The 103rd Psalm is one of my favorites. There’s a lot packed into less than two dozen verses. Scripture scholars divide it into four parts. I’ve long thought it deserves an extended musical treatment. But I’m not yet the composer to tackle that.
It is one of the nine common psalms for ordinary time, and arises fairly frequently in the Lectionary.
Naturally, 22 verses are too many to include at Mass. (Feel free to use them all at my funeral, however.) So the Lectionary framers have given us the following four stanzas:
The Lord is compassion and love,
slow to anger and rich in mercy.
He does not treat us according to our sins
nor repay us according to our faults.
As a father has compassion on his (children),
the Lord has pity on those who fear him;
for he knows of what we are made,
he remembers that we are dust.
As for (us, our) days are like grass;
(we) flower like the flower of the field;
the wind blows and (we are) gone
and (our) place never sees (us) again.
But the love of the Lord is everlasting
upon those who hold him in fear;
his justice reaches out to children’s children
when they keep his covenant in truth.
Two antiphons are given:
The Lord is kind and merciful.
The salvation of the just comes from the Lord.
The former is much more common in the published musical repertoire and is a sort of default choice.
Getting back to the verses, it might be that among the published choices in the musical repertoire, these specific verses may or may not be included. But these are as appropriate as any for the funeral Mass.
Sections II and III of Psalm 103 (verses 6-18) reinforce God’s power and authority over his people. But they also leave the door wide open for mercy. Like many readings, especially those we recently looked at in the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel, this psalm emphasizes God’s tenderness toward those whom he loves. God is very aware of our human makeup: frail, mortal, fleeting, weak, sinful. Yet God’s love does not waver–even for sinners.
How to best communicate God’s deep love without getting sentimental, trite, or cloying in the music: that would be the challenge I would look for in a musical setting of the 103rd. You musicians out there, which setting would you recommend, and why?