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 35

ShadowPsalm 35 has been omitted from the lectionary, probably as a ‘special interest’ poem — in this case for those who have been slandered or victim of deceit and such injustices. Hopefully most readers will not suffer such pain too often and may not identify with the psalmist and the song; but it does happen.

As noted in relation to other songs by David like Psalm 52 and 34, the historical setting and David’s harsh experience at the hands of both slanderers and King Saul are important.

The psalmist early recognises that the best response is to seek wisdom and any remediation required from the source of all love and justice, rather than taking an eye for an eye. There’s no doubt that David hopes for the downfall of his opponents. Significantly, though, he is sympathetic to the plight of his enemies when they were sick, wearing sack-cloth, fasting, praying and regarding them just like good friend or family. (vs 13, 14)

The psalm highlights the devastation unguarded words can cause in the lives of others, and recommends the habit of speaking the truth in love. (Eph. 4:15)

Each of three sections concludes (verses 10, 18, 28) in a declaration of trust in divine goodness.


There are a couple of settings around, neither common nor antiphonal. To my mind, the psalm does not lend itself well to this responsorial style unless the refrain is positive and uplifting. Isaac Everett‘s in The Emergent Psalter, sounding appropriately rather like a Hebrew song (download>), is just that:

Excerpt from refrain by Everett

Excerpt from refrain by Everett

Otherwise, a hymn like PFAS 35A (the only suggestion in this book, but with the added attraction of an arrangement by JS Bach) might suffice as a response to the reading.



Psalms 74, 75

Book 3, as mentioned previously, is the home of the songs of the musician Asaph. His first five are not included in the lectionary, the next five are.

Psalm 74

Psalms for all seasons offers but one setting, the well-known O come, Emmanuel (VENI EMMANUEL 88.88 with refrain). This is an interesting choice, since it uses ancient antiphons rather than the text of the psalm. In particular, it draws on the ‘O Antiphons’, named for the invocations:Male voices Vézelay

  • O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (O Lord)
  • O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
  • O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)

In the Catholic tradition, these antiphons are sung at vespers during Advent. Here, the call upon God’s various names reflects the communal despair and lamentation of Psalm 74, particularly at the destruction of the temple, which leads Asaph to turn to God on behalf of the people.

PFAS usefully suggests using both verses and refrain of this hymn as congregational song, with the sections of verses spoken or chanted in between.(1) A combination of the haunting early French plainsong (2) and the early antiphonal references thus provide a conducive ‘music space’ in which to contemplate the messages of words and music.

15C clock, Basel museumJohn Blow (1648-1708) wrote a motet O God wherefore art thou absent, drawing on the ‘How long?’ theme in the first few verses (see also Psalm 13). It’s arranged for SSATB and basso continuo, so won’t be heard in many halls.

Psalm 75

This short psalm is one of thanksgiving for divine justice, with a reminder to the proud and powerful not to rely on their own achievements for prominence or praise. That justice, pictured as a common draught of mixed wine from which all shall drink, will be a great leveler.

The thoughtful approach of Psalms for all seasons mentioned above is continued here in the suggestion that the psalm is quite like the Magnificat (Luke 1). So PFAS includes a nice traditional Irish version of this song, My soul cries out, to the tune Star of County Down.

Notes: Continue reading

Skip and jump; 37, 92, 138

A matter of balance

Plenty of skip and jump in the Australian Open at this time of the year — despite the heat!

The poetic moods in the psalms range from dark and penitent to skipping and jumping. Sometimes several moods mix in any one song, making the choice of a suitably supportive musical style challenging.

The title today is occasioned by a different issue, that of the psalms we do not hear. Some we jump because they did not make it into the Revised Common Lectionary (the numbers not in bold type in the lists in the Library and index pages).

Others we skip because something comes up. This year, it’s because Easter is quite early and we leap into Lent before exhausting all the ‘ordinary’ days in the season after Epiphany. (1)

This year, Year C, the songs we lose for Lent are 138, 1, 37, 92 and 96. Let’s have a quick look, noting that 1 and 96 are discussed elsewhere in this blog:

  • The first psalm, together with the second, form something of an introduction to the book. It’s a beautiful song and not to be missed, so worth a read during the weeks sometime
  • 96 is visited frequently, often sung in December in fact as it comes up for Christmas Day.

