Making a song out of shouting for help : Psalm 39/40

Setting Mayday to music

I’ve talked before about the differences between hoping, waiting and trusting, in the context of an Alleluia verse, but a fine example of this is Psalm 39/40, coming up on 20th Sunday OTC.  It’s a fascinating psalm because the tone of it depends completely on which stanzas are selected to be sung.  On most of the occasions when it is chosen, the emphasis is on God’s law and how we should keep it, creating as we do so an expectation that God will therefore take care of us in all ways.  You would assume that this is the only burden of this particular psalm.

Two strands, one psalm

The other part of the psalm (and it’s not linear : the two strands interweave, so that it’s easy to miss one if you’re concentrating on the other, like one of those pictures that you can see as either one thing or another) is about the parlous state that the psalmist is in, and how he needs God to help now, quite urgently actually. He has helped in the past; the psalmist has been in dire straits before and God has rescued him; but actually now would be a good time, God, are you listening?

Lady = Church scaring off dragon=Satan
Picturesque and colourful peril
Calling for help a recurring theme

It’s a very human piece of writing. Appealing for help in difficulties is one of the main secondary strands of the Book of Psalms (the main one is praise), and it is so artfully done that we tend not to notice quite how artfully. The crisis in this psalm seems to be current, but of course, just as in an adventure novel or a thriller, if the protagonist is writing/singing about it afterwards (especially in the first person), we know that he must have escaped and won through to safety. How does the psalmist create this sense of current urgency, of real danger unresolved?

Three different psalms, same message

It’s interesting to compare this psalm with Psalms 68/69 (which we had on 15th Sunday OTC, just a few weeks back)  and 69/70, because it’s almost as though those two psalms are each an amplification of half of this one.  There are echoes of whole sentences between them.  All three psalms start with a bang in medias res.  Ps 39/40 is less immediate, if anything, because it uses a past tense (so we know the psalmist has survived) : I waited, I waited for the Lord.   Ps 69/70 describes the same situation but in the present tense : O God, make haste to my rescue, Lord, come to my aid!   Ps 68/69 has the unforgettable Save me, O God, for the waters have risen to my neck.

drowning people underwater
the perils of the deep, even worse upside down

Psalm 39/40 continues in its comforting past tense : he stooped down to me, he heard my cry.  Then it describes the awful situation the singer was in : he drew me from the deadly pit, from the miry clay, and it is exactly the same as in Ps 68/69 : I have sunk into the mud of the deep and there is no foothold. [..] Rescue me from sinking in the mud.

Stuck in the mud

This peril, of being fast stuck in a hole and unable to get out, is a recurring fear for the psalmist.  He describes it minutely, and he is asking not for an unspecific with-one-bound-he-was-free rescue but (more specific, more limited, you might almost say more concrete) for something to stand on, because that is his biggest fear, that he might simply sink down into the mud and never resurface : I have sunk into the mud of the deep and there is no foothold (Ps 68/69).  God provides the solution :  he set my feet upon a rock and made my footsteps firm (Ps 39/40) , with the same pattern in the tenses : Ps 68/69 has the current danger, Ps 39/40 recollects it in tranquillity and still has a cold shiver.

Acute watery danger
Other possible dangers

There are various types of danger which the psalmist asks to be rescued from: enemies (Pss 16, 21, 26, 34, 58, 139, and many others), sorrow  and general distress (Pss 6, 12, 87, 101, 118), illness ( e.g. Ps 114).   Quite often he turns the situation around and talks about how the Lord has (already) rescued him from whatever the problem was (a trap or snare set by his enemies, general tribulation, illness, or even God’s absence), and some psalms talk about the watery danger or the falling into a bottomless pit as danger past and therefore less scary (e.g.  Ps 123/124).  Psalm 53/54 shows the usual trajectory of these psalms : a request for help, here is the problem, God will save/has saved me, hooray for God.  The urgency of the plea is mitigated by the way that the psalm progresses through the danger to a comfortable resolution.  This is often the way that the Responsorial Psalm is constructed in the assortment of verses prescribed for a given Sunday, but it’s often effected by leaving out whole chunks of the text, so it’s worth checking, if you want to understand the movement of the psalm as a whole.

He makes my footsteps firm

Often the psalmist uses the metaphor of a firm footing to show his confidence in God’s power and mercy.  Like everyone except the richest and most powerful in those days, he moves about on foot, and his safety is  in his speed and not tripping up, like the hero in The Time Traveler’s Wife ,  or the beasts of the foot in The Once and Future King  when Wart experiences life as a hawk.  So he rejoices My feet have never slipped (Ps 17/18), My foot stands on level ground (Ps 25/26) , When I think I have lost my foothold, your mercy, Lord, holds me up (Ps 93/94) and so on.

The power of tenses, the tension of the present

Why does the danger seem so urgent in the psalms I was discussing earlier?  It’s not just the tenses, though the present tense lends undeniable emphasis in that he is in the deadly pit at this moment, not just worrying about it as one of the things which might happen.  Psalm 39/40 starts with that reassuring past tense (I waited..he drew me), but then moves even into a future tense (you will not withhold your love from me) before returning to a continuous present (I am beset with evils) and then into the imperative, most ‘current’ of all the tenses (come to my rescue) and then ends with another imperative and a superb cliffhanger (O God, do not delay) of a last line.  I said it was artful.  Psalm 43/44 moves in the same way, seemingly peaceful to begin, but ending with with an acute yell for help (Stand up and come to our help! Redeem us because of your love!), where the editorial exclamation marks indicate the power of the words.  Psalm 68/69 starts acute, goes through the imperative and then settles into confident predictions of the future.  69/70 is much shorter, so it doesn’t have room for this sort of trajectory, and it’s more like 39/40: it starts with a cry for help, looks forward more generally, but then instantly returns to the current danger, ending again O Lord, do not delay. Short stanzas and short lines add to the effect here.

We could do with some help here
Singing only part of the psalm

It’s just as well that we usually have only a part of any given psalm prescribed for a particular Sunday, as it’s difficult to cover changes of mood in one tune or setting.  Psalm 87/88 is unusual in having only one mood throughout, that of despair, which presents its own problems, and I’ve written about that before, but in these calling-for-help psalms, the mood changes, so you have to be careful about not making the tune too closely related to one feeling.  I like to emphasize the calling, though, so I try to make that bit of the tune the sort of noise you might use to call someone (a sort of yoo-hoo effect), but you can’t be too desperate.  Like the settings for Psalm 22/23, you need to have room for the dark valley, but it mustn’t dominate.

Setting a shout to music

When you’re calling someone, you have to catch their attention, so there’s usually a higher note there; you need to be clear, so you can’t rush that bit; and where it’s open-ended (my earlier cliffhangers), I try to reflect that, avoiding a terminal-sounding cadence.  These are the points I am thinking about while I’m setting these particular psalms.  They are important, because although the main business of the Psalms is praise, calling for help is something we all need to do on a regular basis, and I love the direct and undeferential way in which these psalms show us how to do it.  It reminds me of the way that Jesus talks to God.  Abraham (as a contrasting example) tends to be more formal and elaborate (think about the scene we had as a first reading recently where he whittles God’s requirement for not destroying the wicked city down to only ten men), but you don’t talk like that when the waters have risen to your neck.  You shout for help;  and God answers.  And then you praise him.

Just hold the baby, while I down a devil : Mary in a more active role
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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs about the Synod, family life and women in the Church for The Tablet.

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