Today’s verses of Psalm 118 (119) come under the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Ghimel.
The obstacles to holiness
St Robert Bellarmine sees these verses as enumerating the obstacles to the observance of the law, and praying for their removal from his way.
In his view, the first obstacle is original sin and mortal sin: the cure is God’s reviving grace.
The second is the blinding veil of our emotions, for which the cure is the intellectual vision of God’s goodness.
The third obstacle is the illusion that the things of this earth is all that is important: to counter this we must remember the transitory nature of this life in which we are just sojourners, and store up our treasure in heaven.
The fourth barrier is our own imperfection: we may have good intentions, but that is not enough to make us act out of love alone, as the perfect do. We should pray then, that we may truly desire and love the law in all its shining glory.
The fifth barrier is pride, which makes us refuse to submit to God’s commandments. Worse, pride turns us into God’s enemies, and all too often makes those enemies attempt to tear down those who are seeking to do the good. But, we are counseled, this must not prevent us testifying with our actions and words, for the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church!
17 Retribue servo tuo, vivifica me, et custodiam sermones tuos.
18 Revela oculos meos, et considerabo mirabilia de lege tua.
19 Incola ego sum in terra : non abscondas a me mandata tua.
20 Concupivit anima mea desiderare justificationes tuas in omni tempore.
21 Increpasti superbos; maledicti qui declinant a mandatis tuis.
22 Aufer a me opprobrium et contemptum, quia testimonia tua exquisivi.
23 Etenim sederunt principes, et adversum me loquebantur; servus autem tuus exercebatur in justificationibus tuis.
24 Nam et testimonia tua meditatio mea est, et consilium meum justificationes tuæ.
Looking at the verses
17. Retribue (Imperative of retribuo, to render, repay, deal with) servo tuo, vivifica (imperative of vivifico, revive, give life to) me, et custodiam (future indic, keep, observe) sermones tuos.
Deal bountifully with your servant, revive me: and I will keep your words
Neo-Vulgate: Benefac servo tuo, et vivam et custodiam sermonem tuum.
Septuagint: ἀνταπόδος τῷ δούλῳ σου ζήσομαι καὶ φυλάξω τοὺς λόγους σου
The Monastic Diurnal translates the verse as ‘Grant to Thy servant that I may live, and I will keep they words’; Coverdale make it ‘O do well unto thy servant, that I may live, and keep thy word’.
One can interpret this as having a short term message and a longer term one. First the short term: the first obstacle to observing the law according to St Robert Bellarmine is being in a state of mortal sin. If we are in this state, we must confess it so that we are revived and once more able to access the necessary grace. The longer term message is that no one can, in this life, be sure that they are saved. Rather we must pray that, despite our sins, God will, of his free gift, grant us eternal life. St Augustine actually divides up the possibilities for eternal life or death into four categories: out of justice, God rewards good for good and punishes evil for evil; and out of mercy he saves sinners. The fourth theoretical possibility, he tells us, of evil being rewarded, never occurs.
retribuo, tribui, tributum, ere 3, to repay, requite, reward, recompense, render; deal bountifully with; to make requital for, repay.
vivifico, avi, atum, are to quicken, give life to, vivify.
custodio, ivi or li, itum, ire to guard, watch, keep;to maintain, to hold steadfastly.
18 Revela (imperative, reveal, disclose) oculos meos, et considerabo (future) mirabilia (substantive, marvelous things, marvelous nature) de (de+abl= about, concerning) lege tua.
Open my eyes, and I will consider the wonderful things of your law.
ἀποκάλυψον τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς μου καὶ κατανοήσω τὰ θαυμάσιά σου ἐκ τοῦ νόμου σου
This verse deals with the second obstacle in our journey, namely the veil of blindness and ignorance arising from our emotions that block our inward sight. Brenton conveys this sense clearly, translating the Septuagint as ‘Unveil thou mine eyes…’. Most of the English translations though, are along the lines of the Monastic Diurnal’s ‘Open Thou mine eyes’. What is it that strips the veils from our eyes? According to St Robert, the purifying power of the law, the intellectual vision of its wondrous nature..
revelo, avi, atum, are to disclose, reveal, lay bare, expose..
oculus, i, the eye
considero, avi, atum, are, to look at closely, to regard, contemplate; to lie in wait for
mirabilis, e (1) wonderful, marvellous. (2) subst., mirabilia, mm, wonders, wonderful works, marvellous things.
19 Incola (nominative, stranger, temporary resident) ego (I) sum (present of esse, to be) in terra: non abscondas (present subjunctive, ascondere, to hide, conceal = lit, let not you hide) a me mandata tua.
I am a stranger on the earth: do not hide your commandments from me.
NV: Incola ego sum in terra, non abscondas a me praecepta tua.
