How good and how pleasant it is when kindred live together in harmony. That’s the simple message of this psalm.” Like most of the psalms of ascent, it’s short and sweet. Some unusual but enticing images that require a little explanation adorn the short song:
Fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard, upon the collars of Aaron’s robe. The pristine state of the high priest’s fine robes just don’t count against the value of a holy blessing.
The dew of Hermon flowing down upon the hills of Zion. Familial harmony is a blessing spreading gently down from the snowy heights upon the villages and streets of everyday dwellings in the foothills.
In the original historical setting, the references to the hills of Hermon in the northern kingdom (now on the Lebanon-Syria border) and Zion, the mount of Jerusalem in the southern kingdom, suggest that this was a prayer for national as well as societal or family unity.
As in recent years, we sing PFAS 133D, the lilting Spanish song Miren qué bueno. And speaking of relatives in unity, note how familial this Spanish is with the Latin in the illustration below, Ecce quam bonum. More singers = more harmony! Roll up.
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.
There’s no hint of it in the text of Psalm 86 but the Lectionary occasionally (Year A) trots this song out at around the time of the solstice. For those in ‘the South’, this is the winter solstice, shortest day in the southern hemisphere calendar. [Readers in the northern hemisphere might have to find a point of entry more relevant to the height of summer.] Down under, the lament resonates since David is here at a low point again, “poor and in misery”. But as usual, in such a slump he calls on divine support. (vs 4-7)
The Solstice itself has no particular significance in the Christian year. No, not true: we did borrow it in the days of the old Julian (and northern hemisphere) calendar for the pivotal festival of Christmas. However, the metaphor of reaching the nadir of cold times, be they astronomical, physical, social, emotional or spiritual, is obvious. Psalm 86 somehow reflects these circumstances, providing comfort and inspiration. With this in mind, in the following home-grown song (an SATB arrangement is available) the tune, in both verse chants and refrain, falls gradually to a low point before rising in hope. An obvious device, no doubt, yet undeniably in harmony with the liturgical concept.
People of every race and any century have long pondered on the cycles of heaven and earth, sometimes seeing spiritual significance, sometimes just in awe. In the early 16th century and a long way from the Greenwich Observatory, a Polish medic, cleric and astronomer named Copernicus hesitated for years before finally being pushed into publishing irrefutable evidence that the ancient Greek and Egyptian observers including Ptolemy (who lived not long after Jesus) were wrong in one major premise. The earth was not, in fact, the centre of the universe and creation. It actually rotated in orbit around the sun, not the other way around. Galileo agreed.
The established church opposed them, under pain of excommunication and worse. Some were actually burned at the stake for espousing such views. Galileo recanted, Copernicus kept his head down. The church fathers were stuck in the Ptolemaic system based on some very dubious and over-literal readings of biblical texts – including psalms such as 19 and 93 saying the earth shall not be moved – for fear that science would undermine belief in the inherited wisdom and authority of the church.
When Copernicus was finally convinced to publish, just before he died mid-16th century, Rome sniffily placed his book on a banned list. It stayed there for more than a century. Regrettably then as now, targeted or random, extreme interpretations in any faith are hard to reform and can lead to foolish attacks on innocent, thoughtful people.
For the ambitious there are many larger classical settings, such as a Morales 1541 motet in three parts, Inclina Domine aurem tuam. An even more demanding piece for nine voices [illustrated] under the same incipit was published by Orlando di Lasso (1530 – 1594) in 1604, in what turned out to be a very productive early decade for fine music.
This structure, two small choirs or quartet and quintet groups of soloists with or without accompaniment, was not uncommon. The author had the pleasure of hearing a Vecchi mass for 9 voices and early instruments, including psalm settings, performed near Den Haag by Musica Antica recently.
All musicians were reading from the original published music, not at all an easy task to the modern musician. It was conducted by Kate Clark, an Australian baroque musician, professor and lawyer resident in Amsterdam.
Psalm 86 is frequently absent in hymn books like TiS. However, TiS 725, the Taizé song In our darkness, is suitable in this context, under the Southern Cross at least.
The psalters, naturally, have settings. PFAS 86B is a responsorial setting whose words paraphrase the theme of the psalm, rather than a particular verse: “Be with me Lord when I am in trouble.” A simplified version of the same refrain may be found at 91D a few pages on.
