Monday, October 14, 2013

Introduction to Psalm 113

Today I want to start my consideration of the first psalm of Monday Vespers, Psalm 113.

Because it is very long, I plan to split my consideration of it into three parts, namely 1-8, 9-16 and 17-27, with an introduction to each followed by analysis of the individual verses.

Psalm 113 in Scripture

Psalm 113 is the major contributor to the length of Monday Vespers.  Included in the Hallel, those psalms said on major festivals such as the Passover, in the Hebrew Masoretic Text (and modern neo-Vulgate) it is actually split into two separate psalms.

There is, however, a fair amount of evidence to favour the joining of the two psalms over the split as the more ancient tradition.

Regardless, in the Septuagint, however, and hence Vulgate, it is counted as one psalm, and thus provides one of the points of difference in psalm numbering schemes between the traditional Catholic psalter and the Protestant one.  The split comes at Verse 9, Non Nobis Domine, a verse that has become very well-known indeed in the setting used for a film version of Shakespeare's Henry V.

Overview of the psalm

Indeed, more than a few commentators see the psalm as falling into three sections rather than two, and I subscribe to that view.

The first section, verses 1-8, focuses on the impact of a theophany, the manifestation of God in the world: God parts the Red Sea and the Jordan; in his presence the earth both exalts and trembles.

The second section, verses 9-16, contrasts the reality of our God with the powerless idols we make ourselves.

The final section, verses 17-27,...

Verses 1-8

The next set of posts will look in more detail at verses 1-8, but first an overview.

Psalm 113 opens with a reference to the Exodus from Egypt, and the parting of the Jordan:

"When Israel came out of Egypt, and the sons of Jacob heard no more a strange language, the Lord took Juda for his sanctuary, Israel for his own dominion. The seas fled at the sight they witnessed, backward flowed the stream of Jordan..." (Knox translation).

Like many psalms, this one can be read at a number of different levels.

At the literal level, the first half of the psalm reminds us of key moments in salvation history, starting from the exodus, and seeks to teach us the proper response of the awe and thanksgiving we should feel at God's wondrous workings.

It also though, points to key events that foreshadow Our Lord's life and the salvation history of the New Testament, for Moses is a type of Christ, and the crossing of the Jordan, referred to in verses is a type of baptism, as the famous hymn Through the Red Sea Brought at Last by Ronald Knox proclaims.

As such, the first half of the psalm speaks of the Church, the new people of Israel, rescued from slavery by Christ who first calls us to repentance and rebirth in baptism.  The theophany at his baptism is echoed in the awestruck reaction of nature described in the psalm, that signals our redemption, though we may yet have forty years or more of wandering in the desert before we enter into it!

Pope John Paul II on the first section of the Psalm

In the (Novus Ordo) Liturgy of the Hours, the first section of Psalm 113 (aka Psalm 114) retains a place in Sunday Vespers.  Here are some extracts from Pope John Paul II's catechesis on it in that context, from 2003:

"The joyful and triumphant song we have just proclaimed recalls Israel's Exodus from the oppression of the Egyptians. 

Psalm 114[113A] belongs to the collection that Jewish tradition has called the "Egyptian Hallel". These are Psalms 112-117[113-118], a selection of songs used especially in the Jewish Passover liturgy. 

Christianity has taken Psalm 114-[113A] with the same paschal connotation, but opened it to the new interpretation derived from Christ's Resurrection. The Exodus celebrated by the Psalm becomes, therefore, the symbol of another, more radical and universal liberation. 

Dante, in his Divine Comedy, places this hymn, in its Latin Vulgate version, on the lips of the souls in Purgatory:  "In exitu Israël de Aegypto / they all sang together with one voice..." (Purgatory II, 46-47). In other words, he saw in the Psalm the song of expectation and hope of those who are on the way, after purification from every sin, towards the final goal of communion with God in Paradise. 

