Friday, March 16, 2012

Psalm 118 (119) Mem: When youth outshine their elders in wisdom

Today’s section of Psalm 118, Mem, brings us to the end of Sunday None in the traditional Benedictine Office, which is a good point to break for three days of our penitential regime due to the feasts of St Patrick and St Joseph either side of Laetare Sunday!

Age is not always synonymous with wisdom!

Today’s stanza can be seen as a response to the increasingly agitated demands from some of our elders (in body at least) for respect.  They lament the attitudes of the 'young fogeys' in the Church who reject the 'progressive' message being pushed by their elders and demand orthodoxy and orthopraxis instead.

In this stanza, however, the psalmist asserts that he is wiser than his enemies (v98), and understands more than his teachers (v99) and the elders (v100).  It is a reminder us that age does not always equate with wisdom!

At another level, it can also be interpreted as a reference to the superiority of the New Covenant to the Old.

Should we respect our elders?

There is, it is true, a certain sense of the proper order of things turned upside down when one looks at the Church today and see that younger people tend to me more conservative, interested in reclaiming the traditional liturgy and practices, while the older generation are still trying to live out those tired out 70s clichés such as "dialogue" to engage youth, inclusiveness, and other such fading mantras.

Normally we have a duty to respect our elders.  There are always exceptions to the normal order of things though, and in the stanza labelled starting with Mem in the Hebrew, the psalmist points out that age or position counts for nothing if it is not linked to the true wisdom that comes from following and loving the law, and hating sin.

And in their commentaries on it, the Fathers point to numerous Scriptural precedents for the psalmist's contention, including David himself (the probable author of the psalm), Samuel, Jeremiah, and of course Our Lord himself, teaching in the Temple at the age of twelve.

Cassiodorus says:

“Elders is the term which we use for those who excel in ripe wisdom and are considerably older than ourselves. Scripture says of them: Ask thy father, and he will declare to thee: thy elders, and they will tell thee. We also use elders for persons of mature age who are most inconstant in their tendency to vices; the gospel writes of them: The priests held counsel with the elders to put him to death. In this passage the people term as elders those hoary in body rather than in mind. They rightly say that they have understood more than these, for they venerated as their Creator one whom those others despised with sacrilegious minds. Often younger persons understand the divine Scriptures better than their elders…”

Hating sin

There is also a timely counter here, also, to the excessive inclusiveness advocated by so many of the older generation of ageing liberals in the verse:

propterea odivi omnem viam iniquitatis= therefore I have hated all the ways of iniquity

We often think that hatred is a bad thing, and usually it is.  But not when it comes to sin (as opposed to sinners), for St Augustine tells us:

“For it is needful that the love of righteousness should hate all iniquity: that love, which is so much the stronger, in proportion as the sweetness of a higher wisdom does inspire it, a wisdom given unto him who obeys God, and gets understanding from His commandments.”

It is not enough to avoid sin, St Robert Bellarmine, reminds us, we must detest it, be filled with a sense of horror at it:

“…from wisdom and prudence I acquired by constant meditation a law, I not only abstained from sin, but I even got a thorough hatred of all sinful actions. Such hatred is a wonderful preservative of the purity and sanctity of the soul, and generates great confidence in God, which leads to joy unspeakable, to a great peace and tranquility far and away beyond all the treasures and pleasures of this world.”

Christianity is an advance on Judaism

The Fathers also see this stanza as reaffirming that Christianity contains the fullness of truth, and is thus superior to Judaism. The Old Testament is of course all true: but it is only in the light of the New that it can be properly understood, as Cassiodorus points out:

“Certainly the new people had better understanding than the older Jewish people, for they happily accepted the Lord Christ who the Jews with mortal damage to themselves believed was to be despised.”

He actually sees the reference in verse 103 to the law being sweeter than honey as another allusion to this idea:

“Honey has particular reference to the Old Testament, the comb to the New; for though both are sweet, the taste of the comb is sweeter because it is enhanced by the greater attraction of its newness. Additionally, honey can be understood as the explicit teaching of wisdom, whereas the comb can represent that known to be stored in the depth, so to say, of the cells. Undoubtedly both are found in the divine Scriptures.”

