Mood music : setting the tone for Psalm 68/69

One psalm, two (very different) tunes

There’s a psalm coming up this week for Twelfth Sunday Ordinary Time A, where the translation of the words has meant that I’ve set the US and the other versions completely differently. It is Psalm 68/69, which begins ‘Save me O God, for the waters have risen to my neck’, although this unforgettable verse is not part of Sunday’s psalm.  It is too long a psalm to use in its entirety,  so a selection has been made of which verses to include.  All the Anglophone lectionaries use the same verses for this Sunday, but because of the different translations, the mood of the psalm feels quite different,  so it has two contrasting tunes.

Sea monster in waves
Darkness, billows and monsters
Verses, stanzas and Responses

As usually happens, the psalm stanzas are the same (or nearly) between the UK, Canada and Australasia, although their lectionaries vary in their choice of response.  The US often shares a response with Canada, though not always, and sometimes with Australasia as well.  But its stanzas are always different, though it rarely makes as big a change in mood as it does here.  For the Response, the US and Australasia have ‘Lord, in your great love, answer me’; Canada has ‘Lord, in your steadfast love, answer me’, and the UK Grail version is ‘In your great love, answer me, O God’.  Both of the last two seemed to be to be slightly more relaxed (and ‘steadfast love’ is a favourite collocation for the Canadian lectionary), but because of the stanzas, I ended up setting the OZ Response as a cheerful and confident appeal, and the US one as more fearful and desperate.

Where the mood comes from

Psalm 68/69 is quite a long psalm (37 verses), and runs through several different emotions.  It feels to me as though the US version is mirroring the mood of the first half or so of the psalm, and the other translation is more simply focused on the actual verses chosen for use as the Responsorial Psalm. These are only a small part of the whole, chosen mostly from the last verses of the psalm, when the terror and agony of the first situation has resolved because God has rescued the psalmist. Of course both translations are of the same parts of the psalm; but the emphasis, the overall mood, seems to be different.

Psalm 68/69

Let’s look at the whole psalm first.  It starts with the psalmist up to his neck in water, sinking into the mud, unable to find a foothold.  The waves are beginning to crash over his head.  He is desperate.  This image is like a recurring dream in the Book of Psalms, and I talked about it when I was discussing  water and water images.  This is definitely the waves of death rather than the water of life.  The protagonist goes on to explain that he is in this plight because of his enemies, who unjustly accuse him, and God is absent and not helping, although the singer has not yet given up hope of divine intervention.

drowning people underwater
the perils of the deep, even worse upside down… and where is the other leg?
Explanation or looming disaster?

With impressive aplomb he neatly pivots and hands to God the risk of the divine reputation being damaged because he has not rescued the one who calls to him.  This is where the first stanza of our Responsorial Psalm comes from : ‘It is for you that I suffer taunts, /that shame covers my face’ in the UK and others’ version; ‘For your sake I bear insult, and shame covers my face’ for the US.  He goes on to describe himself as ‘a stranger to my brothers,/ an alien to my own mother’s sons’ (UK+) or ‘an outcast to my brothers, a stranger to my children’ (US), where we can see already how the strong language darkens the US version compared to the mood of the UK+ one.  The stanza ends ‘I burn with zeal for your house / and taunts against you fall on me’ (UK+) or ‘Zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me’ (US).  Burning with zeal can be a positive thing, but being consumed by zeal could easily tip over into fanaticism; and ‘taunts’ are easier to deal with than insults and blasphemy.  Interestingly, all these words meaning ‘insults’ are translated in the King James Bible and the Authorised Version as ‘reproaches’, which links immediately to the Passion narrative, but sounds sad rather than violent and dangerous.

The bits we don’t sing

I found that the mood of this stanza and the Response dictated two different treatments for this psalm, even though after this the stanzas are more positive and talk about the Lord coming to the rescue.  The stanzas in the middle section of the psalm as written, again a part that we don’t use on Sunday, are a problem for many.   Our hero reminds God how cruel his enemies have been to him, and calls on him to avenge him and repay pain for pain, culminating in ‘Blot them out from the book of the living’ (v.29),  another terrifying image.  The psalmist offers various suggestions as to ways in which God might make his enemies suffer : blindness, palsy, traps, desolation and so on.  He is at least planning for it to be God’s vengeance rather than plotting to do evil to them himself, but I’m clutching at straws here.

