Psalm 99, 22 Oct ’17

Image: Wikimedia commons

‘O mighty ruler, lover of justice, you have established equity.’ (v. 4)

At last, Psalm 99! This is worth waiting for. The verse quoted above with its key words of ‘justice’ and ‘equity’ is one of the most vital and important statements in the Psalter. It says that justice and equity are pillars of creation, a fundamental element of the blueprint. This unobtrusive gem of a verse is just waiting to be noticed amongst the dazzle of the grand parade. An apparently modest but meaningful verse is tucked away in the middle of the shouting and show. What is it that the people are actually proclaiming between the earth shaking and the pillar of cloud? Not “Lift up your heads ye gates”, or “Bow low ye princes of the earth”, or “Glory glory”, but that God is holy, just and righteous (3), leading to the cited explication: “Justice, equity!” (4)

Unlike rulers of earthly nations, who not infrequently display nepotism, favouritism, vengeance, inconsistency or just plain selfish evil in their ruling, here the psalmist imagines a set of standards for human equality for rich and poor, for high-born and low, for female and male. Implicit in the creation of the universe and humankind was an intention for equity … ‘created equal’. Inequities and iniquities come from human weakness and selfishness, not from any flaws in the divine goodness that is somewhere within us all. Note the word ‘established’. Created, devised, part of the plan.

The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

The long-winded Anglo-Saxon law code – issued by King Cnut, influenced by the Bible, discussed at Psalm 118 – is a foundation of English law. Here in the psalms is another cornerstone declaration on the nature of our world and our lives, an essential element of creation that is not hidden in heavy books of law nor remote and unachievable humanist theories.

Sure it’s hard to be triumphal about the inequities painfully evident in the world around us. But the psalm reveals that justice and equity were in the plan from the outset, for the creation and for humankind. We have a responsibility to both. The implication is that we are not fighting a losing battle, that spiritual support and delight are not far away. Isaac Everett comments:

Equity didn’t exist in the days of Moses and Aaron, nor in the days of Samuel, nor does it exist in our world today. There are still rich and poor, masters and slaves, oppressors and oppressed. Where other psalmists would pray for an end to such things, however, this psalmist boldly declares that they’ve already ended, seeing the world as it ought to be rather than as it is. I love it.1

For Professor Tom Wright, the ‘cosmic drama’ of Psalms 93 to 99 thus includes:

‘… the human dramas of actual injustice that produce the longing that the cosmic promises might come true in smaller human situations.’2

Our challenge is to make the vision of the psalm more real.

Music

Most settings celebrate the sovereignty of God proclaimed in the early verses. Admirable enough but, surprisingly to this author, few sources pick up this seminal verse 4 on justice to create the ringing response that it deserves. Even the reliable PFAS suggests that we ‘trembling bow in worship’; while in the redoubtable CPDL online at the date of publication, here is the only offering, an early work by Heinrich Schütz:

All rather faint. When this song offers that gem of verse 4, surely it must be the centrepiece? Isaac Everett, whose comments have been quoted above, is on the money with his antiphon in The Emergent Psalter.  He uses the now-glowing verse quoted at the outsetHis tune and chords roll nicely around B minor then D major and related progressions; but as usual for him, verses are spoken.3

Informed by the encouragement in many psalms to ‘sing a new song’, and in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the South Woden Uniting Church to be celebrated on 22 October 2017 at Pearce in the Australian Capital Territory, a new setting has been written for the occasion. (View score>)

Truly, this verse codifies a theme that should often be heard in our gatherings, a reference song in any tune in our hearts, an example for the rulers of nations.

Notes; Continue reading

Psalm 106

‘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)

Incipit to Psalm 106 by Thomas Tomkins; B and TII entries only.

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.

Psalm 78, 1 Oct ’17

‘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)

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

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.

1   Galatians 2 and Philippians 2

Psalm 149, 10 Sep 17

‘God takes pleasure in people.’ (4)

Cantate Domino, from Psalm 149 in the an 8th century Psalter. Latin uncial script with Old English gloss between lines. British Library MS Vespasian A1

This is the penultimate psalm in the book, short and bitter-sweet. Four verses of praise, singing and dancing, including the important statement of love quoted above; four verses of wreaking vengeance on enemies; and in the middle, it appears, a good lie down!

Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; let them be joyful on their beds. (5)

An odd little verse, and indeed it struck Isaac Everett to the point that he chose this for his responsive refrain. He wonders whether it implies that the people routinely slept in the Temple, that praise at home as well as in the Temple is fine, or perhaps just relishing being in bed.1

Despite its central location, the bed verse is not the key to the song and its use as the refrain seems a little idiosyncratic. Scanning for meaningful and respectful ways to praise in song, verse 1 is a better bet:

Sing to God a new song; sing praise in the congregation of the faithful.

A little further on there’s a nice statement of why psalm tragics do this:

… sing praise making melody with timbrel and lyre; for God takes pleasure in people and adorns the poor with victory. (3, 4)

The second half of the psalm is less comfortable. ‘Wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the people … inflicting judgment.’ (7) Is not this just the sort of cry we, well, decry when it leads to the extremist religious violence that seems increasingly to dominate the news? Remember that the historical reference is to the Exodus and the early opposed establishment of Israel, which was a fight for survival.

Today, in the light of the New Testament modifier to love your enemies, the reader regards it metaphorically. Most commentators see it now as a fight against evil. Any enthusiasm for holy war against other people sounds bizarre. For as we just saw, God takes pleasure in people. (And by the way, what a marvellous difference it makes taking the ‘his’ out of that phrase from the RSV.)

A cautionary note on this passage in PFAS says: ‘It is, then, a psalm to handle with great care.’ However, the note continues that the psalm is instructive about the nature of faithful obedience in a world of injustice.2 The psalm again encourages the fight for justice and equity, for ‘God loves people’ as we do, and ‘adorns the poor’, as we should. Tom Wright has this insight relating to both 148 and 149:

To put it in modern shorthand, you find the political message within the ‘creational’ message. Once you summon the whole of creation to praise the maker, you can begin to see clearly where the fault lines lie within the world of human power.3

Bach wrote two impressive works on this psalm, both entitled Singet dem Herrn. BWV190 is an lengthy cantata written for New Year’s Day in Leipzig in 1724. BWV 225 is scored for double choir. Both are demanding works for amateur singers.

The Everett refrain has already been mentioned. PFAS has a nice responsive setting (149B) with a contemporary sound even though the music was written back in the 18th century.

TiS 95 has a good setting by reliably valued Sydney-born composer Christopher Willcock SJ. The response is simple, and the stacked triads of the tone (the simple tune for the verses) is enticing. It only presents half the lectionary, however, and ducks that confronting second section discussed above.

If you really want to sing of vengeance upon the forces opposing a rule of love, try a solo by Catalan composer and contemporary of Bach, Francisco Valls. Best with its original figured bass, the sharper edges are modestly veiled in Latin:

1 TEP page 275

2 Psalms for All Seasons, page 989 footnote.

3 Wright, N T, Finding God in the Psalms, page 150-1

Psalm 145, 6 Aug 17

For comment on the primary psalm reading for this week, see a previous post on Psalm 17

Thank you so much to our male voice quintet who presented Psalm 105 last Sunday. What lovely sounds. We hear the same refrain, with different verses, in coming Sundays.

Antiphon after the last verse of Ps 145; then Ps 146:1 ‘Lauda anima mea’. Note change from C to F clef at response. The Howard Psalter, British Lib. MS 83, f.89r

Psalm 145, the alternative reading for this week, is the last of the many songs attributed to David, and the first of a closing bracket of six songs of praise. The central theme is the ultimate sovereignty of God. However, each time the psalm appears in the Lectionary – five times in all but mostly as a complementary reading – different verse selections offer different points of emphasis; praise to a great power, grace, faithfulness, love and even the matter of food on the table:

The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. / You open your hand, satisfying the need of every living thing. (verses 15, 16)

So there is a time for lamentation, and a time for lamingtons. Many psalms cater for both moments. As well as the greatness of divine purposes, the power of love and that recurrent theme of justice are celebrated in this song (17).

The psalms also convey a sense of freedom from burdens, an interesting undercurrent detected in the third century CE by commentator and theologian Hippolytus of Rome, who opined:

David gave the Hebrews psalmody. This abrogated Moses’ sacrificial system and introduced a new form of jubilant praise.

Several of the classical arrangements, such as those by Lassus and Gibbons, start with verse 15 quoted above. In modern sources:

  • TEP and PFAS 145D reflect the main theme of Psalm 145, namely praise for divine sovereignty and grace.
  • In NCH, Vérne de la Peña from the Philippines University meditates on God’s ‘wondrous works’, employing both simple tune and pleasing harmonies. [This refrain, with paraphrased verses to the same or a similar tune, will be used in South Woden this week.]
  • A local composition presents a vehicle for both verses and response, depending on which selection is set:

Psalm 118, Easter 16 Apr 17

All this was written long ‘BCE’, of course. But the idea is carried forward to the New Testament, with Jesus revealed as the stone in the first letter of Peter, appropriately enough as the apostle who was named ‘stone’: “To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,’ and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the word … But now you are God’s people … now you have received mercy.” (I Pet. 2:7-10)

Freiburg-im-BreisgauVisitors to ancient cities like York enjoy discovering quaint and remote features: the Shambles; archaeological remains of successive eras under the cathedral; hidden misericordiae within, saints and gargoyles without. The Shambles provides just a hint of the chaotic life in early times; narrow alleys, stalls, clamour, smells and all sorts of behaviour, seen and unseen. Fairness and justice were features of common law but may have felt a little out-of-place here.

Justice

These overhanging buildings, now nicely renovated and refreshed, are only about 500 years old. Concepts of justice were built into English common law long before then. The Magna Carta of 1215 is a famous example. Well before that, biblical precepts were being absorbed into official and secular mores by early rulers.

The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

In the 11th century Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d.1023) wrote them into draft proclamations by King Cnut. The British Library notes: “The Ten Commandments were a particularly important model for the drafting of Anglo-Saxon law codes. They are referenced in the laws of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and formed part of the preface to his law book, grounding the secular laws in biblical precedents.”

God’s law is also specifically referenced in the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, which begins with the line, ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted’. This was issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035) with the advice of his counsellors. The text was drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan of York, and one of the eight surviving medieval manuscripts containing the text was produced in either York or Worcester in the 11th century. It was probably owned by the archbishop himself, and may contain his own annotations. The psalms tell us that the concepts of justice and equity emanate from the just Creator spirit at the beginning of time.

Building blocks

So here are some of the biblical building blocks of justice in the modern rule of law. They are fundamentally strong in this country despite some glaring blind spots. On the whole, however, despite centuries of law-making around the world, justice is still rough, equity lacking. And as for equality, the struggle must go on. Buyers of The Big Issue, an Australian charity magazine, may have seen a special edition devoted to the growing gap between rich and poor. Will such truths ever convince societies and governments? That corner-stone appears in verse 19. The stone that was rejected became the chief cornerstone of a new world of faith, a new system of justice and life. There is not always a keystone at the top of arches but it’s common enough. However arranged, a key block is the chief cornerstone in holding a structure together.

The Easter story opens a new chapter of this search for justice and justification. We hear every year from Psalm 118 that Jesus was the building block, despised, rejected but destined to be the basis of a whole new world and a whole new way. This way recognises and compensates for our essential inability to keep the scales of justice and equity in true balance. Here is how that enduring and powerful text looked in the 1540 Henry VIII Psalter:

Psalm 118:22 (modern numbering), Henry VIII Psalter, BL Royal MS 2 A XVI

This detail is included it not only for its intrinsic value but also to note that the Latin ‘caput anguli’ suggests it’s not the ‘chief’ in terms of size or weight, but the head at the top of the arch or corner of walls, holding it all together.

Music'Laudate Dominum'; detail from a motet by Lassus

There are dozens of classical settings of this psalm, including some classical pieces by Renaissance and later composers. Lassus wrote one called Dominus mihi adjutor, starting with text from verse 6. There’s one for 16 voices, four quartets, by German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) that runs to 50 pages in one modern transcription. All parts are shown on each page so there are but four bars per page; those pages would flick by quite fast but it’s still a major work. Praetorius (whose family name was originally Schultze, of rather less superior airs) was a German Lutheran. So, in a way, was Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther wrote a lot of words — poems, sermons and ideas — but also several songs, including the well-known Ein feste burg, ‘A mighty fortress’, based on (you guessed it) a psalm, in this case 48. So he was quite capable of running up a good harmony. Perhaps he spied verse 17 of this psalm from a hundred paces and was moved to write the short and sweet four-part motet, Non moriar sed vivam. No doubt the text fitted his mission perfectly:

I shall not die but live, and tell the works of the Lord.

