Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 1 (Happy the man)

Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen
Today I want to provide an introduction to Psalm 1, since it is an introduction to and summary of the entire book of psalms.

Psalm 1 puts before us the two paths we can take: the path of good, or the way of evil, and tells us the fate of those on each of these roads.  Above all, though, it puts before us the example of the perfect ‘just’ man, that is, Christ.

Psalm 1 is said at Prime on Monday in the Benedictine Office.

 Psalm 1

Douay Rheims translation
Beátus vir, qui non ábiit in consílio impiórum, et in via peccatórum non stetit, * et in cáthedra pestiléntiæ non sedit
Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence:
2  Sed in lege Dómini volúntas ejus, * et in lege ejus meditábitur die ac nocte.
But his will is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he shall meditate day and night.
3  Et erit tamquam lignum, quod plantátum est secus decúrsus aquárum, * quod fructum suum dabit in témpore suo:
And he shall be like a tree which is planted near the running waters, which shall bring forth its fruit, in due season.
4  Et fólium ejus non défluet: * et ómnia quæcúmque fáciet, prosperabúntur.
And his leaf shall not fall off: and all whatsoever he shall do shall prosper.
Non sic ímpii, non sic: * sed tamquam pulvis, quem prójicit ventus a fácie terræ.
Not so the wicked, not so: but like the dust, which the wind drives from the face of the earth.
6  Ideo non resúrgent ímpii in judício: * neque peccatóres in concílio justórum.
Therefore the wicked shall not rise again in judgment: nor sinners in the council of the just.
7  Quóniam novit Dóminus viam justórum: * et iter impiórum períbit.
For the Lord knows the way of the just: and the way of the wicked shall perish.

Scriptural context

Psalm 1 is often thought of as one psalm with Psalm 2, both together serving as an introduction to the entire psalter.

The central theme of the psalm is that our proper end is happiness, and the way to achieve this is by meditating on the law of the Lord and desiring to do God's will.

It is one of three psalms often known as the ‘Torah’ or law psalms (with Psalms 18 and 118).  All three are used at Prime in the Benedictine Office, and in all three the word ‘law’, from a Christian perspective can be seen as encompassing the three foundations of our faith that lie namely the Law, the teaching of the prophets, and the Gospel.

True happiness and Christ as the perfect man

The key theme of the psalm is the quest for happiness.  The psalm contrasts the effects of the choice between good and evil, stating that the good man seeks to follow God’s law by meditating on it with the help of God’s grace.  As a result he is happy and prosperous, and God will ‘know’ him.

St Thomas Aquinas suggests out that the psalm also provides a brief exposition on the stages of sin: first the evil man thinks about sinning (walks); then he decides to do it, and carries it out (stands); thirdly, he tries to persuade others in evil (teaching false doctrines, or ‘sitting in chair of pestilence’).

A psalm of the Incarnation

Many of the Fathers argue that the psalm can also be interpreted to be particularly about the grace offered by the coming of Our Lord.  The main image (verse 3) is the tree growing by the waterside.  St Jerome draws attention to the similarity of the imagery in Revelation 22 to suggest that Christ is the just man of the psalm:

“And he showed me a river of water of life [grace], clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street thereof, and on both sides of the river, was the tree of life [Our Lord], bearing twelve fruits [the apostles], yielding its fruits every month [meaning of Scripture understood with the help of the Holy Ghost]: the leaves of the tree [that do not wither, the words of Scripture] for the healing of the nations.”

Why Monday Prime?

In the traditional Roman Office, Psalm 1 starts off the liturgical week, being said on Sunday at Matins.  St Benedict, however, in his version of the Office moved it out of Matins altogether and shifted instead to Monday Prime.  On the face of it this seems an odd decision, both because it breaks the traditional running cursus of psalms, and because Psalm 1 (with Psalm 2) is generally considered to be an introduction, summary, and key to the entire book of psalms.

But it is a choice that makes sense if one takes the view that St Benedict's Sunday is more the culmination of the week, with its Resurrection focus, while Monday is the real start of the week in his Office,  focusing on the Incarnation, and Christ's hidden life on earth up to his Baptism and  the Temptation in the Desert.

There is also, it seems to me, an inner logic to the progression of ideas presented in Monday Prime (a progression, it might be added, that actually echoes the themes of Sunday Prime, in its selections of Psalm 118).

In Psalm 1 we are given the choice of the two ways, and the picture of the perfect man.  In Psalm 2 we told that perfect man has been incarnated to save us, yet even as he frees us, is rejected by the kings of the earth.  It contains a call to us to 'receive instruction', and 'accept discipline', as Christ himself did as a child under the care of his earthly parents.  And the last psalm of the hour, Psalm 6, provides us with the model in prayer of one of those 'kings of the earth', King David, who responded to the call to conversion, and from being a great sinner, became a great saint.

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