Psalm 37

This is a fairly long (40 verses) reflection on people who are good or evil. It encourages us towards the Clean-living Claude/ia end, not just to avoid wrath but because such values are associated with wisdom — an important theme in the psalms — and hence justice. (v.30) The psalmist says not to bother if the wicked appear to flourish, themes picked up by a couple of classical settings of interest:

  • Orlando di Lassus: in Latin for five voices, presenting verses 35-36 (Tweet: “The wicked flourish; now you see them, now you don’t”); and
  • William Byrd: in English for only three voices and thus more attainable for small singing groups, a setting of verse 25 alone which is about the other side of the coin:

I have been young but now am old, but never have I seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.

I wonder if there’s a minimum age for the singers for that one? More seriously, we have seen young and old, including children of good people and of all walks of life, begging for bread in tragic circumstances recently. We can only pray that both sides of the coin, fading wickedness, thriving ‘righteousness’ and justice, may be true of those who are causing their pain.

Palms in the Kimberley

Palms grow strong across northern Australia; these ones in the Kimberley.

Psalm 92

Psalm 92 also values the senior citizen, an idea that Everett picks up in his antiphon in The emergent psalter:

Those who are righteous shall flourish like a palm tree … they shall bear fruit in old age (verses 12-14)

The full psalm is much broader in scope, though, with encouragement to sing praises in the morning and the evening, with psaltery, lyre and harp. This theme resonates in the refrains in PFAS, as well as a nice Taizé setting by Jacques Berthier (Together in song 50)

Palms at Percy IsPsalm 138

This is another psalm “of David”, of thanksgiving and trust.

This song also appears in TiS, at number 86, a refrain that I cannot remember ever singing. I say refrain rather than tune, for TiS rather unusually instructs us: “Verses are to be spoken. It is effective … against a softly playing-background of instruments”. This style is the norm in The emergent psalter.

Note: Continue reading

Psalm 111, 16 August 2015

Psalm 111 this week is quite short but dense. It’s full of big statements such as:

Great are the deeds of God, studied by all who delight in them.

Full of honour and majesty is the work of God, whose goodness endures forever (verses 2 and 3)

A previous post on Psalm 111 focused on themes of wisdom and — another key word appearing in verse 8 — equity.

All this strong evidence is used as the basis for something of a challenge in the last verse:

The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding (v.10)


Blake’s Ancient of Days. Illustration from the British Museum.

This familiar verse can slide past unremarked by the experienced reader. It did not escape Trish’s attention. Aware that this week our children lead the service, she immediately commented on the Crystal Ball mention. How do the children read the word ‘fear’.

Few bible translations, and I looked at more than a dozen, capture the positive dimension of this claim. One even uses the word ‘dread’. The Good News Bible tries this:

The way to become wise is to honour the Lord

I bow to the weight of learned opinion here but cannot feel that that’s the end, let alone the heart, of the matter. It has the ring of the ten, rather than the two, commandments.

Does not a wiser and richer life flow from valuing and directing our lives towards sources of love — divine and human, however we discern them — in our lives, our community, our universe? This may be a little loose but, like wisdom, it shares consistency with the fruit of the spirit. It certainly counterbalances the fear and trembling impression.

Perhaps the clue is in the immediately preceding verses:

God … worked with truth and equity; and sent redemption to the people, and commanded the covenant forever; holy and awesome is the name. (vv. 8, 9)

In fact, read the whole psalm again with this point in mind; more joy than fear there.


Cherub playing lute, AugMus FbgNone of the response tunes I have seen try to paraphrase the ‘fear of God’ along the lines suggested. This is not to suggest that the older children can’t appreciate the nuances of fear, reverence and honour. They are smart. However, more positive terminology would help. Rather than sing about fear with the children it may perhaps be useful to use one of the refrains that draw on other themes. The emergent psalter, for example, is on safe ground using verse 1:

With my whole heart I thank you Lord.

This little composition is nice but may be too syncopated to use as a children’s song unrehearsed.  It’s a fine opportunity for someone to make up a nice little tune with the children on the spot, using a short text that fits the leaders’ chosen theme. [This author-cantor, regrettably, is unable to attend what will be a rich occasion with the young people.]

