Singing in God’s voice

psalmist and God's face
Multiple voices, many Psalms

The Book of Psalms has been described as the Church’s first hymn book, and of course it’s much older than the Church itself.  One of the outstanding features of the Psalms, in any translation, is how direct and personal they are, written mostly in the first person (even though we don’t know who wrote any of them). There are many different speakers or singers, including God, speaking in his own voice, not just as thunder or erupting volcanoes.  King David is supposed to have written at least some of them, although opinions differ as to which and how many, and none of the Psalms is signed.

Man playing bells
ringing out the psalms

God’s direct speech in the Psalms

As I’ve said before, there is an astonishing variety of form, mood and diction in the Psalter. I want to talk about the Psalms which are put into God’s mouth, which speak in God’s voice and give his words. It is an arresting technique, which demands quite a lot of chutzpah. Everything that is has come into being by God’s spoken word (Ps 32/33).  His voice shatters the cedars (Ps 29/30), and his words are words of power.   ‘He spoke ; the dog-fly came […] He spoke; the locusts came’ (Ps 104/105, v.31ff).  Singing as God in the first person is quite a reach. There is also great variety in what God says : he makes promises (Pss 2, 11/12, 88/89, 107/108),  he swears oaths (Pss 105/106, 109/110) , he gives instructions (Ps 89/90), he makes threats (Ps 94/95).

Bocca della verita’, Rome


Our God talks… our God talks

The Psalms are in the language of living and lively people, and they are full of speech as well as description, thanksgiving and praise.   Like question marks, there are no inverted commas or quotation marks in the Bible, but the psalmists use reported speech without worrying about it being misunderstood or misattributed.  There is dialogue (e.g. Ps 109/110), there are chants (e.g. Ps 79/80, Ps 135/136) and quotations from other (sometimes named) speakers (e.g. Pss 13/14 (the fool), 34/35 (my lying foes, twice), 123/124 (the nation of Israel)).  It can get quite complicated .  In Psalm 88/89, we begin with a first-person narrator ‘I will sing’, but by v.4 the speaker must be God : ‘With my chosen one I have made a covenant; I have sworn to David my servant: I will establish your dynasty for ever’.  Then there are verses of praise and description of God in the second and the third person, but he himself starts speaking again at v.20, with the Lord even quoting his own previous words at v.36f.  Psalm 90/91 shifts the speaker around in a similar way. 

David on a split screen, like a modern film phone call

One of the things which differentiates God from ‘other gods’ (Pss 113/114 and 134/135) is that our God talks.  He chats with Adam in the garden in the cool of the evening; he walks with Enoch; he is a friend for Abraham.  At the beginning of the Old Testament, God’s voice is heard much more frequently than in the later books, but he talks less and less directly as Genesis goes on.  Even David, though he speaks to God directly, gets messages through Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 11).

Using other people’s voices

God stops talking to most people once Moses has become the channel between the Lord and his people.  From Exodus onwards, the people are terrified even at the prospect of hearing God’s voice, and God speaks only to the chosen few, when he chooses. Later in salvation history, the prophets speak on God’s behalf, in God’s words, emphasized with many reiterations: ‘it is the Lord who speaks’.  People stop expecting to hear from God directly.  In the New Testament, he communicates by sending angels (the word itself just means ‘messenger’) either by day or in dreams (the Annunciation, to Joseph, after the Resurrection and the Ascension), so when God’s own voice is heard, at the Baptism of the Lord and the Transfiguration, it is unusual, unexpected and dismissed by some people as thunder (cf. John 12.29).

Baptism of Christ
Holy Spirit and God’s hand represented: but you can’t draw a voice
Vox populi, vox Dei

We have many worship songs which use God’s words in the first person (often somewhat loosely).  Some obvious examples are I, the Lord of sea and skyI will be with you I am the bread of lifeBe still and know that I am God.   (Similarly, our local medical practice has a poster with ‘I am the Lord that healeth thee’ with the helpful Biblical reference (Exodus 15.26), but I have to admit that it always strikes me as potentially off-putting in a doctor’s waiting room.)  These songs can disturb some people, especially those who are happy to sing in God’s voice in Latin, but feel squeamish doing it in English.    It is as if the Latin adds its own distancing, and removes any fear that the listener might think the person speaking is responsible for the words : ‘I can’t actually speak Latin, so it clearly isn’t me speaking’;  also, many of these pieces of music are designed to be sung in a particular liturgical context (the Reproaches, Tu es Petrus etc), which also distances the singer and gives the words a specific context. 

But usually, when it comes to congregational singing at Mass,  I think the discomfort caused by the voice-of-God songs is because of the quality of the poetry in English, often decidedly weak and feeble, and often attached to boring or trite tunes.  Inane repetition can be a real turn-off.   Singing words, like translating them, is quick to reveal solid content or the lack of it, even more clearly than reading something aloud.   Singing about love is tricky, as I have said before.  But tastes differ, and some people love many of these songs (I am very carefully not specifying which songs here).  I don’t call them hymns, because I feel that hymns nearly always have some solid theological content.  The early hymns, and Lutheran, Protestant and Victorian hymns, rarely give God a direct voice; they are addressed to him or they are about him, but they don’t tend to speak for him, or if they do, it is very clearly framed, as in I heard the voice of Jesus say.  Metrical versions of the Psalms are an exception, and since Luther’s day have had us singing in God’s own words and persona.

