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.


Spring saints and their psalms : David, Patrick and Joseph

Springing into action

Everything seems to burst into activity in the spring, from beetles to bushes. Everything and everybody is busy. Church-music writers are no exception. There’s all the Lent music to sort out, all the Easter music to spruce up (and there’s so much of it, and people get through it all in one night! It’s just like when you spend ages cooking and the family wolfs it in ten minutes); – and then there are the special feasts for spring saints which need music as well.

wild flowers by path to Saint Non's spring
Spring flowers on the path that leads to St Non’s spring (St David’s mother)

St David, first saint of spring

So March is a busy month anyway, and it starts with a bang with St David having his feast day on March 1st. The old weather proverb says of March, ‘In like a lamb, out like a lion’, or the other way around, depending on whether it starts with gales or with gentle breezes. It’s hard to say whether Saint David is more of a lion than a lamb, as we know not much about him.   And he is from a long time ago, the sixth century, which means we have very little solid information, except that we know he was an archbishop and Welsh.   He was living in turbulent times (true of all three of these saints), and he was a man of authority, so he must have needed lion qualities as well as the lamb-like ones which his preserved words suggest.  We have his last words, from an eleventh-century account, which means they are respectable, if not guaranteed, and they are worth noting : “Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”  He sounds like a good man, humble and cheerful (and he includes women in his audience, which is very good to hear, and not to be taken for granted).

Welsh cakes : the link in the text even has a recipe!  Brilliant food for travellers

There are surprisingly few pious legends attached to Dewi Sant (hooray, not being part of the Counter-Reformation or female a great help here), and he is the patron saint of Wales, so he can represent all the good things about that country, personifying Welshness for many of us.  You can wear daffodils or leeks on St David’s day : one lifts the heart, the other makes wonderful soup for the still chilly weather.  You can bake welsh cakes to mark the day.   If you get the chance to visit St Davids in Pembrokeshire you will find the smallest cathedral in Britain, in a most beautiful setting, nestled in a little dell.

Psalm for St David (1)

tree like Saint David
See where your Celtic roots can lead you

What psalm does the Church offer us to celebrate Saint David?  It’s Psalm 1, which introduces the whole Psalter, describing the contrast between the good man and the wicked (with a certain amount of glee, it has to be admitted).  The good man is like a tree planted by flowing waters.  This feels entirely appropriate for the Welsh patron saint, with Wales being honeycombed by beautiful brown flowing waters (one of the things which fascinated Gerard Manley Hopkins about the countryside near St Beuno’s, which is further north but still Wales).  The setting I’ve done for this psalm for England and Wales has a little quotation from The Ash Grove in it, because it’s a beloved Welsh folksong.  I haven’t specifically set St David’s psalm for the other Lectionaries (because he’s a national saint only for Wales and England technically) but it’s the same psalm as for Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time Year C, so in fact everybody has it if they need it.

St Patrick was actually British

Saint Patrick is the next national patron saint to come by in March, on March 17th, and this year he gets bumped by the Second Sunday of Lent.  I don’t imagine that will stop anyone celebrating Saint Patrick’s feastday, however, but the specific Mass will be held on another day!  Saint Patrick is even further back in time than St David, in the fifth century, and there is an enormous amount of information available about him,  some of it popular rather than necessarily reliable.  The basic facts appear to be that he was British, captured as a boy and enslaved in Ireland among the pagans but God looked after him.  Some years later he escaped and studied to become a priest, eventually discerning a vocation to return to Ireland as a missionary, and spent the rest of his life there, founding and building churches (and performing miracles, like ridding Ireland of snakes).  No flowers for Patrick (or vegetables), but there’s always the shamrock.

the trouble just one snake can cause

Psalm for St Patrick (116/117)

What psalm is assigned to him?  It’s psalm 116/117, a really short psalm, with the emphasis on St Patrick as a missionary :’Go out to all the world and tell the good news’.  Two things make this especially appropriate.  One is that the Irish diaspora has done precisely that;  and the other is that because of the Irish diaspora, lots of countries celebrate this feast day, and it’s in both the UK and the OZ Lectionaries.  The same psalm is used for Ninth and Twentyfirst Sundays in Ordinary Time Year C, so everyone else also has it available.   It’s so short (two two-line verses) that I’ve simply set it as a rollicking rise and fall, and you don’t even need a compact version as it takes up so little space.  And it’s snake-free.

