Friday, January 31, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 11

The final psalm of Prime on Wednesday is Psalm 11 (12).

Psalm 11: Salvum me fac, Dómine
In finem, pro octava. Psalmus David.
Unto the end: for the octave, a psalm for David
Salvum me fac, Dómine, quóniam defécit sanctus: * quóniam diminútæ sunt veritátes a fíliis hóminum.
Save me, O Lord, for there is now no saint: truths are decayed from among the children of men.
2  Vana locúti sunt unusquísque ad próximum suum : * lábia dolósa, in corde et corde locúti sunt.
They have spoken vain things, every one to his neighbour: with deceitful lips, and with a double heart have they spoken
3  Dispérdat Dóminus univérsa lábia dolósa, * et linguam magníloquam.
May the Lord destroy all deceitful lips, and the tongue that speaks proud things.
4  Qui dixérunt : Linguam nostram magnificábimus, lábia nostra a nobis sunt, * quis noster Dóminus est?
Who have said: We will magnify our tongue: our lips are our own: who is Lord over us?
5 Propter misériam ínopum, et gémitum páuperum, * nunc exsúrgam, dicit Dóminus.
By reason of the misery of the needy, and the groans of the poor, now will I arise, says the Lord
6  Ponam in salutári : * fiduciáliter agam in eo.
I will set him in safety: I will deal confidently in his regard.
7  Elóquia Dómini, elóquia casta : * argéntum igne examinátum, probátum terræ purgátum séptuplum.
The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried by the fire, purged from the earth, refined seven times.
8 Tu, Dómine, servábis nos : et custódies nos * a generatióne hac in ætérnum.
You, O Lord, will preserve us: and keep us from this generation for ever.
9  In circúitu ímpii ámbulant : * secúndum altitúdinem tuam multiplicásti fílios hóminum.
The wicked walk round about: according to your highness, you have multiplied the children of men.

An evil and perverse generation?

The three psalms of Wednesday Prime all plead with God for help in the face of the evil men, and this psalm continues that song of complaint, painting a picture of the evil and perverse generation that Jesus accused those of his time who rejected him of being.  In fact St Thomas Aquinas' commentary on the psalm offers an interpretation of it that neatly fits with my hypothesis on the programmatic nature of the Benedictine Office.  He says:

"In the first decade the Psalmist treats of the beating that he suffered from his son Absalom, by which the persecution which Christ was to suffer from Juda was figured; but, in the second decade, just as is apparent from the title of some of its Psalms, he speaks of the persecution that he suffered from Saul, by which the persecution that Christ was to suffer by the High Priests was figured...".

Now will I arise, says the Lord

This psalm though, unlike the previous two, finally provides God's response.

Psalm 9 pleaded with God to arise and ensure that evil men did not prevail. Psalm 11 provides the reply: "Now I will arise, says the Lord, I will set him in safety'.

What is the safety he offers?  The Fathers and Theologians interpreted this, particularly in the light of the reference in its title to the Octave (Eighth Day), as a reference to the Resurrection.  Cassiodorus, for example, says:

"After the psalmist has condemned those who proposed shedding the Lord's blood, he comes to the second section in which he promises the Lord Saviour's resurrection in the prophetic voice of the Father..."

The next few verses then extol the trustworthiness of God's promises, and the promise of salvation.

The psalm ends though on a rather negative note, lamenting that the number of the wicked circling around him actually seems to have increased.  In the context of the Benedictine Office at least, it is a reminder that we are indeed at Spy Wednesday, not yet at Sunday.

Understanding the text

The language of Psalm 11 is, I think, quite hard to penetrate, and this is one of those rare occasions where I think a less literal translation is helpful to look at:

Help, O Lord, for good men have vanished; truth has gone from the sons of men.
Falsehood they speak one to another, with lying lips, with a false heart.
May the Lord destroy all lying lips, the tongue that speaks high-sounding words,
those who say: "Our tongue is our strength; our lips are our own, who is our master?"
"For the poor who are oppressed and the needy who groan I myself will arise," says the Lord,
"I will grant them the salvation for which they thirst."
The words of the Lord are words without alloy, silver from the furnace, seven times refined.
It is you, O Lord, who will take us in your care and protect us for ever from this generation.
See how the wicked prowl on every side, while the worthless are prized highly by the sons of men. (Grail Psalter)

I just want to pick out a few key phrases here.

First, the Latin, in verse 2 says in 'corde et corde', which most older translations render as a double-heart.  But what it is trying to convey is a deceitfulness, or falsity in a person.  

Secondly consider that phrase 'quis noster Dóminus est?' (verse 4), which the Grail Psalter translates as 'Who is our master?'.  It is surely the devil who is speaking here.

Finally, unalloyed silver from the furnace, seven times refined (verse 7), plays on the ideas of the number seven as a symbol of purity and perfection.  St Augustine uses this idea extensively in his analysis of the Sermon on the Mount linking this allusion to the beatitudes (the eighth he argues is a restatement of the first), the seven fold operation of the Holy Ghost, and the seven petitions of the Our Father.

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