Psalmathon

Exeter Cathedral is properly known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in Exeter, and so celebrates the feast of St Peter on 29 June. This year the usual festivities could not take place, given the constraints of lockdown. Instead the Cathedral held a Psalmathon on Zoom.

The Reverend Professor Canon Sue Gillingham, one of the two Canons Theologian and a scholar of international renown on the Psalms, started the proceedings with an introduction to the Psalter, and then over the next 8 or so hours, 30 different people proceeded to read the 150 Psalms using a range of translations and styles. And if we got ahead of ourselves for a minute or two, Sue was often on hand to provide fascinating ‘filler’ on the structure of the Psalter, or the characteristics of the current block of Psalms.

The event was organised and the troops marshalled by the Canon Steward, Cate Edmonds. We volunteers had an opportunity to bid for our favourite Psalms, and she did a sterling job of sharing them out among us. I offered to read some of the revenge psalms if no-one else was willing – Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Walter Brueggemann both give fascinating insights into these. I also suggested my favourites 27, 107, and 130, and happily ended up with 27,28,29 and 106,107.

I wanted to read from an inclusive language version, and emphatically not from the Book of Common Prayer – so-called poetic language does not cover up old errors in translation and exclusivity. I also wanted to honour a translation of Psalm 27.8 shared by a friend when we were both novices in the mid-1990s at the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage: “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek.” Most translations have “my heart” speaking. I wanted the movement to start with God.

I searched online and finally found it in the “Inclusive Language Liturgical Psalter” of the Anglican Church of Canada – two birds with one stone – wonderful! Then someone pointed out that it wasn’t particularly radical, for example keeping “LORD” throughout. OK. So I’ll use it for Psalms 27 and 107, and find other translations for the other three.

I was pondering alternative translations to “LORD”, and it seemed to me that the original “Yahweh” is probably well enough known not to need translation. So I chose the New Jerusalem Bible for Psalm 106. There is a Revised New Jerusalem Bible (when will we run out of synonyms for New?) but I couldn’t find it on my bookshelves or online.

Psalms 106 and 107 are part of a series of relatively long Psalms, and the time allotted to each was generous. So I took the opportunity to say a little about my choice of Psalm 107 and about the two Psalms themselves.

Psalm 106 is the last in Book IV of the Psalter, and so it ends with a short doxology. It’s a twisty-turny tale of Israel’s many rebellions against God, and God’s love and mercy. I have always found it pretty impenetrable, and it was no different this time. But I was struck by quite a few of the word choices in the New Jerusalem Bible:

“A craving seized them in the wilderness” (v14)
“and so they exchanged their Glory for the image of an ox that feeds on grass” (v20)
“They grumbled in their tents” (v25)

Psalm 107 is the first in Book V. It has a clear structure: a short introduction, four stories of God’s salvation, and finally some reversals characteristic of wisdom literature. I’m a big fan of such reversals, but the real gems are the four stories, and their perfect little narratives. In particular, the story of the sailors was what first caught my attention, and its graphic and dramatic description of the “stormy wind … which tossed high the waves of the sea” (v25) so that “They reeled and staggered like drunkards” (v27), and the calm after they called to God and God “stilled the storm to a whisper” (v29).

I’d just finished translating Bonhoeffer’s “Die Psalmen”, so I wanted to read one Psalm from the Lutherbibel 2017, and Psalm 28 was the shortest. I practised this one quite a lot beforehand, and aimed to communicate its meaning, even though the German might not be understood! Bonhoeffer wrote that Luther put much effort into translating the Psalms, and the text has hardly changed in centuries of revisions of the Lutherbibel since first publication in 1534. It really did flow off the tongue.

That left Psalm 29, and for something completely different, I chose The Message. I found the modern idiom frankly a bit silly at the beginning (it would be different for Americans) and found myself reading “Bravo, God, bravo!” with a exaggerated Etonian intonation. But then the directness of the language whipped up the drama of another storm and caught me up in its thunder and quaking, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Better than Elgar!