Imprecatory or cursing psalms

So Psalm 68/69 is one of the embarrassing psalms that has curses in it. These imprecatory psalms worry many people.  We know they were written long, long ago, in a different society with different rules and values.  They are pre-Christian, and we are meant to be followers of Christ, so maybe we should omit any mention of these difficult bits of the Bible (people say hopefully). 

The Bible is not politically correct

The trouble is that there are a lot of difficult bits of the Bible, from the massacre of unaware people on a regular basis as God gives their land to his favoured ones, to the cruel games played by people like Jacob and Joseph, to the appalling way that women are regarded as collateral to be handed over to preserve a man’s safety (Abraham twice, his own wife; the daughters of Lot, and I could go on, I haven’t even moved out of Genesis yet).  We can’t pretend that these bits of the Bible aren’t there, but we are glad that Jesus felt free to say,’You have heard….but I say to you’ (Mtt 5.17ff), so as to give us a clearer idea of God’s preferences (loving our neighbour instead of cursing him or killing his children).

Foreshadowing and fulfilling prophecies
Crucifixion scene on a living tree
They gave him vinegar to drink mixed with gall

However, this particular psalm is quoted in the New Testament (even the nasty part seemingly approvingly by St Paul in Romans 11.9),  and lines of it are particularly familiar in a Christian context, though it’s easy not to notice them in our translations (both UK+ and US).  In the King James and the Revised, the references are easier to spot.  Vv20f is ‘Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness : I looked for some to take pity..’, which is one of the movements in Handel’s Messiah (which does indeed break your heart).   The ‘zeal for your house’ reminds us of Jesus in the Temple;  and v21 of this psalm says ‘in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’, which is again quoted in the Gospels (Mtt 27.34, John 19.28).  The Messianic echoes and implications are the main reason why we are comfortable with using (parts of) this psalm.  But if you want to sing it to a cheerful and confident tune, you need the UK+ version rather than the US one.

What is that in the water?

I said the later part of the psalm is more positive, and so it is; it talks about praising God with a song (always a good idea), and reflects on God’s kindness and care for those who need him.  There’s one more verse, however, where the different translations again give a very different impression.  ‘Let the heavens and the earth give him praise, / the sea and all its living creatures’ (v35) in the UK+ translation sounds like one of the cheerful lists that we find in many of the Creation and praise psalms, especially towards the end of the Psalter.  But I find the mood of the US version seems darker : ‘ Let the heavens and the earth praise him, the seas and whatever moves in them!’  There is the would-be cheerful exclamation mark, but what that line suggests for me is the monsters moving in the deep, Leviathan, sharks and Moby-Dick, so I felt entirely justified in keeping to a minor key.  This isn’t fish swimming in the waters, it’s something mysterious, and ‘moving’, which makes me feel wary.  God may play with the water monsters (Ps  103/104.26), but the rest of us are more likely to give them a wide berth, admiring but not getting too close.  Same psalm, two moods, two tunes.

so gentle when you get to know him

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. 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.


The waves of death or the water of life?

Water, vital and mortal

returning to the great ocean not by choice

Water must be one of the most two-edged thing that exists.  It can kill you; but you cannot live without it.  It is dangerous; it is essential.  We take it completely for granted until it is absent.  We fear it viscerally (this is why people are so fascinated by the Titanic), but we know how precious it is.  We grow and take shape in the waters of the womb, and in many versions of a life-and-death myth, we return as drops into the Great Ocean when we die.  This two-sidedness is a crucial element in its use as metaphor or symbol.

An index of God’s power and scope

God creating earth
God presiding over Creation, outside the water and in control

The psalms talk about water (as a real thing) in two diametrically opposed ways.  There is bad water (the sea, floods), and good water (rain in the desert, the gentle stream supplying water for sheep and the hunted deer), wild water and tame water, you might almost say deadly water and living water because the contrast is so extreme.  God’s power and might are indicated by his control over water in its entirety.  His house is above the rains, and some pictures of Creation show him outside and above the circle of waters which the earth floats within, so he is even above the ‘waters above the heavens’ (Ps 148).  The waters are God’s tool : he can use them to help or to destroy utterly.  Man is frightened of the mightiness of water, but it belongs to God and does his bidding.  Even when the waters are not actively hostile, they are mysterious and potentially dangerous.  This is a very sensible attitude for any person to have.  Water should be taken seriously.  This is another fear that begets wisdom, like the fear of the Lord.  The very power of water shows how great God must be to rule it (Ps 64/65).

