The shape of the Book of Psalms
The Psalter or Book of Psalms in its present form has been around for a long time. We don’t know who wrote it, or when. We know it is the work of several hands, across many years, even many centuries. We know that it has been carefully and lovingly put together, as the original hymnbook for a faith older than our own. We can draw all sorts of conclusions about why the contents of this hymnbook have been arranged in the way they have; we can make our own, different, arrangement, according to our own need or desire. Conclusions which we draw from the shape and ordering of the Psalter are based simply on the form in which we have it; those who wrote the psalms were not the people who organised the collection or its ordering.
Having said that, though, it is fascinating to try to take an overview of the Book of Psalms, more than enough work for a lifetime. I have recently been thinking just about the bookends of the Psalter, because Psalm 1 has come up several times lately as a weekday psalm, and now so has Psalm 150.
Psalm 1 is reasonably familiar, because, among other things, it’s the psalm prescribed for St David’s Day. It is also the psalm for the Sixth Ordinary Sunday in Year C. Psalm 150 in contrast was a new one for me to set (it is prescribed for the Wednesday of Week 33 of Year II, so November 18th this year).
Hymn books and extra pages
There are different ways to appreciate the arrangement of the bulk of the psalms: many authorities divide them up into five groups, but classifications can differ. There is even dispute about how many psalms there are. A few extra psalms were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls; there are other psalm-like poems in various parts of the Old Testament; many Christians would include the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis as part of the same grouping, and even within the canonical Book of the Psalms there are repeats (Pss 14 and 53, as well as partial repeats elsewhere). But this is what happens with hymn books and music folders. I like to pick up old hymn books when I see them in charity shops, and they nearly always have extra pages stuffed between the cover and the book, or between the pages. Some careful church musicians even attach extra pages or different versions of the same hymn; sometimes things are written out by hand. There are little notes to mark favourites, performance notes for dividing up the verses between men and women, or Dec and Can. I like the fact that you can almost see this same behaviour going on in the choir loft since King David and even earlier.
The first and the last
But I think it is fair to look at Pss 1 and 150 and draw some conclusions, because the Book of Psalms in its current form has been the bedrock of church music and poetry for so long, and it was clearly deliberately done, and it has been accepted as valid by so many.
The psalms in question are particularly attractive as bookend psalms because they contrast so neatly. Psalm 1 is the introduction to the Psalms as a whole. It starts positively, with a portrayal of the happy (or blessed) person (‘man’ everywhere I looked, except for the New Jerusalem, which offers ‘one’). S/he is happy or blessed because of conscious virtue and finding delight in the law of the Lord. So we instantly have the relationship with (a slightly impersonal and distant) God and his teachings as the basis for human happiness. There is a beautiful extended comparison to a mature tree, and then the second half of the psalm is a description of ‘the wicked’, to point the contrast. They are like ‘winnowed chaff’, another nature simile, but probably not as instantly recognisable as the tree. Winnowed chaff is the fluffy detritus left after the grain has been taken from the stalks it grows on; it’s good for nothing and disperses in the wind (or you can sweep it up and burn it, but you’d need a mask to keep it out of your lungs unless you did it outside, where the wind is your ally). The last lines reiterate the contrast : the Lord guards the way of the just, but the way of the wicked leads to doom.
Different possible Responses
An ominous ending, which we sadly lose the force of when we sing it as a Responsorial Psalm, because the Response tends to be upbeat. Usually it’s some variant on the first line (Happy/Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord), but it’s been coming up recently as a weekday psalm with some unfortunate variations on the Response, including Those who are victorious I will feed from the tree of life and the egregious Behave like God as his very dear children, which I ranted about before. But they do all tend towards the positive, because you’re asking the congregation to sing it several times, and it’s the thought they will be left with at the end. So, though it’s tempting, when I set it, I didn’t really feel that I could imbue the word ‘doom’ with too much grue.
Psalm 1 : me and God’s word
This first psalm, then, is about an individual, and his relationship not so much with God as with God’s rules for a holy, healthy and happy life. It’s short enough for us to sing the whole thing (occasionally one or two lines are trimmed, but as it stands it’s three stanzas of six lines each). It’s black and white, and robust in its language, but doesn’t need to be played down, because the psalmist has nothing to do with desiring the fate of the wicked, he’s just describing natural consequences. The music for this one is simple and like a folk song, because I wrote it for St David’s Day, with even a quotation from The Ash Grove to emphasize its Welsh roots, with St David being the patron saint of Wales.
Psalm 150 : isn’t God amazing ?!
Psalm 150 is even shorter, again three stanzas, but this time only four lines each, with an Alleluia at the beginning and end. But the atmosphere of this psalm is totally different. It’s joyous, chaotic, it tumbles over itself, and it’s all about praising God. The Law is not mentioned, the psalmist is not mentioned. It’s all a command to praise God. Ten of the twelve lines start with the word ‘Praise’ in the imperative. God is not asked to come down or intervene in any way. He is ‘in his holy place’, ‘in his mighty heavens’, and we are not praising him for rescuing us, as so often in the Psalms, we are praising him because of what he does (‘his powerful deeds’) and what he is (‘his surpassing greatness’). But there is nothing impersonal or dry about this God. The call to praise is coming from someone personally convinced of the wonder and glory of God, so convinced that he is calling on others to come and join in.
The power of music to praise God
Then the psalmist lists all the instruments used in the Temple and piles them up. One commentator says that the different instruments symbolise those who use them, the trumpet (or horn) for the High Priest, the lute and harp for the Levites (but I would say, the musicians), the timbrel and dance traditionally for the women, the strings and pipes for the men, and it’s unclear who is playing the two different sets of cymbals, but maybe one group could be foreigners or visitors. The psalm ends with an invitation to ‘everything that lives and that breathes’ to join in.
It’s really exciting and fun, and I was surprised to find that I hadn’t set it before, which means that it’s not prescribed for any Sunday or major feast in the three year Lectionary. I can only guess that this is because of its position in the Book of Psalms, and the way it feels like a culmination of the whole sequence in a triumphant final shout of praise. We sing Ps 147 repeatedly, but the last three psalms only rarely. They are all litanies of praise, with Ps 150 the most exuberant, hence its position.
Setting the last of the psalms
How do you set words like these? Ideally you have the instruments to play each their own part, but of course most of us don’t, so all I can do is attempt to suggest them (if, on the other hand, you are lucky enough to have a little drum or cymbal, I’ve left rests where you can add them to the mix). The tune needs to be simple rather than sophisticated, using the repetition that is so strong a feature of the words, and above all easy to pick up and join in confidently. The cantor has to deal with a dancing rhythm, but the Response is straightforward and strong. It’s also the first line of the Sanctus, so it’s familiar, and maybe it will help people get over trying to pause after the third ‘Holy’, even though the comma is no longer there (this can’t be only my parish, surely?). We have lost the Alleluia at the beginning and the end, but as the First Reading reminds us, this Response is what the angels sing in God’s presence, so we can put our hearts into it and ‘swell the mighty flood’, as the old hymn says. When we sing the psalms, we are not just singing with all the angels, either; we are singing with all the millions of people through history who have appreciated the wonderful resource that is the Book of Psalms. It is a great privilege to be able to sing these words and put them to music for others to do so. What a wonderful throng to have around you.
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