Monday, February 6, 2012

Is Psalm 109 the most important psalm in the psalter?

De Grebber, 1645
Today I want to resume my series aimed at aiding those wanting to pray the Office in Latin, or to understand the psalms they are praying better. Sunday Vespers seems an appropriate place to start, given that it is probably one of the most commonly prayed hours of the Office.

Psalm 109 (110)

Today a brief introduction to Psalm 109, focusing on its importance.  I'll then post a series looking at it in detail, verse by verse.

The case for Psalm 109's importance rests on three main grounds: it is the most frequently cited of all of the psalms in the New Testament; it has a pre-eminent place in the Office; and it is very theologically dense, containing several important prophesies, and rebutting several heresies.

These layers of meaning are not at all obvious though, from a first reading of the text.  Have a read through, and ideally, listen to a recording so you become familiar with how the Latin should sound.

The text (Vulgate and Douay Rheims)

Dixit Dominus Domino meo: Sede a dextris meis,
The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand,

donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedum tuorum.
until I make your enemies your footstool

Virgam virtutis tuæ emittet Dominus ex Sion : dominare in medio inimicorum tuorum
The Lord will send forth the sceptre of your power out of Sion: rule in the midst of your enemies.

Tecum principium in die virtutis tuæ in splendoribus sanctorum: ex utero, ante luciferum, genui te.
With you is the principality in the day of your strength: in the brightness of the saints: from the womb before the day star I begot you.

Juravit Dominus, et non pœnitebit eum : Tu es sacerdos in æternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech.
The Lord has sworn, and he will not repent: You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech.

Dominus a dextris tuis; confregit in die iræ suæ reges.
The Lord at your right hand has broken kings in the day of his wrath.

Judicabit in nationibus, implebit ruinas; conquassabit capita in terra multorum.
He shall judge among nations, he shall fill ruins: he shall crush the heads in the land of many

De torrente in via bibet; propterea exaltabit caput.
He shall drink of the torrent in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.

The most frequently cited psalm in Scripture

This is a hard psalm to interpret correctly, as we learn from Scripture itself. Jewish tradition clearly interpreted this psalm as referring to the Messiah, and Our Lord uses this fact: the synoptic Gospels all tell the story of Jesus citing it to the Pharisees but using it to refute their ideas about who the Christ was and to assert his divinity.

In fact, Psalm 109 (110)'s main claim to being the most important of all the psalms lies in the fact that it of all the psalms, it is the most quoted in the New Testament, used in a variety of different contexts, including that verse alluding to the mysterious figure of Melchizedech that is particularly important to the theology of the priesthood set out in the Letter to the Hebrews.

And the fathers, Theologians and Saints have seen other layers of meaning in it in relation not only to the Incarnation, but also to the Ascension and Resurrection.  These layers of meaning need, then, to be teased out for us by a verse by verse look at the text.

In the Office

The many citations of the psalm in Scripture are in turn reflected in its use in the Office: in the traditional Benedictine and Roman Offices, Psalm opens Sunday Vespers, and is used for pretty much every major feast of the Church's year. It also features in the Office of Our Lady.

Theological importance

Why is it used so frequently though? The answer is that it is very theologically dense. In summary, the psalm is generally interpreted as prophesying our Lord’s Incarnation; setting out both his divinity and humanity; telling of his kingship and priesthood; and prophesying his Passion and ultimate triumph.

Pope Benedict XVI considered this psalm last in his recent General Audience series:

“Today I would like to end my catechesis on the prayer of the Book of Psalms by meditating on one of the most famous of the “royal Psalms”, a Psalm that Jesus himself cited and that the New Testament authors referred to extensively and interpreted as referring to the Messiah, to Christ. It is Psalm 110 according to the Hebrew tradition, 109 according to the Graeco-Latin one, a Psalm very dear to the ancient Church and to believers of all times. This prayer may at first have been linked to the enthronement of a Davidic king; yet its meaning exceeds the specific contingency of an historic event, opening to broader dimensions and thereby becoming a celebration of the victorious Messiah, glorified at God’s right hand.”

This psalm is also extremely important in countering a number of heresies, which though long ago condemned, keep coming back.  St John Chrysostom draws out the battle lines:

“Let us be alert, I beseech you, and concentrate: the psalm tells us of extremely important principles, not with one form of heresy in mind but many and varied. In fact, it joins battle with Jews, Paul of Samosata, the followers of Arius, of Marcion, the Manicheans, and those professing unbelief in the resurrection. Since, therefore, the battle line is drawn up against such opponents, we need many eyes to get a clear view of the maneuvers. In public games, you see, even if any of the tricks performed in them is overlooked, no harm comes to the spectator; that crowd, after all, has assembled not for instruction but for enjoyment. Here, on the contrary, if you do not pay close attention to the quarter whence the enemy directs his attack and we counter him, you would suffer no inconsiderable damage. To avoid incurring this, therefore, rouse your mind and keep your hearing sharp. The Jews we counter first, and direct our forces against them, taking the inspired author as ally from these words of his. Our assertion, you see, that the verse clearly refers to Christ they do not accept, fabricating some other meaning by contrast. So let us first refute their argument, and then establish our own. Let us for a start ask them at this point, who is this righteous man's Lord?”

Translating Psalm 109

The psalm is often said to be extremely difficult to translate.

Well only, in my opinion, if you insist on using the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) as your base!

Unsurprisingly given its Messianic importance, the version of the Hebrew that has come down to us from Jewish sources, the Hebrew Masoretic Text shows signs of text tampering. Contemporary commentator David Ladouceur, for example, normally a defender of the MT, notes for example that “The corrupt Hebrew text with its unusual poetic images pose many unsettled difficulties.”

The very fact that the text appears to be one of those subject to anti-Christian adjustments is another argument for its importance!

The Septuagint and Vulgate translations, by contrast to the Hebrew, are reasonably straightforward as we shall see as we go through it verse by verse.

You can find the next part in this mini-series on Psalm 109, looking at verse 1 in detail, here.  In the meantime, please do leave a comment if you have any questions or reactions to this...

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