Thursday, January 16, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 40

Psalm 40 is the second psalm of the third Nocturn in Matins of the Office of the Dead.  In the daily Benedictine Office it is the third psalm of the first Nocturn of Matins on Monday.

Psalm 40: Beatus qui intelligit
In finem. Psalmus ipsi David.
Unto the end, a psalm for David himself.
Beátus qui intélligit super egénum, et páuperem: * in die mala liberábit eum Dóminus.
Blessed is he that understands concerning the needy and the poor: the Lord will deliver him in the evil day.
2  Dóminus consérvet eum, et vivíficet eum, et beátum fáciat eum in terra: * et non tradat eum in ánimam inimicórum ejus.
The Lord preserve him and give him life, and make him blessed upon the earth: and deliver him not up to the will of his enemies.
3  Dóminus opem ferat illi super lectum dolóris ejus: * univérsum stratum ejus versásti in infirmitáte ejus.
The Lord help him on his bed of sorrow: you have turned all his couch in his sickness.
4  Ego dixi : Dómine, miserére mei: * sana ánimam meam, quia peccávi tibi.
I said: O Lord, be merciful to me: heal my soul, for I have sinned against you. 
5  Inimíci mei dixérunt mala mihi: * Quando moriétur, et períbit nomen ejus?
My enemies have spoken evils against me: when shall he die and his name perish?
6  Et si ingrediebátur ut vidéret, vana loquebátur: * cor ejus congregávit iniquitátem sibi.
And if he came in to see me, he spoke vain things: his heart gathered together iniquity to itself.
7  Egrediebátur foras, * et loquebátur in idípsum.
He went out and spoke to the same purpose.
8  Advérsum me susurrábant omnes inimíci mei: * advérsum me cogitábant mala mihi.
All my enemies whispered together against me: they devised evils to me.
9  Verbum iníquum constituérunt advérsum me: * Numquid qui dormit non adjíciet ut resúrgat?
They determined against me an unjust word: shall he that sleeps rise again no more?
10  Etenim homo pacis meæ, in quo sperávi: * qui edébat panes meos, magnificávit super me supplantatiónem.
For even the man of my peace, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has greatly supplanted me.
11  Tu autem, Dómine, miserére mei, et resúscita me: * et retríbuam eis.
But you, O Lord, have mercy on me, and raise my up again: and I will requite them.
12  In hoc cognóvi quóniam voluísti me: * quóniam non gaudébit inimícus meus super me.
By this I know, that you have had a good will for me: because my enemy shall not rejoice over me.
13  Me autem propter innocéntiam suscepísti: * et confirmásti me in conspéctu tuo in ætérnum.
But you have upheld me by reason of my innocence: and have established me in your sight for ever.
14  Benedíctus Dóminus, Deus Israël, a sæculo et usque in sæculum: * fiat, fiat.
Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel from eternity to eternity. So be it. So be it

Psalm 40 interpreted from its liturgical context

Like many of the psalms, Psalm 40 can be read a number of different ways, and the Church uses it in a number of different contexts that suggest several possible layers of interpretation. Indeed, Patrick Reardon's commentary on this psalm, in his book Christ in the Psalms, suggests that we shouldn't be too rigid in separating out the earthly life and ministry of Christ from his suffering and death, for they are two aspects of the same mission of redemptive mercy, and many of the psalms, including this one, make the link between the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.

Nonetheless, the second verse will be familiar to many as part of the traditional prayer for the Pope.

As a Christological psalm, it is most often thought of as a psalm of dealing with Our Lord's Passion and death, not least because Our Lord explicitly cited verse 10 as a prophecy of Judas' betrayal (John 13:18).

In the context of St Benedict's Office of Monday at Matins, the references to concern for the poor and needy link it more clearly to the theme of that day, namely to the promises of the Incarnation, summarised for us in the Benedictus and Magnificat canticles.

But it is the references to the Lord's help in times of illness, which follow on closely from the previous psalm, Psalm 39, that surely explains its place in the Office of the Dead.  The psalm opens with what can surely be interpreted as a plea for mercy and deliverance from hell based on the works of mercy the person concerned has himself performed, and for mercy even though he has sinned.

God's help on our deathbed

On his deathbed (the day of trouble of verse 2, or bed of sorrow of verse 3), he finds himself surrounded by false friends who seek his death not his recovery (verse 6), and want only more material for malicious gossip and slander.  But he places his trust firmly in God.

The psalmist accepts that his illness is a punishment for his sins, an aid to growth in holiness: as St Augustine comments in relation to verse 6:

"What Christ suffered, that suffers also the Church; what the Head suffered, that suffer also the Members. For the disciple is not above his Master, nor the servant above his Lord." (Matthew 10:24)

And the end of the psalm is a triumphant assertion of the destiny of the soul as heaven.

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