Psalm 107 and 51, 15 March 2015

A scary story of serpents in the wilderness from Numbers in the previous lectionary reading is a good precursor to the psalm’s theme of divine mercy experienced in time of stress. The selection from Psalm 107 invites the reader to be thankful for everlasting mercies. An additional dimension is added in the next reading:

By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8)

The Lenten theme is continued in Psalm 51 which we hear the following Sunday 22 March:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  (Ps 51:1)


The psalms are superb at crossing boundaries of many types; but this one reads well in immigrant Australia, as in many parts of a shifting world:

Let the redeemed of God say so, those redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south (vs. 2, 3)

Whether or not we acknowledge divine agency in these peregrinations, we have certainly gathered from all parts of the world to this wide brown land. Aboriginal people have gathered from time to time from all points of the compass since their arrival in this country perhaps 60,000 years ago.Kimberley landscape

You will have to read 107 for yourself. As noted at the outset, we look ahead and observe that a similar song, Psalm 51, is on the menu for 22 March 2015. This is one of the ‘penitential psalms’. The psalms loosely grouped under this label are spread randomly throughout the book (full list here>).


1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime. Source: Wikimedia commons

1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime. Source: Wikimedia commons

Psalm 51 seems to have attracted musicians like bees to honey. Even our familiar book the Psalms for all seasons excels itself and produces more that a baker’s dozen of songs just for this psalm.

There are dozens more on the web. Amongst this plethora of settings, the collection of penitential psalms from 1570 by Orlando di Lasso has always caught my attention, if only by reputation and delight at most works from the pen of Lassus — see an earlier post here>.

Lassus wrote two motets on Psalm 51. We present the shorter motet in four voices on both 15 and 22 March.

Here’s a preview sung by the Dresdner Kappellknaben:

… though nothing can touch the joy of live music sung by and for friends; so please do come and listen as Bruce and Jon lead our time together on 15 and 22 March. Visitors, indeed any sight-reading singers out there, welcome. We rehearse Saturday at 5.

More on Lassus and the psalmsContinue reading

Psalm 111, 1 Feb 15

Bibliothèque Humaniste, SélestatWisdom is a coveted but slippery commodity, something to which we aspire but seldom feel we have achieved.

Is the getting of wisdom genetic, The Force, or Destiny? Do you need to be christened Solo?

Or does it seep in from wide reading, learning, and debate, as suggested in this alcove in the Humanist Library in Sélestat, established by Beatus Rhenanus a friend of Erasmus? (His librarians seem not to have read Proverbs 4 in which wisdom is feminine).

Erasmus, at least in his Praise of Folly, was quite dismissive of wisdom in terms of learning for knowledge superiority (vanity?). There is indeed a whole discussion on Jesus’ tendency to invert social hierarchical values.

Wisdom really kicks in, we are told in the last verse of this full-on psalm (text here >), only with full recognition of the divine order:

The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding (verse 10)

The preparation for this announcement is a strong statement in the psalm of belief in divine goodness and protection, based on the evidence of majesty and splendour all around – the creation, its bounty and the rightness of the commandments (vv. 3-6).

Physical evidence is only part of it. The psalmist points out that one of the works of God’s hands is faithfulness. So Thomas O Chisholm was inspired to write:

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above join with all nature in unspoken witness to your great faithfulness, mercy and love. (TiS 154 v.2, based on Lamentations 3)

Justice and equity leap out of many psalmsThe psalmist then moves on to some more demanding precepts: justice and equity. These concepts come around time and time again in the psalms. They certainly catch this author’s attention and act as a reminder of just how far we have yet to go.


A drop of Mozart (Confitebor tibi) would go down well but I think it’s the orchestra’s day off.

Back in the ‘red book’, in TiS 68 we find another Jane Marshall refrain that would suffice, together with one of those four-line tones we described, and the men sang, last week.

Other alternatives abound as usual in Psalms for all seasons. (Reminder to singers: draw out your shiny new copy of PFAS from Lib the Librarian.)

However, a simple refrain emphasising divine wisdom that we have sung previously is our bread this week:Ps111 response


We welcome again our visiting friend and ministry partner Jean, whose leadership we value.

A final thoughtContinue reading