Let us now follow the thematic and spiritual line of this short, prayerful composition. It opens (cf. vv. 1-2) by recalling the Exodus of Israel from Egyptian oppression until its entry into that Promised Land which is God's "sanctuary"; that is, the place of his presence in the midst of his people. In fact, land and people are fused together:  Judah and Israel, terms with which the Holy Land or the Chosen People were designated, come to be considered as the seat of the presence of the Lord, his special property and inheritance (cf. Ex 19: 5-6). 

After this theological description of one of the fundamental elements of faith of the Old Testament, that is, the proclamation of the marvels God worked for his people, the Psalmist reflects more profoundly, spiritually and symbolically on the constitutive events. 

The Red Sea of the Exodus from Egypt and the Jordan of the entry into the Holy Land are personified and transformed into witnesses and instruments that have a part in the liberation wrought by God (cf. Ps 114[113A]: 3, 5). At the beginning in the Exodus, the sea rolls back to allow Israel to pass, and at the end of the journey through the desert, it is the Jordan which turns back in its course, leaving its bed dry so that the procession of the children of Israel can cross over (cf. Jos 3-4). 

At the centre there is a reference to Sinai:  it is now the mountains that participate in the great divine revelation which takes place on their summits. Likened to living creatures such as rams and lambs, they skip and exult. 

With a very vivid personification, the Psalmist now asks the mountains about the reason for their confusion:  "[Why is it]... you mountains, that you skip like rams? You hills, like the lambs of the flock?" (Ps 114[113A]: 6). Their response is not mentioned:  it is given indirectly through an injunction, subsequently addressed to the earth, so that it too should tremble "before the Lord" (cf. v. 7). 

The confusion of the mountains and the hills, therefore, was a startled adoration in the presence of the Lord, God of Israel, an act of glorious exaltation of the transcendent and saving God. 

This is the theme of the last part of Psalm 114[113A] (cf. vv. 7-8), which introduces another important event of Israel's march through the desert, that of the water that gushed from the rock of Meribah (cf. Ex 17: 1-7; Nm 20: 1-13). God transformed the rock into a spring of water which becomes a lake:  at the root of this miracle is his fatherly concern for the people. 

This gesture acquires, then, a symbolic meaning:  it is a sign of the saving love of the Lord who sustains and regenerates humanity as it advances though the desert of history. St Paul was known to use this image and, on the basis of a Jewish tradition which claims that the rock accompanied Israel on its journey through the desert, he re-read the event in a Christological key:  "All drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ" (I Cor 10: 4). 

In this wake, commenting on the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt, a great Christian teacher such as Origen conceived of the New Exodus undertaken by Christians. Indeed, this is what he says: "Do not think that it was only then that Moses led the people out of Egypt:  now too we have Moses with us..., that is, the law of God wants to bring you out of Egypt; if you listen to it, it wishes to distance you from Pharaoh.... It does not want you to remain in the dark actions of the flesh, but to go out into the desert, that you reach a place apart from the upheavals and instability of the world, that you reach stillness and silence.... So when you have arrived in this place of calm, there you can sacrifice to the Lord, recognize the law of God and the power of the divine voice" (Omelie sull'Esodo, Rome, 1981, pp. 71-72). 

Taking up the Pauline image that calls to mind the crossing of the sea, Origen continues: "The Apostle calls this a baptism, realized in Moses in the cloud and sea, so that you too, who have been baptized in Christ, in water and in the Holy Spirit, may know that the Egyptians are pursuing you and want to reclaim you to serve them:  namely, the rulers of this world and the evil spirits to whom you were first enslaved. They will certainly seek to follow you, but you will go into the water and escape unharmed, and having washed away the stains of sin, you will come out as a new man ready to sing the new canticle" (ibid., p. 107). 