πάροικος ἐγώ εἰμι ἐν τῇ γῇ μὴ ἀποκρύψῃς ἀπ' ἐμοῦ τὰς ἐντολάς σου
The Neo-Vulgate here changes ‘mandata’ (commandments) to ‘praecepta’ (precepts), and the Monastic Diurnal does likewise: ‘A stranger am I on the earth, hide not from me Thy precepts’.
The main point of the verse though, is that the third obstacle we face is our earthbound nature, and tendency to see only the things of this world as important. The true Christian however must always keep in mind the transitory nature of this life. More, as strangers and guests, we need to be instructed on how to live in this world, as a newcomer would in the customs of the place. Cassiodorus notes that: “On this earth the just are the sojourners who have no lodging of their own in the world. They are situated physically on the earth, but in their praiseworthy mode of life they reside in heaven…the true sojourners are this band who store their treasure in heaven, so that their hearts are always set on that future fatherland.”
incola, ae, m., a stranger, sojourner, one who has but temporary residence in a place.
terra, ae, f the earh
abscondo, condi, conditum, ere 3, to hide, conceal; to lay up, to treasure, guard jealously
20 Concupivit (pefect, it has longed for) anima (nom.) mea desiderare (infinitive, to desire) justificationes tuas in omni tempore (in+abl = at all time[s]).
My soul has longed to desire your precepts: at all time
NV: Defecit anima mea in desiderando (gerund) iudicia tua in omni tempore.
ἐπεπόθησεν ἡ ψυχή μου τοῦ ἐπιθυμῆσαι τὰ κρίματά σου ἐν παντὶ καιρῷ
This verse is hard to render into good English, hence the neo-Vulgates use of a gerund rather than infinitive! Brenton’s version from the Septuagint is better I think than the Douay-Rheims’s overly literal version: My soul has longed exceedingly for thy judgments at all times. Alternatively, the Monastic Diurnal gives it as ‘My soul is filled with longing for Thy judgments at all times’.
We are often told that we should act from love, not fear. The problem with this advice however is our own imperfection. St Robert tells us that: “The fourth obstacle is imperfection. The perfect, who love God and his law with their whole heart, and do good from the pure love of it, are very rare indeed. Very many have the best intentions, but there they stop…” Accordingly, he suggests, the psalmist “…dare not say: My soul hath coveted to observe your commandments, but, conscious of his infirmity, he says, "It hath coveted to long for," and this very acknowledgment of imperfection is a regular petition for that.” We should pray then, that we may truly desire and love the law in all its shining glory.
concupisco, cupvi or cupii, cupltum, ere 3 , to desire eagerly, to long for or after.
anima, ae, soul
desidero, avi, atum, are, to long for, desire, earnestly wish for
omnis, e, all, each, every; subst., all men, all things, everything
tempus, oris, n. time,
21 Increpasti (pf of to chide, rebuke) superbos (acc plural, used as a substantive, the proud); maledicti (sunt implied, passive pf) qui declinant (present, declinare, to turn aside) a mandatis tuis.
You have rebuked the proud: cursed are they who turn away from your commandments
NV: Increpasti superbos; maledicti, qui errant a praeceptis tuis.
ἐπετίμησας ὑπερηφάνοις ἐπικατάρατοι οἱ ἐκκλίνοντες ἀπὸ τῶν ἐντολῶν σου
The Greek construction used here does not readily translate directly into Latin here, hence the ambiguous use of ‘maledicti’, which can be translated a number of ways. The Douay Rheims makes it a perfect passive, but the alternative is to treat it as a participle/substantive, as the Diurnal (and RSV) does: ‘Thou doest rebuke the haughty, the accursed, who stray from Thy commandments’. By way of a footnote the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) favours the first approach ‘You rebuked arrogant ones, accursed are those who deviate from your commandments’.
St Robert Bellarmine comments: “The fifth and greatest obstacle of all is pride, that prevents man from submitting his neck to the yoke, but which David seems to think has no place in him, or in anyone like him, but solely in God's enemies; thus, without any more ado, he simply execrates it. "Thou hast rebuked the proud," who, from pure contempt, did not observe your commandments.”
increpo, avi or iii, atum, are, to chide, rebuke, reprove; to correct, instruct
superbus, a, um raising one's self above others, proud, haughty, arrogant, insolent
maledico, dixi, dictum, ere 3 to curse, revile, slander
declino, avi, atum, are, to bend from the straight path, to turn aside or away, depart from in a lit. or fig. sense. (2) intransitive, to turn aside, go astray.
