It is worth noting first that this verse in the Septuagint and Vulgate bears little or no resemblance to the Hebrew Text as it has come down to us, as Pope Benedict explains:
“In the original Hebrew text a reference was made to the mustering of the army to which the people generously responded, gathering round their sovereign on the day of his coronation. The Greek translation of The Septuagint that dates back to between the second and third centuries B.C. refers however to the divine sonship of the king, to his birth or begetting on the part of the Lord. This is the interpretation that has been chosen by the Church, which is why the verse reads like this: “Yours is princely power in the day of your birth, in holy splendour; before the daystar, like the dew, I have begotten you”.
The RSV accordingly renders this verse:
“Your people will offer themselves freely on the day you lead your host upon the holy mountains. From the womb of the morning like dew your youth will come to you.”
It is not unreasonable, however, to infer that the “original” Hebrew has in fact been corrupted in order to avoid granting the Messiah inheritance of his status by right of birth and eternal generation. So ignore Coverdale and any other protestant translations of this psalm in your consideration of it!
Here is the text as the Church reads it:
Tecum princípium in die virtútis tuæ in splendóribus sanctórum: *ex útero ante lucíferum génui te.
μετὰ σοῦ ἡ ἀρχὴ ἐν ἡμέρᾳ τῆς δυνάμεώς σου ἐν ταῖς λαμπρότησιν τῶν ἁγίων ἐκ γαστρὸς πρὸ ἑωσφόρου ἐξεγέννησά σε
With you is the principality in the day of your strength: in the brightness of the saints: from the womb before the day star I begot you.
Looking at the Latin
Tecum principium (accusative, governed by cum) = with you [is] the sovereignty/dominion
In die (abl, governed by in) virtútis (gen) tuæ = in the day of your power
The first two phrases, then, present the saviour as awe-inspiring.
in splendóribus (in +abl, plural) sanctorum (genitive) = in the splendour of the saints
St John Chrysostom sees this phrase as softening the depiction presented to us:
“Lest he give the impression that he is only fearsome, the psalmist shows as well his mild and kindly character in the words, In the glories of the holy ones. This is a mark of his power, making them glorious like that, as Paul also indicated in saying, "He will transform the body of our lowliness so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory."
This idea of exalting the lowly also hints at the Marian dimension of the verse, taken up in the next phrase.
ex útero = from the womb (abl, governed by ex)
Though this phrase seems to suggest the Incarnation, it should really be viewed figuratively, as St Robert Bellarmine explains:
“By the womb is meant the secret and intimate essence of the Deity; and, though the womb is to be found in woman only, still it is applied to the Father, to show more clearly the consubstantiality of the Son with him, as also to show that God needed not the cooperation of woman to bring forth and produce. Himself begot and gave birth. As Isaias says, "Shall not I, that made others to bring forth children, myself bring forth, saith the Lord."
ante lucíferum = before the morning star (accusative, governed by ante)
St Robert continues:
"Here we have a proof of the eternity of Christ; for he was born before the day star, and, consequently, before all created things; but he named the day star, for he himself, as the Son of God, is the increate light. For he is the true light, that enlighteneth every man and angel.”
génui te – I bore/begot you (present indicative perfect of gigno, I beget)
The Monastic Diurnal offers a rather free translation of this verse: “Thine is princely rule in the day of Thy power in holy splendour: from the womb before the day-star have I begotten Thee”
Brenton’s translation from the Septuagint is a more literal one: With thee is dominion in the day of thy power, in the splendours of thy saints: I have begotten thee from the womb before the morning.
principium, ii, n. the beginning; the sum, substance, content; sovereignty, princely, power, dominion
splendor, oris, m. brightness, splendor; glory, brightness, i.e., grace, favor.
uterus, i, m. the womb
lucifer, feri, in. the morning-star, the day-star.
gigno, genui, genitum, ere 3 to beget.
So why is this psalm used on Marian feasts?
We have seen above that this verse then attests to our Lord’s divinity, his eternal generation, rather than the Incarnation as such.
Nonetheless, this should immediately remind us of Our Lady’s title as theotokos, or “God bearer”.
And in fact St Augustine argues that the expression ‘before the morning star’:
“…is used both figuratively and literally, and was thus fulfilled. For the Lord was born at night from the womb of the Virgin Mary; the testimony of the shepherds does assert this, who were keeping watch over their flock. Luke 2:7-8 So David: O Thou, my Lord, who sittest at the right hand of my Lord, whence are You my Son, except because, From the womb before the morning star I have begotten You?”
And indeed, the Church places this verse before us at Midnight Mass for Christmas, in the Gradual.
You can find the next part of this series here.