Psalm 119A, 12 Feb 17

Aleph א

In words reminiscent of Psalm 1, the first section begins by inviting us to walk in God’s ways.

Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in God’s way. (v.1)

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, Rice University

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, five-line staff, F clef on vellum. Rice University.

The preceding post discussed, perhaps inconclusively, what the divine way and the word of God might mean. It also listed some antiphons written for the whole of Psalm 119 rather than individual sections.

A good dozen classical settings are listed against this first section Aleph or just the first verse, a few for SATB but most for 5, 6 or more voices. The Latin incipit of this first verse quoted and illustrated above goes :

Beati immaculati in via

A search reveals several other motets, some listed against Psalm 119, others as separate compositions but clearly using the same text. Tomas Luis di Victoria used this text for his sole composition on this long psalm. On it is listed in his works as a ‘manuscript’ rather than one of his vespers psalms; and a note says it may not be by Victoria anyway. Another such (illustrated below) is a setting for seven voices by a leading Lutheran composer from Thuringia in Germany, Johann Walter (1496-1570, about 50 years before Victoria).Ps119a JohWalter

In more modern settings:

  • Everett introduces the first of his series of additive antiphons in TEP. These are built on two sets of couplets with repeating tunes. This first couplet is backed by alternating D minor and C chords for the first line. The same tune continues for line two for ease of learning, but musical depth is added by changing the backing chords to Bb and A minor.
  • Meanwhile in PFAS, the single song allocated to Aleph is a nice refrain and metrical verses by Lucien Deiss (1921-2007) a French liturgist and composer of many chants.
  • The setting in TiS dips in to sample several sections in a mixed salad.
  • Keeping what may well be the best wine to last, the refrain in New Century Hymnal is short and sweet: “Teach me O God the way of your statutes.” This quote is actually from verse 33, and is one of those generic refrains that is used in NCH and other psalters (see PFAS 119B to E) for all Lectionary selections whenever they arise.

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.

Psalm 19, 5 October 2014

Psalm 19 declares the glory of the divine as seen in the creation, then moves to the importance of divine revelation (‘the law’). However, there are so many familiar yet dense phrases in this broad-ranging and interesting psalm that it’s not quite fair to pick just a couple of central themes. Read the text here >>

Their sound is gone out -- technology old or new is not required

Their sound is gone out — technology old or new is not required

The heavens

From the very first verse (‘The heavens declare the glory of God’) we read phrases that resonate in our experience and memories.

Then, anyone who has sung Handel’s The Messiah will certainly recognise ‘Their sound is gone out’ and have the tune of that chorus in mind (an exciting sing — even if it sometimes feels a little like practising your scales and arps. It works.)

Rathaus Augsburg

‘Much fine gold’ — too much here perhaps? Rathaus, Augsburg

The words

From verse 7 on we are reminded by this ‘Psalm of David’ how valuable in the search for an upright yet humble life is the divine guidance in the word, which is:

More to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (v. 10)

These references to God’s law and commands might be taken as a nod to the ten commandments which appear in the associated reading from Exodus for the week. However, in the light of all the subsequent guidance and New Testament teaching, that’s like harking back to the technology of that phonograph or to black and white silent movies. We have been moving from a few strict rules to a river of gracious wisdom.

A bible printed in Nurnberg in 1708

A bible printed in Nuremberg in 1708


My most-used reference books sit conveniently on my desk by the window, close at hand. Fine, but I happen to be on the other side of the world and, perhaps to your relief, I shall thus refrain from extensive comment on the options. Here are some brief notes:

  • Songs no. 7 and 8 in TiS refer to this psalm, although neither covers the full lectionary reading.
  • Isaac Everett draws on verse 1 in an easy, singable refrain. As usual, he assumes the verses will be spoken rather than sung to a background vamp.
  • PFAS presents a whole six options; 19E is of particular interest since it reminds me that:
  • Last time we sang this (January 2013) we used ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ which picks up another much-quoted verse (the last): ‘Let the words of my mouth…’ Children will enjoy this little chorus and perhaps even remember it. The text is on the SWUC Music Dropbox.


After excellent family times nearer the Pole Star than the Southern Cross, all of which I understand to declare the glory of God, Hon. Webmaster hopes to be home with gyros partially upright this Sunday to enjoy whatever is arranged.

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

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

The pic from Augsburg above reminds me that this was the city where in 1518 Martin Luther was interrogated on the ’95 Theses’, and subsequently excommunicated.