22. Aufer (imperative, take away, destroy) a me opprobrium (accusative) et contemptum, quia testimonia tua (neuter, accusative pl) exquisivi (pf)
Take away from me contempt and reproach: because I have sought your testimonies
NV: Aufer a me opprobrium et contemptum quia testimonia tua servavi
περίελε ἀπ' ἐμοῦ ὄνειδος καὶ ἐξουδένωσιν ὅτι τὰ μαρτύριά σου ἐξεζήτησα
The Greek word for testimonies (marturia) calls to mind the sufferings of the martyrs, willing to testify even unto death, in many of the patristic commentaries. The Monastic Diurnal reflects the Neo-Vulgate’s change of verb in the last phrase from ‘sought out’ to ‘kept’: ‘Turn away from me reproaches and contempt, for I keep Thy testimonies’; similarly Coverdale, ‘O turn from me shame and rebuke; for I have kept thy testimonies’.
St Robert reminds us that “The proud not only refuse to obey God, but they even despise and insult those who obey him; but such insolence ulti¬mately reverts on themselves, as David here predicts; for this, like other similar expressions in the Psalms, though in the form of an imprecation, is really a prediction.”
aufero, abstuli, ablatum, auferre to take or bear away; to destroy.
opprobrium, ii, n. a reproach, taunt, byword; an object of scorn, mockery, derision; a disgrace.
contemptus, us m contempt, scorn, disdain
exquiro quaesivi itum ere 3, to seek, seek after
23 Etenim (indeed, truly, for) sederunt (literally sat, but in context, the DR makes it ‘enthroned’) principes (nom. Pl, princes), et adversum (against) me loquebantur (deponent: imperfect indicative active); servus autem tuus exercebatur (passive impf, exercised, meditating on) in justificationibus tuis.
For the enthroned princes spoke against me: but your servant had been kept busy with your precepts
NV: Etsi principes sedent et adversum me loquuntur, servus tamen tuus exercetur in iustificationibus tuis.
καὶ γὰρ ἐκάθισαν ἄρχοντες καὶ κατ' ἐμοῦ κατελάλουν ὁ δὲ δοῦλός σου ἠδολέσχει ἐν τοῖς δικαιώμασίν σου
The Monastic Diurnal translates this verse as ‘Though princes sit and take counsel against me, Thy servant thinketh on Thy statutes’. One can see this verse paralleled in Psalm 2, where it is a prophesy of Christ’s coming: ‘The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes met together, against the Lord, and against his Christ... But I am appointed king by him over Sion, his holy mountain, preaching his commandment’. Consistent with this, St Robert comments: “Proud princes, sitting on their thrones, presiding at their councils, or luxuriating in their riches and their power, "spoke against me;" reproached me with obeying God's commands; "but thy servant was employed in thy justifications;" regardless of their threats or their reproaches, I was entirely wrapt up in the consideration, the announcement, and the carrying out of your justifications.”
etenim, conj., a strong et; and, yea, indeed, truly; as an adversative
sedeo, sedi, sessum, ere 2, to sit; rest; dwell, live; to sit with, hold converse with, consult; to sit on a throne, to rule, reign
princeps, cipis, m. prince, ruler, sovereign.
adversus or adversum, prep, with ace against; in the presence of, over against, before.
loquor, locutus sum, loqui, to speak, utter, tell
servus, i, m., a slave, servant; servants of the Lord, devout men who keep the law; the people, i.e., the Israelites
autem, adversative conj., but, on the contrary, however
exerceo, cui, citum, ere 2 , to exercise ;ponder to meditate on, be occupied or employed
24 Nam (for) et (and, redundant in English) testimonia tua meditatio mea est, et consilium (counsel, counselor) meum justificationes tuæ.
For your testimonies are my meditation: and my counsel your justifications.
NV: Nam et testimonia tua delectatio mea, et consilium meum iustificationes tuae.
καὶ γὰρ τὰ μαρτύριά σου μελέτη μού ἐστιν καὶ αἱ συμβουλίαι μου τὰ δικαιώματά σου
The neo-Vulgate’s ‘delectatio’ is reflected in the Monastic Diurnal’s translation: ‘For Thy testimonies are my delight’. Most translations prefer counselors to the Douay-Rheims ‘counsel’, thus Brenton makes it ‘For thy testimonies are my meditation, and thine ordinances are my counsellors’.
St Augustine comments: “Remember what I have above instructed you, that testimonies are acts of martyrdom. Remember that among the statutes of the Lord there is none more difficult and more worthy of admiration, than that every man should love his enemies. Matthew 5:44 Thus then the body of Christ was exercised, so that it meditated on the acts of martyrdom that testified of Him, and loved those from whom, while they rebuked and despised the Church for these very martyrdoms, she suffered persecutions....”
meditatio, onis, f thought, reflection, musing, meditation.
And the next stanza starts with the Hebrew letter Daleth.