Mood music : setting the tone for Psalm 68/69

One psalm, two (very different) tunes

There’s a psalm coming up this week for Twelfth Sunday Ordinary Time A, where the translation of the words has meant that I’ve set the US and the other versions completely differently. It is Psalm 68/69, which begins ‘Save me O God, for the waters have risen to my neck’, although this unforgettable verse is not part of Sunday’s psalm.  It is too long a psalm to use in its entirety,  so a selection has been made of which verses to include.  All the Anglophone lectionaries use the same verses for this Sunday, but because of the different translations, the mood of the psalm feels quite different,  so it has two contrasting tunes.

Sea monster in waves
Darkness, billows and monsters
Verses, stanzas and Responses

As usually happens, the psalm stanzas are the same (or nearly) between the UK, Canada and Australasia, although their lectionaries vary in their choice of response.  The US often shares a response with Canada, though not always, and sometimes with Australasia as well.  But its stanzas are always different, though it rarely makes as big a change in mood as it does here.  For the Response, the US and Australasia have ‘Lord, in your great love, answer me’; Canada has ‘Lord, in your steadfast love, answer me’, and the UK Grail version is ‘In your great love, answer me, O God’.  Both of the last two seemed to be to be slightly more relaxed (and ‘steadfast love’ is a favourite collocation for the Canadian lectionary), but because of the stanzas, I ended up setting the OZ Response as a cheerful and confident appeal, and the US one as more fearful and desperate.

Where the mood comes from

Psalm 68/69 is quite a long psalm (37 verses), and runs through several different emotions.  It feels to me as though the US version is mirroring the mood of the first half or so of the psalm, and the other translation is more simply focused on the actual verses chosen for use as the Responsorial Psalm. These are only a small part of the whole, chosen mostly from the last verses of the psalm, when the terror and agony of the first situation has resolved because God has rescued the psalmist. Of course both translations are of the same parts of the psalm; but the emphasis, the overall mood, seems to be different.

Psalm 68/69

Let’s look at the whole psalm first.  It starts with the psalmist up to his neck in water, sinking into the mud, unable to find a foothold.  The waves are beginning to crash over his head.  He is desperate.  This image is like a recurring dream in the Book of Psalms, and I talked about it when I was discussing  water and water images.  This is definitely the waves of death rather than the water of life.  The protagonist goes on to explain that he is in this plight because of his enemies, who unjustly accuse him, and God is absent and not helping, although the singer has not yet given up hope of divine intervention.

drowning people underwater
the perils of the deep, even worse upside down… and where is the other leg?
Explanation or looming disaster?

With impressive aplomb he neatly pivots and hands to God the risk of the divine reputation being damaged because he has not rescued the one who calls to him.  This is where the first stanza of our Responsorial Psalm comes from : ‘It is for you that I suffer taunts, /that shame covers my face’ in the UK and others’ version; ‘For your sake I bear insult, and shame covers my face’ for the US.  He goes on to describe himself as ‘a stranger to my brothers,/ an alien to my own mother’s sons’ (UK+) or ‘an outcast to my brothers, a stranger to my children’ (US), where we can see already how the strong language darkens the US version compared to the mood of the UK+ one.  The stanza ends ‘I burn with zeal for your house / and taunts against you fall on me’ (UK+) or ‘Zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me’ (US).  Burning with zeal can be a positive thing, but being consumed by zeal could easily tip over into fanaticism; and ‘taunts’ are easier to deal with than insults and blasphemy.  Interestingly, all these words meaning ‘insults’ are translated in the King James Bible and the Authorised Version as ‘reproaches’, which links immediately to the Passion narrative, but sounds sad rather than violent and dangerous.

The bits we don’t sing

I found that the mood of this stanza and the Response dictated two different treatments for this psalm, even though after this the stanzas are more positive and talk about the Lord coming to the rescue.  The stanzas in the middle section of the psalm as written, again a part that we don’t use on Sunday, are a problem for many.   Our hero reminds God how cruel his enemies have been to him, and calls on him to avenge him and repay pain for pain, culminating in ‘Blot them out from the book of the living’ (v.29),  another terrifying image.  The psalmist offers various suggestions as to ways in which God might make his enemies suffer : blindness, palsy, traps, desolation and so on.  He is at least planning for it to be God’s vengeance rather than plotting to do evil to them himself, but I’m clutching at straws here.

Imprecatory or cursing psalms

So Psalm 68/69 is one of the embarrassing psalms that has curses in it. These imprecatory psalms worry many people.  We know they were written long, long ago, in a different society with different rules and values.  They are pre-Christian, and we are meant to be followers of Christ, so maybe we should omit any mention of these difficult bits of the Bible (people say hopefully). 

The Bible is not politically correct

The trouble is that there are a lot of difficult bits of the Bible, from the massacre of unaware people on a regular basis as God gives their land to his favoured ones, to the cruel games played by people like Jacob and Joseph, to the appalling way that women are regarded as collateral to be handed over to preserve a man’s safety (Abraham twice, his own wife; the daughters of Lot, and I could go on, I haven’t even moved out of Genesis yet).  We can’t pretend that these bits of the Bible aren’t there, but we are glad that Jesus felt free to say,’You have heard….but I say to you’ (Mtt 5.17ff), so as to give us a clearer idea of God’s preferences (loving our neighbour instead of cursing him or killing his children).

Foreshadowing and fulfilling prophecies
Crucifixion scene on a living tree
They gave him vinegar to drink mixed with gall

However, this particular psalm is quoted in the New Testament (even the nasty part seemingly approvingly by St Paul in Romans 11.9),  and lines of it are particularly familiar in a Christian context, though it’s easy not to notice them in our translations (both UK+ and US).  In the King James and the Revised, the references are easier to spot.  Vv20f is ‘Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness : I looked for some to take pity..’, which is one of the movements in Handel’s Messiah (which does indeed break your heart).   The ‘zeal for your house’ reminds us of Jesus in the Temple;  and v21 of this psalm says ‘in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’, which is again quoted in the Gospels (Mtt 27.34, John 19.28).  The Messianic echoes and implications are the main reason why we are comfortable with using (parts of) this psalm.  But if you want to sing it to a cheerful and confident tune, you need the UK+ version rather than the US one.

What is that in the water?

I said the later part of the psalm is more positive, and so it is; it talks about praising God with a song (always a good idea), and reflects on God’s kindness and care for those who need him.  There’s one more verse, however, where the different translations again give a very different impression.  ‘Let the heavens and the earth give him praise, / the sea and all its living creatures’ (v35) in the UK+ translation sounds like one of the cheerful lists that we find in many of the Creation and praise psalms, especially towards the end of the Psalter.  But I find the mood of the US version seems darker : ‘ Let the heavens and the earth praise him, the seas and whatever moves in them!’  There is the would-be cheerful exclamation mark, but what that line suggests for me is the monsters moving in the deep, Leviathan, sharks and Moby-Dick, so I felt entirely justified in keeping to a minor key.  This isn’t fish swimming in the waters, it’s something mysterious, and ‘moving’, which makes me feel wary.  God may play with the water monsters (Ps  103/104.26), but the rest of us are more likely to give them a wide berth, admiring but not getting too close.  Same psalm, two moods, two tunes.

so gentle when you get to know him

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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.

Discover more from Music for Mass

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading