Before I even get to David, Abraham, and the Sybils, I should probably mention the references in the very first section of the Requiem to Zion and Jerusalem: “You are praised, God, in Zion, and homage will be paid you in Jerusalem.” This line echoes the ideas in the New Testament book of Hebrews, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly” (Hebrews 12:22 NIV). You can see that the words “Zion” and “Jerusalem” in these verses refer to literal places but have a deeper, spiritual meaning. The same can be said of the Requiem text.
On to David and the Sybils. They're only mentioned once, in the “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”), as sources of prophecies concerning God's coming judgment. David, of course, is the author of much of the book of Psalms in the Jewish Bible, as well
Awake, my God; decree justice.
Let the assembled peoples gather around you,
while you sit enthroned over them on high.
Let the Lord judge the peoples (verses 6b-8a).
So that reference is pretty clear. But what's all this about the Sybils? If you know your Greek and Roman history you'll remember that the Sybils were prophetesses/oracles who wrote various versions of what was to come. (Can't resist telling this story: One Sybil, the Cumean, offered her nine books of prophecy to the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, at an outrageously high price. He declined. She then burned three of them and offered the remaining six at the same price. He again declined. So she burned three more, offering the last three, again at the same price. This time he accepted. The Sybilline Books were kept in a vault and consulted at various crises in Roman history. Or so the legend goes.) We don't actually have any of the original Sybilline books; we do have a later compilation called the Sybilline Oracles which are thought to be of Jewish and Christian origin, a miscellaneous collection of future disaster portents. It's this document to which the text almost certainly refers. I'll probably write more about the Sybils for a future Christmas concert if we're singing something about the Magi, so hold that thought! In the meantime, keep in mind that Michelangelo honored the Sybils by including five of them in his fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Now for Abraham. The relevant lines about him are:
“Quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus”--”Which was promised to Abraham and his descendants.” (Actually, “semini” means “seed.”)
I guess we ought to start out with the rather obvious question, “Who was Abraham?” All we know about his origins comes from the first book in the Bible, Genesis, chapters 11 and 12. He's a descendant of Shem, one of Noah's sons (hence the term “Semitic”), and he was called to go to a land that God would show him. Why did God choose Abraham? We don't know; the Bible doesn't say. For our purpose of delving into the text of the Requiem here are the relevant verses, from Genesis 12:
I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you (verses 2 & 3, NIV).
Christian doctrine treats the Bible, both the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament, as all of a piece. Genesis through Malachi contain prophecies and promises, of which the above passage is one, which point toward their fulfillment in Matthew through Revelation or in some future time. It's as if the Christian New Testament is a flashlight, or a lens, that points both forward and backward, illuminating and focusing what has come before and what is to come. So when Christians read, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” they see the fulfillment of that promise in the coming of Christ. And that's why we keep singing about Abraham and his descendants.
In doing my research for this post I ran across a truly beautiful article about the Requiem Mass held in honor of Antonin Scalia. Read it here: