Psalm 50 by Asaph is quite long. Three sections broadly cover (i) the greatness and justice of God, (ii) the doubtful value of sacrifices and superficial or procedural worship, and (iii) a heavy admonishment to the ‘wicked’.
The lectionary reading covers the first half-dozen verses only. It boils down (though psalms should never be boiled down) to a vibrant description of divine eminence, power and identification with the people. The link to the week’s theme of the Transfiguration, while quite direct in the associated 2 Kings selection, is more oblique and atmospheric in the psalm.
Many early settings of the psalm, following 17th and early 18th century translations such as that by Isaac Watts, tend to emphasise the fearful, thunderous and judgmental nature of God. The opening section certainly includes ‘consuming fire’ and ‘raging storms’ associated with the imagery of the transfiguration and the power of the divine seat, depending on your translation. However, the concluding verses (5, 6) speak more gently of gathering the faithful before a God who is the source of rightness and justice.
That earlier post also outlines just a few of the musical options, including the preferred choice Psalms for All Seasons 50B or 50 C. A little recent history: the cantors’ song sheet in our library says: “PFAS 50B, SW male voices 11 August 2013; mixed voices, 15 Feb 15.”
TiS 30 also covers the required territory. Most of the settings on CPDL online are SATBs of dated translations such as the Watts text mentioned above. The music, like the Haydn piece that follows, is usually more pleasing:
The poetry and music of the psalms are great catalysts to imaginative interpretations, lateral thinking, flights of fancy, aspirations and yes, hopes for the coming year — maybe even a New Year’s resolution or two.
You would have to admit that a psalm that can invoke comments about Tchaikovsky, Yoda, John Bell, whales and James Taylor supports the view that, for the year ahead, ‘Anything goes’ as the Cole Porter song would have it. Well, read all about it in the post on Psalm 148 at the very beginning of this year, 01/01/17.
This song of praise is a suitable way to wrap up the year and, accompanied by angels, sun moon and stars, monsters, fire and hail, young men and maidens — you name it — we rejoice in the creation and a creator who established an intended system of love and justice which “shall not pass away”.(6)
Christmas Eve this year falls on a Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B. The set psalm is 89, which starts:
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
Christmas Eve is also the starting point for the series of three psalms for the Nativity liturgies (‘Propers’), 96 to 98. To add to the list, the canticle sung on the third Sunday of Advent, The Magnificat, is also listed as an alternative. So our worship leaders have sets of readings with at least five songs to choose from.
The final song in book III is a long one, stretching to 52 verses. Themes therefore shift from praise for divine love and creativity through to an iteration of a covenant protection then finally a lament that time is short; how long must the singer wait for mercy? The strong theme of justice frequently emerging throughout the Psalter appears again in this psalm: ‘Righteousness and justice are the foundations of your throne; love and truth go before you.’ (14)
The first of those themes mentioned at the outset is celebrated in the refrain in both NCH, and PFAS in 89B. For those groups using TiS, the Australian hymn book, No 46 by Christopher Willcock is definitely the choice of the moment. As usual from this source, the verses offered may not coincide with the readings.
Psalms 96 to 98
These three psalms are songs of praise. Ps. 97 celebrating the reign of divine love is sandwiched between poems that call us to sing a new song in thanks for this ultimate supremacy of justice and goodness in the universe. For a review of these psalms and some of the associated music, please refer to the relevant post a year ago here>.
And while in the cross-reference mode, recall that The Magnificat was discussed last week (the post for 17 Dec, see sidebar at right).
A marble on the Siena Duomo floor. A wondering Mary?
The Song of Mary, her joyful response to the angels’ declaration that she would bear a special child (are they not all?), is timely and most appropriate in the Advent season. The Magnificat, as it is known from the first words of the song in Latin, has frequently been sung by women and girls during Advent.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.
The song is used much more widely than in the festive season, appearing regularly in vespers or evensong services as well as in many other liturgical situations, particularly in faith communities with a strong Marian tradition.
Detail of the Magnificat, followed by an antiphon and the Nunc Dimittis, in the Howard Psalter, http://www.bl.uk. These canticles were often listed together in Psalters and books of hours.
The text, reminiscent of the Song of Hannah mother of Samuel, has been identified for centuries as one of the key liturgical canticles. It’s part of the great Marian tradition of course, but is also appropriate during Advent and the story of the coming of the baby Jesus. You can feel the thrill springing up in her heart — to be the mother of the promised one. The subject of this outpouring of joy is not just personal, although that surely would be enough for several songs. She quickly broadens the focus to recognise divine benevolence to all the faithful, bringing mercy, justice and equality, which are of course also recurring themes of the psalms:
God’s mercy is for believers from generation to generation. God has shown strength by deeds, scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. (50-52 alt.)
The popularity of the song, which is found in Luke 1:46b-55, has ensured that many varied settings exist. CPDL has a list of a hundred or so, including music for full worship services like Matins and Vespers. Settings range from an early Latin hymn after the Gregorian chant tradition to the paraphrased Canticle of the turning sung to a traditional folk tune.
In Together in song there are seven tunes that are either settings of or references to this lovely paean of thankful wonder. No 161 Tell out my soul is a favourite as a hymn. No 172 My soul gives glory, much less frequently sung, presents a nice approach with an early American melody and more inclusive references to God. The text lends itself to participation by all – but verses 1 and 2 particularly invite the pure sounds of female voices.
Psalms for all seasons offers four settings, including Holy is your name set to the Irish traditional tune ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. A more traditional chant and response style, using a simple three-note tone or chant tune may also be found (PFAS pages 1020-22).
First animals contemplate evidence of the new arrivals in their land.
The first Australians have been conscious of and connected to the land in much stronger and deeper ways than more recent arrivals can comprehend. Their livelihood was far more intimately bound up with their natural environment. Features in their traditional territorial landscapes have longstanding narrative and spiritual importance.
Somehow, this atmosphere permeates Psalm 85, declaring that “truth springs up from the earth”. (11) Justice is associated with the very heart of the creation. For further comment on this theme see a previous post in December 2014.
The first verses speak of restoration and forgiveness; but these blessings are anchored in this context of the land:
… that God’s glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. (10, 11)
Justice, which throughout the Psalter is seen as a cornerstone of the original creation plan, again receives emphasis in imagery of the journey of life:
‘Justice goes before God, and peace is a road for God’s feet.’ (13)
Palestrina, Lassus and others employed such mellifluous verses for five-part settings for the Offertory during Advent or other liturgical uses. Here is an example from verses 2-3 by Palestrina.
Incipit to Psalm 85 extract for the Offertory, Advent III
Readers familiar with the BCP texts will recognise this from verse 7, used by Lassus for Advent II:
Ostende nobis, Domine, misericordiam tuam, et salutare tuum da nobis. / Shew us thy mercy, O Lord: and grant us thy salvation.
In more modern sources:
Everett in his notes in TEP draws attention to those important images of righteousness and peace quoted above; however he chooses verse 7, the prayer for mercy, as his refrain.
No 45 in TiS would be a good choice; easy response, simple chords, interesting harmonies for SATB in the verses. However, it does not quite cover the lectionary readings and the inclusion of verses 1 and 2 is advisable to set the scene.
PFAS 86B is the lovely Taizé chorus Dona nobis pacem, adorned with a lilting rendition of the verse phrases in a cantor’s descant over the refrain ostinato. This is very effective.
Refrain and tone will be sung locally to a tune by the author that has become known as the South Woden communion chant with variations:
‘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.
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 outset. His 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.
‘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.