by Rebecca Simpson-Litke
Psalm 130 Musical Setting: words by Christopher Idle (1975), music a Scottish traditional melody (MacPherson’s Farewell); harmony by David Iliff (1990); arrangement and voices by Rebecca Simpson-Litke (2014); recording/editing by David Litke (2014)
April 14, 2014
This time of year, I often experience a real sense of longing – longing for the end of a stressful school year, longing for the warm weather and freshness of spring after a hard winter, longing for the good news of Easter – and as a result, I usually find myself reflecting on one of my favorite Bible passages, Psalm 130. Whenever I read this Psalm, I can’t help but hear the beautiful Scottish melody that I grew up singing in church and that I would like to share with you now.
As a music theorist, I am fascinated by the structure of music and the powerful effect it has on us as listeners. When you listen to the recording that is included with this Lenten reflection, you will notice that the psalm is divided by the musical setting into three verses with a repeated refrain. In the first verse, a single voice calls out to God, expressing grief and trouble:
Up from the depths I cry to God: O listen, Lord, to me;
O hear my voice in this distress, this mire of misery.
More voices are added in the second and third verses, as both individuals and the community as a whole confess their sins and are reassured of God’s great capacity to forgive and to redeem:
If you, my God, should measure guilt, who then could ever stand?
But those who fear your name will find forgiveness from your hand.
O Israel, set your hope on God whose mercy is supreme:
the nation mourning for its sin God surely will redeem.
I particularly love the way in which the shape of this melody illustrates the message of the text, rising up in pitch as we try to lift our voices, our anxieties, our hopes, our fears up to a place where God can hear them, and then dropping down in pitch as we admit our failures and shortcomings.
However, there is one place where the melody doesn’t seem to match what the text is communicating. If you listen carefully, you will notice that the melodic line climbs up in pitch during “the nation mourning for its sin” and then falls down in pitch during “God surely will redeem.” What are we as listeners to make of this unexpected reversal? Wouldn’t it make more sense to sink down into our shameful mourning, and then be raised up by God’s redemption?
Rather than interpret this change in the melody-text correspondence as a flaw in the musical setting, I have come to understand it as a reminder that God has the power to turn our lives upside down, to change darkness into light and death into life, if only we are willing to listen to the message.
As I think about the journey of the week ahead, I am tempted to want to skip right from the exuberance of Palm Sunday to the good news of the Resurrection, but I know that it is through the trials of Good Friday and the darkness of Holy Saturday that Easter Sunday gains its awesome power. In this way, the refrain of Psalm 130 helps me to feel, to express, and to participate in the hopeful longing and waiting of Holy Week:
I wait for God with all my heart, my hope is in God’s word;
and more than watchers for the dawn I’m longing for you, God.