Fishermen, but not ocean-going

The Israelites were not a sea-going nation, despite having a coast.  The Red Sea is an idea full of menace, regularly cited as the example of how God can weaponise water (Pss 65/66, 76/77, 77/78, 105/106), but mostly their experience of water is on a smaller scale : lakes, rivers, springs.  They go out to fish on lakes, but the ‘men who go to the seas in ships’ are only referred to once in the Psalms, and then in a sort of head-shaking way, as the psalmist prays for their safe return or arrival at a harbour. This is in Psalm 106/107, where these sailors are the third category of people who need God to rescue them, for no one else will be able to do so.  And the sea is full of monsters, remember, which God made to play with (Ps 103/104).  Leviathan as God’s rubber duck.  How mighty are your works, O Lord.  What God is great as our God? (Ps 76/77)

drowning people underwater
the perils of the deep

Water, water everywhere

safe amid perils

Water’s presence in real life (or, conversely, its absence in time of need) is another reason why it occurs so often in the Bible.   Our need for God is similarly elemental,  but can be similarly complicated.  The Old Testament God can be fierce and terrible.  He can be destructive; indeed, the psalmist prays for God to destroy God’s own enemies and the psalmist’s as well (sometimes, the other way around),  just to keep things tidy;  positive collateral damage.  The great flood means death to almost everyone; but Noah and his family are saved by God.

Generous rain (Ps 67/68) : moving towards metaphor

Another aspect of water which makes it a good image for God is its potential to create growth.  This comes up repeatedly in the psalms with a variety of adjectives (dry, weary, parched, thirsty, shrivelled, scorched) applied to not just the land, but men’s hearts, even their bodies (Ps 62/63).  God provides the water, and everything bursts into growth; You provide for the earth:/ you drench its furrows; /you level it, soften it with showers (Ps 64/65 ).  Water is always dynamic in the psalms; it makes things happen, starts life, makes trees grow and flourish.  Death is a return to dust (Ps 103/104), the removal of water.

Seascape at night, storm
God is never far away

God +water = life

This is one reason why it is seen as God’s own element.   From the beginning of creation in Genesis 1,  God plus water equals life.  Water is the source and also the means of creation (you can’t mould dry clay; when Jesus needs to make dry earth potent for healing, he spits on it, John 9).  In the early days of salvation history, God is often encountered near a water source.    Hagar meets him at a well when she is thrown out by Sarah (Gen. 16) and then again when she and Ishmael are cast out definitively (Gen. 21).  She and Ishmael have run out of food and water and have lain down to die, when ‘God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the skin bottle with water and gave the boy a drink’ (v.19, out of the New World Translation, because it’s the most literal and prosaic version that I have).  God, water, salvation, and a woman’s agency : a grouping we will see again.

Real water in the Psalms is a positive thing….

God’s total control over the (real) waters means that they are usually described either in a neutral or positive way.  To be negative about the Great River, or the seas, or the waves, would be disrespectful to God as their Creator.  Water in this sense can be dark and mysterious, and the scale is huge, but it’s not ever actually hostile itself in the Psalms.  God keeps the waves of the sea in a flask (Ps 33), he rules its raging (Ps 88/89).  To him belongs the sea, for he made it (Pss 94/95, 145/146), he does wonders in the deep (Ps 106/107), he can turn a rock into a pool, a flint into a spring (Pss 106/107, 113/114), and the sea into dry land (Ps 65/66, 73/74, 76/77, 77/78, 135/136).

Pharoah's horses in the Red Sea
Very easy to get bogged down

..but be careful if it’s figurative

The negative aspect is much stronger with the figurative waters.  The underworld of the Old Testament tends to be cold and watery rather than the fiery hot hell of the New Testament.

Sea monster in waves
Darkness, billows and monsters

The psalmist sees obliteration in terms of hostile waters : the waves of death (Ps 17/18), the torrents of destruction (Pss 17/18, 41/42), and a recurring image, like a bad dream, is of being in a muddy pit (or well?) with no way out, nothing to set foot on, and with the waters rising (Ps 68/69, 87/88, 123/124, and 129/130, ‘Out of the depths’).  He calls to God to draw him ‘out from the mighty waters’ (Ps 143/144),  and then sings him a song of praise when he does so.  There are many references to (figurative) sinking, to drying up, to being parched, drinking one’s own tears.  There are a couple of particularly arresting images, one where the psalmist describes himself as ‘like a wineskin shrivelled by smoke’ (Ps 118/119), and another where the wicked man is described thus : He put on cursing like his coat;/ let it soak into his body like water (Ps 108/109).   I’m not sure whether that second line is a curse upon the man or a description of what he did, but either way it’s like something from a horror film.

