Monday, March 12, 2012

Psalm 118 (119) Teth: How God saves us from ourselves

Today in this Lenten series on Psalm 118, we come to the ninth stanza, headed up by the Hebrew letter Teth. In the traditional form of the Benedictine Office, it is the second ‘psalm’ said at Sunday Sext.

And it is an important one in Benedictine spirituality, since the saint quotes it in his Rule:

The seventh degree of humility is that he consider himself lower and of less account than anyone else, and this not only in verbal protestation but also with the most heartfelt inner conviction, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet, "But I am a worm and no man, the scorn of men and the outcast of the people", "After being exalted, I have been humbled and covered with confusion". And again, "It is good for me that You have humbled me, that I may learn Your commandments" (Ps. 118:71,73).

These verses are one’s to cling to at times when life seems to be kicking us in the teeth!

They serve as a reminder that the bad things that happen to us happen for a reason, and that we should learn from them.

And St Benedict’s spin on them is a reminder that most of us have a long way to go before we can truly regard ourselves as having been sufficiently humbled.

There are really, I think two key themes in this stanza: how we should approach the bad things that happen to us in life; and three key gifts we need from God to progress, namely ‘goodness’, discipline and knowledge.

God’s chastisements

Let’s look first at verses 67 and 71:

67 Priusquam humiliarer ego deliqui : propterea eloquium tuum custodivi.
Before I was humbled I offended; therefore have I kept your word.

71 Bonum mihi quia humiliasti me, ut discam justificationes tuas.
It is good for me that you have humbled me, that I may learn your justifications.

It is fashionable these days to deny that God ever punishes anyone, or indeed that anyone should ever be punished, whether children disobeying parents or teachers, or outright criminals. Yet Scripture and Tradition testify to the fact that God does punish, for justice requires that actions have consequences that are proportionate to the offence, unless we are granted mercy.

That's not to say that everything bad that happens to us is meant as a punishment of course - the consequences of original sin, in the form of our mortality, combined with free will have inevitable impacts on the world. Still, everything that happens is providentially arranged, and there are times when God does directly punish. And he does so, often through the agency of the evildoers that the psalmist so decries in the other verses of this stanza.

But the kind of punishments we are talking about here are, the Fathers tell us, are not those of the angel striking down Herod for blasphemy (Acts 12), or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather they are those things that happen to bring us to our senses, akin to the actions of a surgeon lancing a wound, or a parent chastising a child. They are meant to provide us with the incentive to repent and get back on track. As Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule:

“…the Lord daily expects us to make our life correspond with his holy admonitions. And the days of our life are lengthened and a respite allowed to us for this very reason, that we might amend our evil ways…For the merciful Lord saith: I will not the death of a sinner, but that he should be converted and live.”

The final verse of the stanza likewise serves to put the troubles we face in this life into context, as St Robert Bellarmine comments:

"For he that is truly good looks upon any humiliation, arising from tribulation, as a great good, inasmuch as it leads to a better observance of God's law, the value of which he expresses, when he says, "The law of thy mouth is good to me above thousands of gold and silver” and so it is, because through the observance of the law we acquire life everlasting, to which no treasures can be compared."

Goodness, knowledge and discipline

So what is it in particular that we are meant to learn from our humiliations? Verse 63 provides us with the answer:

“Bonitatem, et disciplinam, et scientiam doce me”, or teach me goodness and discipline and wisdom.

Goodness here means essentially kindness, or an attitude of love of neighbour. St Robert Bellarmine suggests that it must be learnt “that I may not wish to hurt, deceive, or defraud anyone”.

Discipline, he suggests, means prudence, “to guard against the deceiver and the fraudulent, so that I may have the sweetness and the mildness of the dove, without being devoid of the counsel and the prudence of the serpent”.

And knowledge of the mysteries of God’s ways is the third virtue sought here, for knowledge without goodness and discipline can be destructive.


