Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 9 (pt 2)

The three psalms of Wednesday at Prime are all, in essence a plea God to intervene to set things right: to arise and act.

Today's installment is largely a complaint: as verse 3 plaintively puts it, why is God standing so afar off, and hiding himself in our hour of need?   Why does God allow evil men to thrive while oppressing the poor and persecuting good men (verses 4, 12-13)?

Psalm 9/2 (10) - Exsúrge, Dómine, non confortétur homo
Exsúrge, Dómine, non confortétur homo: * judicéntur Gentes in conspéctu tuo.
Arise, O Lord, let not man be strengthened: let the Gentiles be judged in your sight.
2 Constítue, Dómine, legislatórem super eos: * ut sciant Gentes quóniam hómines sunt.
Appoint, O Lord, a lawgiver over them: that the Gentiles may know themselves to be but men.
3 Ut quid, Dómine, recessísti longe, * déspicis in opportunitátibus, in tribulatióne?
Why, O Lord, have you retired afar off? Why do you slight us in our wants, in the time of trouble?
4 Dum supérbit ímpius, incénditur pauper: * comprehendúntur in consíliis quibus cógitant.
Whilst the wicked man is proud, the poor is set on fire: they are caught in the counsels which they devise.
5 Quóniam laudátur peccátor in desidériis ánimæ suæ: * et iníquus benedícitur.
For the sinner is praised in the desires of his soul: and the unjust man is blessed.
6 Exacerbávit Dóminum peccátor, * secúndum multitúdinem iræ suæ non quæret.
The sinner has provoked the Lord, according to the multitude of his wrath, he will not seek him:
7 Non est Deus in conspéctu ejus: * inquinátæ sunt viæ illíus in omni témpore.
God is not before his eyes: his ways are filthy at all times.
8 Auferúntur judícia tua a fácie ejus: * ómnium inimicórum suórum dominábitur.
Your judgments are removed form his sight: he shall rule over all his enemies.
9 Dixit enim in corde suo: * Non movébor a generatióne in generatiónem sine malo.
For he has said in his heart: I shall not be moved from generation to generation, and shall be without evil.
10 Cujus maledictióne os plenum est, et amaritúdine, et dolo: * sub lingua ejus labor et dolor.
His mouth is full of cursing, and of bitterness, and of deceit: under his tongue are labour and sorrow.
11 Sedet in insídiis cum divítibus in occúltis: * ut interfíciat innocéntem.
He sits in ambush with the rich, in private places, that he may kill the innocent.
12 Oculi ejus in páuperem respíciunt: * insidiátur in abscóndito, quasi leo in spelúnca sua.
His eyes are upon the poor man: he lies in wait, in secret, like a lion in his den.
13 Insidiátur ut rápiat páuperem: * rápere páuperem, dum áttrahit eum.
He lies in ambush, that he may catch the poor man: so catch the poor, whilst he draws him to him.
 14 In láqueo suo humiliábit eum: * inclinábit se, et cadet, cum dominátus fúerit páuperum.
In his net he will bring him down, he will crouch and fall, when he shall have power over the poor.
15 Dixit enim in corde suo: Oblítus est Deus, * avértit fáciem suam ne vídeat in finem.
For he has said in his heart: God has forgotten, he has turned away his face, not to see to the end.
16 Exsúrge, Dómine Deus, exaltétur manus tua: * ne obliviscáris páuperum.
Arise, O Lord God, let your hand be exalted: forget not the poor.  
17 Propter quid irritávit ímpius Deum? * dixit enim in corde suo: Non requíret.
Wherefore has the wicked provoked God? For he has said in his heart: He will not require it.  
18 Vides quóniam tu labórem et dolórem consíderas: * ut tradas eos in manus tuas.
You see it, for you consider labour and sorrow: that you may deliver them into your hands.
19 Tibi derelíctus est pauper: * órphano tu eris adjútor.
To you is the poor man left: you will be a helper to the orphan.  
20 Cóntere bráchium peccatóris et malígni: * quærétur peccátum illíus, et non inveniétur.
Break the arm of the sinner and of the malignant: his sin shall be sought, and shall not be found. 
21 Dóminus regnábit in ætérnum, et in sæculum sæculi: * períbitis, Gentes, de terra illíus.
The Lord shall reign to eternity, yea, for ever and ever: you Gentiles shall perish from his land.  
22 Desidérium páuperum exaudívit Dóminus: * præparatiónem cordis eórum audívit auris tua.
The Lord has heard the desire of the poor: your ear has heard the preparation of their heart.
23 Judicáre pupíllo et húmili, * ut non appónat ultra magnificáre se homo super terram.
To judge for the fatherless and for the humble, that man may no more presume to magnify himself upon earth.

