Beginnings of a new piece from Psalm 119: Initial workings and choosing a text

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waterfall2A few weeks ago, I began fleshing out some ideas for a new piece for SATB choir and piano. I’d been playing around with some accompaniment motives that reminded me of running water set over a modal harmonic scheme. A general idea for a choral piece centered on this theme took shape in my mind and I started thinking about text.

One of my favorite portions of scripture is Psalm 119. However, I had never set any of the 176 verses to music. I turned to the passage and read various texts, settling on the intensely poetic and romantic text of verse 136.

Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law.

In Psalm 119, the focus is on God’s character as expressed through His law, statutes and judgments. It also includes statements about our relation to His law and our desire to walk in the ways of God. As the chapter extols God’s law as the standard for living, it is no surprise that the psalmist includes emotional responses to the breaking of God’s law he at times witnessed around him.

Sometimes I think God’s law gets unfair scorn and treatment in the world today. Yet when examined, even the secular world cannot but help acknowledge the incredible fairness and justice inherent within God’s ten commandment law.

The first four commandments deal with our relationship with God and are summed up by what Jesus called the greatest commandment (Deuteronomy 6:5), “love the Lord your God with all your heart.” The last six are summed up this way (Leviticus 19:18): “love your neighbor as yourself.”

While the Bible states that the law can’t save anyone from sin, it is the standard presented for living. I think God’s law acted out is perfect. Imagine a world where you were always safe, everyone was trustworthy, everyone was looking out for each other. You would never have to lock anything to prevent stealing. You could walk in the darkest alley without fear. Your children would always be safe. It would be heaven on earth. Perhaps this is why David wrote what he did about crying great tears over the breaking of God’s law.

Here are the 10 commandments, summarized by me (you can read them in Exodus 20):

1. Have no other gods before God.
2. Don’t make, have, worship, or treat anything as an idol.
3. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.
4. Keep holy God’s Sabbath day. **see note at end **
5. Honor your father and mother.
6. Do not murder.
7. Do not commit adultery.
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not lie.
10. Do not covet.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress of the piece.

** This command indicates that God is the author of the 10 commandments and gives the reason He should be worshipped. Also, interestingly, this day in the Bible is Saturday, not Sunday (which is generally kept by the Christian world). Christ’s resurrection is often cited as a reason for the Sabbath to Sunday switch, but no such justification is given in the Bible. Historically, the first verifiable examples of Sunday keeping are not found until the 2nd century (mostly towards the end, meaning over 100 years after Jesus ministry), and Sabbath keeping is historically verifiable in the Christian world as being in the strong majority until about midway through the 4th century. **

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