Never on a Sunday : Psalm 2, clash of God and kings

Why do the nations so furiously rage together?
dead kings : what happens after the nations have been raging together

Psalm 2 is the most familiar psalm that you have never sung on a Sunday. It is not prescribed for any Sunday, Holy Day of Obligation or major saint’s day. Yet it is possibly one of the best-known psalms; it was one of Luther’s favourites; it contains some of the most famous lines supposed to have been spoken by God; it is quoted by both Peter and Paul in Acts, as a direct foreshadowing of Jesus, and Paul quotes it repeatedly in the Letter to the Hebrews.  It is quoted three times in the book of Revelation, where only one other psalm is cited directly.  But we never sing it on a Sunday.

Occasional weekday psalm

I only set it because my friend in Australia needed it for a weekday Mass. Then it came up again, twice, again for weekdays, and is about to do so again over the Eastertide weeks.   So far I have had to write a new tune for it each time because the moods in the different versions varied so much, so I did a bit of investigating.  How many settings can one psalm need?

Form, shape and function

It’s a short psalm, only twelve verses altogether, but it’s slightly scrappy. Some of it is in direct speech, but with at least three different speakers, so the feel of it is of great compression, and if you wanted to make it simpler to grasp, you would have to expand it quite a bit.  It starts with a direct question, which is always very engaging, even though the rest of the psalm does not actually answer it. The first stanza vividly portrays a world in chaos, kings, nations and peoples murmuring, making tumult, plotting and fomenting unrest.  It’s intensely dramatic, on a very big canvas.  It’s like the Creation stories of the Greeks or even earlier civilisations, where all the monsters or titans rumble and fight until Kronos or Zeus pins them under the earth so that humanity can take root and civilisation triumph.  Here the evil forces are kings, plotting against ‘the Lord and his Anointed’, the first time that this word is used to describe the Messiah.   Only the king and the High Priest were anointed;  the Messiah is both king and High Priest (just like Melchisedek of old, as it says in Psalm 109/110), and the apostles are keen to appropriate this psalm to Jesus.

First stanza

The first stanza portrays chaos, but not the pre-Creation chaos of Genesis.  This is the chaos of warring kings and nations, and they are all plotting together to make common cause against God and ‘his Anointed’,  the rightful king, the king that God has chosen.  These other kings are enormously powerful (‘the kings of the earth’),  they are all working together, and the stanza ends with direct speech from them : ‘Come, let us break their fetters, […] cast off their yoke’.  The atmosphere is dark; it sounds like a threat.  The ‘their’ here refers to the fetters that have been put on the kings of the earth by the Lord, so we are talking about the wielders of earthly authority being restrained by God, and deciding to fight against that restraint : warfare on a cosmic scale, unlike the usual intimate individualism of the Psalms.

Second stanza
God of wrath
God of anger, terrifying even in pink

And cut! you might say if you were making this into a film (it would make a great superhero cartoon).  The second stanza is a classic reversal of point-of-view : now we are in heaven, and God is watching these puny opponents.  They may be ‘kings of the earth’, but they are ridiculous.   His reaction is laughter and scorn, swiftly overtaken by anger, but his words are calm.  Again the stanza ends with two lines of direct speech : ‘It is I who have set up my king / on Zion, my holy mountain.’

An extra line (?)

Then we have a line which feels almost like a stage direction.  It is in parenthesis, and holds up the action without contributing much : (I will announce the decree of the Lord:) , and if you look up different translations, they deal with it differently, assigning it to God, to Christ or simply to the psalmist.  My commentary says that the text is uncertain, that in the Hebrew text it is God speaking, and in the Vulgate the words have been corrected to come from the Messiah, which makes better sense.  But that’s not clearly what we have, even in the new version of the Psalms which has just come out, where they drop the brackets but leave it unclear : ‘I will announce his decree ‘, with no indication of who is speaking.  So this extra line stays as an extra line, altering the flow of the verses if it is included in the Responsorial Psalm.  As I said, different translations sometimes incorporate it, so that the flow of the stanzas is unimpaired; but not the ones we use in the Lectionary.

