Monday, November 4, 2013

Introduction to Psalm 114: I have loved

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I want to continue my series on the psalms of Monday Vespers in the Benedictine Office, so today a few notes on Psalm 114.

Psalm 114 has long had two levels of meaning, referring both to our life here and now, but also to our future in heaven.  I've previously posted verse by verse notes on this psalm in the context of the Office of the Dead, which you can find here.

Here I want to provide a few overview notes to place Psalm 114 in the context of Monday Vespers.

Scriptural and liturgical context

In the more ancient Septuagint (and thus Vulgate) tradition, this is a separate psalm.  It is worth noting though, that in the Masoretic Text (and hence Protestant tradition) it is joined to Psalm 115.  There is no explicit historical context  given to it, though St Alphonsus Liguori suggests that it was a thanksgiving psalm following David’s deliverance from persecution by his son Absalom.

In the context of the Office of the Dead the psalm can be read as a deathbed prayer of a soul on the point of victory, asking for God to take it up into heaven, the land of the living. 

It is worth noting that in Jewish liturgy, Psalm 114 is one of the Hallel psalms, the psalms of thanksgiving sung after the Passover meal, and recited on other major feasts. 

Christological interpretation

As with all the psalms, though, this one also has a specific Christological interpretation.  I've previously suggested that Monday in the Benedictine Office can be interpreted as an extended meditation on the life of Christ from the Incarnation to his baptism and temptation in the desert, and of course, on how we can imitate his life in our own.

In this light, Psalm 114 opening references to prayer, the mention of the perils of hell surrounding the speaker, and reference to God rescuing 'his feet from falling' can, I think, all be read as allusions to the events in Christ's life that take place immediately after  his baptism, namely the forty days of fasting and prayer in the desert, and his temptation by Satan.

Psalm 113 - and as we shall soon see, the next psalm of the day, Psalm 115 - both focus on belief.  Psalm 114 though, interjects the other key thread to our salvation with its opening line, namely love.

Prayer and temptation in the desert

The psalm starts from the importance of love.  God is love and hence only he can truly say 'I have loved' (v1), and in this psalm foreshadow all he has suffered for us out of love.  Yet through grace, we too can purify our love of selfishness: we can love God, love ourselves and love others with the pure and perfect love made possible for us by Christ.

Out of love flows prayer, for those forty days in the desert should speak to us of the absolute priority of prayer (v2): as the psalm reminds us, out of love God hears and cares for us.

Purification through that extreme fasting and more particularly in that temptations that follow comes the danger of death, both physical and spiritual (v3-4).  And it is surely fitting that the week be framed with a reminder of inevitability of the death of the body at least, for in the Incarnation Christ chose this fate as well, in solidarity with us.

Yet Christ models for us the trust we must have in God, who will always deliver us from temptation if we but ask humbly (vv5-6).

The final verses of Psalm 114 can be interpreted as a thanksgiving for the rejection of Satan, something we must all face up to, and a prophecy of the fruitfulness of the three year mission on which Christ is about to embark. But it can also be read as a more general thanksgiving prayer for the many times God has rescued us from those who assault us, and has aided us in keeping us on the path of righteousness, so that we too can continue to please him.    

Psalm 114

Diléxi, quóniam exáudiet dóminus * vocem oratiónis meæ.
2  Quia inclinávit aurem suam mihi: * et in diébus meis invocábo.
3  Circumdedérunt me dolóres mortis: * et perícula inférni invenérunt me.
4  Tribulatiónem et dolórem invéni: * et nomen Dómini invocávi.
5  O Dómine, líbera ánimam meam: * miséricors Dóminus, et justus, et Deus noster miserétur.
6  Custódiens párvulos Dóminus: * humiliátus sum, et liberávit me.
7  Convértere, ánima mea, in réquiem tuam: * quia Dóminus benefécit tibi.
8  Quia erípuit ánimam meam de morte: * óculos meos a lácrimis, pedes meos a lapsu.
9  Placébo Dómino * in regióne vivórum.

1 I have loved, because the Lord will hear the voice of my prayer. 
2 Because he has inclined his ear unto me: and in my days I will call upon him. 
The sorrows of death have compassed me: and the perils of hell have found me. 
I met with trouble and sorrow: 4 And I called upon the name of the Lord. 
O Lord, deliver my soul. 5 The Lord is merciful and just, and our God shows mercy. 6 The Lord is the keeper of little ones: I was humbled, and he delivered me. 
7 Turn, O my soul, into your rest: for the Lord has been bountiful to you. 
8 For he has delivered my soul from death: my eyes from tears, my feet from falling. 
9 I will please the Lord in the land of the living.

As noted above, you can find an overview of this psalm, together with verse by verse notes, in the context of the Office of the Dead here.  And you can find notes on the next psalm of Monday Vespers, Psalm 115, here.

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