God’s thunder sets the oak trees dancing
A wild dance, whirling; the pelting rain strips their branches.
We fall to our knees—we call out, “Glory!” (v9)

As a side note, it’s extraordinary how many Bible resources are available online. For example, the Names of God version, preserving the Hebrew names, would have been an interesting option.

As I was listening through the day, it was clear that (bar the occasional perfunctory recitation from the BCP) the readers had put a great deal of thought into what and how they would read. It was good to hear many different versions, as people sought to experience their Psalms in a fresh way, and to hear some beautiful -well- performances, for want of a better word. Three in particular stood out: a plaintive and beautiful reading of Psalm 88, which is the only Psalm that contains no hint of positivity or praise; and two excerpts from the Message that spoke straight into our current times.

Psalm 44:25-26
And here we are—flat on our faces in the dirt,
held down with a boot on our necks.
Get up and come to our rescue.
If you love us so much, Help us!

Psalm 146:3-4
Don’t put your life in the hands of experts
who know nothing of life, of salvation life.
Mere humans don’t have what it takes;
when they die, their projects die with them.

Finally, I thought briefly about whether or not to recite the Gloria at the end of each Psalm. I was erring on the side of presenting the Psalms at face value, from the Hebrew scriptures, rather than turning them into part of a Christian liturgy. But when it came down to it, and Psalm 1 (BCP, sung to plainchant by one of the choral scholars) finished with the Gloria, and others after that did so too, I just went with the flow, and dug some different versions out (see end). I wish now that I had stuck to my guns. Maybe it was a mistake to top and tail with the choral scholars singing Psalms 1 and 150 in the style of Christian liturgy, and so an opportunity missed. If there is a next time, I would suggest that Sue frames the day by reading them in the Hebrew.

Translation of Psalm 27:8

After the Psalmathon ended, I emailed Sue a question about the translation of Psalm 27:8, and she was kind enough to reply in some detail, which I now have to ponder!

Note verse 8 comes at the transition between verses 1-6 (a testimony to God’s protection) and 7-12 (an urgent prayer) – they could even be two separate psalms…

So in three parts

לְךָ֤׀ אָמַ֣ר לִ֭בִּי בַּקְּשׁ֣וּ פָנָ֑י אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְהוָ֣ה אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ

(First three words) Literally means ‘for you my heart speaks’ – i.e. this is an internal voice speaking up to God – ‘on your behalf’ might be better…

(Next two words) ‘seek my face!’ – note this is a plural command in the intensive (piel) form, so it’s not just about the psalmist and God. They’re recalling a time in worship when this was spoken to the whole congregation – something like we read of in Ps.24:6

(Then last three words) ‘your face, Adonay, I seek’ – this is the psalmist’s own individual response to the remembered corporate command, playing on the same two words ‘face’ (= presence of God) and ‘seek’. i.e. even if others won’t seek God, they will, prompted by that intuitive response within their heart.

My texts

Psalm 27

From the Inclusive Language Liturgical Psalter of the Anglican Church of Canada, General Synod 2016 Edition, available at https://www.anglican.ca/about/liturgicaltexts/.

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; *
whom then shall I fear?

The Lord is the strength of my life; *
of whom then shall I be afraid?

2 When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, *
it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who stumbled and fell.

3 Though an army should encamp against me, *
yet my heart shall not be afraid;
and though war should rise up against me, *
yet will I put my trust in God.

4 One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; *
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
beholding the fair beauty of the Lord *
and seeking God in the temple.

5 For in the day of trouble, O God, you shall keep me safe in your shelter; *
you shall hide me in the secrecy of your dwelling and set me high upon a rock.

6 Even now you lift up my head *
above my enemies round about me.
Therefore I will offer in your dwelling an oblation with sounds of great gladness; *
I will sing and make music to the Lord.

