This poem is all about the Exodus, the release from slavery in Egypt, and the transit to a new life across the Red Sea. There is no mention of resurrection, nor Easter of course. Indeed we read no reference to any divine influence until the very last verse. Was it, then, an April Fool’s Day virus that set Psalm 114 to be sung on 1 April, Easter Sunday?
The psalm was written, of course, long before any thoughts of April fools or Easter. It celebrates freedom in any age, escape from bondage into a promised land, one flowing with of milk and honey. So Easter Sunday with its message of hope is an appropriate context for this song, as are many other situations of relief and thanksgiving for escapes from burdens of whatever hue to freedom and new beginnings.
Music for this song presents a slight challenge. Apart from many tempting but demanding early music settings (which, besides the detail shown above, must include those listed for Psalm 113 in the Vulgate numbering system) good refrains are few. There’s nothing enticing in our fairly extensive online Dropbox library, and nothing in Together in Song. The usually reliable New Century Hymnal invites us to tremble before God, while The Emergent Psalter asks us “What alarmed you that you fled?” These are fine if you have time to explain the context and reasoning, but not to sing as musical gems in isolated splendour.
Psalm 80 by Asaph is a cry for restoration by the ‘Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock’. (1) As strife continues all around, the singer seeks a more peaceable zone, perhaps by the still waters and safe pastures of other familiar psalms.
Asaph, as usual, had a historical situation in mind; but the psalm translates well in today’s troubled times, as does the inbuilt antiphon in verses 3, 7 and 19:
Restore us again, let your face shine, that we may be saved.
‘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…
But wait, I wrote all this and more in a post just recently, so go there to read the rest. This saves space and effort for the web-master; however a close inspection shows that this psalm reading selects different verses. So while it’s close, TiS 41 sung on 1 October does not quite cover the territory. Near enough for the average thematic leader but strictly, the reading is verses 1-7; again, review the other choices suggested in that earlier post>.
Here is the chosen refrain and verse tune for this week at South Woden:
Worship and song leaders may also be enticed by the alternative readings this week from the Wisdom of Solomon, a book which is not universally accepted as part of the canon. This nice passage could be sung by women to good effect.
Why the quote at the outset from that last verse 72? Here is another reminder of the strong thread of divine justice and goodness that runs through both the Psalter and the stories of old.
‘Happy are those who act with justice, who do what is right.’ (3)
Psalm 106 drawing to a close the powerful Book IV of the Psalter is related to the previous song. The story of Exodus is again rehearsed at some length but with a stronger flavour of an awareness of human weakness. A warning against selfishness accompanies a plea for divine guidance and grace. As a good leader, Moses “stood in the breach to turn away God’s wrath.” However, provocation made Moses angry and he acted in haste:
By the waters of Meribah they angered God and trouble came to Moses because of them, for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips. (33)
Moses spoke ‘unadvisedly’ and suffered for it. Verse 3 quoted above is a reminder of the insistence on the centrality of justice that runs throughout the Psalter. In the frustratingly faltering pursuit of social justice today, here also are lessons for the worker about anger, control, deliberation, leadership, pressure. (See also Psalm 81)
As to the music, in the early 1600s Thomas Tomkins wrote a swag of psalm settings, including 106 for four male voices. This would be a satisfying sing and edifying contribution, probably as incidental music since it presents verse 4 alone.
In more modern sources:
The refrain in PFAS 106B invites us to sing: “Cast every idol from its throne”. This might be a good song if you are troubled by unhealthy fixations but the theme does not always appeal as timely.
The response in TEP is nice and syncopated but maybe a little too long to learn in the short period generally available in weekly gatherings.
NCH has a simple refrain but no sung verses. Use a tone.
PFAS 106A is by John Bell, so is prima facie worthy of attention. First, it emphasises the enduring patient nature of divine love and forgiveness. Secondly, it offers a sung verse. And finally, the refrain is in nice four-part harmony if enough singers are available.
‘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.