Thursday, 5 April 2018

Vicar's letter for May : Psalms

He maketh wars to cease in𝀃all the𝀃world :
He breaketh the bow and knappeth the spear in sunder and burneth the𝀃chariots𝀃in the𝀃fire

Dear Friends,

Those words come from Psalm 46, “God is our hope and strength” and we sang them on Easter Sunday in St. Margaret’s between the reading of the first lesson and the Gospel. Now the Psalms are poems and contain all the emotion, hyperbole, lyricism and imagery that we expect from poetry but they are not poems as we might recognise them for their form does not depend on rhyme or metre as our English poetry does but on a different idea coming from the Hebrew tradition.

The Psalms were written by many poets and at many different dates, some do go back to the reign of David but for the most part they were compiled in the third century B.C. They must be read as poems to be understood and indeed these poems were meant to be sung.The most distinctive and pervasive feature of the Hebrew shape is parallelism. Most of the Psalms are composed of two balanced segments where the idea in the first line is repeated in different words in the second, either in developing it or by antithesis. C. S. Lewis makes the  observation that this is an intrinsic aspect of many arts - his example is of the country dance where you you take three steps then three steps again - the movement is the same but the first three are to the right and the second to the left. In modern printings of the Psalms these thoughts are separated by a diamond mark ◆ or a colon : which in some spoken traditions mark a pause between the  thoughts - a space for proper reflection. An alternative interpretation is that they mark a conversation which is why we often say Psalms antiphonally - that is to say one side of the church or choir alternately talks or sings to the other. In this way they agree and reinforce one another.

So in the example of Psalm 46 which begins this letter,  the first line speaks of God’s will for peace and the second develops this in much more detail. You will notice that the lines are not the same length as we would expect in a western poem, but listening again  to C. S. Lewis, he considers this a divine intention. Translating poetry into other languages provokes problems of the syllables in equivalent words, and the intrinsic momentum of another tongue but the notion of repeating or enhancing of an idea is universal.

The popularity of Psalms extends across all musical traditions, from baroque to classical from  reggae to pop and you would probably be surprised at how many you know and the reason is surely the universality of the emotions ranging from lament for example “By the Rivers of Babylon” to glorious praise “I was glad”.  In the quotation above I have used an ancient musical mark to show the separation of the bars in the music - they are sometimes called taste marks and I have chosen them to emphasise that the Psalms are a way to connect with the deep spiritual roots of worship or put another way, to allow us to taste the word of God.

St. Margaret’s choir is exploring the long tradition of Psalmody and you are invited to come on Friday evenings at 7.00 for an hour to sing with us. We will always be rehearsing one psalm (at least)

For  more on this topic please visit Paul Ingram’s web page, where he has collected a wide range of musical offerings for you to sample.

With best wishes,


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