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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Seeking God’s face as a theme in the psalms

I know that face

How do we recognise people? By their voice, by their touch, but above all by their face. Where does that leave our relationship with God? Every now and again, there is great internet excitement about someone finding ‘the face of God’ in the inside of a fruit or vegetable, or a picture of Our Lady, or Jesus. Sometimes it’s the letters which spell the Holy Name.   What always intrigues me, though, is how do people know that it’s God (or Jesus, or Mary) and not somebody else?   We have no contemporary photographs or even portraits; it is easy to demonstrate that people’s idea of God’s appearance (or the appearance of anyone else in the story) is culturally conditioned (all those blond Jesuses in long white nighties, all those Marys with peaches and cream complexions – and long blonde hair).

Pregnant BVM
a beautifully pregnant Mary, but the hair is surely wrong

Till we have faces

God is a spirit and he doesn’t have a face.  Jesus offers his own : ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14.9).  Clement of Rome (died about 95 A.D.) said,’Through him we see as in a mirror the spotless and excellent face of God’.  We don’t have even a sketch of Jesus;  any sort of pictures of people (recognisable portraits) are rare until quite recently, historically speaking.   The existence of the Turin Shroud and the Veil(s) of Veronica indicate how desperate people are for a true image of the Lord.  They are a fascinating and relatively rare example in the Western Church, of the ‘not made with hands’ holy objects which are much more frequent in the Eastern Church.  I think this is partly why our own Church treats such images  with gentleness, like relics.  They are very important to lots of good people, even if their provenance is so unclear.  Jesus’ face is an understandable concept for people to focus on.  He was born, lived and died as a human being, and we all have faces;  unique to us, familiar to and loved by those who know and love us.  God is different.  He is not human.  The God of the psalms is from before Jesus’ arrival on earth.  What about his face?

The Psalms : God has a body
God of wrath
God of anger, terrifying even in pink (Sistine)

The idea of God’s face recurs in the Psalms like a bass note or a bell. It’s partly because of the almost shocking physicality of the psalms (look no further than Psalm 3 : ‘you [God] who smite all my foes on the mouth, you who break the teeth of the wicked’,v.8).  God is a mighty man, a warrior, definitely human in his Biblical image, as I’ve said before.  God is as physically present in the psalms as the psalmist himself.  He is shown in very corporeal terms; even his clothes are described, his cloak made of sky (most beautiful concept), his hands and feet, his strong right arm.  Of course he has a face.  In the Psalms  it stands for the answer to all questions, to all yearning.  

Burning bush
Moses sees God’s face (note his bare feet, and the shoes in the foreground)

I haven’t got time to develop it here, but seeing God’s face is an important part of Moses’ story, and there are rules and prohibitions about it because it is so important.  The  foundational Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6.25ff  talks about God’s face twice, first shining upon his people and second being lifted up in their direction.  According to my commentary, the Hebrew verbs for ‘lifting up’ and ‘shining’ are closely related, so we expand the lines to translate them. 

May the LORD bless you and keep you; may the LORD cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the LORD lift up His countenance toward you and give you peace.

This is the context of the psalmist’s understanding of God’s face.  ‘What can bring us happiness?’ many say. Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord’ (Psalm 4.7).  He combines the two lines from the blessing.

face to face with Adam
God and Adam,  face to face
‘The light of your face’

This is a beautiful expression, and brings its own explanation with it.  Often and often you can see the light come into someone’s face : when they catch sight of someone that they love, when they see a baby for the first time, when they see again someone dear to them after absence.  We say, ‘her eyes lit up’; ‘his face shone’ ; we talk about somebody ‘beaming’.  A loving face is full of light.  This may be one reason why the sun (in children’s picture books) is so often given eyes and a smile.

Stories about faces

Seeing someone’s face is important.  This is why it is a motif in so many stories.  Not always positive, either : the sight of Medusa’s face turns men to stone; the stone faces of pharaohs and sphinxes have a stern appearance.  The wicked queen in Snow White looks into a mirror to find out who is the fairest, hoping to see herself,  and then talks to the mirror which reflects other faces back to her.  Dorian Gray and the picture in the attic.  Beauty and the Beast.  Shrek, even. 

