Psalm 78, 12 Nov 2017

‘With upright heart God tended them, guided them.’ (72)

This long psalm of Asaph in 72 verses covers many of the high points in the Torah, including the plagues and the exodus, subsequent trials and the calling of King David, great tales also to be found in Psalm 114 and elsewhere. Psalm 78 is a plea, a promise and a pledge to tell the old, old stories — for those who went before us, for ourselves, and for those who will follow…

Stories of old; even better when sung

But wait, I wrote all this and more in a post just recently, so go there to read the rest. This saves space and effort for the web-master; however a close inspection shows that this psalm reading selects different verses. So while it’s close, TiS 41 sung on 1 October does not quite cover the territory. Near enough for the average thematic leader but strictly, the reading is verses 1-7; again, review the other choices suggested in that earlier post>.

Here is the chosen refrain and verse tune for this week at South Woden:Ps78 Listen tune

Worship and song leaders may also be enticed by the alternative readings this week from the Wisdom of Solomon, a book which is not universally accepted as part of the canon. This nice passage could be sung by women to good effect.

Why the quote at the outset from that last verse 72? Here is another reminder of the strong thread of divine justice and goodness that runs through both the Psalter and the stories of old.

Psalm 106

‘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.

Psalm 104, 17 Sep 17

‘You make springs gush forth in valleys, they flow between hills.’ (10)

Here we have epic demonstrative poetry, the poet overcome by the glory and power of the creation — and the Creator. The author’s feelings are quite infectious:

You are clothed with honour and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. (2-4)

Kanga on the Keys with Joyful Joey? A creation full of wonders.

The song continues relishing the diversity and complexity of creatures and the environment. As in several other psalms (145 for example) divine love also sustains and provides for this diverse living planet. In these days of global warming, extinction of many species and desertification, this picture can be lost in the fear. However, the psalms long for times when divine love working through people can regenerate and fulfil the intention of the blueprint.

The poet is certain that our world is wonderful and enduring: “You have set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never move.” (5) Psalm 102 counters that all things shall pass,1 however this poor little verse had the dubious honour of being one of those the church cited to condemn evidence of heliocentricity. For more on Copernicus, see Psalm 86; and beware literal doctrines.2

The settings in TEP, PFAS and the NCH are all suitable. The refrain from TiS 65 perfectly suits the theme of caring for our environment to  be taken up this week by our leader, Keith. Versification will be modified to the lectionary selection rather than that in the book. We shall also sing the verses to a different, home-grown tone — with a little swing added.

The hair-raising setting by Rachmaninoff mentioned under Psalm 103 is also relevant here as it shares similar text.

And just for interest, we have in years gone by used a Gregorian chant (no 8) for this psalm, again with different verses, to accompany a Hildegard song, complete with that marvellously atmospheric hurdy gurdy.

1Psalm 102:26.

2Refer also to Psalm 93:1

Psalm 137, 2 Oct 16; Babylon

Note: The readings this week are from Lamentations, with the alternative choices of Psalms 137, the subject of this post, or 37. See an earlier post for Psalm 37.

By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. (Ps. 137:1)

We may not remember Zion, but having often sung the 1972 reggae song made famous by Bob Marley and the Melodians, this lament of a people in exile will not be too far from the surface of our memories. To the psalm singer, however, the next verse it he one that hits home:

On the willows there we hung up our harps. For our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing a song of God in a strange land?

An instrument broken by conflict. Found in Berlin after WWII.
An instrument broken by conflict. Found in Berlin after WWII.

You would think that the singing of songs would be a powerful feature of grief and remembrance in exile. Some of our folk favourites are songs of people in another land, from the more hearty Botany Bay to a plaintive Isle of Innisfree (Dick Farrely, 1950), an oft-recorded song about Irish emigrants:

And when the moonlight creeps across the rooftops of this great city, wondrous though it be / I scarcely feel its wonder or its laughter; I’m once again back home in Innisfree.

In Babylon, it seems the Israelites could not muster the inspiration. Was it just to deny the captors? It may have sprung from an anger so strong as to banish all thought of song, generating vicious thoughts against the captors and their children. (v. 9) We may wish to dismiss this sting in the tail as classic outdated Old Testament vengeance; however it does give us a glimpse of what anger can do and how hard it is to manage. Deal with it we must if society is to avoid such dominoes of damage.

Psalm 81, 28 Aug ’16

Psalmist Asaph begins by casting into a shimmering spotlight some energising phrases:Lyre player, AlteNatGal

Raise a song and sound the timbrel, the merry harp and the lyre. Blow the ram’s horn at the new moon, and at the full moon (v.1, 3)

Then this touch of mystery:

I hear a voice I had not known: “I eased your shoulder from the burden You called on me in trouble and I saved you; I answered you from the secret place of thunder and tested you at the waters of Meribah” (vs. 5-7)

Asaph was one psalm writer who knew his history and used it in his songs. Whether today’s reader knows the background or not, the poetry sparks thought, dreaming, soaring imagination and hope.

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd
Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Meribah, for example, refers to a real historical event  (disputation, angst and water from the rock; Num. 20). Knowing the history helps. If not, you just say: “Some secret, ancient or holy places, I imagine.” One can still feel the warmth of being in the company of a great cloud of witnesses, hopeful humanity, whoever they are.

Music

The upbeat refrain in The Emergent Psalter (Everett notes: “This antiphon sounds great with power chords and a little distortion”) uses that mysterious verse 5 quoted above.

Psalms for All Seasons has a small clutch of offerings that most musicians would relish. Like the phrases already mentioned, they seem to display a theatrical bent:

  • 81A Sing with joy, antiphonal, with solo and tutti voices and verses to a tone; words and music traditional Malawian
  • 81B Strike up the music! with a quiet ostinato of ‘Hear my voice’ behind the reading of the verses (and an added flute part)
  • 81C in hymn style, and therefore not our choice, but interestingly breaks for ‘a reading of the law’.

Predictably, that opening call to raise a joyful song and blow the ram’s horn captured several classical composers such as Byrd (two setting for 5 and 6 voices), Hassler, Palestrina (again à5) and Scarlatti (SATB).

[PS. This is the 200th post. 150 psalms, and still 17 ‘un-blogged’.]