History and story psalms, too long for liturgy?

A long history of and in the Psalter

The Book of Psalms includes lots of different genres : laments, victory songs, blessings, curses, celebrations, warnings, history and stories, and that list is not exhaustive. The psalms themselves can vary wildly in length, from a couple of verses up to several pages of poetry, and it’s only a nod to poetic form and their purpose of being sung or recited that keeps them within bounds.  Using them liturgically means concern about form and size as well as message.

Man playing bells
ringing out the psalms

History psalms tend to be longer than many of the others, because the whole point is to show God’s regular intervention in Israel’s past, and how it worked out. If you reduce one of the history psalms to a Responsorial, or rather take a self-contained section out of it, you can be left with a simple but out-of-context account which makes better sense if you know the story already. We get this from time to time in the extracts prescribed for Sunday psalms, but it seems to happen more often among the weekday psalms, because they are chosen from a wider selection of psalms.

Never more than five stanzas for a Sunday

This can collide with the requirements of the Responsorial Psalm as set for us to sing on Sundays, which can’t be too long. We usually have three or four stanzas, occasionally five, but never more. In the traditions of different churches (Anglican, Orthodox, Presbyterian, for example), the rules are different, and they sing their way through the complete Psalter, every psalm, with all its verses. So does the (Catholic) Divine Office, but if you are a lay Catholic who goes mainly only to Sunday Masses, you will never get to sing all the psalms, or even all the verses of the psalms that we do sing. We sing extracts, meant to be pointed and relevant responses to the First Reading. 

What are we missing?

So the context inside the psalm could be relevant, and you might not know; or two Responsorial Psalms might be parts of the same psalm in the Psalter; or something that seems slightly strange might make perfect sense.  It’s often worth checking how the verses of one particular Responsorial Psalm are sited inside the whole psalm.  This is true especially when the stanzas chosen have been taken from various parts of the whole psalm, as it can change the thrust of the psalm completely.

Mostly checking the rest of the psalm is quite comforting, especially if the psalm is mournful, because it is rare to find a psalm that is unrelievedly gloomy (the great exception being Psalm 88/89), but there are also plenty of occasions where you discover that less edifying bits of the psalm have been quietly omitted.  The whole of human life genuinely is here, in the Book of Psalms, the bad bits as well as the good.  The Church often mercifully draws a veil over what you might call the unchristian bits of the psalms (curses etc.), but it does not remove them from the Book of Psalms, which is quite right.  The psalmists were human beings just like us, and not always edifying (even this can be comforting).

History psalms
Adam and Eve with serpent
all the legs still there (for now)

One of the functions of some of the psalms is to provide a summary of salvation history.  These psalms can be long, but they must have been a good way to give children a timeline of events.  When we were small, our parents sang in the car when we were travelling, and I remember one song in particular which retold Bible stories in a jokey way.  I can remember only a few of the verses, and I imagine my parents had forgotten several more, but it’s handy as a aide-mémoire.  Adam was the first man, and he lived all alone/ Till Eve was manufactured out of Adam’s collarbone/ One day in the Garden they were feeling rather bare/ So Adam put a figleaf on and Eve let down her hair. […]

Wicked Queen Jezebel first defenestrated and then trampled, 2 Kings 9

Jehu had a chariot of 90 horse-power/ He drove it round Jerusalem at 90 miles an hour/ Suddenly on pulling up, he heard an awful squeal /And found little bits of Jezebel a-sticking to the wheel.  […] Jonah was a landlubber who thought he’d like to sail/ so he booked an ocean passage on a trans-Atlantic whale/ sitting there inside for days, he felt a bit depressed/ so he simply pressed a button and the whale did the rest.[…]  David was a general, Uriah was his sub/ David saw Uriah’s wife undressing for a tub/ David sent Uriah to a front line trench/ Uriah stopped a hand grenade and David got the wench.  Unfortunately I can’t remember any more verses, but it’s a very common metre, so other bits of doggerel fit the tune, like the four liner about David and Solomon which ends  King Solomon wrote the Proverbs and David wrote the Psalms. Useful solid information, easily digested.

Jonah looking surprisingly calm
History psalms always have a message
penitential psalm illumination
David writing the psalms after sinning

Most of the psalms are a direct address to God by the psalmist, but history psalms imply a third person as listener, either children or just ‘people’, to be informed and instructed.  In the Jewish Bible tradition, I can’t imagine that these psalms wouldn’t have been used as a teaching aid, like the rhyming lists of kings and queens which British children used to memorise.  Some of the psalms address the audience directly (Come, children, and hear me, Ps 33/34; Come and hear, all who fear God, I will tell what he did, Ps 65/66).  Ps 77/78 is overtly a teaching psalm : Give heed, my people, to my teaching; […] I will open my mouth in a parable/ and reveal hidden lessons of the past.   Each generation must pass the knowledge on to the next so that they will obey God and never fall back into unfaithfulness (vv5ff). 

