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.


A name of power : who was Melchisedek?

A mysterious figure

In the psalm (109/110)  for Corpus Christi Year C, there is a reference to Melchisedek.  This is one of only two references to him in the Old Testament. Here are the words in Genesis 14 :

‘And Melchisedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine;  he was priest of the Most High God.  Then he blessed him [Abram, who’s just returned from winning a major battle and freeing Lot from captivity] and said: ‘Blessed be Abram by the Most High God, Maker of heaven and earth; and praised be the Most High God, who has handed your oppressors over to you!’  And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.’

And that is absolutely all the information we have about Melchisedek in the Old Testament, apart from the reference in Psalm 109/110 :’You are a priest forever, a priest like Melchisedek of old’ or ‘…in the line of Melchisedek.’  Different translations of Genesis are not sure who gave the tithe to whom, and the words can vary slightly (I took the translation above out of the Jehovah’s Witness version, because I thought it was probably the most literal).  You can see how early a part of the salvation story this is by the fact that Abram is still missing the extra syllable God will give him later.

Melchisedek at altar
Melchisedek and Abram, brass altar piece, 1181

Full of significance

Here he is in nineteenth-century stained glass

I’m not qualified to discuss all the later meanings added on to the figure of Melchisedek.  There are old Jewish traditions about him, he’s mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, he’s mentioned by some of the Gnostics, St Paul considers him a central figure in explaining how Jesus did not need to be related to Aaron or Levi and yet is the Great High Priest  (this is all in the Epistle to the Hebrews, because it’s an interesting Jewish theological question), and what that means, is that this psalm is quoted in the New Testament more often than any other, all on this Melchisedek point.

Names in poetry and songs

But having read the account from Genesis, you now have as much information as the psalmist of this particular psalm, who we think might well have been David.  I want to discuss the power of proper names in poems and songs, and specifically the difficulty of setting them to music.  Proper names are awkward because they are too specific and often not euphonious.  It works if the name is of someone with mythical or enhanced status (Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour…),  but it’s difficult to avoid bathos where it’s just someone less important.   Wordsworth wrote several poems which start with the name of the person he’s addressing, like the ‘Milton’ poem, but it doesn’t really work attached to a name that means nothing to the reader.    Try it yourself, with the names of people you know, and it’s hard to repress a snigger.  This is the whole basis of the joke in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Generic goddesses or proper names

The Greeks, the Romans and European poets up to the eighteenth century handle this by using nymph or goddess names for their (real) sweethearts, but a specific reference name is much harder to deal with.   So we have ‘Jenny kiss’d me when we met’  interestingly described as a ‘Rondeau’ (musical dance form as well as a type of poem),  Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone,  which is a madrigal;   but it’s hard to deal with a name and surname, unless a comic effect is desired (‘Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins’).  Of course there are exceptions (Barbara FrietchieBarbara AllenEleanor Rigby ), but on the whole, it’s easier to deal with people famous enough to have one-word names (Napoleon (Shelley), Shakespeare  (Ben Jonson).  Whitman avoids Lincoln’s name in his poem, just addressing him as ‘O Captain! my Captain!’.

Names with exotic sounds

But there’s one group of names, often but not always single words, which are in the text because of their sound and sometimes their overtones.  They are characterised by an incantatory quality, often marked by exotic strangeness.  They can be geographical, historical, romantic; they can be totally normal in one context but like magic or hilarious words in a child’s ear.   Lear’s  The Akond of Swat  is one of the first that a young reader comes across and a good example (and there’s another poem about the same gentleman by George Lanigan, less well-known, same idea, quite different, extremely funny).    It doesn’t even have to be poetry : Kipling’s great grey-green greasy Limpopo has created magic for children even in prose.

There’s a poem by W.J. Turner called Romance, which describes this perfectly, where the force of the poem lies in the magic exotic names of the places (cf. Marlowe’s Persepolis or Ilium).  I came across this poem as a child; I still don’t know anything about those places, and I don’t want or need to; but ‘Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, they had stolen my soul away’ indeed.  John Masefield’s Cargoes is similar, but he uses exotic words as well as names (though sadly I have never yet managed to use the word ‘quinquireme’ casually in a sentence).

Names of power

Beautiful dawn
Clouds of glory from my garden

With names of people, it isn’t pure sound usually, though Tolkien is a master of this, as you would expect (Galadriel, Faramir, Tom Bombadil).  There’s a lot of foreign-naming going on in nineteenth-century poetry, part of the contemporary passion for the exotic. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a good example (Kubla Khan, Xanadu).   Swinburne is another (Aholibah).  The Brownings tried, but don’t seem to me to succeed (just calling Italy ‘Italia’ is not enough, and Garibaldi is unfortunately suggestive in an English pronunciation).   The names to conjure with are mostly those with reverberations, which come as it were trailing clouds of glory, to coin a phrase.

Names of mystery

However some of the most powerful magic comes when there is nothing but a name : look at Shelley’s Ozymandias.   Sometimes it’s a name with just a bit more, which does not illuminate, but adds to the mystery : Hereward the Wake; Herne the Hunter; and even (I would argue, and so would Christopher Robin)  Winnie-the-Pooh. 

