Psalms in time of war

War and peace, and everything else too

There is no human situation not covered by the Book of Psalms. Whatever is going on in your life, there is a psalm which will reflect it, as well as multiple psalms which help you to deal with it.  This is partly because the Psalms are so old, and also because they are mostly expressions of feelings, so even the fact that we don’t know if there is a single psalm by a woman (some day I’m planning to look at this) doesn’t matter as much as you might think.  This is because feelings of joy, fear, hope, despair and everything in between are common to us all.  The collectors and organisers (never mind the writers) have had time to sift and distil different options across a vast sweep of history and an enormous range of human experience.

light, darkness, and beyond

Light and dark psalms
Crucifixion with angels and saints
Serene but heart-breaking

We tend usually to concentrate more on the positive psalms in the liturgy, for praise, comfort and reassurance, celebrating God’s Law, recounting past mercies, and so on. Because the Sunday Responsorial Psalm is a response to the First Reading (nearly always out of the Old Testament), there are occasional opportunities for the darker psalms, and of course we concentrate on those during Lent and especially in Holy Week, with the penitential psalms, and the psalms of grief and suffering. The darkness is woven into the liturgy;  our lives may be going on serenely and happily outside the time when we are in church; spring is coming (northern hemisphere), and indeed we know that if Lent is here, Easter cannot be far behind, as Shelley did not write.

Real life for the psalmists : War

But our situation is usually very different from that of any of the psalmists.  They were living through wars, exile, and captivity, as well as periods of peace, and their songs reflect this.  The current dreadful events in Ukraine have sensitised us to references to conflict, disaster and terror.  I have been looking at the references to war in the Psalms, and there are many of them, sometimes as part of psalms which we regularly sing, though we often leave the war bit out.

penitential psalm illumination
wars and rumours of wars

We regularly sing the first three stanzas of Psalm 62/63, the beautiful yearning psalm ‘O God, you are my God, for you I long / for you my soul is thirsting’,  but we don’t sing the last verse where the psalmist deals with his enemies (‘They shall be put into the power of the sword / and left as the prey of the jackals’ (v.11)).  Similarly in Ps 67/68, we sing (in the Seventh Week of Easter, and in Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time Year I) ‘May the Lord be blessed, day after day. / He bears our burdens, God our saviour. / This God of ours is a God who saves. / The Lord our God holds the keys of death.’  but we then don’t sing the last two lines of the stanza : ‘And God will smite the head of his foes, / the crown of those who persist in their sins.’  If you stuck to the parts of the psalms which we are prescribed in the Sunday Lectionary, you would never know how much violence, retribution and smiting there is in the Psalter.

Echoes from history

I can’t be the only person to find myself arrested by painful echoes of the current news in some of the Church’s readings for this time.  First Sunday of Lent : ‘The Egyptians ill-treated us, they gave us no peace […] But we called on the Lord […] The Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, our toil and our oppression’.  In the first week of Lent, we have readings from Jonah : ‘He preached in these words,’Only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed’; and from Esther : ‘My Lord, our King, the only one, come to my help, for I am alone and have no helper but you and am about to take my life in my hands […] Lord, reveal yourself in the time of our distress’.

Praying and singing in time of war

The Psalms are familiar with war, oppression and violence in a way that we never want to be, but it is oddly comforting, like when you go to hospital in labour in the middle of the night and find that the lights are on and the people are already awake to help you.  The psalmists were often in desperate situations, and they were starting from a more precarious and dangerous time in history than we can imagine.  One reason why the war in Ukraine has shocked us all is that it is happening in Europe, where we expect people to try to avoid war and respect the rule of law, but now we see how insecure we can be.

Woman with sword
hand to hand fighting with sword and buckler

The psalmists knew this very well, mostly from personal experience. Periods of peace were few, one reason why there is so much longing for them.  Even the word ‘peace’ is fairly rare in the psalms; ‘fortress’, ‘stronghold’ and ‘refuge’ are much more frequent. 

Lord God of hosts

God is first given the name ‘the Lord of hosts’ in 1 Samuel 1.11, by Hannah, a woman in distress, which is interesting.  It is the translation of ‘YHWH Sabaoth’, ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’,  in the Latin Sanctus,  translated later as ‘God of power and might’, but now restored as ‘Lord God of hosts’.  This is such a familiar title for God that we don’t think about what it means.  I think I vaguely assumed some connection with the Communion hosts,  until I came across it in French : ‘Dieu des armées’ and I was shocked.   Of course that’s exactly what it means.  Some people prefer to think of it as ‘Lord of the hosts of angels, the heavenly host’, and of course that is also right.  God has the ranks of angels who will do whatever he tells them, but there is more to it.   In times of war and upheaval, having a God of hosts on your side is a very comforting thought, and this is why the title is used not just in the psalms but in some of the later prophets, mainly Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah,  when life was very difficult.

soldiers pillaging house
Dreadful things that war can lead to
Names and titles

Incidentally, Jesus doesn’t call God ‘Lord of hosts’ but ‘Father’, or ‘my Father’.  He refers to him as ‘God’, ‘your Father’ (when preaching) or occasionally ‘the Lord’ when he’s quoting the Old Testament (e.g. talking to the devil in the desert) or telling a story (e.g. about the unjust judge and the persistent woman).   ‘Lord’ is obviously an elastic term, which reaches from ‘the Lord your God’ to a more everyday honorific. Jesus doesn’t make any objection, and it doesn’t provoke the authorities,  when people address him as ‘Lord’.  He tells the apostles to refer to him as ‘the Lord’ (Matthew) or ‘the Teacher’ (Mark and Luke), if they are challenged while making preparations for the Passover meal which will be his Last Supper. In John’s Gospel, the apostles usually call him ‘Lord’ rather than anything else; and Pilate can’t work out what to call him at all.   When Jesus more or less accepts at the end the title of King,  he takes care to point out that he is not a king in any usual earthly way (power, conquest or oppression).