In summary, then, Cassiodorus argues:

“The blessed people, who had made progress by the deepest meditation on the prophets and the gospel, is under this letter ushered in to maintain that they have understood the divine commands more than did their teachers and elders, and so they claim that the sweetness of the divine Scriptures, sweeter than honey and the comb, has sprung forth on their lips.”

A timely place indeed to leave this meditation on the psalm for a few days!

Verse by verse

97 Quomodo dilexi legem tuam, Domine! tota die meditatio mea est.
O how have I loved your law, O Lord! It is my meditation all the day.

quomodo, adv. interrog., how? in what manner? in what way?, how greatly!
diligo, lexi, lectum, ere 3 to love; to flatter, make pretence of loving.
totus a um all, the whole
dies, ei, m. and f fem. a day, the natural day
meditatio, onis, f thought, reflection, musing, meditation

Quomodo dilexi legem tuam, Domine! = How much have I loved your law O Lord,

tota die meditatio mea est = all [the] day [long] it is my meditation

In earlier verses, the speaker acted from fear; now he acts from love which spurs him to greater heights of constant meditation.

98 Super inimicos meos prudentem me fecisti mandato tuo, quia in æternum mihi est.
Through your commandment, you have made me wiser than my enemies: for it is ever with me.

super (as a comparative) than
inimicus, i, m., a foe, enemy
prudens, entis prop., foreseeing, foreknowing; wise.
facio, feci, factum, ere 3, to make, do, cause, bring to pass
quia, conj. for, because, that. truly, surely, indeed;
aeternus, a, um eternal. forever

Super inimicos meos = than my enemies

Cassiodorus suggests that: “These enemies are to be understood as the obdurate Jews, the heretics or the pagans, who have either failed totally to understand the Lord's commands, or are known to refuse to carry them out through misguided zeal.”

prudentem me fecisti = wiser you have made me

Cassiodorus continues: “The people say that they have been made wiser than these enemies because they both devotedly accepted the Lord's command and abided by it with genuine integrity. They added the cause of their becoming wiser than their enemies: Through thy command, for by obeying faithfully they undoubtedly rose above all who sinned. This is the truly blessed glory and kingship of the good, to rise above the proud, to excel worldly powers, and to abide with constant minds in holy humility.”

mandato tuo= through your commandments

Bellarmine suggests that: “The first advantage of the law is, that when a man reflects seriously on it, and observes it faithfully, it directs him what, how, when, and where he ought to speak and to do, or to be silent and take no action; a wisdom that is not enjoyed by the transgressors of the law, who have no regard for a rule, much in keeping with the first principles of rectitude.”

quia in æternum mihi est= because it [your commandments, law] is forever with me

ie I never forget the law because of my constant meditations on it.

99 Super omnes docentes me intellexi, quia testimonia tua meditatio mea est.
I have understood more than all my teachers: because your testimonies are my meditation

super +acc=above, upon, over, in, on
omnis, e, all, each, every; subst., all men, all things, everything
doceo, dociui, doctum, ere 2 to teach, instruct..
intelligo, lexi, lectum, ere 3 understand, give heed to something, to consider

Super omnes docentes me intellexi= I have understanding greater than all those teaching me

Scripture gives us a number of examples of the young outshining their elders in virtue, such as the prophet Jeremiah, who protests that he is but a boy when called and of course the shepherd boy David.

Cassiodorus also points to the examples of Jacob, Samuel and Daniel. But as St Augustine points out, this claim is best seen as fulfilled in Our Lord, teaching in the Temple at the age of twelve.

quia testimonia tua meditatio mea est= for your testimonies are my meditation

The essential message though is that it is not age per se that matters, but commitment to the law.