Third stanza

The third stanza continues in first person direct speech.  God is named as the speaker,  speaking to the person reporting the direct speech (‘The Lord said to me’ ), whom we can identify only as ‘the Anointed’, the king set up by God.  The Lord officially recognises him as his Son, in words which recall God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7.14, but here it is in the present tense, not the future, and I would love to know whether it resembles any legal adoption formula recognised at the time (think of the scene in Ben Hur, where Arrius formally adopts Ben Hur as his son and heir). 

Antony Gormley clay figures
Antony Gormley’s little pot people, fragile like us

God goes on to promise all rule and authority to his Son, who will rule (indeed, break) the ends of the earth with the proverbial rod of iron, and shatter them like a potter’s jar.  The language is highly-coloured and dramatic.  The relationship between God and the Anointed could not be closer.  This is the earliest stratum of all the expectations built up into the figure of the Messiah, and you can see why the apostles use it to strengthen Jesus’ claim to kingship.  It is a very fierce and destructive version of kingship being offered here, but we need to remember the context of the earlier stanza, where all earth’s kings together are trying to overthrow God’s legitimate rule. 

Fourth stanza

The fourth stanza returns to these earthly powers and points the moral for them.  In a direct (and fearless) address to these kings and rulers of the earth,  the psalmist issues a prophetic warning (and you can see why prophets were never popular with the authorities).  Dreadful things will happen if they do not serve the Lord and carry out his will.  The text is slightly corrupted again around vv. 11 and 12,  but the meaning is clear, even if the reconstruction of the exact words is not.   The language of all this section is direct and colourful : ‘trembling, pay him your homage […] for suddenly his anger will blaze’.  It’s another threat, like the first stanza, but a much more frightening one.

Another freestanding line (coda?)
penitential psalm illumination
the psalmist alone with God

There is one more line to this psalm, like a coda, and it is a complete change from all the previous text :’Blessed are they who put their trust in God’.  When I saw this as the Response for one of the versions of this psalm used on a weekday, I thought that the Response might have been taken from another psalm or even another book of the Bible, which does sometimes happen; but no, it is integral, the last line of the psalm itself.  It could sound warning or reassuring, but the force of it is to return the focus away from these rulers and bring it back to us and the psalmist.

Handel, Jennens and Psalm 2

The great elephant in the room that I have deliberately not yet looked at is Georg Friderick Handel.  He is at least partially responsible for the familiarity of Psalm 2, or rather both he and his librettist Charles Jennens.  Their most successful collaboration is of course Messiah , probably sung more often than any other choral work, and beloved.  The libretto for  Messiah is a collection and arrangement of verses from all over the Bible, most from Isaiah, with the Book of Psalms coming in as the next most used text.  There is a fascinating Text Study of Handel’s Messiah libretto by Martin P. Dicke, which I came across by chance and was delighted to find, because it saved me a lot of work (my Messiah doesn’t list the Bible references in the libretto at the beginning).  I recommend it.

MS of Messiah

Jennens uses several of the psalms, but usually only one or two verses each time.  When it comes to Psalm 2, though, he uses several verses, and one of the Recitatives (No.34) which Martin Dicke classes as a quotation from Hebrews, is where Paul quotes Psalm 2 (v.7) yet again.  The psalm translation is Coverdale, out of the Book of Common Prayer (except for v.9, which is from the KJV), which is why the first verse is so much more dramatic even than our version.  Musically it’s irresistible.  Handel sets it for bass, with all the orchestra rushing around furiously raging for all they are worth.  It’s tremendously exciting.  The Chorus then gets to be the kings of the earth, plotting, and what is striking about this is that Handel does not take them seriously.  This is a jolly piece of music, very intricate and upbeat to sing.  It’s not possible to sing it intimidatingly.  Although I’ve sung it many times, I’ve never been clear on its relation to the other parts of the text, but now I know better.  I certainly didn’t realise it followed straight on from the previous two numbers!  However,  the Lord is about to ‘laugh them to scorn’.

