The Book of Psalms is in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketuvim (“Writings”), which contains the “poetic” books including the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Esther, Daniel, and a few others.
The first section of the Hebrew Bible is the Torah (“Teachings”), namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The second section Nevi’im (“Prophets”) contains the books of the prophets Joshua, Samuel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Zechariah, Malachi, and numerous others.
The title Psalms comes from the Greek translation of ψαλμοί psalmoi, which means “instrumental music” or “the words that accompany the music.” If ever there was a question about whether or not the Psalms are intended to be sung, the Greek name for the book should be the final answer to that question.
The Psalms in the Christian Bible are literally in the center of the book. Perhaps you learned this at an early age, as I did, in either Sunday school or Vacation Bible School. Do you remember the triumphant feeling of holding up your bible, visually dividing the pages exactly in the middle, and landing in the Book of Psalms each time? (And if you were slightly off, you’d wind up in Book of Proverbs. Bummer.)
The Psalter in The Book of Common Prayer is descended from the 1535 Bible translation of Myles Coverdale (1488-1569), an early Anglican reformer, Augustinian friar, and Bishop of Exeter.
The Coverdale Psalms were used as the Psalter in The Book of Common Prayer (1662) and down to this day. In this country in The Book of Common Prayer (1928) basically reprinted the Coverdale Psalms with slight variations. Today The Book of Common Prayer (1979) contains an updated version that seeks to maintain the rhythmic beauty of the Coverdale Psalter.
People turn to the poetry found in the Psalms in times of great joy and great sorrow. Many Psalm express praise to God while others express the depths of sadness or lament. The Psalms have historically been attributed to David, but his exclusive authorship of them is no longer accepted by modern biblical scholars today.
Though completely translated into English, Coverdale retained the Latin title of each Psalm from the Latin Vulgate, e.g. Psalm 1 Beatus vir, qui non abiit (“Blessed is the man who hath not walked”).
The title for the Psalm appointed for this Sunday (Nov. 19, The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost) is Ad te levavi oculos meos, “To you I lift up my eyes.” This Psalm is preceded by the beloved Psalm 121, Levavi oculos, “I lift up my eyes unto the hills,” a popular Psalm selected for the burial office or for funerals.
Though oculos (“eyes”) appears only twice, in the Latin titles of Psalms 121 and 123, the word “eyes” appears some 45 times in all 150 Psalms. In this Sunday’s Psalm 123, “eyes” appears four times:
Ad te levavi oculos meos
1 To you I lift up my eyes, *
to you enthroned in the heavens.
2 As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, *
and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
3 So our eyes look to the Lord our God, *
until he show us his mercy.
4 Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, *
for we have had more than enough of contempt,
5 Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, *
and of the derision of the proud.
One of the anthems for this Sunday’s 10:30 service is a setting of Psalm 145:16-17, “The eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing, of every living thing.”
This contemporary choral setting by Jean Berger (1909-2002) was born as Arthur Schloßberg, a German-native Jew who escaped the Nazi party and moved to Paris in 1933, where he adopted his new name. In France he toured widely as a pianist and accompanist.
In 1941 he moved to the United States, served in the U.S. Army beginning in 1942, and became a U.S. citizen in 1943. From 1946-1948 he worked as a music arranger for CBS and NBC. In 1948 he took a faculty post at Middlebury College in Vermont and later taught at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Colorado Women’s College in Denver.
Berger’s choral setting begins with a few slight dissonances created in the bass part. However, at the text “Thou openest thine hand,” the harmonies “open” into lush, sweeping chords, finally returning to the simplistic sounds of the opening section.
Click here to listen to the Kantorei, a professional a cappella choral ensemble from the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota, sing Berger’s “The eyes of all.”