Moses and the Brazen Serpent
In my notes on Psalm 87, the other psalm of Thursday at Lauds, I suggested that Thursday represents the start of a mini-Triduum in the Office, and that darkest of psalms alludes to Christ’s dark moments at Gethsemane as he contemplated his coming Passion.
The connection of this second psalm of Lauds, Psalm 89, which St Benedict took over from the old Roman Office for the day, to the mini-Triduum idea, however is rather less obvious to me at least on the face of it.
Yet this psalm is also assigned to Tenebrae on Maundy Thursday, which suggests that there surely is a thematic link! Accordingly, I’ll sketch out the possibilities that I see here…
A response to Psalm 87?
In the context of the Benedictine Office the first point to note is that it provides something of a response to the unresolved ending of Psalm 87 that precedes it.
Psalm 87 is a prayer of unrelieved gloom on the part of a man about to die, perhaps a prayer from the humanity of Christ, eventually resolved after the agony of Gethsemane. This psalm, by contrast points first to the divinity of Christ, reminding us that: “Before the mountains were made, or the earth and the world was formed; from eternity and to eternity you are God.” (v2) Thus, we are reminded of the two natures of Christ, so critical to the events to come.
Secondly, the next verse, at least in the Septuagint/Vulgate version, is a plea to God not to abandon man: Turn not man away to be brought low (v3), thus fits neatly indeed with the Gethsemane theme (note however that the Hebrew Masoretic Text version, followed by the Monastic Diurnal in this case, actually turns this verse around saying ‘Thou turnest man again to dust’).
Certainly the Fathers saw the plea for God to have pity and convert men, and v.15’s ‘Return, O Lord, how long? And be entreated in favour of your servants’, and the discussion on the shortness of man’s life, in verses 6-11, as allusions to the consequences of Adam’s sin: we too would be immortal but for it.
The consequences of Original Sin
Thirdly, perhaps one can also take the discussion on the shortness of man’s life in contrast to the eternity of God (vv 2, 4&5) as part of a kind of dialogue between the human and divine natures of the Saviour, pointing to the shortness of Christ’s life on earth, a time that he was obviously reluctant to cut short, the divine plan notwithstanding. Some of the commentaries also interpret these verses as the prayer of a man facing death wondering whether he has made a real difference, again nicely linking to the Gethsemane theme.
Fourthly, one could perhaps see the psalm as recapitulating the purpose of the Passion and Resurrection, for there is a progression in what the psalmist is asking for here: first for God to relent in his punishment of mankind (v3-12); secondly, to reveal his power and teach us wisdom (v14); and finally to fill his people with grace and blessings (v14-17).
A song of Moses
Finally, Psalm 89 is the only psalm attributed to Moses in the psalter, and he is also the author of the (ferial) canticle that St Benedict set for the day. Perhaps the allusion is to Moses himself, who stands in a sense at the crossover point between the Old and New Testaments.
Some interpret this psalm as having been written at the end of Moses’ life, gazing into the Promised Land, yet not allowed to enter it himself, and begging for God to have mercy on the remnant that still survived of those who came out of Egypt. Thus Moses stands on our behalf, begging Christ to save us through his Passion.
Oratio Moysi, hominis Dei.
Domine, refugium factus es nobis a generatione in generationem.
2 Priusquam montes fierent, aut formaretur terra et orbis, a sæculo et usque in sæculum tu es, Deus.
3 Ne avertas hominem in humilitatem : et dixisti : Convertimini, filii hominum.
4 Quoniam mille anni ante oculos tuos tamquam dies hesterna quæ præteriit: et custodia in nocte
5 quæ pro nihilo habentur, eorum anni erunt.
6 Mane sicut herba transeat; mane floreat, et transeat; vespere decidat, induret, et arescat.
7 Quia defecimus in ira tua, et in furore tuo turbati sumus.
8 Posuisti iniquitates nostras in conspectu tuo; sæculum nostrum in illuminatione vultus tui.
9 Quoniam omnes dies nostri defecerunt, et in ira tua defecimus. Anni nostri sicut aranea meditabuntur; 10 dies annorum nostrorum in ipsis septuaginta anni. Si autem in potentatibus octoginta anni, et amplius eorum labor et dolor; quoniam supervenit mansuetudo, et corripiemur.
11 Quis novit potestatem iræ tuæ, et præ timore tuo iram tuam
12 dinumerare? Dexteram tuam sic notam fac, et eruditos corde in sapientia.
13 Convertere, Domine; usquequo? et deprecabilis esto super servos tuos.
14 Repleti sumus mane misericordia tua; et exsultavimus, et delectati sumus omnibus diebus nostris.
15 Lætati sumus pro diebus quibus nos humiliasti; annis quibus vidimus mala.
16 Respice in servos tuos et in opera tua, et dirige filios eorum.
17 Et sit splendor Domini Dei nostri super nos, et opera manuum nostrarum dirige super nos, et opus manuum nostrarum dirige.
A prayer of Moses the man of God.
Lord, you have been our refuge from generation to generation.
2 Before the mountains were made, or the earth and the world was formed; from eternity and to eternity you are God.
3 Turn not man away to be brought low: and you have said: Be converted, O you sons of men.
4 For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday, which is past. And as a watch in the night, 5 things that are counted nothing, shall their years be.
6 In the morning man shall grow up like grass; in the morning he shall flourish and pass away: in the evening he shall fall, grow dry, and wither.
7 For in your wrath we have fainted away: and are troubled in your indignation.
8 You have set our iniquities before your eyes: our life in the light of your countenance.
9 For all our days are spent; and in your wrath we have fainted away. Our years shall be considered as a spider:
10 The days of our years in them are threescore and ten years. But if in the strong they be fourscore years: and what is more of them is labour and sorrow. For mildness has come upon us: and we shall be corrected.
11 Who knows the power of your anger, and for your fear
12 can number your wrath? So make your right hand known: and men learned in heart, in wisdom. 13 Return, O Lord, how long? And be entreated in favour of your servants.
14 We are filled in the morning with your mercy: and we have rejoiced, and are delighted all our days. 15 We have rejoiced for the days in which you have humbled us: for the years in which we have seen evils.
16 Look upon your servants and upon their works: and direct their children.
17 And let the brightness of the Lord our God be upon us: and direct the works of our hands over us; yea, the work of our hands do you direct.