Let’s get back to Melchisedek

Melchisedek, name of power and of mystery

Melchisedek is a classic example of an incantatory name, because we have so little other information; and just because there is so little of it, it’s all very significant.  Who is he?  He is described as ‘king and priest of Salem’.  ‘Salem’ could be Jeru-salem, but is also the same word as ‘shalom’, so this person is ‘prince of peace’, to use Isaiah’s formulation.  Being king and priest is highly significant, not just in a Christian or Davidic forerunner context, but because it means you outrank others in both spheres (imagine if Charlemagne had been the Pope as well).  Look at the trouble Henry VIII caused by making himself head of the Church in England, and that was even without invoking the priesthood; and one of the reasons Charles I was so difficult to deal with was because he believed so strongly in the divine right of kings; – but this is to raise the claim to a whole new level.

Melchisedek in landscape
Bringing forth bread and wine almost like a picnic

What does Melchisedek do?  He appears with no context; he brings out (of where?) bread and wine; he blesses Abram (presumably by laying his hands on his head, so Abram has had to bend or even kneel before him); and he praises God by a name which shows that he means The One True God, not anyone local or subordinate; and then he disappears again, to reappear only in Psalm 109/110, which plays absolutely fair in not adding any further information, but using the same incantatory name.

Melchisedek qualifies for a feast day

Melchisedek Athos icon
Athos icon of Melchisedek

Melchisedek is significant enough to make it into the Roman Liturgical Calendar.  His feast day is August 26th.  For the Eastern Orthodox, it is May 22nd.  For the Armenian Church it’s July 26th, as one of the Holy Forefathers.  I was very excited to discover this, and went hunting for a feast of the Holy Foremothers, but sadly this does not exist, though I did find a feast of Holy Translators, which I trust includes people like Catherine Winkworth.    Melchisedek’s importance for the Church is mainly because of the use St Paul makes of him, as indicating a pre-Levite and pre-Aaronic priesthood,  in which Jesus can be the great High Priest ‘according to the line of Melchisedek’, which I’m not qualified even to discuss.  I am just concerned with the practicality of setting proper names to music.  At least Melchisedek is one where everyone knows how to pronounce it (I always worry about Massah and Meribah, in Psalm 94/95), but it presents problems of its own.

Melchisedek modern icon
Modern icon, with classic attributes again

Setting  Melchisedek to music

Melchisedek is a name, a word of four syllables.  I try to avoid using anything smaller than a quaver, especially for the Response, so you’re looking at 2 crotchets or quarter notes minimum, which is half or two-thirds of a bar, if not a whole bar.  You can play with rhythm but not duration : you need all four syllables.  And it’s not just in the Cantor’s part, it is in the Response; and it is (mostly) the last word of the Response, so it is full of emphasis, it has the cadence.  These are the unavoidable considerations, and I’m actually rather glad that this name does not come up as often as (say) Zion or Israel.   Words like ‘ordinances’ are similarly tricky.

Variation in the Responses

It’s a sizeable chunk in the Response, and the words around it vary according to the different Lectionaries.  US and OZ both have ‘You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchisedek’, but they have different strophe words (OZ follows the same strophe words as the UK Lectionary. Mostly.).  UK has ‘You are a priest for ever, a priest like Melchisedek of old’, and CAN has ‘You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedek’, which gave me the most trouble of all.

The US version arranged itself neatly into a 3/4 rhythm, with the stresses falling naturally as the tune lollops along, so the Response set the mood for the whole psalm.  The UK Response seemed to have a more exotic or even other-worldly feel, and the rhythm was more flexible, so that came out in 4/4, but with a modal, haunting little tune.  I didn’t want to lose the impact of the name, so I treated the ‘of old’ as a part of the title.  OZ shares the US  Response but the UK verse words.  As though to rub it in, the second half of the fourth strophe is the same word-for-word as the UK Response, but combining the two together didn’t work, so I started again, and that is a completely different setting, in 4/4.   Somehow that arrangement of words in the Response doesn’t seem to need the haunting quality; I think ‘in the line of’ is much more straightforward than ‘of old’, maybe.

The CAN Response was awkward because there were just so many words in it, and the rhythm was not flexible.  Ideally, you don’t want a Response to be too long or too complicated (I’ve written about this before), because the congregation has to pick it up quickly and not forget it in between its appearances, so I try to keep it to four bars or eight if it’s a quicker flow.  ‘You are a priest for ever’ is already half of a Response. ‘According to the order of’ is a lot of syllables, even before you get to ‘Melchisedek’.  I had to do a lot of saying it out loud before I could fix a rhythm which worked, and I was surprised to find that I could relate it best to the UK modal tune  (the strophe words were slightly different, but it was easy to adapt the tune).  When I looked at the UK and CAN Responses carefully, they were each five bars, which surprised me again, but I think that’s one reason why they feel slightly uncanny, unbalanced (in a good way), and this preserves the exotic element which I didn’t want to lose.

See how an expert does it….

Psalm 109/110 starts ‘Dixit Dominus’ in Latin, and because it’s a neat, short psalm with wonderful words, many great composers have set it.  It’s part of Vespers, for a start (Monteverdi and Mozart). Because of the Melchisedek line, it’s useful as celebratory music for Church celebrations, like Zadok the Priest is for royal events, with all those repeated ‘May the King live for ever’s.  Here’s a link to the part where Handel sets the Melchisedek reference.   He does it as (mostly) runs of semiquavers, so you only really hear it as the choir comes down to the triumphant conclusion.  He’s following the music not the words, and you’d never get away with it as a Responsorial Psalm, but it’s a lovely piece of music.

Melchisedek, Abram, servants….and God as well

© 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.

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