In my ongoing Genevan Psalter project, I have just completed versifications and arrangements for two more psalms: 128 and 88. The tune for Psalm 128 I first heard more than 30 years ago when I was a graduate student at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies. Senior Member Calvin Seerveld had brought along to class his own versification of this psalm and had us, his students, sing it through. I was intrigued and began to follow in his footsteps, setting to verse Psalm 133 albeit to my own rather weak common metre melody. I finally returned to this psalm late last week.
The psalm itself is one of the more cheerful and optimistic ones, promising peace and prosperity to those who fear the LORD. I completed it last friday, the very day that northeastern Japan was struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunami. Because its promises sounded a little too glib against the backdrop of tragedy, I held off posting it until I had also versified and arranged Psalm 88, easily the darkest of the psalms. This I completed today. Verses 16-17 are reminiscent of a tsunami:
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
In my own regimen of praying through the psalms, I currently encounter Psalm 88 on the 17th day of each month at morning prayer. It always takes my breath away because it is so bereft of anything resembling hope. It is appropriately said or sung on Holy Saturday, that is, the day between Good Friday and the Paschal feast. As St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Yet Christ has indeed risen, which is our ultimate source of hope as we travel through the penitential Lenten season. Psalm 88 does not have the last word, although it is the last psalm for morning prayer that day. However, at evening prayer Psalm 89 is sung, which begins: “I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.” God’s faithfulness has the final say as we look forward to the day of our salvation at Christ’s return.
Psalm 128 is a rhymed psalm, while Psalm 88, with its feminine endings in four of the six lines, is unrhymed. Both melodies are in the dorian mode, which is probably the most versatile of the traditional church modes, easily capable of communicating both hope and despair. More of the Genevan Psalms are in the dorian mode (45 in total) than in any other single mode.