Psalm 59

King David and harp

King David playing his harp

In Psalm 59 as in many others, context and time are important. The situation is referred to in the introduction:

To the leader: Do not destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him.

The phrase “Do not destroy”, like “Miktam”, is obscure but may mean that the tune was used for several different songs. Maybe it was the name of the tune (see NIV translation) which was associated with several other songs. Other psalm introductions also say they were written as David hid in caves to evade Saul’s pursuit — for example 52, 54 and 57. Saul was clearly out to get rid of David. So no wonder David asks for protection and an unhappy ending for his “enemies”, declaring that his eyes are fixed on God, haven and strength, of whom he will sing.

Old Music

Ps59 antiphon SarumBreviary Add MS 52359

Decoding the antiphon shown in this old Sarum manuscript from about 1300 (British Library Add MS 52359) is tricky but interesting. The psalm text is pretty clear: at the beginning of this particular extract is the last verse of Psalm 59:

Adjutor meus, tibi psallam, quia Deus susceptor meus es; Deus meus, misericordia (abbreviated) mea / Unto thee, O my strength, will I sing: for thou, O God, art my refuge, and my merciful God. (BCP)

ps59-antiphon1300Then comes the antiphon. The music itself is also fairly easy. The simple series of single notes starts on C — the C clef is at top left, almost invisible  — and there is only one podatus or double-note. It would sound something like this in modern notation.

As to the text, the words below the four-line staff appear to read:

Juste iudicate filii hominis / Judge fairly, sons of man

Besides the frequent mentions of the amazingly strong thread of justice that appears time and time again in the Psalter, two other references come to mind:

  • First and most obviously, it seems to hark back to the first verse of the preceding Ps. 58 upon which a recent post commented, including a quote from St Augustine on walking the talk. In some translations, ‘sons of man’ is interpreted as the Ruler.Prague Astronomical clock
  • And second, this text is the quote that appears above one of the great tourist attractions of Prague, the iconic Astronomical Clock in the façade of the Old Town Hall that dates from 1410. This old clunker indicates the movement of the sun, moon and stars, and a monthly calendar. Statues of the apostles march out every hour. The High Gothic facade features an angel with the inscription “Juste Iudicate Filii Hominis”

Finally, the antiphon is then followed by the decorated capital D (Deus repulsisti nos /O God, thou hast cast us out) the first verse of the following Psalm 60.

The few classical pieces, including motets by Sir Arthur Sullivan and Orlando de Lassus, stick to safe verses like 2, 9, 16 and 17 which might have been quoted from any one of a dozen psalms.

Ps59 Lassus

Psalm 59 by Lassus

This illustration shows only the first two entries of the four voice parts of a motet in which Lassus elaborates on verse 2:

Eripe me de inimicis meis / Deliver me from mine enemies

New music

NCH, TiS and PFAS all skip this psalm. It is left to Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter to point out that the text has two separate inbuilt antiphons. Responding to this structural feature, Everett offers a refrain in duet using both of the repeating verses against each other. The first is in verses 6 and 14, while the second appears in verses 9 and 17. These he renders as:

They run around every night like snarling dogs (v.6)
I sing to you. You are my strength and haven. (v.9)

This is an approach that is at once both thoughtful and contrasting; it is also, somewhat courageously, true to the original text. David was evidently satisfied to choose the themes uppermost in his mind. These days, however, little inspiration or edification would seem to flow from having people sing about enemies — or anyone for that matter — as ‘snarling dogs’.

Note: This is the final post about individual psalms, each of the 150 having now been discussed in at least one blog post. Future posts will be relevant only to the set readings and local choices, or updated consolidations of multiple earlier posts. Refer to the index pages to find discussion of particular psalms.

Psalm 102, Penitential 5

Yin YangTwo voices emerge for the reader during this extended lament. A sad David seems to be suffering from a degenerative illness. Yet in the midst of distress and weariness, his Voice 1 can yet find a peaceful and somehow comforting image for his isolation and worry:

I am like an owl of the wilderness, a little owl of the waste places. I lie awake like a lonely bird on a housetop. (vs. 6, 7)

A more optimistic David Voice 2 then asserts the endurance and longevity of the divine presence, compared with the brevity of human life.  The psalm is ‘recorded for generations to come’ so that, first, ‘people yet unborn may praise God’ (v. 18); and secondly, that ‘children shall live secure, their offspring established in your presence.’ (v. 28)

Psalm 102 in the De Brailes Hours. BL MS49999

Psalm 102 in the De Brailes Hours. The seven penitentials are grouped together in this manuscript. BL MS49999


The opening verse (Domine, exaudi / Hear my prayer, let my cry come to you — see illustration) is popular with composers as a simple and neutral prayer of access. Thomas Tomkins wrote a trio (published 1668) which would please any small group. He also composed an arrangement for verse 13.

