Psalm 87/88 : how do you sing about despair?

Despair and desolation  in song form

This is the darkest of the psalms, with no heartening shift towards hope and relief. The psalmist forensically dissects his situation and his feelings, and finds no light or comfort anywhere. This is unique in the Psalms.  Mostly they are at least partly joyful in tone (they are songs, after all), but there are plenty of gloomy psalms, or gloomy passages.   Psalm 87/88 is the only one where the gloom is unrelieved by the prospect of actual comfort arriving, or even just the hope of it.  Why would you sing about despair?

Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels

I’ve been looking at this psalm because it’s set for the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels on the US Bishops’ website. I was so surprised to find it there that I had a hunt around and discovered that most other Lectionaries are offering Psalm 90/91, and this indeed is available as another option for the US. But if it’s asked for on a particular day, I like to set it, because we try to make sure that you can keep to the Missal as far as humanly possible. So I had to find a way to sing Psalm 87/88.

Unfinished previous attempt

I had totally forgotten, but I had made a previous attempt at setting it, and come up with this modal tune, but I’d never finished it or fleshed it out.  It’s possible I was very busy and events just overtook me; but I think it was also the difficulty of trying to sing (and get the congregation to join in with) such a bleak set of words.  Of course people sing about tragedy all the time in opera, but we don’t do it in church unless we are looking towards resurrection;  and we don’t in opera try to get everyone to join in and sing along.

Fiddler with dancer
The power of music
Psalm 87/88 and what it says

This is a frightening psalm, because it is absolute.  The language is very simple and direct.  The writer describes his emotions in a quiet, almost passionless way.   It starts not with a call for help but a description of an ongoing call for help; the tone is almost conversational.  It is addressed to God, but the speaker is not expecting any response; he is just carrying on calling because there is nothing else left for him to do.  He does not rail at God for the injustice of his position; he reminds the Lord that he keeps calling to him for help, but all his life he has been suffering with no relief.  He can see no reason for this; like Job, he has not deserved what has happened to him.  People count him as already dead, he has reached the end of his strength, he is alone among the dead, even forgotten by God;  and it is God who has done this to him.  The images of desolation are piled up with almost physical weight : death, graves, drowning under  great waves of water, isolation, imprisonment, grief.

drowning people underwater
Drowning under the billows (but not alone)

At verse 10, the psalm feels as though it goes back to the beginning.   This is like when your mind wearily repeats the circle of miserable thought you have just gone through, when you are depressed.  ‘I call to you, Lord, all the day long’, and he starts asking God direct questions : ‘Will you work your wonders for the dead?  Will your love be told in the grave?’, but these are only rhetorical questions, and he does not wait for or expect an answer.

Again he repeats the beginning of the psalm (v 14, ‘Lord, I call to you for help’) and the questions are even sharper :’Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you hide your face?’  and we realise that the worst of his suffering is not that God is absent, but that he is choosing not to engage.  The psalmist goes back to describing his position, as though it were someone else.  Unusually, no human enemies or dangerous animals are even mentioned; this is all God’s work. ‘I have borne your trials; I am numb.  Your fury has swept down upon me; your terrors have utterly destroyed me.  They surround me all the day like a flood, they assail me all together.  Friend and neighbour you have taken away: my one companion is darkness.’

Seascape at night, storm
Darkness and billows

It’s not a long psalm, but it’s too long for a Responsorial.  The US psalm as set is the first eight verses.  Strophe 1 is the call for help, 2 he is about to die, his strength is gone, 3 his place is among not just the dead but the forgotten, and 4 has no relief : ‘You have plunged me into the bottom of the pit (‘tomb’ in the Grail translation), into the dark abyss.  Upon me your wrath lies heavy, and with all your billows you overwhelm me’.  This is wonderful poetry, like parts of Isaiah and Job, but is not going to have the congregation spontaneously bursting into song.

