The Psalms

Jethro, Going Postal
Children singing and playing music, illustration of Psalm 150 (Laudate Dominum). Panel decorating the cantoria (singers’ gallery), actually a balcony for the 1438′ organ of the Duomo. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy. Marble.
Luca della Robbia (Italian, 1400–1482), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Many years go, when I was ‘doing’ Theology’, I found that as regards The Bible, ‘the science is settled’ might have been the mantra: not only did ‘Paul’ (no longer St. Paul) not write The Letter (no longer ‘Epistle’) to the Hebrews, but ‘Matthew’ was no longer the author of what was no longer the first Gospel, and St. John was reduced to being the anonymous author of ‘The Fourth Gospel’, who, of course, was proven not to be the author of the Epistles – sorry, Letters- accorded to him – still less, the author of the Bible’s last book, which was no longer to be referred to as ‘The Revelation of St. John the Divine’ (i.e. ‘The Theologian’ ho theologos). And while, even before, all this not mere ‘de-mythologising’ (thank you, Professor Bultmann)  but debunking of the New Testament was going on, there had been a parallel movement chopping the Old Testament into little bits. In such a world, Moses could not possibly have written any of The Pentateuch, nor could King David be considered the writer of the Psalter, not least because one or two Psalms actually had the words ‘a Psalm of David’ in their Hebrew title, indicating quite clearly that if he were indeed the author of those psalms, he wasn’t of all the others. All this ‘assured results of current biblical scholarship’ was enthusiastically adopted by The Church of England, and it became a kind of shibboleth, to determine those suitable for advancement: a pre-figuring of the present situation, where advancement has gone only to those holding approved views on the Ordination of Women and all the rest of the liberal agenda.

Some of my Tutors found my cranky old-fashioned view of things inexplicable, not least because I was at a very ‘Catholic’ theological College, where such opinions were least expected. I thought that some of this ‘x’ couldn’t possibly have written such and such, no more convincing or helpful than all the late nineteenth century fuss about the authorship of Shakespeare, admirably dismissed by Mark Twain (?) ‘Of course Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare: it was all written by another man with the same name’

So (at last!) after this convoluted and unnecessary prologue, to the Psalms of David. Of course, everyone knows and loves Psalm XXIII,’The Lord is my shepherd: therefore can I lack nothing’ with its verse versions ‘The God of love my shepherd is’ and ‘The Lord my pasture shall prepare’ (George Herbert and Joseph Addison, respectively) and ‘The King of love my shepherd is (Sir H.W. Baker). In a few year’s time, my claim that ‘everyone knows and loves’ the 23rd. Psalm will be untenable. For me, The Psalms need to be in Coverdale’s translation, as found in The Book of Common Prayer, and it is, normally, those words which are used “in Quires and places where they sing” such as the Cathedrals and certain Colleges of Oxford and Cambridge; and there, the singing is to ‘Anglican Chant’, a post-Reformation development of the Plainchant psalmody the Church had developed before (‘Tonus peregrinus’ – the wandering tune – survived into Anglican Chant Books, usually set to Psalm 114 ‘In exitu Israel’, and ‘Parisian Tone’, a rather dull chant, to my mind) . Apparently, Dvorak, hearing psalms here (on his visit to Cambridge, when they awarded him an Honorary D. Mus.?), afterwards remarked, ‘Why couldn’t they let that poor little tune alone?’ but, with few exceptions, the ‘poor little tunes’ serve to bring the words to the fore, and also allow the skilled organist to do a little embroidery around them, to help us ‘see’ what the words are telling us (and to relieve any Dvorakian feeling of monotony, as well as letting the organist do a bit of showing off!). The organist at the Church (‘down ‘ere’) where I grew up, was masterly at this, as among most else, once remarking to me that it was said that an English organist could represent any sound in the psalter, except that of ‘a moth fretting a garment’: certainly his evocative accompaniment of Psalm 104 was even better than any Technicolor version could have been.

