Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 7

Speculum Humanae Salvationis,
Westfalen oder Köln,
ULB Darmstadt, Hs 2505, fol. 27r

I want to finish up, for the moment, this gap filling exercize on the Office of the Dead with introductory notes for the couple of psalms of that Office that I haven't previously posted on here at all, viz Psalms 7, 40, 41 and 64.  I'll come back with verse by verse notes on these later.  

Today, Psalm 7, which is also said on Tuesday at Prime in the Benedictine Office.

In the context of the Office of the Dead, Psalm 7 can, perhaps, be read above all as a prayer for final perseverance in the face of attack from the devil.

In the context of Tuesday Prime the three psalms set for the hour arguably form a triptych that looks at our response to God’s call: in particular, they focus on God’s gift to us of intellect and free will, and the consequences thereof, both positive and negative.

Psalm 7: Dómine, Deus meus, in te sperávi
Psalmus David, quem cantavit Domino pro verbis Chusi, filii Jemini.
The psalm of David, which he sung to the Lord, for the words of Chusi, the son of Jemini.
Dómine, Deus meus, in te sperávi : * salvum me fac ex ómnibus persequéntibus me, et líbera me.
Lord, my God, in you have I put my trust; save me from all them that persecute me, and deliver me.
2.  Nequándo rápiat ut leo ánimam meam, * dum non est qui rédimat, neque qui salvum fáciat.
Lest at any time he seize upon my soul like a lion, while there is no one to redeem me, nor to save.
3  Dómine, Deus meus, si feci istud. * si est iníquitas in mánibus meis :
O Lord, my God, if I have done this thing, if there be iniquity in my hands
Si réddidi retribuéntibus mihi mala, * décidam mérito ab inimícis meis inánis.
If I have rendered to them that repaid me evils, let me deservedly fall empty before my enemies.
5  Persequátur inimícus ánimam meam, et comprehéndat, et concúlcet in terra vitam meam, * et glóriam meam in púlverem dedúcat.
Let the enemy pursue my soul, and take it, and tread down my life, on the earth, and bring down my glory to the dust.
6  Exsúrge, Dómine, in ira tua : * et exaltáre in fínibus inimicórum meórum.
Rise up, O Lord, in your anger: and be exalted in the borders of my enemies.
7  Et exsúrge, Dómine Deus meus, in præcépto quod mandásti : * et synagóga populórum circúmdabit te.
And arise, O Lord, my God, in the precept which you have commanded: And a congregation of people shall surround you.
8  Et propter hanc in altum regrédere : * Dóminus júdicat pópulos.
And for their sakes return on high. The Lord judges the people.
9  Júdica me, Dómine, secúndum justítiam meam, * et secúndum innocéntiam meam super me.
Judge me, O Lord, according to my justice, and according to my innocence in me.
10  Consumétur nequítia peccatórum, et díriges justum, *  scrutans corda et renes Deus.
The wickedness of sinners shall be brought to nought; and you shall direct the just: the searcher of hearts and reins is God.
11 Justum adjutórium meum a Dómino, * qui salvos facit rectos corde.
Just is my help from the Lord; who saves the upright of heart
12  Deus judex justus, fortis, et pátiens : * numquid iráscitur per síngulos dies?
God is a just judge, strong and patient: is he angry every day?
13  Nisi convérsi fuéritis, gládium suum vibrábit : * arcum suum teténdit, et parávit illum.
Except you will be converted, he will brandish his sword; he has bent his bow, and made it ready.
14  Et in eo parávit vasa mortis : * sagíttas suas ardéntibus effécit.
And in it he has prepared to instruments of death, he has made ready his arrows for them that burn.
15  Ecce partúriit injustítiam : * concépit dolórem, et péperit iniquitátem.
Behold he has been in labour with injustice: he has conceived sorrow, and brought forth iniquity.
16  Lacum apéruit, et effódit eum : * et íncidit in fóveam quam fecit.
He has opened a pit and dug it: and he is fallen into the hole he made.
17  Convertétur dolor ejus in caput ejus : * et in vérticem ipsíus iníquitas ejus descéndet.
His sorrow shall be turned on his own head: and his iniquity shall come down upon his crown.
18  Confitébor Dómino secúndum justítiam ejus : * et psallam nómini Dómini altíssimi.
I will give glory to the Lord according to his justice: and will sing to the name of the Lord the most high.