Job surrounded by fierce animals
Job suffering among the animals
Artful renunciation of music in Psalm 136/137

We have had trying to sing about tragedy before, in the rivers of Babylon psalm, where the psalmist cleverly makes a song out of hanging up our harps and renouncing music (here’s the blog I wrote about that one), but this is a different sort of despair, because there is nothing left even to sing about.  In Psalm 87/88, there is no one else there, not even an enemy, only God and the singer.  He is on the brink of the grave.  There is nowhere to go.  He keeps calling out to God, but hears no answer.  All he can do is submit and wait…….and keep singing.

Oddly, there is no sense of fear in this psalm; and I think it’s because everything bad that he can imagine has already happened, which is itself a terrible thought.  So how are we going to sing it?  How can I give it a tune?

Modal instead of minor, plus not minus

It’s simple, timeless and not cheerful, so a modal tune seemed to work better than anything else.  Modal tunes have an in-between quality, not simply gloomy, like a minor key, but more ambiguous.  This is what makes them haunting (I hope).  Some of our oldest tunes are modal, so I’m also hoping to tap into some ancient music memory here.  The other psalm that bears immediate comparison is Psalm 21/22, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ which Jesus starts to recite on the cross.   I gave that a modal tune as well, but the big difference there is that the second half of that psalm is a strong assertion of God’s power and strength and the singer’s conviction that everything is going to be all right.  That meant that the music also had to change, and the second half is far more upbeat.

Here the mood is set, and unrelieved.  It is difficult to sing, like some of the Holy Week liturgy, but I think these words would be unbearable to sing in a minor key.  We would be heading for despair.  However, despite what I said at the beginning, I don’t think that this psalm does demonstrate despair, because the psalmist does not stop appealing to God.  He reproaches him, he almost threatens him (‘if you kill me, who is going to sing about you?’), but he refuses to give up, he refuses to despair, so the in-between quality, where a chord can resolve into major or minor, is what I want here.

The other advantage of going modal is that you can have all the billows crashing in the fourth strophe.  As I said, it’s wonderful poetry, and you want it to be exciting as well as terrifying, not just miserable.  This is the first psalm where I have needed to write out a separate  verse because of the accompaniment rather than the melody, but those billows are irresistible. The melody just hangs on, being the singer, the same as in the other verses, but the piano part and the recorder cascade down all over it.  Here’s the link.

Sea monster in waves
Darkness, billows and monsters
Avoiding despair, and perseverance

Does this desolation and near-despair lead anywhere?  What is the point of singing about it?  I think there are at least two things going on here.  One is that the psalmist just keeps on going, even when he has no real hope.  Perseverance is not trendy, but it’s a great virtue, even a heroic one.  When Jesus gives the apostles warning of all the terrible things that are going to happen to them, he ends with a promise : ‘He that shall endure to the end shall be saved’ (Mtt 24.13; Mark 13.13).   Paul’s proud claim, looking back at his life, is that he has finished the race, he has not given up before the end (2 Tim 4.7).  Surely this is one reason why we are given this psalm to sing.  The writer is in a terrible position, much worse than ours;  but he’s still calling upon God, despite the lack of an answer.

Job talking to Jesus
Job resisting despair and still asking questions

We have it assigned for the feast of the Guardian Angels presumably also to remind us that however alone we may feel, our angel is there.  Angels are mysterious beings, impossible to predict and hard to recognise, but they keep cropping up unexpectedly (I did a blog on this as well), and this too is a comforting thought.

Small angel figures attached to a light fitting
My kitchen chandelier full of angels

It’s very striking how present God is in this psalm.  He doesn’t answer, he doesn’t comfort, his actions are all in the past tense, which is why the psalmist is in the mess he is in; but it is completely inconceivable that he should be absent.  This is also Jesus’ promise : ‘Lo, I am with you always’, which Matthew uses to close his gospel.  However alone we may feel, we aren’t.   Even if we cannot think of anything else to do, we can just keep going.  Bleak comfort, but comfort nonetheless, and this is what makes it possible to sing this psalm.