This being one of the seven penitential psalms, the fifth in fact, we find major work by early composers like the Italian Giovanni Croce, follower of Gabrieli in the grand style; and Orlando de Lassus, whose Psalmi Davidis Poenitentialis of 1584 is mentioned elsewhere.

Coversheet of Book II of the Lassus Psalms

Cover of Book II of the Lassus Penitential Psalms

For 102, as usual, Lassus has written a fleet of separate small motets, one for each verse. He captures the attention of the listener by entering with five voices in full flight for verse 1, but then rather playfully employs a duet for verse 2, a trio for verse 3, quartet for 4 and back to 5 voices for v. 5. He then proceeds through the rest of the 28 verses changing the number of singers. Verse 18 mentioned above, for example, which starts ‘Scribantur haec / Let this be recorded‘ is sung gently by a duo of tenor voices, almost like a recitative.

Ps102 Lassus amen

By the last verse, with the following Gloria Patri as a separate movement, he is back to five parts. Then the Sicut erat (As it was in the beginning) splits the cantus (treble) into two parts for a powerful 6-part finale, the voices each entering sequentially. Incidentally, in many early manuscripts, this Gloria was not written in full but signified by the last six vowels of saeculorum Amen — E u o u A e.

This technique of Lassus is worth remembering for the small group convener. Depending on how many voices you have, you can always find a mini-motet of one verse or another to suit the occasion and available resources.

Like Psalm 101, this song does not appear in the lectionary, or in NCH. In other sources:

  • The only suggestion made in PFAS is the Taizé chorus ‘O Lord hear my prayer’, which as mentioned above is a quote from v.1 — and several other psalms.
  • Everett‘s syncopated refrain in TEP combines verses 3 and 12: ‘My days pass away like smoke; you endure through the generations’.
  • TiS 63 surprises me by presenting a short, singable paraphrase, admittedly only from Voice 2 in the happy end of things, by Christopher Willcock SJ, with a simple refrain arranged by JS Bach. It also provides an attached litany for the sick and the dying. (102B)

Psalm 41

The gospels differ slightly in how they report the Beatitudes. Luke says: “Blessed are the poor”, while in Matthew we read:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt.5:3)

Whatever Jesus actually said, it’s quite possible he was quoting this last song in Book 1 of the Psalter:

Blessed are those who consider the poor and needy; God delivers them in time of trouble (Ps.41:1)

Like Psalm 1, it calls for upright living; like Psalm 26, it calls for integrity; and like many others, seeks grace in times of trouble.


Professional musicians will no doubt be familiar with some of the composers we seldom encounter in the psalters. These, for example, all wrote settings in the late Renaissance / early Baroque: Anerio, Calcott, Nares, Schein, Usper. A brief look at two.

Johann Schein. Image: wikimedia

Johann Schein. Image: Wikimedia

Johann Hermann Schein (1586 – 1630) was a German composer, ending his days in Leipzig a century before Bach reigned supreme there at St Thomas. This accomplished composer never lived in Italy yet is now credited with introducing Italian styles such as figured bass (but perhaps not the coiffure) into the Lutheran surrounds of German music. His Psalm 41, Was betrübstu dich meine Seele (verse 6) is written for five voices, employing contrapuntal imitative and homophonic techniques. Sure enough, it includes that Italian basso continuo. An a cappella version exists.

Francesco Usper or Sponga (1561 – 1641) was an Italian composer and organist born in what is now Croatia. Unlike Schein, he moved to Venice about the time of the birth of his German contemporary and stayed there, serving as organist and chaplain. Usper knew and worked with the better known Claudio Monteverdi. His Beatus qui intelligit, for two choirs of four voices, is also accompanied by continuo.

The refrain in NCH uses a phrase from verse 12: “Set me in your presence forever”. This seems to miss some of the key themes of the song, such as the word ‘integrity’ appearing earlier in the same verse. The tune looks innoccuous enough, especially since the composer directs us to sing it in unison. When you play it, however, the pedal open fifth in the lower staff, 3 and 7 of the first D major seventh chord, is arresting. (This echoes the highly effective opening broken chords of Calling you by Bob Telson, the theme of the film Bagdad Café sung hauntingly by both Telson and Jevetta Steele. A must listen.) This arrangement definitely enhances the otherwise plain refrain, although the final cadence to A minor is unconvincing in the progression IΔ-IV2-ii7-v.