The sinner acts as if there were no God...

The evil men of the psalm, who act as if God does not exist, and lurks in ambush to kill (v13), are types, I would suggest, of Judas, consistent with the association of the day with his betrayal.  God gives us free will: we can choose to follow him, or to betray him.   Either way, God uses our choices to advance his providential plan for the world, bringing good even out of evil.  But, the psalm reminds us, there are consequences of our choices both for ourselves and others.

In fact, as several of the commentators, including St Augustine and St Robert Bellarmine have treated the psalm as a little political economy lesson on the tendency of the rich to become greedy and oppress the poor, picking up a theme that runs through many of the books of the prophets as well and providing the basis for the social teaching of the Church.  Some of the commentators also note that spiritual oppression as one of the issues alluded to in this psalm, viewing heresy as a form of oppression: murdering someone spiritually by seducing them from the truth, after all, is far worse a crime than murdering them corporally.

One psalm or two?

In the Septuagint, today's Prime psalm is combined into one with the section of Psalm 9 that is said on Tuesday at Prime in the Benedictine Office.  In the Hebrew Masoretic Text, they become Psalms 9 and 10 respectively, albeit not split at quite the same verses as the Benedictine Psalter has traditionally done.

There are good reasons for believing that they were originally one composition.  In particular, Psalm 9 (and 10) is an acrostic psalm, starting the verses with a letter of the alphabet in order (though with a few missing, perhaps due to text corruption) as an aid to memory.

The two halves of the psalm are, though, quite different in tone and content, so St Benedict's decision to split them is readily understandable.

All the same, as I noted in relation to Tuesday Prime, the Monastic Breviary of 1962 actually places the first two verses of this part of the psalm on Tuesday rather than Wednesday, in order to line it up with Psalm 10 in the Hebrew Masoretic Text.  This seems problematic on several counts.

Firstly, the inclusion of the Exsurge verse gives the psalm a nice structure, with its who halves each framed by an exhortation for God to arise (ie v1&11), that I think helps make clear the psalm's key messasges.

Secondly, it breaks the link to the verse that is used as the antiphon on Wednesday at Prime throughout the year, since this is consigned to Tuesday Prime instead of Wednesday.

Thirdly, it breaks the link with Matins. Psalm 9's original division point echoes the fifth psalm of the first Nocturn, Psalm 67 'Exsurgat Deus, et dissipentur inimici eius.  And just to add weight to the view that this echoing is not in the least bit accidental, note that the opening verse of the psalm two on from this at Matins (Psalm 68) shares the identical incipit to that of the third psalm of Prime today, Salvum me fac Domine

Finally, it undermines the symmetry of the whole hour, for while all three of the psalms of Wednesday Prime ponder the problem of God's seeming indifference to the persecution of the just, the first (in its traditional version) opens by asking God to arise and act; the third includes a response from God that he will now do so (nunc exsúrgam, dicit Dóminus), and a statement of just what he proposes to do.

Arise Lord, let man not prevail

This is also one of those psalms where the Septuagint differs substantially from the received Hebrew version, which appears to be corrupt in many places.  Accordingly, those who normally work from translations such as the Neo-Vulgate, Coverdale or the RSV, all of which follow the Hebrew here, will benefit from a look at the Vulgate and an English version which follows it, such as the Douay-Rheims.

The most dramatic of these differences leads to a diametrically opposite interpretations of the psalm.  In particular, in verse 2, instead of  asking for a 'law-giver' to be appointed over them (Constituite Domine, legislatorem super eos...), a plea for the coming of Christ the king, the Hebrew says 'incite terror over them' (or 'put them in fear'), and has thus been interpreted by some as a prophecy of the anti-Christ.

Both interpretations have some support in the Fathers and so are open.  But the Benedictine Office, it seems to me, not least through the use of the preceding verse as an antiphon, to have adopted the obvious meaning of the Septuagint/Vulgate version.  And the verse could also be seen it as referring back to Psalm 2's 'Ego autem constitutus sum Rex...' ('By him I am established as King...'), said at Monday Prime.

That said, many modern Benedictine monasteries, including Solesmes, have adopted the neo-Vulgate psalter, and so de facto take a different view on this, a curious case of modern translators overturning centuries of (liturgically inspired) tradition...

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