….all she wants to do is see his face

My favourite is Cupid and Psyche, where Cupid, here a young man rather than the baby archer, falls in love with the nymph Psyche.  (This is a very short version of the story, which was developed in every conceivable direction.  For longer versions, check  with wiki, but you could be there for some time.)  He carries her off to a palace of delight and woos her with every pleasure, but she may not see his face (so she does not know who he is).  Her jealous sisters nag and try to frighten her about her invisible lover until she lights a candle (or a lamp) to look upon him while he is sleeping.  He is so lovely that her hand trembles, a drop of wax (or oil) falls on him, he wakes up, and flees, and she has to go through suffering and trials before a final happy ending.  Seeing someone’s face can be dangerous; but the human desire to do so is overwhelming.

The Dream of Gerontius : seeing God’s face

J.H. Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius, shows the eponymous hero (it just means ‘old man’ in Greek/Latin), at the point of death, and what happens next.  It is intensely dramatic.  Elgar set (much of) it to music,  and I find that I can never have it on in the background because it is too immediate and distracting.  Gerontius dies, or goes to sleep, and wakens to a different reality.  He is being carried by his Guardian Angel, to God and judgment.  When ‘The Soul of Gerontius’ realises who is carrying him, he describes the Angel as one who ‘has had a strong and pure celestial life,  And bore to gaze on the unveil’d face of God’, so he is thinking of heaven already in terms of the Beatific Vision, the sight of God’s face.

the angel takes the lead because he knows the way

But Gerontius can feel and hear; he cannot see.  Everything seems dark, and he asks the Angel whether he will ever see anything again. They have quite a lengthy theological discussion about this (one of the parts of the poem which Elgar omits).   The Angel tells him that he will see God, but only for a moment :

Then sight, or that which to the soul is sight,                                                                    As by a lightning-flash, will come to thee,                                                                     And thou shalt see, amid the dark profound,                                                                     Whom thy soul loveth, and would fain approach,—                                                    One moment; but thou knowest not, my child,                                                                      What thou dost ask: that sight of the Most Fair                                                             Will gladden thee, but it will pierce thee too

and it is precisely God’s face that will cause him pain :

It is the face of the Incarnate God                                                                                     Shall smite thee with that keen and subtle pain

– but even knowing that, Gerontius presses on.  The music sweeps forward in a great crescendo, until there is a mighty crash of cymbals as Gerontius darts from the Angel’s restraining hold, and is described as ‘scorch’d and shrivell’d’, –  but it’s all right :

O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe                                                                            Consumed yet quickened by the glance of God.

This is what ‘seeking God’s face’ is all about : a longed-for close encounter, a ‘face-to-face’ meeting.

As for me, I shall see your face (Ps 16/17)

Just like Gerontius, the psalmist looks forward to seeing God’s face after death.  ‘As for me, in my justice I shall see your face / and be filled, when I awake, with the sight of your glory’  (end of Psalm 16/17).  And this looking is mutual : ‘They walk with ever-growing strength, / they will see the God of gods in Zion.[…] Turn your eyes, O God our shield, look on the face of your anointed’  (Ps 83/84 v.8f).  God’s face is like a reward; seeing it is a physical expression of what heaven is about.  But it’s not the after-death vision of God that the psalmist means most of the time.  He is talking about seeking God’s face as a rule of life, as a basic orientation which changes everything.

Bearded woman
Such are the men who seek you, seek the face of the God of Jacob

In Psalm 104/105, one of the long retelling-of-salvation-history psalms, this is the crucial message to be gleaned from all the stories passed on down the generations : ‘Consider the Lord and his strength; / constantly seek his face’ (v.4).  The saints are defined as ‘the men who seek your face’ (Ps 23/24),  in the psalm we use every year for All Saints, and ‘the people who walk in the light of your face’ are described as happy or blessed (Ps 88/89).

Two different sorts of seeing
Close up of the Arnolfini mirror

This fits with the psalms’ usual emphasis on life here and now, rather than an afterlife of which we know nothing definite.  There are two sorts of seeking God’s face : there is the daily striving to do God’s will,  something we have to keep working on (not always successfully); and there is the seemingly vaguer, more mystical aspiration to gaze at God for ever.  This corresponds to St Paul’s two different sorts of seeing in 1 Corinthians 13.12, ‘now […]in a mirror dimly, but then face to face’.