Psalms for All Seasons suggests the verses be sung to a vi-ii-V-I tone with a refrain that, rather strangely, uses phrases from the old hymn What a friend we have we in Jesus. This is occasioned no doubt by the fact that the hymn lines — trials and tribulations and “when your friends despise forsake you” — closely mirror lines in the psalm.

Psalm 26

We find early in this song an echo of Psalm 1. The writer, thought to be David, declares his innocence and refuses to ‘sit with the wicked’ (v. 5). He offers a prayer for justice and confirmation of sticking to the ‘right way’ — that powerful word ‘integrity’ occurs at beginning and end in some translations.  Psalm 1 assures us that blessings will reward such a choice.

All other ground is sinking sand? (Murray River mouth)

‘… All other ground is sinking sand’ 

Psalm 26 thus declares the wonders of divine love and encourages personal integrity, that we might sing confidently with the psalmist:

My foot stands on level ground (v. 12)

Such poetic phrases leap out of the psalms all the time. It will depend on the eye of the beholder, of course. Composers writing refrains for Psalm 26 seem to agree that themes of love and faithfulness appeal:

  • Isaac Everett in TEP imagines this psalm as a good processional or call to worship, and recalls Jesus setting his eyes on Jerusalem. He thus selects verse 3 and modifies it slightly to: ‘I’ve set my eyes on your love. I walk in faithfulness to you.’ Typically, he slips from past into present (and often future) tense. Also typically, it’s a nice flowing refrain. This one starts in E minor, going through the relative major and associated chords and ends in a B7 turnaround.
  • John Becker in PFAS 26A is right there with Everett. His paraphrase of verse 3 in a similarly structured refrain goes: ‘Your love is before my eyes; I have walked faithfully with you.’
  • Josef Haydn much earlier (1794) wrote a trio entitled, rather mysteriously: ‘How oft, instinct with warmth divine‘. The word ‘instinct’ in this case is archaic and means imbued, as the singer continues ‘…thy threshold have I trod.’ So Haydn was captured by ideas later in the psalm,  notably verse 8. His subtitle says: The Psalmist declares his Love for God’s House and determines to bless God. Reminiscent of Joshua’s “As for me and my house …” (Josh.24:15).

200 years earlier again (1597) Giovanni Gabrieli, in a major work for two choirs of five voices, eschewed key words and just went with the first five verses. The incipit provides the title: Iudica me Domine/Be thou my judge, O Lord, for I have walked innocently.

Psalm 80, 14 August 2016

80 signPsalm 80 (selected text here>) makes a relatively frequent appearance in the Revised Common Lectionary. It is listed in all three years, sometimes twice, and has been thrice discussed in this blog already — see entries in the Index Book 3 page. (The alternative reading is Psalm 82, which I described in a recent blog as ‘fundamental teaching on justice’.)

This song, a plea for restoration, has an inbuilt antiphon in the repetitive verses 3, 7 and 19, paraphrased in the refrain in Psalms for all Seasons by David Lee as:Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 19.08.

Restore us again, O Lord God of hosts, and show us the light of your face and your grace, and we shall be saved.

The verses

It’s easy to find a simple congregational response then just read the words. That is the expectation in some sources like The Emergent Psalter, whose fine modernistic antiphons generally end with the instruction ‘Vamp in (a chosen chord is mentioned)’ for the reading of verses. Easier, it’s true. But to me it seems to miss the whole tradition of poems that were meant to be sung to enhance and elevate their meaning, feelings or inspirational qualities. Often, this means using a suggested tone, provided in many psalters such as Psalms for All Seasons, or improvising.


The verse selection of this reading (1-2, 8-19) differs from those selected for readings during Advent. This does not invalidate the previous blogs’ commentary — but the song-sheet in our library would need to be rewritten.

These later verses still seek the restoration of Israel after subjection by the Assyrians. However, this section uses imagery not of a shepherd as in the earlier part of the psalm, but of a vine ‘out of Egypt’, flourishing until the walls of the vineyard are broken down. Strangers pick the grapes, wild animals ravage the vine and it is burned like rubbish. The song-writer asks for restoration not just for old glories and prosperity, but so that ‘we may never turn back from you’. (v. 18)

BP vines closeupNow we can see why three years ago our beloved Rev. Rachel suggested the Sinead song ‘If you had a vineyard’. It was sung beautifully then by Jo and Bruce. The text is drawn from Isaiah but it’s the same message, a plea for a return to integrity, safety, and wholeness that is allegorically just as valid today as when the song was written. We are indeed fortunate to hear these singers again as they and a few friends revisit the vineyard.

For other musical offerings for Psalm 80, see those previous blogs.

Psalm 60

Bauhaus washbasinIt was the washbasin that put me onto it.