St Joseph, who always comes third

Saint Joseph has more than one feast day, but his two main ones are March 19th (the Church’s celebration of his feast) and May 1st (feast of Joseph the Worker).  He is the patron saint of all sorts of places and people, including Canada, and everybody has him in their Missal, as his feast is classed as a Solemnity and everyone celebrates it.  He is a fascinating and surprisingly elusive figure, figuring in only two of the Gospels and not in any of St Paul’s epistles.  When God needs to tell him something, he sends him an angel in a dream, to warn, to advise or to reassure, and Joseph always acts with great promptitude and efficiency, leaving for Egypt immediately in the middle of the night, for example.  The focus is never on him, but despite his permanent third position, by date of feast and in the popular imagination (‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’, which you only ever hear said in one very particular rhythm and cadence),  he’s a very important saint.

Saint Joseph with Mary and Jesus
Mary knitting, Saint Joseph talking to the baby

He is portrayed as an old(er) man, but this seems to have arisen mainly out of the Church’s hang-ups over sex, and there’s no textual justification for it at all.  It’s always fun to check what he’s doing in any portrayal of the Holy Family.  Sometimes he’s asleep (worn out because he’s so old), sometimes he’s just standing guard (leaning on a staff, because he’s so old).  I like the pictures where he’s looking after the baby because Mary’s asleep, and there are a couple of wonderful illustrations of the journey into Egypt where he’s carrying the sleeping baby  and leading the donkey, while Mary grabs a quiet fifteen minutes with a book.

Saint Joseph at work at home
everybody usefully occupied

March 19th has been his feast day since the tenth century, but it’s not a very good date really as it often falls in Lent, which casts a damper on the day and means you can’t have any alleluias. I’ve set his Acclamations for US and CAN with the new top-and-tails that sound more celebratory.  Like St David, he has a flower, the lily for purity, sometimes sprouting from the staff he needs to hold him up (because he’s so old).

Psalm for St Joseph (88/89)

The psalm, like the readings, emphasizes Joseph’s descent from David and Abraham, which technically isn’t relevant as ancestors of Jesus.  It is a celebration of God’s love and the promises of the covenant.  This psalm does come up on other Sundays, but there always with a Response along the lines of ‘Forever I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord’.   However, for St Joseph, we have ‘His line shall continue forever’.  I feel that this is either emphasizing something we should be skating over,  or concentrating on celebrating David rather than Joseph.

Saint Joseph holding baby
Time for a cuddle

I like the slightly grumpy Joseph who appears in some of the older poems and carols, notably the Cherry Tree Carol, where when Mary asks for some cherries as they travel through an orchard and Joseph (who is too bent to reach, because he is so old)  snaps that whoever gave Mary the baby can get her the cherries.  A miracle occurs, and there are various different versions (it’s possibly a composite of three old ballads) but Mary gets the cherries, the unborn baby makes a prediction about his birthday, and Joseph apologises.

Saint Joseph with tree
Same legend, different tree; this is a palm tree

It often seems to be possible to make a case for a different (possibly more appropriate) psalm on particular feast days.   Saint George’s feast day (in April) doesn’t use any of the psalms that dragons feature in, which is a shame;  we don’t sing the Magnificat at the Annunciation, though surely it would be apposite, and we don’t have one of the (few) sea-going psalms for Sea Sunday, which I regret every year.  Joseph’s psalm is a good one, but I think I would have given him one of the more ‘craftsman’ psalms, like Ps 89/90, with its double iteration of ‘Give success to the work of our hands’, or possibly better 133/134,  which starts ‘O come, bless the Lord,/all you who serve the Lord, /who stand in the house of the Lord’  and goes on ‘Lift up your hands to the holy place/ and bless the Lord through the night’, because it always makes me think of Joseph, standing so patiently watching and protecting in all those Nativity scenes, but awake and alert to do whatever God asked him in the night.

Three great saints; three cheerful psalms.  They come up on our journey through Lent like primroses in our path, encouraging us and lightening the heart.  They aren’t always Lent saints, because of dates shifting around; but they surely are saints for spring.

flowers on a piece of medieval embroidery
blossoms and leaves sprouting even outside the box

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. 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.