series on Psalm 118 (119), today’s octave of verses starts by talking about the importance of starting out on the right path as a young person, and ends with a rejection of ‘forgetfulness’, or falling away from God. Taken together, they are, I think, a prayer for the grace of perseverance.
A prayer for perseverance
The key to this stanza of Psalm 118 is, I think, the second phrase of verse 10: ‘let me not stray from your commandments’.
A number of the Fathers and Theologians suggest that the emphasis on the ‘young man’ here is meant to suggest the importance of starting out right from the very beginning. St Augustine, though, gives the focus on the ‘young man’ a rather more inclusive flavour than a literal reading would suggest:
“Is then an old man to be despaired of? My son, gather instruction from your youth up: so shall you find wisdom till your gray hairs. Sirach 6:18”
Cassiodorus builds on this interpretation, telling us that ‘forgetting’ is a by-product of the human condition:
“Forgetfulness does not come upon us naturally, but is the outcome of the frailty caused by original sin. Meditation is set against it as a remedy, so that sacrilegious forgetfulness may not destroy the emi¬nence of memory. They say that they meditate on the Lord's justifica¬tions so that they cannot forget what they strive to remember. They realised the failing by which the human mind was oppressed, and devised this resource against it, by means of which the power of forgetfulness could be excluded.”
The remedy against this human weakness is the grace that causes us to seek out God, open our hearts and minds to his word, allows his Word to permeate our whole being. As St Robert Bellarmine says “He says he has the law of God in his mouth, his will, his understanding, and his memory, and thus, in every part of his soul.”
We must, as Psalm 1 enjoins us, meditate on the law and day and night, and constantly ask God for the grace to keep us on the right path. As St Robert emphasizes: “God teaches his justifications when he, through his grace, causes one to delight in his law, and fully persuades one to wish to keep it exactly."
9 In quo corrigit adolescentior viam suam? in custodiendo sermones tuos.
10 In toto corde meo exquisivi te; ne repellas me a mandatis tuis.
11 In corde meo abscondi eloquia tua, ut non peccem tibi.
12 Benedictus es, Domine; doce me justificationes tuas.
13 In labiis meis pronuntiavi omnia judicia oris tui.
14 In via testimoniorum tuorum delectatus sum, sicut in omnibus divitiis.
15 In mandatis tuis exercebor, et considerabo vias tuas.
16 In justificationibus tuis meditabor : non obliviscar sermones tuos.
A look at the verses
9. In quo corrigit (present indic. active) adolescentior viam suam? in custodiendo (gerund) sermones tuos.
Douay Rheims: By what does a young man correct his way? By observing your words.
Septuagint: ἐν τίνι κατορθώσει ὁ νεώτερος τὴν ὁδὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ φυλάσσεσθαι τοὺς λόγους σου
St Alphonsus Liguori interprets "Viam suam" here as meaning the errors of his life, of his conduct. The 1979 Neo-Vulgate, however, changes ‘corrigit’ (he establishes, fixes) to ‘mundabit’ (he will cleanse). Reflecting this, the RSV translates the verse as ‘How can a young man keep his way pure?’ By guarding it according to thy word’. The subtle difference of the Masoretic Text to the Septuagint is reflected in Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint as: ‘Wherewith shall a young man direct his way? by keeping thy words.’
The reference to a young man in this verse is generally taken to imply that the whole psalm is directed at young people as a summary of key wisdom sayings. St Augustine however gives it a rather more inclusive reading:
“Is then an old man to be despaired of? My son, gather instruction from your youth up: so shall you find wisdom till your gray hairs. Sirach 6:18 There is another mode of interpreting it, by recognising in the expression the younger son in the Gospel, Luke 15:12, etc. who returned to himself, and said, I will arise and go to my father. Luke 15:18 Wherewithal did he correct his way, save by ruling himself after the words of God, which he desired as one longing for his father's bread....”
corrigo, rexi, rectum, ere 3, (1) to establish ,found, fix firmly (2) to reform, set right, direct.
adulescensior oris adj a youth, young man
custodio, ivi or li, itum, ire to guard, watch, keep;to maintain, to hold steadfastly
sermo, onis, m. words; a command, edict; the expression of God's
10. In (in+abl) toto corde meo exquisivi (pf indicative active) te; ne repellas (present subj) me a mandatis tuis.
With my whole heart have I sought after you: let me not stray from your commandments.
