Hear me, O Lord, in my distress

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Hear me, O Lord, in my distress”, a setting by David Preston of Psalm 143.  As I noted yesterday, the Psalms, especially those of lament, feature prominently in Lent. 

Unlike many of the psalms that start in complaint and end in praise, this one has a different arc.  Certainly it starts in desperation (“Hear me in my distress, give ear to my despairing plea!”) and also asks God not to judge the one who prays (v.2, “yet judge me not, for in your sight no living soul is counted just”). Verses 3 and 4 are marked as optional, but it’s only in verse 4 that there is a sign of hope as the singer recalls good times past (“Days long vanished I review, I see the orders of your hands”) which would seem to make that a verse not to be omitted, as a pivotal point. After that, in v.5 the singer calls again on God to answer without delay and asks “let this day bring word of your unfailing grace”. 

But that unfailing grace lies in the future, not the present, for in the last two verses it’s back to the cry to be saved from one’s pursuers, for one’s life to be preserved and set free from oppression.  There are other psalms where the singer seems to end by thanking God for deliverance already granted, but not on this occasion. That’s how life is: faith in God may bring relief from a sense of fear and hopelessness, but to be honest there’s no guarantee of that relief coming automatically or immediately.   Faith is about knowing there is a bigger story, a higher reality, an eventual triumph of good over evil, rather than every small battle in life going ‘our way’.

The musical setting is Vaughan-Williams’ “This is the truth sent from above”.  The tune was familiar to me, therefore easy to pick up.  The G minor setting suitably reflects the plaintive words of the hymn, although the final chord of each verse sounds more positive note that doesn’t really find an echo in the words.  No doubt John can comment on that.

1 thought on “Hear me, O Lord, in my distress”

  1. My own attempts to put this Psalm into metrical form came about as a result of reading Simon Stocks’ discussion of it in his book “Songs for Suffering” (pages 57-60), in which he draws attention to the list of petitions in v7-12 of the Psalm. As Stephen says, the Psalm doesn’t have the typical shape of a Lament: the “light at the end of the tunnel” comes in the middle rather than at the end, and the end is these petitions for means of how to get through.

    I think David Preston’s words are very helpful at expressing the way the Psalm flows, and I take my hat off to him for his rhyme and rhythm. The compilers of the hymn book obviously thought seven verses was too many, and hinted that maybe two of them could be omitted (I presume that’s what the asterisks are for, but the book doesn’t actually say so). But surely the solution to this problem is to provide a DLM tune which naturally ends at the half-way point instead of the one they used.

    I didn’t know this tune before encountering it here, and I confess that I find the necessary slurs quite counterintuitive in using the tune for an lyric. In fact, I wonder whether the tune would have originally been sung to a lyric in a different meter, either or The compilers of the book obviously thought there was an issue here that needed some help, for the words in the book are set out with umlauts above the syllables which need to be slurred over two notes. Unfortunately, the umlauts are printed with a wider-than-usual separation: so as the eye flips from the music to the words and back again, they look like blotches on the page – and I found them immensely distracting and unhelpful! They also get in the way if one wanted to use a more standard LM tune to the words.

    So I guess my verdict would be: good words, but find a different tune.

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