King with sceptre or rod of iron?

The tenor then warns of God’s vengeance, skipping to a few verses further on, the lines about the rod of iron and the potter’s vessel.  This music is full of sharp edges, all spiky like shards, and indicates that the Lord (or his King) will have no trouble in subduing these petty princes.  They will be smashed to pieces with savage relish.  It is followed by the Hallelujah chorus, so it is clear that it has worked.

Psalm 2 and Revelation

Psalm 2 is repeatedly referenced in the book of Revelation, and it is these verses again, vv. 8 and 9, the rod of iron and the shattered pot; they focus on the figure of the king and his fierce power, the breaking up of the established order and the creation of the new kingdom where those currently in power will be cast out of their seats, as it says in the Magnificat. This is the topsy-turvey nature of Christ’s message, which comes up repeatedly : the last shall be first, the master shall become the servant, a woman is allowed to sit and listen to teaching, and so on. 

Not a Sunday psalm

So why don’t we ever sing it on a Sunday?  I think it’s because the focus is so broad and the portrayal of God and the Anointed are so fierce.  This is a psalm to encourage those living in times of utter turbulence that God will come and smite everyone into submission.  The wicked will suffer mightily unless they submit.   Like every psalm in the Psalter, it has its place, and there will be people hearing it who find exactly what they need in it, but it’s not the psalm that most of us would turn to most often. 

Editing to soften

The weekday versions are selective.  I’d set it twice before the first verses even came into play, and the resolutely upbeat nature of the first two versions is the result of leaving most of the verses out.  The emphasis is on the authority conferred by God (‘You are my Son.  This day I have begotten you’, the Response for one version) and his promises to the king he has chosen (‘I will give you all the nations as your heritage‘, the Response for the other one).  More of the verses are included in the darker version for the Second Week of Easter, but even there, God’s ridicule, scorn and anger are left out, along with the final threat.  Although the Response for this version is the last verse  (‘Happy are all who put their trust in the Lord’), I had to give this psalm a modal setting to keep it dark, because the mood is not cheerful.  We do sing darker psalms, occasionally (Ps 87/88; Ps 136/137), but there is nothing personal in this psalm, no developing relationship between God and the speaker.  The scope of the whole psalm remains the whole world, and the dramatis personae are the kings of the earth and an unspecified ‘they’ who put their trust in God.  The individual is keeping out of the way; the last line seems almost an afterthought.

Wrath, blood, fire and doom
The wrath of God

It is a harsh version of kingship, and a scary portrayal of God.  The emphasis is on God’s power and wrath, a more Calvinist or Protestant attitude, possibly.  The psalmist is so confident that no harm can come to him that he even dares to rebuke the kings of the earth, but the emphasis is not on him.  Rather this is a psalm about the standing of a long-hoped-for figure, a prediction of the eternal kingship presiding over God’s Kingdom after the Second Coming.  So the Hallelujah Chorus directly follows Psalm 2 in Messiah (returning to Handel), because that will be the outcome; the words of the Hallelujah Chorus are out of Revelation, and bring the second part of the oratorio to an end.  The third part, beginning with I know that my Redeemer liveth, is all focused on what happens after the Last Judgment, after the establishment of the new Kingdom.  Powerful and esoteric stuff. 

Christ Pantocrator, usually with a book rather than a rod of iron

Psalm 2 is crucial to the early Christians’ understanding of Jesus’ place as God’s Anointed, the Son, the King set up by God on Zion.  We don’t sing it often because we are usually highlighting other aspects, more personal, more comforting; but you can’t have the one without the other.  It’s not a comforting psalm if you are invested in ‘the kings of the earth’, but if you’re an ordinary vulnerable mortal, this King is on your side.


©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.


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.