ἐν ὅλῃ καρδίᾳ μου ἐξεζήτησά σε μὴ ἀπώσῃ με ἀπὸ τῶν ἐντολῶν σου
Note that the MD changes the perfect (‘I have sought’) to the present ‘With all my heart I seek Thee, let me not stray from Thy commandments’. The Neo-Vulgate amends the verse as follows, to reflect the Hebrew MT more closely: In toto corde meo exquisivi te; ne errare me facias a praeceptis tuis.
This verse is an entreaty for grace. As Cassiodorus says:
“The assertion that they have sought the Lord wholeheartedly denotes a further kindness of His, for they would not seek Him if they had not been sought out…In every good deed we are anticipated by the Lord's grace. He deigns to inspire us to make us wish to entreat Him”.
exquiro –ere –sivi –situm 3, to seek, inquire diligently, seek after
repello, puli, pulsum, ere 3, to reject, repel, thrust away, cast off
mandatum, i, n. (mando), law, precept, command, commandment (of God); commandments, precepts, decrees
praeceptum, i, n. (praecipio), a law, commandment, precept, ordinance.
11. In corde meo (=in my heart) abscondi (perfect, I have hidden) eloquia tua, ut non peccem (ut +subj, purpose clause) tibi.
I hidden your words in my heart, that I may not sin against you.
ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ μου ἔκρυψα τὰ λόγιά σου ὅπως ἂν μὴ ἁμάρτω σοι
St Alphonsus Liguori paraphrases the verse as “I have endeavored to impress Thy laws on my heart, in order to avoid in any way to offend Thee.’ The MD translates the verse as ‘Within my heart I hide thy sayings, that I may not sin against Thee’. Pope Benedict XVI suggests that “The Psalmist’s faithfulness stems from listening to the word, from pondering on it in his inmost self, meditating on it and cherishing it, just as did Mary, who “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart”, the words that had been addressed to her and the marvellous events in which God revealed himself, asking her for the assent of her faith (cf. Lk 2:19, 51).”
abscondo, condi, conditum, ere 3, to hide, conceal; to lay up, to treasure, guard jealously
pecco, avi, atum, are, to sin; to sin against, with dat.
12 Benedictus es (passive perfect), Domine; doce (imperative) me justificationes tuas.
Blessed are you, O Lord: teach me your justifications.
εὐλογητὸς εἶ κύριε δίδαξόν με τὰ δικαιώματά σου
The translations here vary only in the word used for justification – variously rendered justifications DR), ordinances (Brenton), statutes (RSV) and precepts (Coverdale). Why does he start here from God’s blessedness? Perhaps because he wants to stress that our happiness is a gift from God, and that the ‘teaching’ he seeks is, as St Robert Bellarmine suggests, ‘more than the simple imparting of knowledge’. Again the stress here is on grace as St Robert emphasizes: “God teaches his justifications when he, through his grace, causes one to delight in his law, and fully persuades one to wish to keep it exactly.”
13. In labiis (labium, lip) meis pronuntiavi (pf) omnia (all, acc pl, agreeing with judicia) judicia oris (gen of os, mouth) tui.
With my lips I have pronounced all the judgments of your mouth.
Neo-Vulgate: In labiis meis numeravi omnia iudicia oris tui.
ἐν τοῖς χείλεσίν μου ἐξήγγειλα πάντα τὰ κρίματα τοῦ στόματός σου
The previous verses mentioned pondering God’s words in his heart and learning them, implying the engagement of the intellect. Having engaged his inner self, he can now give external witness, the words flowing naturally out from his lips. Perhaps reflecting this sequence, the Monastic Diurnal makes the verse future tense; ‘With my lips will I tell all the judgments of Thy mouth’.
labium, ii, n., a lip By metonymy lips frequently stands for language, speech, thought, plan, design.
omnis, e, all, each, every; subst., all men, all things, everything
pronuntio, avi, atum, are, to announce, declare, proclaim.
os, oris, n., the mouth. (1) Of men: (2) Of beasts: 21 (3) Of a place or receptacle
14 In via testimoniorum tuorum delectatus sum (passive pf), sicut in omnibus divitiis.
I have been delighted in the way of your testimonies, as in all riches.
ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ τῶν μαρτυρίων σου ἐτέρφθην ὡς ἐπὶ παντὶ πλούτῳ
There is a curious variety in the tenses used for the translations of this verse. While the Latin is passive perfect, as reflected in the Douay-Rheims and Brenton’s translation from the Septuagint, Coverdale makes it pluperfect: ‘I have had as great delight in the way of thy testimonies, as in all manner of riches’. The Monastic Diurnal and RSV make it present tense, with the former giving it as ‘I delight to walk in Thy testimonies, more than in all riches’.
St Augustine here points us to Christ’s description of himself as ‘the way’: “We understand that there is no more speedy, no more sure, no shorter, no higher way of the testimonies of God than Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
delecto, avi, atum, are to delight, gladden, rejoice.
sicut, adv., as, just as, like.
omnis, e, all, each, every; subst., all men, all things, everything
divitiae, arum, f riches, wealth, abundance.
15 In mandatis tuis exercebor (fut passive, I will meditate/ponder on), et considerabo (future active) vias tuas.
I will meditate on your commandments: and I will consider your ways.
ἐν ταῖς ἐντολαῖς σου ἀδολεσχήσω καὶ κατανοήσω τὰς ὁδούς σου
And here St Augustine provides a happy justification for the exegetical enterprise!:
“And thus the Church does exercise herself in the commandments of God, by speaking in the copious disputations of the learned against all the enemies of the Christian and Catholic faith; which are fruitful to those who compose them, if nothing but the ways of the Lord is regarded in them; but All the ways of the Lord are, as it is written, mercy and truth; the fullness of which both is found in Christ.”
exerceo, cui, citum, ere 2 to exercise, work at; in passive, meditate on, be occupied or employed on, ponder on
considero, avi, atum, are, to consider, look at closely, to regard, contemplate; to lie in wait for
16 In justificationibus tuis meditabor (deponent: future active): non obliviscar (deponent: future) sermones tuos.
I will think of your justifications: I will not forget your words.
NV: In iustificationibus tuis delectabor, non obliviscar sermonem tuum.
ἐν τοῖς δικαιώμασίν σου μελετήσω οὐκ ἐπιλήσομαι τῶν λόγων σου
The distinction between the Vulgate (meditabor) and neo-Vulgate (delectabor) here reflects the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text. The Monastic Diurnal here reflects the Neo-Vulgate: In Thy Statutes I take delight, I will not forget Thy words, and St Robert Bellarmine comments: “The Hebrew here implies that he will be delighted in chanting them...The meaning of the passage, then, is: "I will think of thy justifications;" I will occupy myself in chanting the praises of your commandments, in order to delight myself, as I would with sweet and pleasant songs.”
But what does the psalmist mean by warning us of the danger of ‘forgetting’ God’s words? This is, I think, a plea for aid in perseverance, as Cassiodorus suggests:
“Forgetfulness does not come upon us naturally, but is the outcome of the frailty caused by original sin. Meditation is set against it as a remedy, so that sacrilegious forgetfulness may not destroy the eminence of memory. They say that they meditate on the Lord's justifications so that they cannot forget what they strive to remember. They realised the failing by which the human mind was oppressed, and devised this resource against it, by means of which the power of forgetfulness could be excluded.”
meditor, atus sum, ari, to think, plan, devise, meditate
obliviscor, oblitus sum, oblivisci (1) to forget; frequent with both the gen. and ace. (2) non obliviscor, I will not forget, I will not be unmindful of Thy law, precepts, etc. I will strictly observe
delecto, avi, atum, are to delight, gladden, rejoice; passive, to be glad, to rejoice.
You can find the next part in this series here.