I realised of course that there is quite a lot of repetition in the psalms – asking God to defend, save and vanquish evil, ‘for human help is worthless’ as in this song (Ps 60:11). But you immediately know you’ve been there before when you read something like this:

Ephraim is my helmet, Judah is my sceptre, Moab is my washbasin. On Edom I hurl my shoe … (Vs 7, 8)

Those phrases, indeed a whole slab of this psalm and some of 57, has been recycled in Psalm 108 (qv).


How (I’m tempted to add “in God’s name”) does the cantor sing “Moab is a washbasin and let us all throw our shoes” with a straight face? Do you try to slide it off in a folksy guitar number, or clothe it in Gregorian mystery, perhaps singing in Latin so no-one knows what the heck is going on anyway? I don’t think so.

Henry Purcell played it straight, writing a setting of Psalm 60 for six voices and continuo, with the rather forbidding title of O God, thou has cast us out. He sets up some nice antiphonal sections with two groups of three voices answering each other.Ps60 Purcell

But wait! He ducked Moab and the washbasin completely by picking verses before and after that bit.

Otherwise (as for many in this group of ‘skips’ from 55 to 61 omitted from the Lectionary) there are few classical settings available.

Map tribes in Caanan

The keen scholar might well analyse the historical references in each phrase, noting that the tribes in Caanan were not great friends of their neighbours — Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, even the Cardassians were probably in there somewhere Israel was in and out of war with them from the arrival out of Egypt; and what has changed? Here David has clearly been under sore duress when, as the sub-heading to the psalm says:

… he struggled with Aram Naharaim.

Our purpose here is not historical exegesis but to try to recreate the beauty of singing these ancient poems in a meaningful and inspirational setting. So, unless you are quite dedicated to changing not a jot nor a tittle (Matt. 5:18 KJV in a different context), then at the risk of throwing out Moab with the washbasin, I’d be paraphrasing for dear life.

Psalms 18, 21 and 28

Esztergom manuscript

The contents of Book 1 of the Psalter have been quite well covered here over the last few years. These next three ‘skips‘, all attributed to David, will colour it in a little further —  but not detain us long.

Psalm 18

This song is a long one, 50 verses celebrating David’s deliverance from the clutches of Saul and other nasties, accompanied, as in other psalms featured recently, by the atmospherics of clouds, thunder, fire and water. David’s message is that reliance on truth and divine guidance will lead to freedom and security. He is confident in the result that ‘God makes me sure-footed’ (v.33), a foretaste of ‘the truth shall set you free’ (John 8:32).

Music. The long psalms naturally invited a degree of selectivity by early composers, most of whom chose a verse or two, usually in Latin, for a delectable motet. Psalm 18 must have been a little daunting as there are not many songs to choose from in the classical files, nor responsorial settings in modern psalters. If you can field five good voices, go for a piece by mid-Renaissance Spanish composer Cristóbal di Morales (1500-1553) that draws, rather darkly, on verse 4; ‘The pains of hell came about me: the snares of death overtook me’. Gulp. That’s it, no promise that There, there it will be all right. So you’d do it for the music rather than the inspiring message.

Psalm 21 illuminated capital from the Henry VIII psalter, with marginal notes in the king's hand

Psalm 21 with illuminated capital from the Henry VIII psalter, with marginal notes in the king’s hand

Psalm 21

Ah, now this one is a shoe-in for a skip. Both 18 and 21 are labelled ‘Royal’ psalms — ‘the king’ is definitely up there. Triumphalism and violent undertones pose difficulties to modern readers schooled in values of democracy and the new commandment — and rightly so.  We have to remember that times have changed. This was an era of an eye for an eye, and the modern nation state had not been invented. Machiavelli probably would have sounded tame. David also had in mind the promise, with implied kingly responsibilities, that the children of Abraham in Israel were chosen as the vehicle eventually to bring reconciliation to a degenerate world.

Music. This is all very well, but I don’t imagine anyone is going to sing this whole psalm with relish. So nothing further need be said, save perhaps to note that Händel picked up this gift of a text, in Royalist celebration, for one of his four anthems for the coronation of King George II in 1727. Henry VIII (see pic above, click to enlarge) probably thought this was good stuff too. Relevance: zero, but the old manuscripts are interesting.

Psalm 28

Drawing for Ps. 28, Harley psalter

Psalm 28 falls into two sections. First, David calls for help and prays to be heard; verse 6 declares joyfully that God has heard, blessed be God.

Like the preceding Royals, attractive songs are sparse in our books and online — though a search including ‘youtube’ dishes up its usual grab-bag. Try this one>

Acknowledgements: Continue reading