Plaque on the rebuilt Damenhof where Luther advocated the centrality of justification by faith.

A building in Augsburg bears a plaque recording the fact that therein, Luther defended himself before the Papal investigation of 1518. His pleas fell on deaf ears, as we know (well, he was a bit rough on the Pope) and he went into hiding.

By way of contrast, in style if not underlying message, The Building Block by Paul Stookey mentioned above has long been a favourite. A cantor sings paraphrased verses, the people responding with joy, vigour and, of course, good harmony parts.

As a reading for Easter, there are a swag of settings in Psalms for all seasons to choose from. An old favourite tune suggested therein is ‘This is the day‘. It’s quite repetitive, but this suggests a possible antiphonal approach, one group serving a phrase (con brio of course) and another group volleying it back.

NCH presents one of Carolyn Jennings simple and effective refrains: “The righteous shall enter the gate of God.” Verses may be sung to a double tone.

Psalm 2, 26 Feb17

Psalm 2 complements the first psalm as a joint introduction to the Psalter with the assurance that the divine Spirit, with inevitably associated moral and behavioural constructs inferred from the Torah, is supreme above temporal rulers of the world. While this theme has ancient roots in the stories of creation and the establishment of the tribes of Israel, it also has a very modern message, as:

… nations conspire and people plot in vain; the rulers of the earth set themselves and leaders take counsel together … ‘Let us break their yoke, let us cast their cords from us’. (v.1-3)

Rulers then and now conspire to throw off the ‘bonds’ or ‘yoke’ of benevolence, truth and justice. There is a lot to be said for separation of church and state, especially given human tendencies to bend religious dogma for selfish purposes, power or control. That is not the same as governments ignoring or running counter to ethics and values recognised by humanists, Christianity and most major religions of the world. Does it matter that leaders base decisions and policies on ‘alternative facts’, declare history false, or ignore the law? Of course it does. Words have consequences, sometimes quite unpredicted and unintended. People without power suffer.

The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons

The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons

Maps drawn by the great navigators of the seventeenth century show how spheres of influence and fiefdoms spread around the world. Planted flags and place names reveal just a little of the manoeuvring and politics of exploration and possession, sometimes in the name of God, sometimes in that of nationalism, empire or commerce. Today, rulers change or ignore constitutions to gain or stay in power, use or abuse the church according to their ends, and take little heed of any moral compass. The psalm is a good reminder to dictators and democracies alike.

In amongst the sheep going astray, feeding of the flock and the hallelujahs of The Messiah by George Frederic Händel (1685 to 1759, a contemporary of J S Bach), behold this psalm text turns up in full force. Handel inserted some of this rage into his oratorio in a bass solo air Why do the nations? (quoting v.1), and the furious chorus Let us break their bonds asunder (v. 3). This latter is one of the show-stoppers, sometimes omitted since it’s not an easy sing when taken at full gallop.

Such atmospherics are nevertheless appropriate for Transfiguration Sunday, for which this psalm is scheduled. But Händel’s great music is not a likely choice for a light Sunday morning antiphon. Fortunately, much easier responses are to be found in modern sources (although there is no setting in TiS).

  • PFAS 2D is a simple tune. Two refrain text are provided. The first (“You are my son …”) is only relevant when associated with the Transfiguration. The alternative general text (“The Lord is King, with trembling bow in worship”) is a good admonition for wayward leaders, but may engage neither the average listener nor singer.
  • However, PFAS also recognises the turbulence and danger of the situation and provides both a ‘Dramatised reading‘ (2B) and a ‘Liturgy for Responsible Exercise of Authority‘ (2E). This latter title sounds a rather cumbersome but there’s no doubting it’s right on theme.A light burden
  • Another in The New Century Hymnal by Carolyn Jennings has much milder but more comforting words from the final phrase (v. 12) which refers us back in full circle to the beginning in Psalm 1: “Happy are all who take refuge in God”, whose bonds, according to Matthew 11: 30 and another chorus in The Messiah, are anything but onerous: “My yolk is easy and my burden is light.”
  • Everett’s singable refrain in TEP notes that the rulers of the world have set themselves against God.

Note: The alternative Lectionary reading is Psalm 99. For commentary on this song, please review the post on 7 Feb 2016.