Scriptural context

Because the titles of the psalm given in the Septuagint ('The psalm of David, which he sung to the Lord, for the words of Chusi, the son of Jemini') and Hebrew Masoretic ('A shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning Cush the Benjaminite') texts differ, and are both in any case obscure, there are competing views as to which particular incident in King David’s life is referred to in this psalm.  The most likely reference seems to be to the rebellion of David’s son Absalom, aided by David’s trusted adviser Achitophel (Chusi .  Others however see it as a reference to Saul’s persecution of David much earlier in his career.

Either way, the psalm can be interpreted as presenting David as a ‘type’ of Our Lord, representing all who are calumniated and persecuted, including the Church itself.  The psalm is the plea of a man falsely accused and persecuted by a friend, and asks God to help him and to set things right.

The psalmist asks the Lord to attest to his innocence of the charges made against him, while speaking of his anguish at the attacks on his integrity.

The second half of the psalm sets out God’s role in rendering judgment: God knows what is in our hearts and minds; based on that, he saves the righteous and punishes the sinner.

In the Office of the Dead

The psalm's place in the Office of the Dead is surely due to its pleas for God’s redeeming power to be manifested, and emphasis on salvation through repentance.

The persecutors of the psalm can be read not just as people opposed to the psalmist, but also as referring to purely spiritual enemies, the temptations that we all face.  In particular, the image of the lion, who threatens to seize his soul (verse 2) is one that frequently is frequently used to refer to the devil (cf for example 1 Peter, used at Compline).

Similarly, the sword of justice (verse 13) symbolises the punishment at our deaths and at the final judgment, but which the psalmist points out can yet be avoided by repentance.

In the context of Tuesday Prime

Tuesday in the Benedictine Office is, I have argued elsewhere, is focused on the public ministry of Jesus, and particularly how his instruction and example can aid us in making progress in the pursuit of perfection, symbolised most obviously by the use of the Gradual psalms on this day.

This psalm sets out several important points to meditate on as we contemplate this ascent to the temple of heaven.

First, the psalm stresses his absolute trust and sense of dependence on God alone as the source of redemption and salvation.  The key takeout message is that instead of looking first to our own efforts to defeat attacks on us (whether from actual people, or in the form of temptations), we should rather ask God for help.

Secondly, St Benedict quotes verse 10 in his chapter on humility as a reminder that nothing can be hidden from God: God searches the ‘hearts and reins’ of a person, our hearts and minds; he knows all our inner thoughts.

Thirdly, the psalm reminds us that the struggle for perfection is not an easy one.  In this world, as we all know all too well, injustice frequently prevails, due to the effects of original sin and free will.  Those who do nothing wrong, nothing but stand up for the good, often face lies spread about them and other forms of persecution, as the lives of the saints.  Why does God allow this, allowing even his Son to be persecuted and die on the Cross?  The Church teaches that such events are the result of God allowing us to make our own decisions - to exercise our free will - about whether to do what is good, or to choose evil.  But we are also taught that even when we choose to do evil, God arranges events so as to bring good out of it.  Consider for example, St Benedict, who was forced to leave Subiaco due to the envy of a local priest.  Yet his move to Monte Cassino marked the start of a new missionary endeavour that was to have lasting consequences for Western civilization; and of course the Cross is the means of our redemption.

Fourthly we should be motivated by the fact that justice will ultimately prevail.  Those who suffer now from unfair attacks are able to bear it now secure in the knowledge that they will be rewarded in the next life; and because we know that in the end, God’s justice will catch up with the Hitler’s, Bin Laden’s and their petty imitators on a much smaller scale.  The psalmist makes the point that sin rebounds on the sinner one way or another (verse 16).

Finally we are enjoined to remember that mercy is always possible, at least as long as we live.  As in many psalms, the speaker asks God for vengeance on enemies.  This should not, however, be read too literally: what the psalmist actually wants, as he makes clear in the second half of the psalm, is for his persecutors to repent of their actions and be converted.  David says of himself in verse 4 that he actually tried to repay the evil done to him with good, as the Sermon the Mount urges Christians to do.  He also notes that God is patient (verse 12), and that although his punishments are prepared, they are conditional, applying only if the sinner rejects the chances God offers for conversion (verses 13-14).

St Alphonsus Liguori goes a step further, suggesting that the punishments David asks for in this context, are not eternal punishments but temporal ones, designed to persuade the sinner to change course before it is too late.  Some of the greatest sinners, after all, as St John Chrysostom points out in relation to the verse 12’s praise of God’s patience, strength and justness, have gone on to become the greatest saints.  And though David plead his innocence in this particular instance, he was certainly guilty of serious sins later on in his life!  All of us sin, all of us need to heed this call to conversion.

And it is to this call to strive to do better that the Psalm enjoins us.

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