcoming post on Psalm 79.

This poem is attributed to the Korahites. An Australian group taking the name of The Sons of Korah make a meal of Psalm 46 by writing three separate songs with but a few verses for each. These may be found on the 2014 album ‘Refuge‘.

Psalm 140, 141 and 142, skips

While we are in Book 5 of the Psalter, there’s a group of three skips here in Psalms 140, 141 and 142. All are attributed to David, whose life story should inform our interpretation as we read or sing them. All contain a plea in distress.

Image: Wikimedia commons

Psalm 140. This call for rescue from attack by a violent enemy repeats the prayers of several recent ‘skips’, notably 9 and 10, 11 and 12, and even more recently 144. Once again, the bottom line is to seek justice for the poor, those who fall through the safety net. Perhaps because we have been there, done that, it gains scant attention from song-writers, though Everett provides a good refrain about justice for the poor. It might be the balm for someone feeling low.

Psalm 141. The central theme is seeking help when faced with the choice between the right thing and the easy, doubtful or plain bad. Leading up to that plea, David asks that his prayer be counted as incense and a sacrifice, before dropping in a big ask:Candleholder from Abbé Fontenay

set a guard over my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips (v. 3)

The supply of music for this song is more generous, with John Blow, Clemens non Papa (how’s your singing in Dutch?) and Lassus lining up in the classical category. Interestingly, all the options in PFAS focus on the raising of the prayer and being heard, rather than its content. 141C Let my prayer rise up, being by Marty Haugen, is an interesting song. Using two voices as in the structure of the psalm, he weaves a nice duet almost in the form of a round or imitation voice.


Psalm 142. The back-story in this short song has David hiding in a cave. Which one is not clear, but maybe when pursued by Saul in 1 Samuel 24 — a good read. In any event, it probably did not look like the one illustrated, which is in the Kimberley.

This is another psalm with just few settings in our regular sources; our library cupboard on Dropbox is bare of the morsels I usually try to squirrel away.

Psalm 124, 24 Aug 14

A song of ascent
A song of ascent

If God be for us, who can be against us?

This well-known verse is found not in the psalms but in Romans 8:31. It contains the same message as Psalm 124, and in particular the last verse which has become a standard line in many liturgies:

Our help is in the name of the Lord.

As another song of ascent (the fifth), Psalm 124 recalls and relishes divine protection and deliverance as good grounds for trust and a confident approach.

Imagery is typically vivid, picturing first raging waters that would have swept over us without such protection, if God were not ‘on our side’ (verses 1, 4, 5).

Then, imagine a bird avoiding the fowler’s trap:

The snare is broken and we have escaped (v. 7)


... while I walk this path
… while I walk this path

Dipping into the archives, I find Brian and I sang this psalm eighteen months ago using a gospel tune called Guide my feet, one sung for many years by our friends in The Gospel Folk. There are other responsorial settings available but they often rely on verses either spoken or sung to a simple chant tone.

Since we are giving our old friend Gregory a good airing in our Renaissance music series associated with Psalm 105, we have been interlacing those moments of sedate beauty with lighter variations. The African-American tune certainly does that.

The ascent is sometimes steep and indirect
The ascent is sometimes steep and indirect

A close reading of the psalm reveals no direct link to the words of Guide my feet (while I walk this path) other than the appellation of a psalm of ascent and a plea for divine protection.

However the song builds by implication on the psalm’s theme, inviting us not to take the low road, not — as we find in another reading for the day — to be conformed to the world, allowing ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our minds towards higher ideals. (Rom: 12:2)

It’s also suggested in Singing from the Lectionary and is a well-known and enjoyable sing.

Our men’s group will lead us this week using a modified arrangement of the old tune.

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