Sunday, November 17, 2013

Psalm 128 (129): Let them be turned back and confounded!

The final psalm of Monday Vespers is Psalm 128, one of the Gradual psalms, that group of fifteen psalms thought to represent the ascent of the steps of the Temple.  It presents us something of a puzzle: why did St Benedict choose to move away from the running cursus of psalms in order to jump to this cursing psalm to end Monday Vespers with?

Scriptural and liturgical context

It is clear that the placement of this psalm on Monday was a very deliberate choice by St Benedict.

In the Roman Office, Vespers uses Psalms 109 -147, including the Gradual Psalms (Psalms 119-132, with 133 said at Compline each day) in numerical order.   St Benedict, however, shifts most of the gradual psalms (Ps 119-127) to Terce to None from Tuesday, and places the remainder (Ps 129-132) - save for this one - at Tuesday Vespers. The net result is that on Tuesday everyone of the Gradual psalm is said in sequence, except for this one.

It would have been easy for St Benedict to have kept the numerical sequence, or at least to have kept the saying of the Gradual psalms together on Tuesday.  Monday Vespers, after all, is the second longest of the week while Tuesday is the second shortest, so placing Psalm 128 on Tuesday would have evened up the balance.  St Benedict could still have preserved the four psalm sections (unlike the Roman Office, St Benedict divides psalms on several days at Vespers) structure of the hour either by splitting Psalm 113 in two (as in the Hebrew Bible), or by treating Psalm 116 as a separate psalm on Monday and joining Psalm 132 (the second shortest psalm in the psalter) to its predecessor on Tuesday.

Why didn't St Benedict do this?  There are perhaps several reasons.

First, Psalm 128 is a cursing psalm, and perhaps St Benedict didn't see this fitting well with the generally rather upbeat nature of Tuesday’s psalms.

Secondly, it does arguably fit well with St Benedict’s Monday theme of the promises associated with the Incarnation, particularly the idea that through the Incarnation the enemy will be confounded, and the proud humbled.  Verse 4 in particular uses the phrase ‘convertantur et revereantur’, echoing a number of the psalms set for Matins (and other hours, such as Psalm 6 at Prime) on Monday.  My take on the programmatic focus for the day is that in this psalm, we have reached the end of Satan's temptations of Christ: he has been confounded and turned back, as will all be who do his work in the world:

"Then Jesus said to him, Away with thee, Satan; it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and serve none but him. Then the devil left him alone; and thereupon angels came and ministered to him." (Mt 4: 10-11)

But perhaps there is one other reason at work here, and that is to provide a warning note for us.

Although one level of the programmatic focus for the Office I've been suggesting is the life of Christ, the other is its imitation by us.  And I've suggested previously that one of the recurring themes of the day is our promises and vows to God, with many of the psalms of the day forming an extended meditation on monastic profession.  This psalm is perhaps one final part of that design.

The Suscipe verse sung in the profession ceremony begs that we not be confounded in our hope.  St Benedict's discussion of the profession ceremony in his Rule though, also sounds a note of warning to those who would walk away from their vows, and are confounded.  In Chapter 58 of the Rule he says:

Then, having deliberated with himself, if he promises to keep it in its entirety and to observe everything that is commanded, let him be received into the community. But let him understand that, according to the law of the Rule, from that day forward he may not leave the monastery nor withdraw her neck from under the yoke of the Rule which she was free to refuse or to accept during that prolonged deliberation...This promise he shall make before God and His Saints, so that if he should ever act otherwise,he may know that she will be condemned by Him whom he mocks...Then if he should ever listen to the persuasions of the devil and decide to leave the monastery (which God forbid), he may be divested of the monastic clothes and cast out. 

St Benedict would surely have viewed such defectors as deserving the excommunication described in this psalm, and the warning of the consequences as important to the topic of the day's Office.

And in fact St Augustine's commentary on the final verse of the psalm, which St Benedict quotes from a number of times in his Rule, is particularly apposite on this:  because they are the friends of the bridegroom, they refuse to be adulterers of the bride.

The psalm

Psalm 128 (129) – Saepe expugnaverunt me

Canticum graduum.
A gradual canticle.
1 Sæpe expugnavérunt me a juventúte mea, * dicat nunc Israël:
Often have they fought against me from my youth, let Israel now say.
2  Sæpe expugnavérunt me a juventúte mea: * étenim non potuérunt mihi.
2 Often have they fought against me from my youth: but they could not prevail over me.
3  Supra dorsum meum fabricavérunt peccatóres: * prolongavérunt iniquitátem suam.
3 The wicked have wrought upon my back: they have lengthened their iniquity.
4  Dóminus justus concídit cervíces peccatórum: * confundántur et convertántur retrórsum omnes, qui odérunt Sion.
4 The Lord who is just will cut the necks of sinners: 5 Let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Sion.
5  Fiant sicut fœnum tectórum: * quod priúsquam evellátur exáruit:
6 Let them be as grass upon the tops of houses: which withers before it be plucked up:
6  De quo non implévit manum suam qui metit: * et sinum suum qui manípulos cólligit.
7 Who with the mower fills not his hand: nor he that gathers sheaves his bosom.
7  Et non dixérunt qui præteríbant: Benedíctio Dómini super vos: * benedíximus vobis in nómine Dómini.
8 And they that passed by have not said: The blessing of the Lord be upon you: we have blessed you in the name of the Lord.

Here is the rather more poetic Knox translation of it:

Sore have they beset me even from my youth (let this be Israel’s boast); sore have they beset me even from my youth, but never once outmatched me. I bent my back to the oppressor, and long was the furrow ere the plough turned; but the Lord proved faithful, and cut the bonds of tyranny asunder. Let them be dismayed and routed, all these enemies of Sion. Let them be like the stalks on a house-top, that wither there unharvested; never will they be grasped in the reaper’s hand, or fill the binder’s bosom, no passer-by will say, The Lord’s blessing on you; we bless you in the name of the Lord.

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