Monday, June 12, 2017

Introduction to Psalm 126 - Building up the house of God

Parma Psalter 188b.jpg
Palma Psalter, c1280

During Lent I posted on the Gradual Psalms, but I noted that I didn't have time to cover off Psalms 126&7 in detail, but would come back to them.  Here is the first installment, in the form of a little series on Psalm 126.

Psalm 126 is the eighth of the fifteen Gradual Psalms, and goes above all, to two great, and closely related themes, namely our dependence on grace in the work of building and maintaining the temple within us, and for the fruitfulness of our efforts.

Psalm 126: Nisi Dominus 
Vulgate
Douay-Rheims
Canticum graduum Salomonis.
A gradual canticle of Solomon.
1.  Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum:*
 in vanum laboraverunt qui aedificant eam.
Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.
2.  Nisi Dominus custodierit civitatem:*
frustra vigilat qui custodit eam.
Unless the Lord keep the city, he watches in vain that keeps it.
3.  Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere:*
surgite, postquam sederitis, qui manducatis panem doloris.
2 It is vain for you to rise before light, rise after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.

4.  Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum:*

ecce hereditas Domini, filii merces, fructus ventris.
When he shall give sleep to his beloved, 

3 behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb.
5.  Sicut sagittae in manu potentis:* ita filii excussorum.
4 As arrows in the hand of the mighty, so the children of them that have been shaken.
6.  Beatus vir, qui implevit desiderium suum ex ipsis:* non confundetur cum loquetur inimicis suis in porta.
5 Blessed is the man that has filled the desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies in the gate



Psalm 126: On building the temple within us

Although this is a short psalm, it is a complex one, capable of being interpreted on many different levels, in part because of the multiple connotations of the word house.

Accordingly, by way of introduction I want to start by providing something of an overview of the different interpretative approaches to the psalm which I will explore in more depth when we look at each verse individually.  
Christ as the cornerstone

The first point to note is that St Benedict placed this psalm at the very centre of the hour of None, the hour that Our Lord died on the cross, for a particular reason: the verse  'When he shall give sleep to his beloved' was interpreted by St Augustine and many of the Fathers as a reference to the death of Christ on the cross.

Indeed, the whole context of the psalm was seen by the Fathers as pointing to Christ as the cornerstone of the temple, a cornerstone that joins the people of the Old and New Testaments.

Let me go through the pieces of the puzzle briefly.

First, the title of this eight psalm of the set mentions Solomon.  This parallels a reference in the book of psalms as a whole: Psalm 71, the first of the last eighty psalms also refers to Solomon as its author.

The first point to note is that the name Solomon means peaceful: Solomon is a type of Christ who is our peace.

Secondly, though, the demarcation line points to the mystical meaning of the numbers seven (creation of the world) and eight (the day of the Resurrection): the peoples who worshiped in the Temple worshiped on the seventh day (sabbath); Christians, however, worship through the temple that is Christ, on the 'eighth day' of the Resurrection. And yet, just as there are not seven Gradual Psalms and another set of eight; or seven psalms and another eighty; the two peoples are united through Christ's sacrifice.

There is a warning in the name though to, for the psalm reminds us that just as Solomon's kingdom was torn in two as a result of his sins, all the good works in the world will avail us nothing if we attempt to do them without God's aid.

What then is the house we must build?

As I noted above, the word house (domus) in the first verse works on a number of different levels.

The daily grind?

First, a house can mean a physical building.  Accordingly, Josh Moody in his book on the Gradual Psalms, Journey to Joy, suggests that the discussion of building can be seen as standing for whatever type of work we do each day: whatever type of work we do each day must be animated by Christ, or it will come to nothing.  The second half, then, stands for our proper approach to home and family.  There is something to this, I think.  

The house of God

The ascription of the psalm to Solomon, though, seems to point above all to a very particular house, namely the Temple, or the house of God.  