Christ Pantocrator, Christ the king, ruling in majesty
Lord God Almighty

In the Psalms, God, usually addressed just as ‘God’,  is quite often called the Lord of hosts (‘the Lord of armies’ in Ps 23/24, ‘God of hosts’ Pss 79/80, 83/84), and here it is a title about his earthly power, especially in battle.  He is the mightiest of the mighty.   Psalm 45/46 has a built-in refrain : ‘The Lord of hosts is with us; / The God of Jacob is our stronghold’, which is a very encouraging song to be singing.  If God is on your side, no one else can hold out against you.  Conversely, if he withdraws his favour, anyone can beat you, so it is important to return to his favour, if you can work out how. There are several psalms which try to puzzle out what the people have done wrong and how they can correct it (Pss 43/44 and 88/89 are good examples).  But in normal circumstances, God is there in order to protect his people.  This is the undertaking of the covenant.  He protects them from all sorts of evil, the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day, the plague that prowls in the darkness, the scourge that lays waste at noon (Ps 90/91), but also specifically in war situations :’A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand fall at your right’ (ibid.), but God’s faithfulness is buckler and shield, and you will come through unscathed.

A good side to be on
Beautiful tents
beautiful tents, but ready for war

Israel’s unexpected successes in war are a major element of the story in the Old Testament, and God is the source of all of them. He is a force that cannot be beaten, a citadel that cannot be stormed, an impregnable tent ( Pss 26/27, 60/61).  This is no vague concept of heavenly protection : God has a strong right arm (Ps 88/89).  He is a war commander (Pss 67/68, 68/69), a victorious general (Ps 75/76).   All these psalms build on the idea of God himself being a mighty warrior, a man of war  as Handel set so beautifully in  Israel in Egypt.    (And do click on that link, because they sing the duet so well, aware of each other in the way people always should be in duets, but often aren’t, and the ‘orchestra’ is extremely impressive.)  The words there are from the victory chant in Exodus 15 following the defeat of Pharaoh in the Red Sea.  Protecting your people and winning battles for and with them is the king’s job, and a fortiori God’s (Pss 20/21, 93/94).  ‘If the Lord had not been on our side,’ this is Israel’s song (Ps 123/124),… then terrible things would have happened, but with God as our God, we will be safe. 

The vocabulary of war

The Psalms are familiar with the language of war.  God himself is a fortress, a refuge, a stronghold.  The psalmist knows about gates, borders, watchmen, ramparts, chariots, spoil, tribute and of course slavery.  Even hot coals, in Ps 119/120.  God surrounds his people like mountains (Ps 124/125).  This is not for the scenery, but to make defence easier.  His angel encamps around those who fear him (Ps 33/34) , to deliver them, –quite some angel, as I have said before.  God is a warrior, a guard, he has weapons, usually arrows and a sword, but the psalmist likes to talk also about his shield, because God uses it to protect him; the Lord (or even just ‘his faithfulness’ Ps 90/91) can be represented as a shield as easily as a fortress or tower.

tower at war
defending a tower in war

The Psalms can sound like our current news reports in their real experience of war : the earth ‘reeled and rocked’ (Ps 17/18) which sounds like bombs or missiles, and a few verses later, we have blast, scaling a wall, a ‘heavy bow’, a ‘saving shield’, pursuit of a fleeing enemy and finally victory.  The psalmist is always looking for safety and security, the rock under his foot which will not slip, God’s love ‘in a fortified city’ (Ps 30/31.22).  There is real danger here; ‘tottering walls’ (Ps 61/62),  and foes are everywhere. ‘I can see nothing but violence / and strife in the city. / Night and day they patrol/ high on the city walls’ (Ps 54/55).  This is what is happening in the cities of Ukraine, with aeroplanes added in. In Psalm 67/68, the psalmist asks God to’scatter the peoples who delight in war’ (v.31), another verse which suddenly sounds modern.

Melchisedek blessing the king and his troops after a battle
O for the wings of a dove

The psalmist longs for peace, when God will break the arrows and spears (Ps 75/76) but is resigned to fighting for as long as it takes, though he keeps asking God how long it will be and urging him to hurry.  He does not want to fight (Ps 119/120), but is resigned to war because of his opponents : ‘they are for fighting’ (ibid.).  God’s delight is ‘not in warriors’ strength’ (Ps 146/147), but he trains the king and his people for war  (Ps 143/144), because they have to do their part.  Although the psalmist begs him repeatedly, God does not do by himself the smiting for his people; he stands by them and assists as they do it.  We have to wait for the New Testament and Jesus himself before we are told to love our enemies.  The psalmist sees his enemies as God’s enemies, and is proud of his feelings against them, knowing that he is fighting God’s battles (Ps 138/139).  He is not cynical about fighting but resigned : this is what evil men and foes do and always have done, so he looks forward to peace as something that keeps needing to be defended.  Maybe this is what we were in danger of forgetting.  Let us pray for Ukraine; the psalms have plenty of material and are a good place to start.

God creating earth
God presiding over a peaceful world, without war


© 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.




Singing in God’s voice

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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