2 Aug 2011

Update: Psalm 127

I have now posted my versification for Psalm 127, along with my harmonization of the Genevan tune. The metrical text follows:

Unless the living LORD shall build,
the builders' aims go unfulfilled.
Unless the LORD himself defend,
on sentries we cannot depend.
In vain you early wake to rise;
in vain you close your weary eyes.

Though you may toil to earn your bread,
you'll soundly sleep upon your bed.
Sons are a blessing from the LORD,
the fruitful womb a great reward.
Like arrows in a warrior's hand
are strapping youths who by you stand.

Happy and blessèd are the ones
who find their quiver full of sons:
they will not suffer injury
when challenged by an enemy. [sung to last four lines of music]

Psalm 127 is a much loved psalm, whose opening verse is memorable in the King James Version familiar still to my generation: "Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." This psalm strikes out at the false pride of the "self-made man," who imagines himself to be utterly independent of others, including the Almighty. It is a reminder that those who undertake great endeavours do so only by the grace of God, to whom they owe their very existence.

This psalm anticipates at least one of the themes taken up in the next psalm, numbered 128: the fruitful womb is a blessing from the LORD. It is easy to get sentimental about children, but this psalm makes a very practical point about their value. The NIV 2011 renders verse 3 in gender-inclusive fashion: "Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him." True enough, but it misses the point of the psalm, which I have attempted to communicate with my own metrical versification. The New Oxford Annotated Bible footnote has it right: "The gift of many stalwart sons makes a father feel secure." Even the NRSV gets it right this time. Ain't nobody gonna mess with a man and his sons.

The tune has a metrical structure of 88 88 88 — surprisingly regular for one of the Genevan melodies. It is in the hypo-mixolydian mode and has a rhyming scheme of aabbcc, a departure from the traditional rhyming scheme of abbacc. The occasion for my writing this was a short holiday last weekend at the shores of Lake Huron.

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