In this light, the first three verses were often seen by the Fathers and Theologians as an allusion to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem after the return from the Babylonian exile.  At that time, so serious was the threat of attack from neighbouring enemies, that half of the men worked while the other watched, armed and ready to fight off the enemy.  Their effort was successful, but only, the books of Ezra and  Nehemiah tell us, because the people also made a concerted effort to return also to fidelity to God's law, making the rebuilding effort worthy of God's aid.  

St Robert Bellarmine, for example, says:
These words were addressed to the Jews when they were building the house of God, that is, the temple, at a time that the work was progressing but slowly, by reason of the obstructions offered by the surrounding nations, as we read in 1 Esdras. They are admonished to bear in mind that the work of man is of no value, unless God, the principal builder, be there to help them; and, therefore, that they should work not only with their hands, but also with their hearts and their lips, in invoking God, and confiding mainly in his help. "Unless the Lord build the house;" unless God, on being invoked with confidence, assists the workmen, "they labor in vain that build it;" all their labor is gone for nothing, and will be so.
The Church

The image of building the house can be seen as a reference to the Church.  St Robert explains that the builders are those who preach to us and provide the sacraments:
This is also addressed to the heads of the Church who, by the preaching of God's word, seek to bring souls to him, and of them, to build up a temple, (the Church,) to the Lord... But unless the primary architect be there, he who said, "On this rock I will build my church," in vain will men build, and doc­tors preach, because, as the Lord himself said, "Without me you can do nothing.
The children of the second half of the psalm, then, are the sons and daughters of the Church brought forth by Christ as the fruit of Our Lady's womb.

Waht thenm, of the dark times we now find ourselves in with respect to our leaders?  St Fulgentius reminds us that though things may seem bad for a time, God has promised that his Church will ultimately endure:
He alone is able to safeguard what he has given to the one receiving: Unless…Therefore, he will not permit the stealthy entry of the most wicked brigand in that person to whom the assistance of the vigilant Lord will not be lacking.  For he ‘will neither slumber nor sleep, he who guards Israel (Letter to Proba).
We are each a temple

Another possible steam of interpretation sees the house as the temple of Christ each of us individually should seek to build within us.  St Hilary of Poitier, for example commented that:
You are a temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells within you. This, then, is the temple of God, filled with his doctrine and his power, able to provide the Lord with room in the sanctuary of the heart...If it were built by the hands of men, it would not stand; strengthened only by worldly knowledge, it would not hold firm; supported only by our ineffective watchfulness and useless works, it would not be secure. This house must be built and guarded in a very different way: it should not be founded on the earth or on shifting sands, but established on its proper base, the prophets and the apostles.
We can fast, pray and do good works as much as we like, in other words, but unless we have faith, unless we have grace, it will all be to no avail.   The psalm is a warning to those who seek to pursue their own agenda rather than God's, as St Cassiodorus points out:
But if these men seek to build by their own powers, they are seen to labour to no effect unless the Lord's grace bestows an attitude of most genuine belief. Paul also says: Neither he that planteth is anything, nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase. We must commit our energy to perform these tasks, but with the belief that it is God that can carry them through. Otherwise we may be beguiled by empty presumptions, and be seen to ignore the Author and Perfector of things, to our own destruction.
If we do God's will though, our efforts will be rewarded by surrounding us with children and family who can help us withstand the enemy, and whose presence will speak for us at the gate to the eternal city.

Constructing our house in heaven

Underlying all of these interpretations of the psalm, I think, is the idea that the purpose of this life is to prepare for the next: Christ's sacrifice reminds us that our focus must be not on earthly things, but rather our abode in our heavenly home.  St Robert Bellarmine comments:
...for we are bound, through acts of faith, hope, and love, to build up a house in heaven; for, as St. Augustine has it, "Such a house is founded on faith, built up on hope, and finished off by charity; nor is anyone who has not previously prepared such a house ever admitted as a citizen in the heavenly country." Such a house is constructed rather by prayer and lamentation, than by manual labor, because, "we are not sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves."

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