Wheaton recently performed a concert featuring Leonard Bernstein and his extended choral composition Chichester Psalms. The second movement, which juxtaposes Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd…” with Psalm 2 “The nations rage” has an especially powerful prophetic message for the world right now. I’ve listened to this again and again this week and it strikes me as a masterful interpretation of these Psalms. The choice of Elisabeth (who is half Slavic, half American) to sing the solo adds to the prophetic power of this interpretation. This is what art is and should do. This is how the Psalms should be read and applied to life.
I’m writing this on February 24. This morning the Russians invaded Ukraine. Right now there’s a Ukrainian family staying in our church on their way to who knows where. Twenty more Ukrainians will be staying at a campsite run by a couple from our congregation. Please pray for Ukraine and pray for wisdom and strength and willingness to help.
UPDATE: The twenty Ukrainians I mentioned above decided not to leave Ukraine because they would have to leave their husbands and fathers behind. Some estimate that up to 4 or 5 million people could end up as refugees as a result of this conflict. Since 2014 a large number of Ukrainians have emigrated and come to Slovakia. We have wonderful Russian-Ukrainian neighbors. Two of our pastors in Slovakia have wives from Ukraine and families still in Ukraine. I’ve been very encouraged by Slovakia’s attitude toward these people and would appreciate your continued prayers.
Bernstein’s Genius Juxtaposition
Many people, including myself, believe there are strong reasons to think that Psalms 1 and 2 serve as an introduction to the Psalter as a whole and that the book should be read while reflecting on these two Psalms. That is essentially what Bernstein does by inserting a part of Psalm 2 into the backdrop of Psalm 23. But that is not Bernstein’s stroke of genius. What is genius, is how he juxtaposes them both textually and musically.
It seems to me there are three “characters” that appear in this composition. The soloist is David. In this case, Elisabeth sings the part of David. Wheaton’s Women’s Chorale plays the part of Israel and it seems their Men’s Glee Club can be seen as playing the part of the nations.
The music comes in bucolic, melodic, legato, as the soloist begins in Hebrew, “Adonai ro-ee lo echsar” (The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want). Elisabeth sings all the way through the first three verses before repeating again “Adonai ro-ee, Adonai ro-ee lo echsar.”
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.Psalm 23:1–3
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
The music remains soothing, melodic and now harmonious as God’s people (Women’s Chorale) come in to sing verse four. And yet the text has a hint of the ominous.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of deathPsalm 23:4
I will fear no evil,
For you are with me,
Your rod and your staff they comfort me
As the Women’s Chorale finishes verse four, David’s voice arises again to repeat “Adonai ro-ee, Adonai ro-ee lo echsar” this time echoed by God’s people “Adonai ro-ee lo echsar.” But even before they finish, the music changes. The nations interrupt abruptly, crying out in staccato Hebrew La-ma – Why?
First they shout “LA” followed by a clash on the cymbals then “MA” with another clash in rapid succession. Then the nations repeat “Lama” and now the drums bang. The music has changed dramatically. The tempo is faster, more abrupt. These are not the sounds of green pastures but the sounds of the battlefield and indeed, the nations seem to be rushing to battle,
“Lama ragashu, lama ragashu goyim lama ragashu“
“Why do they rage, why do they rage, why do they rage the nations, why do they rage?!”
At this point, the different voices sung by the Men’s Glee Club become chaotic and hard to distinguish as they sing through the first four verses of Psalm 2. The music supports them. It’s almost as if the point were not so much to communicate the meaning of the words as use the words’ sounds to create chaos. I think of it as throwing paint at the canvas rather than carefully applying brushstrokes.
Why do the nations rage?Psalm 2:1–4
Why do the people’s plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against JH and against his Anointed
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their chords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
The Lord holds them in derision
As the Men’s Glee Club finishes verse four the music stops and it seems I hear them repeating almost in a whisper with no music in the background, “he laughs, he laughs” in Hebrew, though I’m not sure exactly what word they repeat here.
At this point, the Women’s Chorale comes in again to sing verse 5 in the presence of the Men’s Glee Club which continues their dissonant background chaos. Almost ironically, the quiet and calm of the chorale overcomes them, singing as if the men were not even there, exactly as the text suggests:
You prepare a table before mePsalm 23:5
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
As the Women’s Chorale finishes verse five, the chaos of the Glee Club is indeed overcome and the men become quiet. Then, and yet even before these voices fade, David’s voice arises, accompanied only by the harp and almost imperceptible tones from the organ to declare with calm assurance:
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me,Psalm 23:6
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
To end, the Women’s Chorale repeats the same refrain that has echoed throughout: “Adonai ro-ee lo echsar.” The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
A Psalm for Ukraine as the Nations Rage
This concert was on Friday, February 18. During the weeks before the concert and the days following, the nations plotted and negotiated. They threatened and warned and foretold. And then, on Thursday, February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine.
All the time that the nations have been plotting and scheming and raging around them, the Ukrainians, like David, have been putting on a calm face, going about business as usual.
“We’re always under threat, have always been under threat.”
It seems to me a prophetic happenstance that Elisabeth was chosen to be the voice of David. She’s not Ukrainian, but like the Ukrainians she is Slavic and in that performance she represented them as a Slav. Elisabeth and Zelensky are David, with the nations raging around them and this performance was a Psalm for the Ukrainians as the nations plot and scheme and rage around them.
What is it about National Anthems?
I think this performance can help us understand how the Psalms should be read and applied to life. In a way, they work like a national anthem.
In a recent news report about Ukraine they showed a clip of a Ukrainian woman cleaning glass off her windowsill. It appeared that a nearby blast had shattered her living room window. As she cleaned up the glass she was crying and as she cried, she sang the Ukrainian national anthem, ending with the words “Glory to Ukraine!” She was still choking back tears as she said these last words, but you could hear that her sadness was changing to defiance and courage.
What is it about national anthems?
National anthems remind us of who we are, of where we belong and of what belongs to us. “I am Ukrainian!” “This is my land—our land!” “These intruders have no right to take our land or kill our people.” In this way, national anthems help us see ourselves as part of a story that is bigger than we are—a cause that is worth suffering and even dying for.
That is why her sadness changed to courage. That is why soldiers will put themselves in the line of fire. She suffered great loss and soldiers are willing to put themselves at great risk, because their national story helps them see themselves as part of a greater story—a greater cause. Their own loss or risk is reoriented into a new perspective so that it begins to make sense in the bigger picture.
We often turn to the Psalms for comfort. And certainly, the Psalms do come down from God and meet us wherever we are, in whatever dark valley we may be in.
But the Psalm do more than that. In the midst of suffering, they reorient us within the story of God’s plan of salvation. They give our suffering meaning by pointing beyond our dark valley to dwelling in the house of God. So the Psalms help us cope with our dark valleys, but they also help orient us within the bigger story so we are now able to navigate through our dark valleys and with hope that we will come out on the other and do si in a way that serves God and his kingdom.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my lifePsalm 23:6
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.