Sunday, December 9, 2012

Psalm 111, verse 1: The key to happiness



In this post I want to start taking a verse by verse look at Psalm 111, Beatus Vir, the third psalm of (the traditional version of) Sunday Vespers, and one of the many 'beatitude' psalms.

The first verse is:

Beatus vir qui timet Dominum : in mandatis ejus volet nimis 
Blessed is the man that fears the Lord: he shall delight exceedingly in his commandments. 

Looking at the Latin

Beátus vir, qui timet Dóminum = Blessed the man who fears the Lord

beatus, a, um happy, blessed ,fortunate.
vir, viri, m., a man, any human being
timeo, ere 2, to fear, be afraid of.

in mandátis ejus volet nimis = in commandments his he will desire/delight/ exceedingly = he will desire his commandments greatly/exceedingly

The neo-Vulgate, it should be noted, changes 'volet' (he wishes/desires/takes please in) to 'cupit' (he longs for/wishes for)

mandatum, i, n.  law, precept, command, commandment (of God); commandments, precepts, decrees
volo, volui, velle, to will, wish, desire; to have pleasure or delight in, to love, hold dear, desire.
nimis, adv., exceedingly, greatly, beyond measure. 

The psalm in context

St John Chrysostom suggests that this line should be read as a continuation of the sentiments of the previous psalm:

"The opening seems to me to follow closely on the conclusion of the psalm before this, and to be continuous and connected like one body. I mean, there he said, "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," while here, Happy is the man who fears the Lord, giving instruction in the fear of God in different words but the same ideas. There, remember, he said he is wise, here happy. This is truly being happy, however, at least to the extent that the other things are futility and shadow and things of no substance - even if you cite wealth, influence, bodily charm, affluent environment. They resemble falling leaves, after all, passing shadows, fleeting dreams. This, by contrast, is truly being happy."

One can also see the second phrase as the explanation for the first, as Pope Benedict XVI points out:

"...Psalm 112[111], a composition with a sapiental slant, presents us with the figure of these righteous ones who fear the Lord; they recognize his transcendence and trustingly and lovingly conform themselves to his will in the expectation of encountering him after death. A "beatitude" is reserved to these faithful: "Happy the man who fears the Lord" (v. 1). The Psalmist immediately explains what this fear consists in: it is shown in docility to God's commandments. He who "takes delight" in observing his commandments is blessed, finding in them joy and peace.  Docility to God is therefore the root of hope and interior and exterior harmony. Observance of the moral law is the source of profound peace of conscience."

Trusting in God

The take out message of this, according to St Teresa of Avila, is that we cannot depend on ourselves or the spiritual props we have access to, but must rather always remember that everything depends on God:

 "What will we say to those who have won victory in these battles by the mercy of God, and who have reached heaven by their perseverance, but, 'Happy are those who fear the Lord' It was no small thing for His Majesty to reveal to me now the real meaning of this verse, since my understanding of this teaching is often slow....But allow me to give you one piece of advice: who you are, or who your mother was, will not save you; David was a very holy man, and we have seen what happened in the life of Solomon. Do not rely on the enclosure, or on the penance that you do, or on the fact that you strive to deal always with God through continuous prayer, or that you live apart from the world and may come to believe that no traces of worldliness remain within you. All these things are good, but they are not sufficient, as I have said, to allow us to abandon our fear of the Lord: therefore, live out the words of this verse, and recall it often to your mind, Blessed is the man who fears the Lord" (Interior Castle, 3, 1, 1,4).

For notes on the next verse, follow the link here.

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