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.

Cloud-capp’d towers

You won’t find that little phrase in the psalms: but poetic imagery is there in spades. Part of the fascination of the psalter is the special place in our lives of poetry set to music. As noted previously, the synergy of music and word is somehow magical — a classic case of the sum being greater than the parts.

A second attraction is that through the ages they have been widely accepted across cultures and different faiths as a broadly inspirational heritage.

Anoher Bard

That can be said of the works of William Shakespeare, of course, from whom the title phrase is culled:

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.  — The Tempest, act iv, sc. 1.

Towers and palaces

Remembrance

This text was used in 1951 by Ralph Vaughn-Williams in his Three Shakespearian Songs. This one comes to our attention, if you have read this far, through the late Andrew Sayers, artist and former curator and director in galleries. This piece was chosen (by him) for inclusion in his memorial service this Sunday afternoon 6 December 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, of which he was the inaugural director (more …). The Oriana Chorale directed by Peter Young will offer this lovely piece for the occasion.

Interestingly, this text has been excised from the middle of a longer ramble late in The Tempest, about visions and spirits dissolving and resolving with the trajectory of the tale. Context is important. Drop these lines with music into a time of commemoration or reflection and the moment assumes a new more universal and powerful atmosphere.

In this case, the song may be more existential than inspirational: but we can do with more moments of feeling the unity of humankind. Sometimes it’s in times of sadness, but remembrance is also thankful for our ‘little life rounded by a sleep’; for the power of poetry with music; for artistry, imagination and grace. These are the reasons why we sing the psalms. Here’s one of many versions on YouTube of this poignant reflection:

Psalm 8, Trinity Sunday 15 June 14

Each newbornOut of the mouth of babes and sucklings‘, according to Psalm 8, comes not precocious wisdom and truth – as is the modern common usage of this phrase – but strength or a bulwark ordained in heaven. The very existence of each new child speaks of the power and wonder of creation.

Then comes a familiar expression of amazement; that in the grand system of the universe and its myriad stars, as the psalmists sings:

What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than divine, and crowned them with glory and honor. (verses 4 and 5)

Ben Myers’ short summary tweet on Psalm 8 is worth repeating here:

The stars are a minor achievement (Your finger-painting). Humanity is Your masterwork; the stars gaze down admiringly.

Music

The Everett refrain for this psalm provided one good choice. Then Rachel once more came up with some rich new resources. Two of our young women will lead us in singing a Linnea Good setting called The Height of Heaven.

Ps8 Linnea

Now search as you might, you will not find this little verse in the text. Avoiding the perhaps dated sense of dominance, Linnea and Lynn have managed to personalise the experience of inspiration.