What God’s voice says to us
psalmist and God's face
speaking and listening

When God speaks in the Psalms, what does he say?  It varies.  There are words of love (Pss 86/87, 90/91), and words of anger (Ps 94/95), there is irritation at people’s stubbornness or blindness (Ps 94/95).  He talks not just to the psalmist (‘A voice I did not know said to me’ Ps 80/81) but also his speech to others is reported,  to the rulers of the earth (Ps 2),  to judges and people in power (Pss 81/82,  109/110).  I find it’s not difficult writing tunes for God’s words when he is being comforting and reassuring;  divine anger is more complicated.  Luckily, those verses (especially the bloodthirsty ones) rarely make it into our Sunday psalms, but they do appear occasionally on a weekday, so I have set some of them.

The Mass is not an Italian opera

Setting (ostensibly) God’s words to a tune is uniquely challenging.  I’m sure even proper composers would be daunted by the responsibility.  Obviously I know that I can’t do it appropriately, even if I wanted to and had the skill, but in the context of the Responsorial Psalm, luckily it’s not what is needed.  The psalm is an answer, or reflection, or meditation on what has just been read in the First Reading. 

Loads of drama but no decorum, and couldn’t happen in church

We are using the psalmist’s words, hallowed by great age and long and reverent usage, to make our own response to God about what he is telling us.  So even when the text indicates that God is angry, this is anger in a controlled environment, where we know that we are loved, rather than boundless rage and indiscriminate smiting.  It’s rather like I imagine a therapy session to be, where people are encouraged to express their feelings and engage with other people’s, but not actually throw a tantrum or try to hurt them.

Singing a new song

I find the psalms where God expresses sadness or disappointment easier than the angry ones, but it helps to look at the words as a song and try to imagine how similar words would be set in a human context.  Obviously I know that these words are written by a human in God’s voice, but I feel that I owe it to the psalmist to try to give him music which at least supports what he is doing rather than undercuts it.  So if the words are shaped like a lullaby or a lament, I know the idiom I want to evoke; if it’s a victory song or an outburst of joy, I know what sort of tune I need (and I yearn for a bit of brass).  If it reminds me of a style of folk song, I feel comfortable exploring it from that angle, like Psalm 49/50, which I wrote about before.   The folk song idiom can handle even Jesus’ words in the first person without worrying the squeamish; look at Lord of the dance and its enduring popularity. 

What about wrath?
Thou shalt smash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Ps 2)

But anger is tricky.  Handel notably does it in Messiah, where the text is taken from Ps 2 and it’s definitely one of the smiting bits.  This is magnificent, but terrifying.  I find I tend to go more for the grieved voice (cf.’I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed’, which most children heartily dislike), heading towards a minor key or at least modal.  Another problem is that the mood can change so quickly within a short psalm, especially if we have been given a cheerful Response (or a sad Response to a cheerful group of verses).  Here, modal is a lifesaver, as you can enhance either aspect if needed, and there’s always the option of changing the final cadence, but I think that is a bit obvious and can sound trite, so I try not to do it.

The voice of Jesus

Handel was writing about the Messiah and Messianic prophecy, but I only have to set Jesus’ words occasionally, when they come up as Gospel Acclamations.  There they are always positive and upbeat, but I find that it is easier conceptually (not always musically, because it increases the length) when there is a ‘Jesus said’ or ‘says the Lord’ as part of the text. It doesn’t get any emphasis, but it sets the context and gives the words heft.  There are moments in the psalms where the psalmist uses the same sort of stage direction.  In Ps 49/50,  there are two long sections of God speaking, but the first section is addressed to ‘my people Israel’ and contains promises of help and succour as well as accusations, whereas the second half is addressed specifically to the wicked, and though it ends on a positive note, it does not suggest much relief for the offenders.  It’s important in a first person narrative to know not just who is speaking, but to whom.  These little parentheses help (v.3, v.16).

Elijah, angel and bread
Angel delivering groceries as well as a message
The rest is silence

God’s words can be frightening, but his silence is much worse, and this comes up repeatedly in the psalms.  The speaker begs for an answer, he cries out for a reaction, he rebukes God for making him wait for so long.  The worst fear of the psalmist is God’s silence (Pss 82/83, 87/88 ).   Even when the Lord comes to judge and condemn, that is better than silence (Pss 49/50, 74/75).  God can be silent to test his people, but not for too long, or they will perish.  A rescue is a perfectly acceptable answer;  God does not have to speak to save his people.  He uses words only when necessary, like that quotation meant to be by St Francis.

By your word raise me up
Law in 2 scrolls
Lord, how I love your law

God’s answers are different from his word.  His answer can be to save or rescue the psalmist, but his words are a written version of the Law, a permanent possession, a sacrament of presence, which is why the longest psalm (118/119) goes round and round in a spiral of thanksgiving and expression of love.  The psalmist uses every synonym he can think of for God’s Law : decrees, statutes, commands, precepts, ordinances, and others, and every stanza of this psalm runs through most of them, like a Sudoku puzzle.   This is love for God’s word given long ago, and preserved in writing.  It is no longer spoken, but it’s ‘the law from your mouth’ (Ps 118.72), and the psalmist celebrates it with almost a divine ventriloquism (‘the homage of my lips’ v.108, ‘I open my mouth and I sigh / as I long for your commands’ v 131), just as the later prophets will speak in God’s voice, as Jeremiah does, insisting that it is God who is speaking (six times just in Chapter 2), or Zechariah (fourteen times in the short Chapter 8).

Speaking (up) for God

Apart from direct Biblical quotation now, I can’t imagine a situation where most people would dare to speak for God;  but in the Psalms, we see and hear his direct spoken words (obviously mediated through the psalmist), which feels intimate.  Many of the first person worship songs are closely related to psalms;  I think without the psalms, we probably would not have them at all;  but I think the psalms do it much better.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2022. 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.


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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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