Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Psalm 109/9: Prophesying Christ’s humility and the Ascension

Garofalo, 1510-20
Today’s verse is somewhat enigmatic, and needs some help to interpret properly, as Pope Benedict XVI points out:

“The evocative image that concludes our Psalm fits in here; it is also an enigmatic word: “He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head”. The king’s figure stands out in the middle of the description of the battle. At a moment of respite and rest, he quenches his thirst at a stream, finding in it refreshment and fresh strength to continue on his triumphant way, holding his head high as a sign of definitive victory. It is clear that these deeply enigmatic words were a challenge for the Fathers of the Church because of the different interpretations they could be given…”

The final verse of Psalm 109 is:

De torrénte in via bibet: * proptérea exaltábit caput
ἐκ χειμάρρου ἐν ὁδῷ πίεται διὰ τοῦτο ὑψώσει κεφαλήν
He shall drink of the torrent in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.

Looking at the Latin

De (de, from govern s ablative case) torrénte (abl of torrens, torrentis, a stream, brook or torrent)

in via (in +ablative governing via, way, road, path) bibet (3rd person indicative future of bibo, to drink) = on the way he will drink

The Diurnal translates in via as ‘on the march’, to give the flavour that this is a stop on a journey.

Still, the phrase is open to several different interpretations in the context of this psalm, on which see below.

De torrénte in via bibet = he will drink from a stream on the way

proptérea (therefore) exaltábit (3rd person indicative future of exalto, to exalt, dignify, elevate) caput (nom of caput, head)

To lift one's head up is a sign of triumph or success, and in this context, is often seen as a reference to Christ's Ascension.

proptérea exaltábit caput = therefore he will lift the head


The Monastic Diurnal gives this verse as “On his march He drinketh at the brook: therefore he lifteth high his head”. Coverdale make it ‘He shall drink of the brook in the way; therefore shall he lift up his head’.


torrens, entis, m. a brook, stream, torrent
bibo, bibi, bibitum, ere 3, to drink.
propterea, adv., therefore, on that account, for that cause; but now
exalto, avi, atum, are to exalt, i.e., to elevate in rank, power, dignity, or the like; to dignify

Drinking from the stream: three possible interpretations

Pope Benedict’s comments on this psalm, that I quoted above, suggest that this verse can be given several different translations.

Let’s consider first that offered by St John Chrysostom, who sees it as a reference to Christ’s humility in his time on earth:

“Here he shows the lowliness of his lifestyle, the meanness of his existence, no swagger about him, no bodyguards in attendance, no visible display when he performs this; instead, his way of life was simple to the extent of his drinking from a torrent. His drink matched his food in this: his food was barley loaves, his drink water from the torrent. He came, you see, to teach this reasonable way of life, to keep the appetite in check, trample on pomp and circumstance, shun conceit. Then, to show the advantage of this lifestyle, he added, Hence I shall lift up his head: this is the fruit of his humility and difficult life. These words refer not to divinity, however, but to humanity - drinking from a torrent, being raised up. You see, far from this insignificance doing him any harm, it even lifted him to an ineffable height.”

The moral, then according to St John, is that we too should “scorn a flashy and meretricious lifestyle, and aim instead for one that is lowly and unpretentious”.

St Augustine too sees the verse as a reference to Christ’s humble obedience, an obedience even unto death that results in God also exalting him. St Augustine though, interprets the stream as the sea of human life which Christ joins by his Incarnation:

“…what is the brook? The onward flow of human mortality: for as a brook is gathered together by the rain, overflows, roars, runs, and by running runs down, that is, finishes its course; so is all this course of mortality. Men are born, they live, they die, and when some die others are born, and when they die others are born, they succeed, they flock together, they depart and will not remain. What is held fast here? What does not run? What is not on its way to the abyss as if it was gathered together from rain? For as a river suddenly drawn together from rain from the drops of showers runs into the sea, and is seen no more, nor was it seen before it was collected from the rain; so this hidden rain is collected together from hidden sources, and flows on; at death again it travels where it is hidden: this intermediate state sounds and passes away.”

Drinking at the brook then, means becoming human:

“Of this brook He drinks, He has not disdained to drink of this brook; for to drink of this brook was to Him to be born and to die. What this brook has, is birth and death; Christ assumed this, He was born, He died.”

But Cassiodorus offers a third possible interpretation of the idea of drinking from the torrent, namely Our Lord’s persecution:

“This torrent was disordered persecution by the Jews, of which the Lord Christ drank on the way, that is, in this life, when He endured it in the flesh. The phrase, in the way, indicates the onset of violence and the great speed of the journey made by travellers as they drive to another lodging.”

Our Lord's humility: the Incarnation and Ascension

St Robert Bellarmine provides a commentary on this verse that I think synthesizes these competing ideas neatly, and has the psalm concluding with a reference to Christ’s Ascension. The purpose of the verse, he says, is to explain why the psalm has talked about his power to judge nations:

“He now assigns a reason for Christ being endowed with such power as to be able to break kings, to judge nations, to fill ruins, and to crush heads, and says, "He shall drink of the torrent in the way, therefore shall he lift up the head;" as if he said with the apostle, "He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross; wherefore God also hath exalted him, and given him a name, which is above every name."

The stream or torrent, he argues, is the transitory noise of humanity:

“The torrent means the course of human affairs; for, as a torrent flows with great noise and force, full of mud and confusion, and soon after subsides without leaving even a trace of itself, so it is with the affairs of this mortal life—they all pass away, having, generally speaking, been much troubled and confused. Great battles and revolutions, such as those in the time of Caesar and Alexander, and others, have been heard of, but they and their posterity have passed away without leaving a trace of their power.”

Through his Incarnation, Our Lord joins this torrent:

“The Son of God, through his Incarnation, came down this torrent, and "in the way," that is, during his mortal transitory life, drank the muddy water of this torrent in undergoing the calamities consequent on his mortality; nay, even he descended into the very depth of the torrent through his passion, the waters of which, instead of contributing to his ease and refreshment, only increased his pains and sufferings, as he complains in Psalm 68. "The waters are come in even unto my soul. I stick fast in the mire of the deep, and there is no sure standing. I am come into the depth of the sea, and a tempest hath overwhelmed me."

But the conclusion of the story lies in his Ascension, Resurrection and Second Coming:

"In consideration, then, of such humiliation, freely undertaken for the glory of the Father and the salvation of mankind, he afterwards "lifted up his head," ascended into heaven, and, sitting at the right hand of the Father, was made Judge of the living and the dead.”

And that brings us to the end of this mini-series on Psalm 109.  If you have found it useful, or have any comments, questions or suggestions, please do leave a  comment.

For an introduction to the next psalm of Sunday Vespers, Psalm 110, follow the link here.

And you can find notes on the second psalm of Sunday Vespers, Psalm 110, starting here.

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