Anglican Chant, much like its Gregorian ancestor, has to take account of the fact that the verses of the Psalms are of very unequal lengths, so there is a ‘reciting note’ – somewhat like Recitative in Oratorio and Opera – and then a ‘mediation’ (tuney bit), a bit more ‘reciting’, etc.; for shorter Psalms, as for short Canticles, such as Evensong’s lovely ‘Nunc Dimittis’, just a few bars is enough, for instance soh, soh, soh ,soh; soh, lah, doh1, te, lah, soh, or G,G,G,G; G A flat, C1, B flat, A flat, G. But the harmonies make this spare little non-entity into an excursion, from C minor (all gruff and grumpy) into its Relative, E flat Major (contrastingly sunny and optimistic), and the timing is written as: 4(beats); 2, 2, 4:: 4, 2, 2, 3, 1,4::; or, semibreve; minim,minim, semibreve:: semibreve; minim, minim, dotted minim- crotchet, semibreve. So, perhaps, think of that ‘poor little tune’ as something like a musical Haiku.

But, the Canticle ‘Nunc Dimittis’ has taken us into the New Testament (albeit, very much cast in psalm-form), so revenons a nos moutons: within this small compass, composers were able to do considerable things. There is, for instance, a Double Chant, written by Purcell (1659 – 1695), which is indelibly associated with Psalm 130 (‘Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord : Lord, hear my voice.’), where the opening bars put us firmly, we think, in F major (bright and sunny) for the musical ground to give way beneath us, as we plunge unexpectedly into the remote key of D flat (it all hinges on that one note ‘F’ which the two keys share), only for this then to betray us further, by going into F minor. Before the days of Bach’s ‘Equal Temperament’, whereby all keys were slightly ‘out of tune’, rather than a few being in tune, and others being harshly dissonant, this must have been astonishing to the ears in Westminster Abbey, the hearers being brought momentarily, gasping, to the surface, only to be plunged almost as deep again; ‘out of The Deep’ – that bottomless Chaos the Israelites saw as constantly threatening to break through to the surface, the subjugation of which by The Lord, they continually gave thanks for, not least (like us) when they felt overwhelmed either by their own sin and foolishness, or by the evil toils of others. Here is the Psalm:

De profundis

  1. OUT of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice.
  2. O let thine ears consider well: the voice of my complaint.
  3. If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss: O Lord, who may abide it?
  4. For there is mercy with thee: therefore shalt thou be feared.
  5. I look for the Lord; my soul doth wait for him: in his word is my trust.
  6. My soul fleeth unto the Lord: before the morning watch, I say, before the morning watch.
  7. O Israel, trust in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy: and with him is plenteous redemption.
  8. And he shall redeem Israel: from all his sins.

I wonder if prayers like this were wrenched from the heart of David, as he prostrated himself, praying that God would let his ill-begotten child live.

We are told that, whereas in these chilly northern climes our habitual mode of speech tends to the ironic (that ‘English irony’ that, someone said, escapes the understanding of Jews?) and understated,  in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern lands, Hyperbole, overstatement, is the norm; and, along with this, in the Psalms perhaps especially, there is a vividness of expression, at once homely and profound – ‘My tongue cleaveth to my gums’; my enemies ‘smite me on the cheekbone’, and ‘stand staring and looking upon me’, ‘gaping with their mouths’, and so, ‘I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint: my heart also in the midst of my body is even like melting wax.’ Anyone who has been suddenly hemmed in, when walking, by a herd of cattle, will know how terrifying it is to be surrounded by these mute, but far from dumb, creatures: ‘Many oxen are come about me: fat bulls of Basan close me in on every side.’ Seeking the protection of ‘the most High’, the petitioner – perhaps making his prayer a kind of dialogue with God – says, ‘Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night: nor for the arrow that flieth by day; For the pestilence that walketh in darkness: nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day. A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at they right hand: but it shall not come nigh thee.’ Isn’t that a marvellous evocation of our nameless dread, ‘the pestilence that walketh in darkness’ – the sly, invisible inroads upon us of unseen malice? And then the equally stark ‘daylight robbery’ of the disease that coincides with the ‘noon-day sun’ in ‘the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day: all the more evil, because so blatant.