7 Hearken to my voice, O Lord, when I call; *
have mercy on me and answer me.

8 You speak in my heart and say , “Seek my face.” *
Your face, Lord, will I seek.

9 Hide not your face from me, *
nor turn away your servant in displeasure.
You have been my helper; cast me not away; *
do not forsake me, O God of my salvation.

10 Though my father and my mother forsake me, *
the Lord will sustain me.

11 Show me your way, O Lord; *
lead me on a level path, because of my enemies.

12 Deliver me not into the hand of my adversaries, *
for false witnesses have risen up against me, and also those who speak malice.

13 What if I had not believed that I should see the goodness of the Lord *
in the land of the living!

14 O tarry and await the pleasure of the Lord; be strong, and God shall comfort your heart; *
wait patiently for the Lord.

Glory to God, Source of all being,
Eternal Word and Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Psalm 28

Aus der Lutherbibel 2017, verfügbar unter… From the Luther Bible 2017, available at https://www.die-bibel.de/bibeln/online-bibeln/lutherbibel-2017/bibeltext/bibel/text/lesen/stelle/19/280001/289999/.

1 Wenn ich rufe zu dir, Herr, mein Fels, so schweige mir nicht,
dass ich nicht, wenn du schweigst, gleich werde denen, die in die Grube fahren.

2 Höre die Stimme meines Flehens, wenn ich zu dir schreie,
wenn ich meine Hände aufhebe zu deinem heiligen Tempel.

3 Raffe mich nicht hin mit den Gottlosen und Übeltätern,
die freundlich reden mit ihrem Nächsten und haben Böses im Herzen.

4 Gib ihnen nach ihrem Tun und nach ihren bösen Taten;
gib ihnen nach den Werken ihrer Hände;
vergilt ihnen, wie sie es verdienen.

5 Denn sie wollen nicht achten auf das Tun des Herrn
noch auf die Werke seiner Hände;
darum wird er sie niederreißen und nicht wieder aufbauen.

6 Gelobt sei der Herr;
denn er hat erhört die Stimme meines Flehens.

7 Der Herr ist meine Stärke und mein Schild;
auf ihn traut mein Herz und mir ist geholfen.
Nun ist mein Herz fröhlich, und ich will ihm danken mit meinem Lied.

8 Der Herr ist seines Volkes Stärke,
Hilfe und Stärke für seinen Gesalbten.

9 Hilf deinem Volk und segne dein Erbe
und weide und trage sie ewiglich!

Ehre sei dem Vater und dem Sohn und dem Heiligen Geist,
wie es war im Anfang, jetzt und immerdar, und von Ewigkeit zu Ewigkeit. Amen.

Psalm 29

From The Message, available at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+29&version=MSG.

1-2 Bravo, God, bravo!
Gods and all angels shout, “Encore!”
In awe before the glory,
in awe before God’s visible power.
Stand at attention!
Dress your best to honor him!

3 God thunders across the waters,
Brilliant, his voice and his face, streaming brightness—
God, across the flood waters.

4 God’s thunder tympanic,
God’s thunder symphonic.

5 God’s thunder smashes cedars,
God topples the northern cedars.

6 The mountain ranges skip like spring colts,
The high ridges jump like wild kid goats.

7-8 God’s thunder spits fire.
God thunders, the wilderness quakes;
He makes the desert of Kadesh shake.

9 God’s thunder sets the oak trees dancing
A wild dance, whirling; the pelting rain strips their branches.
We fall to our knees—we call out, “Glory!”

10 Above the floodwaters is God’s throne
from which his power flows,
from which he rules the world.

11 God makes his people strong.
God gives his people peace.

Glory to God, Source of all being,
Eternal Word and Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Psalm 106

From the New Jerusalem Bible, available at https://www.bibliacatolica.com.br/new-jerusalem-bible/psalms/106/.