65 Bonitatem fecisti cum servo tuo, Domine, secundum verbum tuum.
You have done well with your servant, O Lord, according to your word.

bonitas, atis, f goodness, kindness.
facio, feci, factum, ere 3, to make, do, cause, bring to pass
cum, with, together with, in company with .before, in the presence of. to be with as a helper, when, as soon as, as often as.
servus, i, m., a slave, servant; servants of the Lord, devout men who keep the law; the people, i.e., the Israelites
secundus, a, um following in time or order; the next, the second
verbum, i, n.,word, command, edict, also a promise; saying, speech; Law, the Eternal Son.

Bonitatem fecisti (pf) = You have made good/done well/wrought kindly/dealt graciously

St Augustine comments that the Greek word χρηστότης, rendered in the Vulgate as bonitatem, can be translated as sweetness or goodness, and should be understood as meaning spiritual blessings, so that the phrase means ‘You have made me feel delight in that which is good. For when that which is good delights, it is a great gift of God’.

cum servo tuo, Domine = with your servant, O Lord

secundum verbum tuum= according to your word

66 Bonitatem, et disciplinam, et scientiam doce me, quia mandatis tuis credidi.
Teach me goodness and discipline and knowledge; for I have believed your commandments.

bonitas, atis, f goodness, kindness
disciplina, ae, f instruction, correction, discipline, chastening visitation, discernment, good judgment.
scientia, ae, f, knowledge.
doceo, dociii, doctum, ere 2 to teach, instruct..
mandatum, i, n. law, precept, command, commandment (of God); commandments, precepts, decrees
credo, didi, ditum, ere 3, to believe, to be faithful to, loyally devoted to

Bonitatem, et disciplinam, et scientiam= sweetness/goodness/kindness and discipline/instruction and knowledge/wisdom

St Augustine focuses in on the Greek word used for discipline here, παιδεία, pointing out that when it is employed in Scripture, instruction through tribulation is to be understood: Whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and scourges every son whom He receives.

doce me = Teach me

Cassiodorus notes: The human teacher utters words, but cannot impart understanding of these matters, but God first enlightens the heart so that the words may sink into the thoughts of the elect.

quia mandatis tuis credidi= because I have believed your commands

67 Priusquam humiliarer ego deliqui : propterea eloquium tuum custodivi.
Before I was humbled I offended; therefore have I kept your word.

priusquam or prius quam, adv., before, before that.
humilio, avi, atum, are to humble, bring low.
delinquo, liqui, lictum, ere 3, to fail, offend, sin, transgress.
propterea, adv., therefore, on that account, for that cause; but now
eloquium, ii, n. , a word, oracle, speech, utterance, promise.
custodio, ivi or ii, itum, ire (cutos), to guard, watch, keep, to maintain, to hold steadfastly.

Priusquam humiliarer = Before I was humiliated/humbled

Humiliarer here is an imperfect passive subjunctive, but priusquam indicates that this a temporal clause, with no difference in meaning between the subjunctive and indicative in English.

ego (I, emphatic) deliqui = I sinned/offended/transgressed

St Augustine suggests this should be interpreted as a reference to Adam’s sin, but the more obvious meaning of the verse is that provided by Liguori: I sinned, and then Thou didst humble me with tribulations; these have taught me to keep Thy law.

propterea eloquium tuum custodivi =but now/therefore I have kept your word

Bellarmine suggests: He explains the necessity of the three gifts aforesaid, stating he had good reason for asking for them, inasmuch as it was through the want of them he transgressed, and for his transgressions was humbled by God in his justice. "Before I was humbled," by being visited with tribulations, "I offended," through ignorance; "therefore have I kept thy word," the promise I made of thenceforward observing your law more attentively

68 Bonus es tu, et in bonitate tua doce me justificationes tuas.
You are good; and in your goodness teach me your justifications.

bonus, a, um, good; pleasant; upright good things, possessions, prosperity.
bonitas, atis, f goodness, kindness
doceo, docui, doctum, ere 2 to teach, instruct
justificatio, onis, f precepts, decrees, statutes, ordinances;