The text

In éxitu Israël de Ægýpto, * domus Jacob de pópulo bárbaro:
2  Facta est Judæa sanctificátio ejus, * Israël potéstas ejus.
3  Mare vidit, et fugit: * Jordánis convérsus est retrórsum.
4  Montes exsultavérunt ut aríetes, * et colles sicut agni óvium.
5  Quid est tibi, mare, quod fugísti: * et tu, Jordánis, quia convérsus es retrórsum?
6  Montes, exsultástis sicut aríetes, * et colles, sicut agni óvium.
7  A fácie Dómini mota est terra, * a fácie Dei Jacob.
8  Qui convértit petram in stagna aquárum, * et rupem in fontes aquárum.
9  Non nobis, Dómine, non nobis: * sed nómini tuo da glóriam.
10  Super misericórdia tua, et veritáte tua: * nequándo dicant gentes: Ubi est Deus eórum?
11  Deus autem noster in cælo: * ómnia quæcúmque vóluit, fecit.
12  Simulácra géntium argéntum, et aurum, * ópera mánuum hóminum.
13  Os habent, et non loquéntur: * óculos habent, et non vidébunt.
14  Aures habent, et non áudient: * nares habent, et non odorábunt.
15  Manus habent, et non palpábunt: pedes habent, et non ambulábunt: * non clamábunt in gútture suo.
16  Símiles illis fiant qui fáciunt ea: * et omnes qui confídunt in eis.
17  Domus Israël sperávit in Dómino: * adjútor eórum et protéctor eórum est,
18  Domus Aaron sperávit in Dómino: * adjútor eórum et protéctor eórum est,
19  Qui timent Dóminum, speravérunt in Dómino: * adjútor eórum et protéctor eórum est.
20  Dóminus memor fuit nostri: * et benedíxit nobis:
21  Benedíxit dómui Israël: * benedíxit dómui Aaron.
22  Benedíxit ómnibus, qui timent Dóminum, * pusíllis cum majóribus.
23  Adjíciat Dóminus super vos: * super vos, et super fílios vestros.
24  Benedícti vos a Dómino, * qui fecit cælum, et terram.
25  Cælum cæli Dómino: * terram autem dedit fíliis hóminum.
26  Non mórtui laudábunt te, Dómine: * neque omnes, qui descéndunt in inférnum.
27  Sed nos qui vívimus, benedícimus Dómino, * ex hoc nunc et usque in sæculum.

English (Douay-Rheims):

When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people:
 2 Judea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion.
3 The sea saw and fled: Jordan was turned back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams, and the hills like the lambs of the flock.
5 What ailed you, O you sea, that you fled: and you, O Jordan, that you were turned back?
6 You mountains, that you skipped like rams, and you hills, like lambs of the flock?
7 At the presence of the Lord the earth was moved, at the presence of the God of Jacob:
8 Who turned the rock into pools of water, and the stony hill into fountains of waters.
9 Not to us, O Lord, not to us; but to your name give glory.
10 For your mercy, and for your truth's sake: lest the Gentiles should say: Where is their God?
11 But our God is in heaven: he has done all things whatsoever he would.
12 The idols of the Gentiles are silver and gold, the works of the hands of men.
13 They have mouths and speak not: they have eyes and see not.
14 They have ears and hear not: they have noses and smell not.
15 They have hands and feel not: they have feet and walk not: neither shall they cry out through their throat.
16 Let them that make them become like unto them: and all such as trust in them.
17 The house of Israel has hoped in the Lord: he is their helper and their protector.
18 The house of Aaron has hoped in the Lord: he is their helper and their protector.
19 They that fear the Lord have hoped in the Lord: he is their helper and their protector.
20 The Lord has been mindful of us, and has blessed us.
 He has blessed the house of Israel: he has blessed the house of Aaron.
21 He has blessed all that fear the Lord, both little and great.
22 May the Lord add blessings upon you: upon you, and upon your children.
23 Blessed be you of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
24 The heaven of heaven is the Lord's: but the earth he has given to the children of men.
25 The dead shall not praise you, O Lord: nor any of them that go down to hell.
26 But we that live bless the Lord: from this time now and for ever.

And for the first set of notes on the individual verses, go here.

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