100 Super senes intellexi, quia mandata tua quæsivi.
I have had understanding above ancients: because I have sought your commandments

senex, senis, old, aged, advanced in years. Subst., an old man; wise men, senators, elders, chief men, magistrates
quaero, sivi, situm, ere 3, to seek, seek after; to will, desire, think upon. Of seeking God

Super senes intellexi= I have understood more than the elders

Certainly the new people had better understanding than the older Jewish people, for they happily accepted the Lord Christ who the Jews with mortal damage to themselves believed was to be despised.

quia mandata tua quæsivi= for I have sought your commandments

101 Ab omni via mala prohibui pedes meos, ut custodiam verba tua.
I have restrained my feet from every evil way: that I may keep your words.

malus, a, um, adj., bad, evil, wicked; grievous, sore, severe; subst., malum, i, n., evil, sin; woe, harm, misfortune.
prohibeo, ui, itum, ere 2 to restrain, hinder, hold in check; to keep, to guard.
pes, pedis, m. the foot
custodio, ivi or li, itum, ire to guard, watch, keep;to maintain, to hold steadfastly.

Ab omni via mala =from every evil way

prohibui pedes meos= I have restrained my feet

ut custodiam verba tua= in order to keep your words

Bellarmine notes that: “The third advantage of God's law is, that it causes us to avoid many sins…I took care not to walk in the paths of the wicked, who have no law but their own desires, the law of sin and of the flesh, and that, in order that "I may keep thy words," or your law, that pointed out a path in the very opposite direction.”

102 A judiciis tuis non declinavi, quia tu legem posuisti mihi.
I have not declined from your judgments, because you have set me a law

judicium, i, n. judgment, decrees; law, commandment; the power, or faculty of judging wisely; justice
declino, avi, atum, are, to turn aside; go astray.
pono, posui, itum, ere 3, to put, place, lay, set.

A judiciis tuis= from your judgments

non declinavi= I have not turned aside

quia tu legem posuisti mihi=for you have placed your law [before] to me

The MT Hebrew has ‘because you have taught me’. St Augustine sees this as that writing of the law on our souls by the Holy Spirit aimed at allowing us ‘not to fear it as a slave without love’, but rather to love it with a chaste fear as a son, and fear it with a chaste love’.

103 Quam dulcia faucibus meis eloquia tua! super mel ori meo.
How sweet are your words to my palate! More than honey to my mouth.

dulcis, e, sweet, agreeable to the palate; good, kind
fauces, mm,. pi. throat; jaws, palate
os, oris, n., the mouth.
mel, mellis, n. honey.

Quam dulcia = How much sweeter

faucibus meis = to my throat

eloquia tua = your words

super mel ori meo= than honey in my mouth

The sense of the verse is clear: God’s word is above all things, sweeter than money, worth more than silver and gold. One could ponder Revelation 10:9 here: So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, "Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth."

104 A mandatis tuis intellexi; propterea odivi omnem viam iniquitatis.
By your commandments I have had understanding: therefore have I hated every way of iniquity

intelligo, lexi, lectum, ere 3 understand, give heed to something, to consider
propterea, adv., therefore, on that account, for that cause; but now
odi and odivi, odisse; other forms, odirem, odiens; to hate.
iniquitas, atis, f iniquity, injustice, sin.

A mandatis tuis intellexi= From your commandments I have understanding

St Augustine interprets this as the knowledge gained by following the commandments: “he says, that by obeying God's commandments he has arrived at the comprehension of those things which he had longed to know....These then are the words of the spiritual members of Christ, Through Your commandments I get understanding. For the body of Christ rightly says these words in those, to whom, while they keep the commandments, a richer knowledge of wisdom is given on account of this very keeping of the commandments.”

propterea odivi omnem viam iniquitatis= therefore I have hated all the ways of iniquity

Augustine continues: “For it is needful that the love of righteousness should hate all iniquity: that love, which is so much the stronger, in proportion as the sweetness of a higher wisdom does inspire it, a wisdom given unto him who obeys God, and gets understanding from His commandments.”

Similarly, Bellarmine says: “from wisdom and prudence I acquired by constant meditation a law, I not only abstained from sin, but I even got a thorough hatred of all sinful actions. Such hatred is a wonderful preservative of the purity and sanctity of the soul, and generates great confidence in God, which leads to joy unspeakable, to a great peace and tranquility far and away beyond all the treasures and pleasures of this world.”

And this series continues on here.

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