Bonus es tu = you are good

et in bonitate tua = and in your goodness

The unction of grace…

doce me justificationes tuas= teach me your commandments/justifications/ordinances/statutes

69 Multiplicata est super me iniquitas superborum; ego autem in toto corde meo scrutabor mandata tua.
The iniquity of the proud has been multiplied over me: but I will seek your commandments with my whole heart.

multiplico, avi, atum, are to multiply, increase; to grow, flourish
super +acc=above, upon, over, in, on;+abl= about, concerning; with, on, upon, for, because of.
iniquitas, atis, f niquity, injustice, sin.
superbus, a, um raising one's self above others, proud, haughty, arrogant, insolent.
autem, adversative conj., but, on the contrary, however
in+acc=into, onto, against, for (the purpose of); +abl = with, in, on among, by means of
totus a um all, the whole
cor, cordis, n., the heart, regarded as the seat of the faculties, feelings, emotions, passions; the mind, the soul.
scrutor, atus sum, ari, to search, examine, scrutinize; search out, examine carefully; keep, to obey.
mandatum, i, n. law, precept, command, commandment (of God); commandments, precepts, decrees

Multiplicata est super me= It [the iniquity of…] has been multiplied against me/heaped upon me

iniquitas superborum = the sins/iniquity/injustice/malice of the proud

The Latin verb multiplico is used quite often in the Vulgate, but it is very hard to translate into English, and perhaps for that reason the neo-Vulgate changes the text to follow the Hebrew MT: ‘Excogitaverunt contra me dolosa superbi’. The RSV translates it as: The godless besmear me with lies. The sense of the verse is, the proud do their best to get me to sin, by spreading lie after lie, but I am committed to staying on track.

ego autem in toto corde meo = but I with my whole heart.

scrutabor mandata tua= I will search out your commandments

70 Coagulatum est sicut lac cor eorum; ego vero legem tuam meditatus sum.
Their heart is curdled like milk: but I have meditated on your law.

coagulo, avi, atum, are to curdle
sicut, adv., as, just as, like.
lac, lactis, n. milk
vero, in truth, in fact, really, certainly, even, but, truly
meditor, atus sum, ari, to think, plan, devise, meditate

Coagulatum est = it [their heart] is curdled

sicut lac =like milk

cor eorum = their (the proud of the previous verse) heart

Britt translates the first phrase as ‘Their heart is curdled like milk’.Curdled milk could mean either off-smelling milk, signifying corruption, or hardened into cheese, or a hardened heart, as Cassiodorus and others take it. The Hebrew MT (followed by NV here) makes it ‘Their heart is as fat as grease’, saying that Fat implies on the part of the sinner insensibility to the divine law.
ego vero = but/truly I

legem tuam= on your law

meditatus sum= I have meditated

ie I dismissed them in favour of God.

71 Bonum mihi quia humiliasti me, ut discam justificationes tuas.
It is good for me that you have humbled me, that I may learn your justifications.

bonus, a, um, good; pleasant; upright good things, possessions, prosperity
quia, conj. for, because, that. truly, surely, indeed;
humilio, avi, atum, are to humble, bring low.
disco, didici, ere 3, to learn.

Bonum mihi = [It is] good for me

quia humiliasti me= that you have humbled/afflicted me

ut discam (subj) justificationes tuas= so that I may learn your commandments/justifications/

72 Bonum mihi lex oris tui, super millia auri et argenti.
The law of your mouth is good to me, above thousands of gold and silver.

bonus, a, um, good; pleasant; upright good things, possessions, prosperity
lex, legis, a law; the Law of God, the will of God
os, oris, n., the mouth.
super - as a comparative ‘more than’/above
millia, mm, n., thousands; used generally in the sense of an indefinitely large number, a host, multitude
aurum, i, n., gold
argentum, i, n silver.

Bonum mihi = good for me [is]

lex oris tui = the law of your mouth

super (comparative) millia auri et argenti= more than/above thousands/a ton of/pile of gold and silver.

And for notes on the next stanza of the psalm, continue on here.

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