This psalm of thanks opens and closes with resounding acclamations of divine love and mercy that endure forever. In between are statements about trusting in God rather than in rulers (8), relief at delivery from evil and opposition (5, 10) access to goodness (19) and causes for rejoicing.
Each year when this psalm arises on Palm Sunday, local practice has been to pick up verse 22:
The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
As Paul Stookey has it in his song The Building Block, the cornerstone of a whole new world, one more resilient than the grand structures of antiquity — Shelly’s Ozymandius comes to mind.
Many of the psalms seem to have fag ends of widely varying ideas, statements and twists tossed in that at first sight seem to confuse. Sometimes they meld into a tasty, herbal mix: others just coexist, leaving the reader to ponder.
Psalm 107, the first of Book V of the Psalter, has sections that depict different scenes in life — wanderers in desert wastes, people gathering from all points of the compass, people in darkness or sick, those at sea like ‘boat people’, others settling new land, planting, thriving.
The unifying thread through this mix is the various experiences of exiles and refugees, blown to the shores as by variable winds of life. The song recalls with thanks the end of the era of exile in Babylon. It describes the experience of various groups in distress, a theme sharply relevant to today’s disaster areas such as Syria, Burma, Sudan — the full effects of global warming are yet to be seen — and dreams of safer havens.
This week’s reading includes the first few verses celebrating not only divine mercy, but also this veritable melting pot of humanity — “God gathered them from the east and the west”. (v.3)
Then follow 17 to 22 about people afflicted by sickness due to poor choices, or perhaps in tough times like the Israelites enduring privation after escaping from Egypt.
For more commentary on this psalm, see several earlier posts such as that of Nov 2017>.
Earlier posts also canvassed various music associated with this long (43 verse) song. At South Woden, we make another approach to Isaac Everett’s three-part refrain from The Emergent Psalter. We sang it back in 2013 and enjoyed the bluesy feel, as well as the admixture, as indicated at the outset, of various ideas that reflect the multiple voices, demands and pressures impinging on our consciousness from all angles. Composer Isaac Everett has taken the psalm’s two internal antiphons, then added a tag:
Let them give thanks to God for mercy and love, for wondrous deeds for humanity (verses 1, 15 and 31); and secondly
Then they cried to their God in their trouble, delivered from their distress (found no less than four times, in verses 6, 13, 19 and 28);and
May those who are wise give heed to these things; consider the love of God (the final verse 43)
These three voices reflect thanksgiving for relief and divine love, the cry of people in distress, and finally the moral of the story — consider. Everett has woven them together to good effect.
Psalm 111 is a song of praise in honour of the creative divine spirit whose very nature and deeds are awash in high standards of justice and goodness, “wrought in truth and equity”.(8)
These important attributes — standing out like sustaining pillars throughout the Psalter and thus much remarked upon in this blog, much desired in a selfish materialistic world — flow on to the ‘works’ or evidence on earth of divine influence. Bring it on; the pressing need for love and justice is patently obvious.
A final verse notes that reverence to this divine nature is ‘the beginning of wisdom’. Most translations say ‘the fear of God’, which seems to this author to be a rather inadequate rendition of the honour and loving respect due to revealed divine principles and their source, as the psalmist would have intended. Either way, this final verse seems to set up the transition to the next Psalm 112, which starts: “Happy are those who fear God, who delight in the commandments.”
Early composers such as Claudio Monteverdi, Wolfgang Mozart, Heinrich Schütz and Tomas Victoria all wrote several settings to this psalm, probably because this is one of the vespers psalms. (The introit shown above is from Victoria’s setting for odd verses. The previous psalm, 110, was included in Monteverdi’s famous Vespers of 1610; illustration at right>)
In modern sources:
A useful refrain by Jane Marshall, with a double tone for the verses, appears in Together in Song 68.
That in The Emergent Psalter is probably a little tricky for congregations to pick up on the fly.
Marty Haugen’s relatively simple refrain in The New Century Hymnal draws on verse 2: ‘Great are the works of God’.
A local adaptation of Haugen’s composition has been retrofitted with new words for the wisdom theme: ‘To honour God is the beginning of wisdom.’ Was it a little wimpy to avoid ‘the fear’?
Here is one of those confusing points of discontinuity between the numbering of the Latin Vulgate Psalter and the modern western translations. 114 and 115 were combined into what is now 116 in our Psalter.
This explains why some Ps 116 settings over the years are listed as quoting from Psalms 114 and 115. The incipit Credidi in a setting by the Spanish composer Victoria, for example, appears as Psalm 115:1 in the Vulgate:
“Credidi, propter quod locutus sum; ego autem humiliatus sum nimis / I believed, and therefore will I speak; but I was sore troubled.”