Some positive images

Of course there are positive images as well (Your justice is like the deep, Ps 35/36), particularly for rain, which you might expect in a hot country where water can go short.  Rain is life-giving and crop-giving, called ‘generous’ (Ps 67/68), and an image of gentle beauty in Ps 71/72, where the king’s son is described as descending ‘like rain on the meadow,/ like raindrops on the earth’, welcome as only rain in a desert country can be.  The food provided for the starving escaped Israelites, manna and quails, is described as ‘raining’ down (Ps 77/78).  Mostly, the positive images of water tend to be linked to the sheer size of God. The sea can thunder praise, the rivers clap their hands (Pss 95/96, 97/98), or it can flee from God’s actions and the river reverse its course (Ps 113/114), but the point is that these huge natural things, powerful as they are compared to a human, have no power comparable to God’s.  Moab is merely his washbowl (Pss 59/60 and 106/107);  water is under his control for his own use.

New Testament water slightly different

In the New Testament, water is again one of the most significant images, but I cannot think of a single instance where Jesus uses it negatively (someone will e-mail me, I’m quite sure!).  For him, it is living water, the water of life, welling up to eternity.

plenty of peril, but a serene Jesus (Peter Hackett)

He is baptised by immersion in the Jordan; he turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana; he washes his disciples’ feet (and has his own washed with tears earlier).  He accompanies the fishing apostles in their boat, he hitches lifts across the Sea of Galilee, he walks on the water.  He shows no sign of fear at any point.  When he is in the apostles’ boat and a storm blows up, he is fast asleep on a cushion (Mk 4), but when the frightened apostles wake him, he quells the storm with a word.  This is what God can do.

Still or sparkling

One of the things I particularly like about the water in the psalms is how carefully the psalmists distinguish between different sorts : seas, lakes, rivers and springs.  They all have separate characteristics.  When I set the words to a tune, I try to remember which sort of water we are talking about.  The past master at this is Handel, and some of his best work here is in the oratorio Israel in Egypt, which gives him wonderful opportunities.  He sets music to represent hail as one of the Plagues.  The waters of the Red Sea stand upright as an heap;  and Pharaoh’s horses and soldiers sink and perish under the torrents of its return.  Obviously I can’t do anything like this, but I do like to try and make the water show either in the melody or accompaniment.  It’s not just the psalms, either; we are lucky to have the Isaiah 12 Canticle among the Easter music, with its wells of salvation, and I have tried (according to the Response translation) to emphasize either hauling the water from the wells or hearing it ripple up freely from the springs.

Peaceful holy well
St Brannoc’s holy well/spring

Welling up to eternal life

Springs are always special, because they are mysterious but unthreatening.  Holy wells are often little springs that have been turned into places of pilgrimage, from Bible times (Abraham’s wanderings are marked by wells and springs), through early history (St Non’s in Pembrokeshire, near St Davids) until quite recently (Lourdes).  Springs are places of hope.  The water in the spring quenches thirst but is itself unquenchable.  This is Jesus’ great image for his message, the Good News he came to give.  Instead of the hard work of hauling up the water, a spring just ripples out.   As [God’s people] go through the Bitter Valley [or place of weeping], they make it a place of springs. The autumn rain covers it with blessings (Ps. 83/84).

Deja vu

Baptism : water and new life

This week’s readings are all about water.   (These are the readings we use for the First Scrutiny of those planning to be baptised at Easter, so they can be used even in other years of the liturgical cycle.)  The Old Testament reading is from Exodus, and shows the escaped Israelites desperate for water, which Moses supplies when God tells him where to strike the rock.  The psalm commemorates this event.  St Paul explains how God’s love has been ‘poured’ into our hearts.  And the Gospel is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, a fascinating encounter that I have written about before, as she is a rare female voice in the Gospels.

Jesus talking with woman at the well
Sir, give me some of that water

God arrives at a watering place.  He speaks to a woman.  She believes him, and her life takes a new direction.  We have indeed seen this before.  She also spreads the blessing she has received; once a spring starts to well up, it is hard to stop it.  This unnamed woman turns out to be one of the most effective evangelists.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. 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.