Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 2

Psalm 2, the second psalm of Prime on Monday in the Benedictine Office and one of the greatest of the Messianic psalms, has always been closely linked to Psalm 1 by way of serving as an introduction to and summary of the entire psalter.

In essence, Psalm 1 presents us with the choice between two ways, of truth and life that leads us to happiness, or the way of evil that leads to destruction; Psalm 2 sets out how that choice is manifested in history, through the Incarnation of Our Lord on the one hand, and all those who rage against him on the other.

Psalm 2 will be extremely familiar to many from Handel's setting of its opening verses in his Messiah, and from verse 7's use in the Introit (and Alleluia) for Midnight Mass of Christmas.

Psalm 2: Quare fremuérunt Gentes
Douay Rheims
Quare fremuérunt Gentes: * et pópuli meditáti sunt inánia?
Why have the Gentiles raged, and the people devised vain things?
2  Astitérunt reges terræ, et príncipes convenérunt in unum * advérsus Dóminum, et advérsus Christum ejus.
The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes met together, against the Lord, and against his Christ.
3  Dirumpámus víncula eórum: * et projiciámus a nobis jugum ipsórum.
Let us break their bonds asunder: and let us cast away their yoke from us.
 4. Qui hábitat in cælis, irridébit eos: * et Dóminus subsannábit eos.
He that dwells in heaven shall laugh at them: and the Lord shall deride them.
5  Tunc loquétur ad eos in ira sua, * et in furóre suo conturbábit eos.
Then shall he speak to them in his anger, and trouble them in his rage.
6  Ego autem constitútus sum Rex ab eo super Sion montem sanctum ejus, * prædicans præcéptum ejus.
But I am appointed king by him over Sion, his holy mountain, preaching his commandment.
7  Dóminus dixit ad me: * Fílius meus es tu, ego hódie génui te.
The Lord has said to me: You are my son, this day have I begotten you.
8  Póstula a me, et dábo tibi Gentes hereditátem tuam, * et possessiónem tuam términos terræ.
Ask of me, and I will give you the Gentiles for your inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for your possession
9  Reges eos in virga férrea, * et tamquam vas fíguli confrínges eos.
You shall rule them with a rod of iron, and shall break them in pieces like a potter's vessel.
10  Et nunc, reges, intellígite: * erudímini, qui judicátis terram.
And now, O you kings, understand: receive instruction, you that judge the earth.
11  Servíte Dómino in timóre: * et exsultáte ei cum tremóre.
Serve the Lord with fear: and rejoice unto him with trembling.
12  Apprehéndite disciplínam, nequándo irascátur Dóminus, * et pereátis de via justa.
Embrace discipline, lest at any time the Lord be angry, and you perish from the just way.
13  Cum exárserit in brevi ira ejus: * beáti omnes qui confídunt in eo.
When his wrath shall be kindled in a short time, blessed are all they that trust in him.

Psalm 2 and the Incarnation

In verses 6 to 9, the psalm prophecies the Incarnation of the Messiah, God’s only begotten son whom he has been sent to be king over all the world, and who will ultimately triumph over all those who plot against him.

Verse 7 is a particularly important verse.  The Fathers and Doctors consistently interpret the phrase ‘this day have I begotten thee’ in three ways.

First, ‘this day’ can be taken as the eternal day of God, who stands outside of time and space, and thus the eternal generation of the Son.

Secondly, it refers to the fleshly incarnation of Christ, and so is used in the opening of the first Mass of Christmas.

Thirdly, it refers to the Resurrection of Christ: as Hebrews explains, Our Lord’s divinity was confirmed in his Resurrection, and thus he rises up again and again for us in the Eucharist, making, St Ambrose explains, ‘today’ the ‘this day’ of the Our Father.

The rejection of Christ

The New Testament repeatedly makes it clear that Psalm 2’s plotting King’s and raging peoples particularly refers especially to Herod and all those who plotted against and persecuted Our Lord, accounting for the psalm's place in Tenebrae for Good Friday.   In particular, in Acts 4, St Peter cites the psalm and then says:
“…for truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place.”
It can also be given more contemporary and eschatological meanings.  In his commentary on verse 3 of this psalm, for example, St Thomas Aquinas explains the rationale for the strong condemnations of atheism in the psalms.  He explains that atheism involves a specific rejection of God, the desire to ‘break the bonds’.  He explains that the duty to worship God is part of the natural law, ‘written on hearts’, product of a grace we need merely to co-operate with.  Rejecting that instinct represents an act of will, which is why all societies, at least until the communist states of the twentieth century, have naturally sought to worship God in some form, however distorted.   The degree of fault of an individual for the serious sin of atheism depends of course on the circumstances, but the message of the psalm is that we must seek to subjugate any doubts, and actively cultivate the virtue of faith.

This psalm is also used in the propers for the Feast of Christ the King: the peoples plotting together can perhaps be seen as those advocating the secularist and new aggressive-atheistic rejection of the authority of God in society.

Importance to Benedictine spirituality

The final verses of the psalm provide a series of instructions, particularly directed at those in position of authority, but applicable to all on how we should respond to God: listen to God’s teaching; serve the Lord with fear; accept correction; and most importantly, trust in God.

The injunction to ‘serve the Lord with fear and trembling’(v11)  is particularly important in Benedictine spirituality, and perhaps can be seen as another piece of preparation for the weekly renewal of monastic vows in the Suscipe said at Terce, since it underpins St Benedict’s exposition on the virtue of humility (RB 7).  The verse is also directly quoted in his instructions on how to approach the liturgy (RB 19), where St Benedict talks about the sense of ‘reverence and awe’ we should cultivate when saying the Office.

Hope in the Lord

The final phrase of the psalm is a beatitude, Beati omnes, bringing us back to the starting point of this hour at Prime in the opening words of Psalm 1 (Beatus vir) and enjoining us to trust in God.  In Psalm 1, the beatitude is applied only to one, perfect, man (beatus vir) arguably Christ himself.  Through his Incarnation though, all those (beati omnes) who trust in him can find happiness.

For more on this psalm:

Ps 2 in Tenebrae: why do the nations rage
Short summaries of Psalm 2

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