This is the fourth in the series of stories behind some of the songs from Timeless: Ancient Psalms for the Church Today Psalter/Commentary. Ruth Ann Somervell describes in some detail the process she goes through in composing and the inspiration she felt from psalm 61 and Sarah Shipp’s lyrics.
Timeless is a commentary set of all new translations and commentaries on the psalms by established Old Testament scholars for the layperson. Timeless also includes 2–3 new musical settings following each psalm to enhance worship and reflection, study and devotion. Timeless books may be purchased through acupressbooks.com, Amazon.com, or timelesspsalter.com. Professionally recorded CDs and booklets of the music may be purchased through CDBaby.com and timelesspsalter.com.
The Story Behind Psalm 61, “God Enthroned Forever,”
by Sarah Shipp and Ruth Ann Somervell
When I received lyrics from Sarah Shipp for our setting of Psalm 61, I knew it would be easy to find a melody for them. They were practically bursting with music, so when I sat down to work on composing a melody, it didn’t take long to find one.
As with all lyrical settings, I tend to start off by reading the Psalm’s literal translation and commentary provided by one of the scholars involved with our project. I try to feel what the author must be feeling to set the tone for what comes next. Then I move on to reading the lyrical setting, paying attention to the metric stress and what the natural rise and fall of the words “want” to do as far as rhythm goes… longer notes for more important syllables, syllables that need more stress than others poetically, etc. I try to determine what time signature will work best to give the appropriate character to the words… If they are meant to be light and encouraging, refreshing and bright, I can justify a lilting time signature such as 3-4 or 6-8, but if they are deep and soulful, contemplative, or sorrowful, I almost always choose to go with 4-4 or one of the other more grounded time signatures. For this song, David’s words through Sarah’s lyrics strike to the very core of every human soul. Haven’t we all at some point felt as though we were far away from God, or that He was far away from us? Haven’t we all felt desperate to find Him, or desperate for Him to find us? This piece definitely needed a grounded time signature, so it I ended up writing it in 4-4.
After deciding on these things, I begin to listen for the melody. I play chord progressions and listen to the words in my head as fall naturally as in speech, but then try out different melodic ideas. I like to come up with many melodic ideas for each song if possible in case one of them jumps out and sounds like it is the one that fits the words best. In the case of Sarah’s word choices, there was so much that could be done with word-painting. For instance, “When I feel far from you,” paints the picture of the distance David feels from God with distance between the 2 notes that go with “from you,” the interval of a 6th… quite a large vocal leap. “Do not forsake me” uses a triplet to give extra emphasis to the desperation David feels. “High places” is literally sung at the highest note given to sopranos in the song. Perhaps my favorite word painting is Sarah’s choice of the word “bombarded,” where we have a dissonance and a minor chord to reflect musically how the soul feels when bombarded by heartache or stress or the feeling of being away from God.
Beyond that, I just wanted the music to reach into the singer’s soul and provide it with a vessel to express the aching sorrow that comes from feeling away from God and the deep hope and longing we have for Him. The result needed to be music that provides us a way to express our own deep longing for God and our own hope in Him as the God who is enthroned forever. I also wanted to leave the singer/listener with the strong feeling that they are not alone… that God is with us. It is hard to explain how that comes across in music, but that was my goal.
Once it was written, it went through the hands of Mark Shipp and Randy Daw who gave helpful ideas for improvement to the music and lyrics. Then Randy helped me figure out how to end the hymn as well, so he is listed as arranger. Finally, the hymn was sung for the first time at a Timeless Committee meeting and comments were made by singers to help make it more accessible or easier to sing.
Perhaps more than any other of my hymn collaborations, this piece began to receive a great deal of attention. I heard from several friends and strangers that this piece brought them exactly what I had hoped it would. A choral version was requested for the singing group Sweet Expressions. A friend even used it in his wedding ceremony.
What an honor it has been to be a part of this project! I am especially thankful for Sarah’s gift for writing such beautiful lyrics to bring us closer to the heart of David, and thus closer to God’s own heart.