1 Alleluia! Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good,
his faithful love is everlasting!

2 Who can recount all Yahweh’s triumphs,
who can fully voice his praise?

3 How blessed are those who keep to what is just,
whose conduct is always upright!

4 Remember me, Yahweh,
in your love for your people.
Come near to me with your saving power,

5 let me share the happiness of your chosen ones,
let me share the joy of your people,
the pride of your heritage.

6 Like our ancestors, we have sinned,
we have acted wickedly, guiltily;

7 our ancestors in Egypt never grasped
the meaning of your wonders.
They did not bear in mind your countless acts of love,
at the Sea of Reeds they defied the Most High;

8 but for the sake of his name he saved them,
to make known his mighty power.

9 At his rebuke the Sea of Reeds dried up,
he let them pass through the deep as though it were desert,

10 so he saved them from their opponents’ clutches,
rescued them from the clutches of their enemies.

11 The waters enveloped their enemies,
not one of whom was left.

12 Then they believed what he had said,
and sang his praises.

13 But they soon forgot his achievements,
they did not even wait for his plans;

14 they were overwhelmed with greed in the wastelands,
in the solitary wastes they challenged God.

15 He gave them all they asked for,
but struck them with a deep wasting sickness;

16 in the camp they grew jealous of Moses,
and of Aaron, Yahweh’s holy one.

17 The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan,
closed in on Abiram’s faction;

18 fire flamed out against their faction,
the renegades were engulfed in flames.

19 At Horeb they made a calf,
bowed low before cast metal;

20 they exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bull.

21 They forgot the God who was saving them,
who had done great deeds in Egypt,

22 such wonders in the land of Ham,
such awesome deeds at the Sea of Reeds.

23 He thought of putting an end to them,
had not Moses, his chosen one,
taken a stand in the breach and confronted him,
to turn his anger away from destroying them.

24 They counted a desirable land for nothing,
they put no trust in his promise;

25 they stayed in their tents and grumbled,
they would not listen to Yahweh’s voice.

26 So he lifted his hand against them,
to strike them down in the desert,

27 to strike down their descendants among the nations,
to scatter them all over the world.

28 They committed themselves to serve Baal-Peor,
and ate sacrifices made to lifeless gods.

29 They so provoked him by their actions
that a plague broke out among them.

30 Then up stood Phinehas to intervene,
and the plague was checked;

31 for this he is the example of uprightness,
from age to age for ever.

32 At the waters of Meribah they so angered Yahweh,
that Moses suffered on their account,

33 for they had embittered his spirit,
and he spoke without due thought.

34 They did not destroy the nations,
as Yahweh had told them to do,

35 but intermarried with them,
and adopted their ways.

36 They worshipped those nations’ false gods,
till they found themselves entrapped,

37 and sacrificed their own sons
and their daughters to demons.

38 Innocent blood they shed,
the blood of their sons and daughters;
offering them to the idols of Canaan,
they polluted the country with blood.

39 They defiled themselves by such actions,
their behaviour was that of a harlot.

40 Yahweh’s anger blazed out at his people,
his own heritage filled him with disgust.

41 He handed them over to the nations,
and their opponents became their masters;

42 their enemies lorded it over them,
crushing them under their rule.

43 Time and again he rescued them,
but they still defied him deliberately,
and sank ever deeper in their guilt;

44 even so he took pity on their distress,
as soon as he heard them cry out.

45 Bearing his covenant with them in mind,
he relented in his boundless and faithful love;

46 he ensured that they received compassion,
in their treatment by all their captors.

47 Save us, Yahweh our God,
gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
and may glory in praising you.

48 Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Israel,
from all eternity and for ever!
Let all the people say, ‘Amen’.”

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever. Amen

Psalm 107

From the Inclusive Language Liturgical Psalter of the Anglican Church of Canada, General Synod 2016 Edition, available at https://www.anglican.ca/about/liturgicaltexts/.