Instead of Rhyme, Hebrew poetry uses a kind of rhyme-of-sense: so, often, the second clause is an amplification or periphrasis of the first  – ‘Parallelism’, they call it, but it serves also as an Intensification of what has been said (or sung, in this case, a Psalm being a poem sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments – from David’s ‘Harp’, to the ‘Viols’ mentioned in one of those tantalising glimpses of the actual music the Bible affords us). If I knew more than the less even than rudimentary Hebrew than I do, I should be able to expatiate more confidently on this point, but I understand that, in Hebrew, instead of words like ‘very’ or ‘much’ or ‘greatly’, there is repetition (cf. holding down the button or key, rather than just pressing it once?): so, when Esau discovers that Jacob has cheated him of his father’s blessing, he ‘cries with a cry’, or as The Authorised Version put it, “And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry”.

David was so little a lad, that, when the Prophet Samuel called Jesse to have his sons lined up for him to determine which of them God wanted to succeed faithless Saul, he got to the end of the line, and had to demand  ‘Are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep. And Samuel said unto Jesse, Send and fetch him: for we will not sit down till he come hither.’ [I Samuel 16:11]. It seems that, as far as Jesse was concerned, David was the runt – the last and therefore least-considered of his brood.

How old was he? Of course, we’ll never know, but that he was was ‘ruddy faced’ might suggest that

his skin was yet to bear the marks of puberty:

‘Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to. And the LORD said, Arise, anoint him: for this is he.’

Today’s Social Workers and Family Courts would have had the little boy whisked away to a children’s home, and his parents prosecuted for child cruelty. It was obviously terrifying for the young lad to be alone in the dark, cold, and hungry, having to watch over his father Jesse’s sheep; in a sudden flash of inspiration, he starts to sing his song – ‘whistling in the dark’ – declaring that he has a Shepherd, watching over him – none other than God Himself:


Dominus regit me

The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing.
He shall feed me in a green pasture, and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.
He shall convert my soul, and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness, for his Name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.
Thou shalt prepare a table before me against them that trouble me;
thou hast anointed my head with oil, and my cup shall be full.
But thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Another Psalm I love, is Psalm 27 (Oxford University’s motto), with a similar theme:

Jethro, Going Postal
Coat of arms of the University of Oxford
ChevronTango, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Dominus illuminatio

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I
fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall
I be afraid? When the wicked, even mine enemies and my
foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.
Though an host of men were laid against me, yet shall not
my heart be afraid; and though there rose up war against me,
yet will I put my trust in him. One thing have I desired of the
Lord, which I will require, even that I may dwell in the house
of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty
of the Lord, and to visit his temple.
For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his tabernacle;
yea, in the secret place of his dwelling shall he hide me,
and set me up upon a rock of stone. And now shall he lift up
mine head above mine enemies round about me. Therefore
will I offer in his dwelling an oblation with great gladness; I
will sing and speak praises unto the Lord.
Hearken unto my voice, O Lord, when I cry unto thee;
have mercy upon me, and hear me. My heart hath talked of
thee, Seek ye my face. Thy face, Lord, will I seek. O hide not
thou thy face from me, nor cast thy servant away in displeasure.
Thou hast been my succour; leave me not, neither forsake
me, O God of my salvation. When my father and my
mother forsake me, the Lord taketh me up.
Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in the right way,
because of mine enemies. Deliver me not over into the will of
mine adversaries; for there are false witnesses risen up
against me, and such as speak wrong. I should utterly have
fainted, but that I believe verily to see the goodness of the
Lord in the land of the living.
O tarry thou the Lord’s leisure. Be strong, and he shall
comfort thine heart; and put thou thy trust in the Lord.