Everett in TEP homes in on one of the few verses in the collection that mentions a female role-player:
Give your strength to your servant, and save the son of your handmaiden (16)
We are not sure whether this is David referring to his mother as the handmaiden, or it is indeed a prayer by the woman author herself.
The alternate set of readings includes Psalm 69. See previous posts such as that on 4 Sep 2016> Coincidentally, a featured refrain therein offers northern hemisphere readers a tune that rises, rather than falls, to match the summer solstice pattern.
This psalm, combining many common themes of supplication, distress, trust and courage in diversity, appeared in the Lectionary just last month. It was discussed in a post for Palm Sunday, a summary of which follows.
This is a rich psalm, combining feelings of confidence and security together with a sense of danger, sorrow and dismay. Enduring all opposition, David recognises the need for some assistance from the ‘tower of strength’ and the ‘God of truth’ (vv.4, 5) Then in verse 5 we find words quoted by the dying Jesus: “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” accounting for this reading in Holy Week and Easter.
As always the choice of music depends on a leader’s chosen theme. Thus:
If resignation of the spirit to divine power and care along the lines of verse 5 is preferred, the refrain from The Emergent Psalter would suit. It swings along quite nicely but has a definite air of lamentation about it. The psalm itself mixes that feeling with strong lines of petition and trust.
NCH has two refrains, the first emphasising the rock and fortress of faith, and the second asking for heavenly grace: “Let your face shine upon your servant.”
Celebrating hope and help in time of trouble is a favourite, the two-part antiphonal setting in Psalms for all seasons 31C by AnnaMae Meyer Bush and Kathleen Hart Brumm. This beautiful and thoughtful response is strong on melody, harmony and meaning, picking up a rather mysterious but powerful promise in verse 15: “My times are in your hands.” That’s only one of four good statements of belief rolled into this antiphon, which continues: “… You strengthen me in strife. My hope is in your word. Your love preserves my life.” This nicely harmonised response follows an easy, descending path of similar phrases. Easily learned, nice to sing. Verses may be sung to a similar chord progression. The main tune is quite a high setting but there is a second lower part acting as an echo voice which adds an excellent dynamic and antiphonal element.
Like the twenty-third, this is a psalm of trust and protection in divine presence, the source of goodness and guidance. David describes God as his portion and cup, evoking familiar imagery in themes that connect well with daily life. Less familiar but interesting are some other phrases that might easily pass unnoticed in a quick reading.
First, in verse 6: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in (or enclose) pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.” Most of us in the developed world can rejoice in having been dealt good cards — a well-favoured estate, physical and otherwise, as inherited by the psalmist. We seldom think of our situation as defined by boundary lines, but limits are implicit in our inherited circumstances. What we do with them is up to us.
Secondly, in the next verse, we find a point of contact with many meditative and mindfulness observances practised in many cultures around the world: it is by listening reflectively to our own hearts that we may often find divine guidance. There are several other ideas floating around; for example the apostle Peter quoted the later verses of the psalm in Acts 2, declaring that David was foretelling Christ and the resurrection. David concludes the song by affirming: “You show me the path of life. … there are pleasures for evermore.”
Of the four settings in Psalms for All Seasons, three follow our preferred format of a refrain with sung verses. All of these three emphasise the theme of refuge and protection:
16B has a slightly longer refrain and verses set to a lively tune
16D uses the same refrain as 16C but verses are sung to a tone.
16D Alt (a new tune which departs from the protection theme, and might therefore have been better listed separately as 16E) also follows that familiar pattern of verses sung to a simple tone, with a refrain quoting verse 9. This could be sung as call and response if desired:
Cantor: My heart is glad and my spirit rejoices People: My body shall rest in hope.
The Emergent Psalter also uses this verse 9 quoted above in an easy refrain; find your own verse treatment as usual in this source. The New Century refrain, this time by Carolyn Jennings, quotes the final phrase: “In your right hand are pleasures for evermore.” A home-grown setting by the author also uses these closing phrases.
There are a couple of songs in the ether that are highly suitable for male voices. A good example is Benedicam Domino (Psalmus 15) by Orlando di Lasso (1532 – 1594). It’s only a verse or two, and that in Latin, but very enticing.