Psalm 57

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.

–Psalm 57:1 (ESV)

Both in the Scriptures and in the Psalter Hymnal, Psalm 57 has always resonated in my heart with its balance of petition and praise.  In fact, it possesses a remarkable similarity to Psalm 56; both are inscribed as “a Miktam of David” and associated with actual events in the psalmist’s life, specifically his flight from King Saul.  Even with his enemy bearing down upon him, David was able to assert,

I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me;
he will put to shame him who tramples on me.
God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!

–Psalm 57:2,3

One of my favorite aspects of this psalm is its refrain in vv. 4 and 11: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!  Let your glory be over all the earth!”  David’s confidence in God inspires him to sing to his Creator and Protector even through the storms of life.  In spite of the affliction described in vv. 4 and 6, he concludes Psalm 57 with exuberant expressions of praise.

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.

–Psalm 57:9,10

105, “O God, Be Merciful to Me”

There’s only one versification of Psalm 57 in the Psalter Hymnal, but that’s hardly a problem; this text is among the most beautiful and well-constructed settings in the entire songbook.

Originating in the 1912 Psalter, the text strikes a near-perfect balance between poetry and accuracy.  A few weak spots, such as the omission of “storms of destruction” in v. 1 and “among the peoples/among the nations” in v. 9, are atoned for by the simple beauty of the rest.  And the refrain in the second half of stanzas 2 and 4 is matchlessly rendered:

Be Thou, O God, exalted high,
Yea, far above the starry sky,
And let Thy glory be displayed
O’er all the earth Thy hands have made.

For this choice of tune, we must thank the editors of the CRC’s 1934 and 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnals.  In the 1912 Psalter this setting of Psalm 57 was split into two separate selections, to the tunes SELWYN and CHURCH TRIUMPHANT.  And while the first is still more or less fitting for the theme of this psalm, the second (to my ear at least) clashes horribly with it.  The decision to merge the two songs into one and set it instead to the familiar L.M.D. tune SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER was brilliant.  This melody is plaintive and passionate, simple and sincere—the epitome of this psalm’s message.

In my very biased opinion, nothing can compare with Dordt College’s rendition of number 105 on their album series Be Thou Exalted, Lord (arranged by the late Dale Grotenhuis).  But although I don’t have access to an online version of this recording, I can at least share a few interpretive suggestions from it that can be applied even to congregational singing.

First, it’s critical to set the mood of this tune with a slow 6/8 tempo with six beats (not two) to the measure.  It might have been beneficial if the editors of the Psalter Hymnal had converted SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER to 6/4 meter as in the case of number 91.  I like a tempo of about 60 bpm to the dotted quarter note (or, in layman’s terms, two seconds per measure); the Dordt choir sang even slower.

Second, consider using a contrasting style and/or registration for the two halves of each stanza.  The first half of stzs. 1-3 contain the psalmist’s complaints, whereas the latter half of stzs. 2 and 4 contain the psalm’s jubilant refrain.  This change of mood can be effected by encouraging the congregation to sing in unison for the first two lines (usually by the use of a solo stop on the melody, with very soft accompaniment) and harmony for the remainder (with a fuller organ sound).

Third, note the rising praise of the psalmist as expressed in the last part of v. 3 and the entirety of v. 4.  In recognition of this, Dale Grotenhuis added an organ interlude and a key change to E-flat—something quite feasible for a typical congregation.  And that very last refrain should burst out with unrestrained exuberance!

Be thou, O God, exalted high,
Yea, far above the starry sky,
And let Thy glory be displayed
O’er all the earth Thy hands have made.

–MRK

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