My church follows the lectionary, a three year cycle of scripture readings. Generally speaking that’s a really good thing. But every once in a while you hit on one of those “difficult” scriptures. (I guess that’s the point.) On September 7th the lectionary Psalm will be Psalm 149. Unlike its kinder, gentler siblings, Psalm 148 and 150, this Psalm starts off with a “sing to the Lord a new song” theme, but quickly descends into a savage war cry: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples.” Yikes! It sounds like death metal lyrics or the “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” of antiquity!
I began searching for a suitable musical setting of the Psalm and didn’t find much. The front runner concluded with the line, “sing praises for aye.” I just can’t see myself singing “aye” in worship unless it’s on “bring a pirate to church” Sunday.
So I set about writing a new one. First, I consulted some commentaries. It turns out that Psalm 149 is in two parts (v1-4, v5-9), sandwiched by hallelujahs. The first half praises God for salvation. The second half praises God for victory. It’s the second half that is so uncomfortable for modern readers. It sounds triumphalistic, nationalistic, and downright bloody. I’m not one to jump right to allegorical interpretations, but I’m also not comfortable with promoting the idea that we (The USA? Israel?) execute judgment on the pagans. I didn’t want to soften God’s judgment–God is, after all, the King of kings–but I took the sword out of our hands, and emphasized the justice of God’s reign rather than vengeance on non-believers. I don’t know that I got it just right, but it’s certainly better than your Psalm 149 song!
NOTE: I updated the melody on 8/29/14 to give people a place to breathe. It is now three 8th notes closer to perfection!