This is a nice four-part arrangement of odd verses only, and thus identifiable as a vespers psalm, amongst other uses. This verse now appears in the English Bible as Psalm 116:10, not even an odd verse. Cope.
Like Psalm 30 and others, Psalm 116 is a paean of thanks for deliverance from the power of darkness and, in particular in this psalm depending on the translation, the hold, anguish or entangling cords of the grave. So the psalmist resolves to walk in the divine presence in the land of the living (v.9) – a fine suggestion. The second half of the psalm is an act of dedication, so strongly felt that the psalmist’s declarations of trust and invocation are to be made ‘in the presence of all God’s people’.
Besides this tempting piece from Victoria, those by Lassus and Monteverdi are identified with the same incipit Credidi. Such numbering disparities appear in the lists of other classical arrangements.
… but Nice Notes
Paschal de l’Estocart (about 1538 – 1587) a French Renaissance composer from Noyon, who was considered to be quite an innovator, wrote a set of all 150 psalm settings including this one, J’aime mon Dieu, (Delixi quoniam which is Vulgate 114:1) from 1583. The melody is in the tenor, falsobordone style. The transcription bears the sub-heading: “Mis en musique pour quatre, cinq, six, sept et huit parties par Paschal de l’Estocart, de Noyon en Picardie.” His Psalm CXVI is for five voices.
Modern sources also call on different verses for the antiphon. As usual, the choice of medium will be influenced by the message:
The five entries in PFAS, two being responsorial, are marked by simplicity, perhaps too much if measured purely on the musical scale — which of course is not the main game. So 116D offers eight notes for eight words: “I love the Lord who heard my cry.” (v. 1) An alternate refrain is alike in brevity: “I will walk in the presence of God“, quoting verse 9. Verses are sung to a tone.
The next choice, 116E, uses that alternate refrain of 116D with a melody (again simple) for verses added.
NCH uses the final phrase of verse 1, “I will call on God as long as I live“, in a refrain with a little more interest — a swing feel, the chords alternating between Bb and Ab, and an echo voice.
Everett’s refrain in TEP is predictably more syncopated. He goes for verse 8, focused on deliverance and guidance. (He notes that it was sung “over a heavy trip hop beat”, whatever that is.)
TiS71 avoids the prosaic by providing a double tone for the verses, and two refrains. These are drawn from verses 9 quoted above, and 12: “How can I repay?“
And finally, a home-grown chant uses verse 1. It features the verses sung on a single note, against a falling bass line and some relatively unusual chords in the world of psalm settings. Verses have been paraphrased to sit more comfortably in this double-tone type of arrangement. Two cantors may sing a half of each verse antiphonally. No ornamentation is shown here but may be used in moderation in accordance with the cantors’ inspiration, or perhaps to subtly reinforce the chords changes moving around underneath. ‘Superficial simplicity’:
Such a wide choice allows for a refrain and style suitable to most occasions, whatever the dominant themes.
The alternate reading in the Lectionary is Psalm 100. For one example of what has been done at South Woden in the past, please see the blog for 23 Nov 14.
Psalm 10 never makes it into the weekly Lectionary readings, but 9 just sneaks in: “Year B, ordinary time, June 19-25 (if after Trinity)”. Sounds iffy indeed. But still, 9 does not qualify as a ‘skip‘. So on to 10.
But wait! In the early Septuagint translation and the original Hebrew, these two songs were one. (1) Isaac Everett says:
It’s clear that they form a single unit because the combined text is acrostic, with the first letter of each forming the Hebrew alphabet: Psalm 9 is roughly A-K and Psalm 10 is roughly L-Z.(2) So 9+10=a big fat psalm.
They were split because they have a different theme. First is joy and thanksgiving, then a lament. Convention would have it the other way around. But in the ship of fools, the first shall be last; so forget the labels and ‘Nine, ten, sing it again’. (3)
Nine. As in history, here David is thankful that his many enemies have been defeated. The modern reader gets little from triumphalism except as an example of faith in adversity, or as an allegory of our struggling with our own demons or the ‘Dark Side’. Throughout, we are reminded:
God will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. (v. 9)
Ten. The mood changes to waiting, praying and a little hand-wringing while those enemies play their nasty tricks:
Why do you stand so far off O God, and hide yourself in times of trouble? (v. 1)
Not all about me
In Psalms for all seasons No 10A, a plainsong melody, the translator has nicely emphasised a social justice angle:
From every plan which harms the poor,
from schemes to victimise the weak,
from those who snare the innocent,
Lord your defence, your help we seek. (4)
That certainly brings it up to date in a world of growing divide between rich and poor. Big fat hen or goose, maybe there’s the golden egg?