1 Give thanks to the Lord who is good, *
and whose mercy endures for ever.

2 Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that God redeemed them from the hand of the foe.

3 The Lord gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.

4 Some wandered in desert wastes; *
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.

5 They were hungry and thirsty; *
their spirits languished within them.

6 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
who delivered them from their distress.

7 The Lord put their feet on a straight path *
to go to a city where they might dwell.

8 Let them give thanks to you, O Lord, for your mercy *
and the wonders you do for your children.

9 For you satisfy the thirsty *
and fill the hungry with good things.

10 Some sat in darkness and deep gloom, *
bound fast in misery and iron;

11 because they rebelled against the words of God *
and despised the counsel of the Most High.

12 So you humbled their spirits with hard labour; *
they stumbled, and there was none to help.

13 Then they cried to you in their trouble, *
and you delivered them from their distress.

14 You led them out of darkness and deep gloom *
and broke their bonds asunder.

15 Let them give thanks to you, O Lord, for your mercy *
and the wonders you do for your children.

16 For you shatter the doors of bronze *
and break in two the iron bars.

17 Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; *
they were afflicted because of their sins.

18 They abhorred all manner of food *
and drew near to death’s door.

19 Then they cried to you, O Lord, in their trouble, *
and you delivered them from their distress.

20 You sent forth your word and healed them *
and saved them from the grave.

21 Let them give thanks to you, O Lord, for your mercy *
and the wonders you do for your children.

22 Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving *
and tell of your acts with shouts of joy.

23 Some went down to the sea in ships *
and plied their trade in deep waters;

24 They beheld your works, O Lord, *
and your wonders in the deep.

25 Then you spoke, and a stormy wind arose, *
which tossed high the waves of the sea.

26 They mounted up to the heavens and fell back to the depths; *
their hearts melted because of their peril.

27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards *
and were at their wits’ end.

28 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
and you delivered them from their distress.

29 You stilled the storm to a whisper *
and quieted the waves of the sea.

30 Then were they glad because of the calm, *
and you brought them to the harbour they were bound for.

31 Let them give thanks to you, O Lord, for your mercy *
and the wonders you do for your children.

32 Let them exalt you in the congregation of the people *
and praise you in the council of the elders.

33 The Lord changed rivers into deserts, *
and water-springs into thirsty ground,

34 a fruitful land into salt flats, *
because of the wickedness of those who dwell there.

35 The Lord changed deserts into pools of water *
and dry land into water-springs,

36 settling the hungry there, *
and they founded a city to dwell in.

37 They sowed fields, and planted vineyards, *
and brought in a fruitful harvest.

38 The Lord blessed them, so that they increased greatly; *
and did not let their herds decrease.

39 Yet when they were diminished and brought low, *
through stress of adversity and sorrow,

40 (You pour contempt on princes *
and make them wander in trackless wastes)

41 The Lord lifted up the poor out of misery *
and multiplied their families like flocks of sheep.

42 The upright will see this and rejoice, *
but all wickedness will shut its mouth.

43 Whoever is wise will ponder these things, *
and consider well the mercies of the Lord.

Glory to God, Source of all being,
Eternal Word and Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.

Gloria Patri

Psalms 27,29,107 – Inclusive language version included in “Celebrating Common Prayer”, sourced from the English edition of Wikipedia.

Psalm 28 – Evangelische Fassung, sourced from the German edition of Wikipedia.

Psalm 106 – International Consultation on English Texts (ICET) version from 1971, from Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “Psalmathon”

  1. Clare

    Thank you for spending time on this. It was moving to read you response to it all.
    And yes, we must reflect further on this, whether on Zoom or on a personal visit later this year.

    Much appreciated
    Sue

  2. Thank you, yes.
    I’ve come across another historical reference to boots on necks, watching “On the Basis of Sex” and the first part of “RBG” last night. Ginsburg quotes the abolitionist Sarah Grimké: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Comments are closed.