Stories and histories

Some psalms recount a potted version of national history, some are just stories, with a bigger moral and a smaller historical base, as in Psalm 106/107, where there are four stories, each with the same pattern. 

Seascape at night, storm
Mariners in peril

Each shows people in distress, and then God rescues them. First we have starving wanderers in the desert, then wretched prisoners, then some who ‘were sick on account of their sins’, and the last, slightly extended group is mariners in a storm at sea, where the psalmist goes into more detail (drawn from personal experience, maybe).  Each section ends with a similar stanza of praise, with the words tweaked to make them more pointed in each case, but you can imagine the audience joining in.  Other story psalms include Ps 17/18 (the rescue of a just man), and Ps 79/80 (the story of a vine and what happened to it). Ps 113/114 is an in-between case: it looks like history, but it’s only one episode; it starts to tell a story and then it gets sidetracked by the idols, but something strange has happened to the text here, and I don’t think we have it in the state in which the author wrote it.

Longer historical psalms

The main longer historical psalms are Ps 67/68, Ps 77/78, Ps 104/105,  and Ps 105/106, but there are also shorter ones (e.g. Ps 98/99), where only a short part of salvation history is covered.  In Ps 134/135 and Ps 135/136, the references are brief and partly because of the magic of names (as any child who has ever chanted Og, the king of Bashan could tell you, and I wrote about this to discuss Melchisedek).  There is a similar name list of enemies at Ps 82/83, indeed, two of them : one of current enemies, and one, more reassuring, or the enemies that God has already dealt with.  There is a geographical list in Psalm 86/87, and another in Ps 107/108.  People need to know their own history, and they need to know their own relevant local geography.  Then the names act almost as shorthand to evoke a common understanding.  Every nation does this.  Roncevalles; Waterloo; Culloden; Gettysburg.  Massah; Meribah; Mount Sion.

The story of Joseph, told twice
no need to be jealous, with these gorgeous garments

When one of the history psalms is used as a Responsorial, it can be done very simply by extracting a self-contained section, with no editing.  Friday of the second week of Lent uses a small piece (vv. 16-21) of Psalm 104/105 to offer a neat precis of the story of Joseph after a longer but less complete narrative in the first reading, which fills in all the beginning of the story but stops at the point where Joseph is carried off to Egypt as a slave.  The Psalm finishes the story.  In three short stanzas, we discover that things get even worse for Joseph, but then the king releases and honours him.  It would be difficult to give this information any more quickly and efficiently.  There is not a single adjective; the narration is almost bald, almost like something from Mr Gradgrind, nothing but facts, not lyrical poetry by any calculation.  The same thing happens on the Thursday of the fourth week of Lent, where the first reading tells the story of Moses begging God to be merciful after the Israelites in the desert have made themselves a golden calf to worship.  This is Psalm 105/106, and again what we have is three tight little stanzas lifted straight out(vv. 19-23), which tell the story with great economy.

history of Joseph
Joseph again, but more modern

This means you need a simple tune.  It’s similar to the section of Psalm 49/50, where God recites all his possessions, which always makes me think of The farmer’s in his den,  a children’s song.   God just keeps on listing all his possessions to show that he doesn’t need lip-service from anyone.  When I first set it, I gave it a sort of folk song or nursery rhyme feel, because it seemed appropriate, but the same psalm has come up two or three times recently, and the mood is darkening, as we move away from ‘I own all the beasts of the forests,[…]all the birds in the sky’ towards ‘you who sit and malign your brother’, moving from externals to internals.  I may have to write a new tune.  I’d already done one less jaunty, when the Response changed to a more dignified ‘Offer to God a sacrifice of praise’, but I may need to go darker.

How to set (and sing) the history Responsorials

With the two history psalms I’m looking at, I need the tune to be simple but workmanlike.  They are not lyrical psalms, just plain chunks of information, where the facts of the story are what matter, not the mood.  I’m not trying to emphasize any aspect, just to encourage people to join in and think about the story as it is told.  There isn’t time to dwell on Joseph’s experience, becaue the story moves on too quickly.  The only thing to do is to keep it neat and simple, let the words be clear, and set the mood in the Response so that the congregation can pray with it as the answer to the stanzas.  After all, the music needs to follow the style of the words; and if this particular psalmist, in a poetic tradition of development and parallelism, has chosen to give a terse account, I don’t want to embroider it just for the sake of it.

A way to bring people together

I started by saying there are all sorts of psalms, very consciously composed to use their form to enhance the words : lyrical laments, stirring war songs, jubilant repetitious victory songs and others.  But the history psalms are different.  They are accounts of the salient points of Israel’s history, the bits that need to be passed on to the next generation and the next.  They repeat the same events, over and over again, because these are the building blocks of Israel’s identity.  Like my jokey Bible song, these are the stories that every Jewish child (and now any other religion of the Book) needs to have absorbed, to know who they are, to know their own context.  They also give a rock solid base for trusting in the Lord to protect and save us, as he has always done…..and here are the examples.

Law in 2 scrolls
a beloved narrative

©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021.  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 for The Tablet.

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