Lighten our darkness

Because God’s face is light, it is dark when he turns his face away, and darkness in the Psalms is always frightening and dangerous (‘The Lord God is our light’, Ps 117.27).  So there are several pleas for God not to hide his face (Pss. 9/10, 12/13, 26/27, 43/44, 87/88, 103/104, 142/143).  But in Psalm 50/51, the great penitential psalm, the speaker implores God to turn his face away from his sins, because if God is not looking at them, there is no light and they cannot be seen.  God’s glance is full of power :’the boastful cannot stand before your face’ (Ps 5); ‘may [the wicked] perish at the frown of your face’ (Ps 79/80) – but in the same psalm we have the refrain ‘let your face shine on us/ and we shall be saved’.  God’s face is salvation itself.

World with cloud flying above
God among the clouds, and the earth below
Do not hide your face

When God hides his face, the psalmist is distraught (Pss 9/10, 12/13, 26/27, 29/30, 43/44, 87/88, 103/104, 142/143).   He wants God to look at him as much as he wants to look at God.  He is afraid to be out of God’s sight (Ps 30/31), because God’s power is such that a man cannot be out of sight unless God chooses to turn his face away : ‘Where can I flee from your face?/  If I climb the heavens, you are there. /If I lie in the grave, you are there’ (Ps 138/139).  This is a comforting, not a terrifying thought, because the whole psalm is a celebration of God’s infinite power and reach, even into the recesses of the psalmist’s own being.  He ends by opening his heart to God without reserve : ‘O search me, God, and know my heart’ v.23.

God’s eyes are always open; ‘he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep’ (Ps 120/121).  He is contrasted with the idols that other races worship : ‘they have eyes but they cannot see’ (this comes up twice, in Ps 113/114 and in Ps 134/135).

Sicut cervus
stag in a stream
desiring the waterbrooks

What the psalmist longs for is to look peacefully upon God’s face and have God look upon him.  This is at the root of all the yearning psalms.  ‘When can I enter and see the face of God?’ (Ps 41/42).  ‘My body pines for you […] so I gaze on you in the sanctuary ‘ (Ps 62/63).  In Ps 68/69, the psalmist complains :’My eyes are wasted away /from looking for my God’, a striking image even in this psalm of so many (it’s the one that begins ‘Save me, Lord, for the waters have risen to my neck’).

This watching is sited in a place of calm, of tranquillity.  Like the weaned baby in Ps 130/131, the soul is at peace on its mother’s breast, needing nothing, trusting for everything.  This attitude makes all these psalms natural prayers in contemplation or adoration, words for when words stop.  We can of course look at God when we think he isn’t looking at us, as it says in Ps 122/123 : Our eyes are on the Lord till he show us his mercy;  but what we seek, what we long for,  is the mutual gazing.  As the old farmer is supposed to have answered St John Vianney, who asked what he was doing when he looked at the tabernacle, ‘Nothing; I look at him, and he looks at me’.

‘Let us fix our gaze on the Father’ (Clement of Rome, first century)

There’s another high Victorian poet I would like to quote in this context. F.W. Faber, often called ‘Father Faber’, wrote a lot of hymns.  Many are too sentimental for modern taste, but some are still sung (There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Faith of our fathers (with arguments about the original version of the words), O come and mourn with me awhile, Souls of men, why will ye scatter, and many others less common today).  The language is unbounded and can be cloying;  he has all the faults of his time, he is hopelessly non-inclusive and Counter-Reformation (though he was himself a convert); but he was always trying for simplicity and not afraid of strong feeling.   I admire the way that he is not afraid to tackle the mysteries of God in a simple hymn.  And he admired the Wesleys, so he understood the power of a good hymn.

Faber at the front, Newman at the back, helpfully together

We used to sing his hymns at school (that probably dates me), which means I know many by heart.  For years I have had a very soft spot for his My God, how wonderful Thou art, simply because of the last verse : Father of Jesus, love’s reward / what rapture will it be/ prostrate before Thy throne to lie / and gaze and gaze on Thee!     Some of the other verses are a bit twee, but I have always loved that one, and it is saying precisely the same thing as the psalmist of thousands of years ago.  Immortal, invisible, God does not change;  nor does our longing for him, our desire to see his face.

© 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.


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