So, just imagine this little lad, as darkness descends, and, perhaps, his tiny lamp has gone out, terrifiedly pleading with God, and then being reassured: ‘The Lord is my light, and my salvation…’- relish the poignancy of that heartfelt verse, ‘When my father and mother forsake me…’

We used always to sing this to a chant by the Cathedral Organist, under whose tuition our Organist had been articled (Dr Monk), which ‘wandered’ from F Major, to G minor, via an unexpected modulation from F – not to the expected B-flat – but to G minor.  As a Choir-boy, I must have sung this countless times, before realising how very apt that eventual return to the comforting ‘home key’ was. I think back to childhood, and having to leap into a cold bed, to avoid the clutching claws of those unnameable things that doubtless lurked under there: for the little boy David, the creatures were real, actual, audibly, if not visibly, close. That small choir-boy might not have made a mental connection, but something of the feelings of desolation or faith must have been engraven in his soul by the music foremost, and then the words.

For a long time it seems, knowledge and love of the Psalms was almost taken for granted: I forget which ancient Saint it was (Bede? ) who refused to put forward for ordination a young man who was unable to recite (from memory) all 150 of them correctly – evidence of lack of prayerfulness, perhaps. Before the Reformation, those in Holy Orders recited the whole psalter in their ‘Hours’; after the Reformation, the psalms were split over 30 days of Morning and Evening Prayer. If you have a Book of Common Prayer, you can see this in action, the page-heading for instance where mine has fallen open, has ‘Day 26 : Ev.’ on the left, and ‘Day 27: Mn.’ on the right, and there (Day 27: Mn.)

is the lovely Psalm 121:

Levavi oculos

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills : from whence cometh my help.
2 My help cometh even from the Lord : who hath made heaven and earth.
3 He will not suffer thy foot to be moved : and he that keepeth thee will not sleep.
4 Behold, he that keepeth Israel : shall neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord himself is thy keeper : the Lord is thy defence upon thy right hand;
6 So that the sun shall not burn thee by day : neither the moon by night.
7 The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil : yea, it is even he that shall keep thy soul.
8 The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in : from this time forth for evermore. *

The next Psalm is familiar to us as Parry quotes from it in his great Coronation Anthem, ‘I was glad…*

Samuel Sebastian Wesley often builds a whole Anthem around a verse or two from a Psalm, for instance, two verses from Psalm 52 give us that magical opening of ‘Wash me throughly’ *

How astonishing that must have sounded when it was first heard in Hereford Cathedral, in 1840 – those soaring leaps in the single Treble voice, and the spare and then growling accompaniment. Much later, the great contrapuntist, Charles Wood wrote his amazing anthem to words by Charles Sorley, who died in The Great War at the battle of Loos, at no more than 20, as a kind of In Memoriam, (Wood himself lost a son in that War) Sorley’s words reflect on Psalm 40’s opening, ‘Expectans expectavi’ ‘I waited patiently for the Lord’: read the whole Psalm, and see how its cry to God must have echoed his actual feelings, as did psalms 23 and 27 for the lad David. See how, in Sorley’s poem, he moves towards gestures known to Anglican communicants:

This sanctuary of my soul
Unwitting I keep white and whole,
Unlatched and lit, if Thou should’st care
To enter or to tarry there.

With parted lips and outstretched hands
And listening ears Thy servant stands,
Call Thou early, call Thou late,
To Thy great service dedicate.

One of the C of E’s tragic losses lies, I think, in its downgrading of the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer – Mattins and Evensong, to make the Eucharist ‘central’ (and so, unintentionally, cheapen that!). Subsequent ‘revisions’ have tried to make up for the lack of knowledge of the Old Testament, now endemic among Anglicans, with bits of the O.T. shoe-horned into the Eucharist. ‘Too little; too late’ some say. If you are not familiar with The Psalms, do find an old Book of Common Prayer, blow the dust off, and find some Psalms (Psalm 119 is perhaps not the ideal place to begin); relish the strangeness of Coverdale’s words, the richness of David’s imagery, and the directness of his pleadings with God.


© Jethro 2020

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