Monday, February 3, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 134

Moses views the Promised Land
Gerard Jollain, 1670
The opening psalm of Vespers on Wednesday in the Benedictine Office is Psalm 134, Laudate Nomen Domini.

First take a look at the text.

Psalm 134 (135) – Laudate nomen Domini 
1 Laudáte nomen Dómini, * laudáte, servi Dóminum.
Praise the name of the Lord: O you his servants, praise the Lord:
2  Qui statis in domo Dómini, * in átriis domus Dei nostri.
2 You that stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God.
3  Laudáte Dóminum, quia bonus Dóminus: * psállite nómini ejus, quóniam suáve.
3 Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good: sing to his name, for it is sweet.
4  Quóniam Jacob elégit sibi Dóminus, * Israël in possessiónem sibi.
4 For the Lord has chosen Jacob unto himself: Israel for his own possession.
5  Quia ego cognóvi quod magnus est Dóminus, * et Deus noster præ ómnibus diis.
5 For I have known that the Lord is great, and our God is above all gods.
6  Omnia quæcúmque vóluit, Dóminus fecit in cælo, et in terra, * in mari, et in ómnibus abyssis.
6 Whatsoever the Lord pleased he has done, in heaven, in earth, in the sea, and in all the deeps.
7  Edúcens nubes ab extrémo terræ: * fúlgura in plúviam fecit.
7 He brings up clouds from the end of the earth: he has made lightnings for the rain. He brings forth winds out of his stores:
8  Qui prodúcit ventos de thesáuris suis: * qui percússit primogénita Ægypti ab hómine usque ad pecus.
8 He slew the firstborn of Egypt from man even unto beast.
9  Et misit signa, et prodígia in médio tui, Ægypte: * in Pharaónem, et in omnes servos ejus.
9 He sent forth signs and wonders in the midst of you, O Egypt: upon Pharao, and upon all his servants.
10  Qui percússit gentes multas: * et occídit reges fortes:
10 He smote many nations, and slew mighty kings:
11  Sehon, regem Amorrhæórum, et Og, regem Basan, * et ómnia regna Chánaan.
11 Sehon king of the Amorrhites, and Og king of Basan, and all the kingdoms of Chanaan.
12  Et dedit terram eórum hereditátem, * hereditátem Israël, pópulo suo.
12 And gave their land for an inheritance, for an inheritance to his people Israel.
13  Dómine, nomen tuum in ætérnum: * Dómine, memoriále tuum in generatiónem et generatiónem.
13 Your name, O Lord, is for ever: your memorial, O Lord, unto all generations.
14  Quia judicábit Dóminus pópulum suum: * et in servis suis deprecábitur
14 For the Lord will judge his people, and will be entreated in favour of his servants.
15  Simulácra Géntium argéntum et aurum: * ópera mánuum hóminum.
15 The idols of the Gentiles are silver and gold, the works of men's hands.
16  Os habent, et non loquéntur: * óculos habent, et non vidébunt.
16 They have a mouth, but they speak not: they have eyes, but they see not.
17  Aures habent, et non áudient: * neque enim est spíritus in ore ipsórum.
17 They have ears, but they hear not: neither is there any breath in their mouths.
18  Símiles illis fiant qui fáciunt ea: * et omnes qui confídunt in eis.
18 Let them that make them be like to them: and every one that trusts in them.
19  Domus Israël,  benedícite Dómino: * domus Aaron, benedícite Dómino.
19 Bless the Lord, O house of Israel: bless the Lord, O house of Aaron.
20  Domus Levi, benedícite Dómino: * qui timétis Dóminum, benedícite Dómino.
20 Bless the Lord, O house of Levi: you that fear the Lord, bless the Lord.
21  Benedíctus Dóminus ex Sion, * qui hábitat in Jerúsalem.
21 Blessed be the Lord out of Sion, who dwells in Jerusalem.

The place of Psalm 134 in the Office

In his book Christ in the Psalms, Patrick Reardon suggests that the placement of Psalm 134 (and Psalm 135) in the Benedictine Office is, in contrast to the more deliberate Orthodox use of the psalm, simply a matter of how the psalms happen to fall out.

I'd like, though, to take a different view, for I think that the placement of these two psalms is a very deliberate choice indeed, and one whose theological implications are worth meditating on.

Part of the genius of St Benedict's psalter, I think, are the deliberate patterns he engineers into his Office, patterns that help shape our thinking mostly at the subconscious level, shaping our implicit knowledge of the faith.  What is implicit though, can be made explicit and appropriated more actively as our own through study and meditation, and in part this is surely why the saint in his Rule explicitly bids us to meditate on the psalms.

If you look at Vespers for example, it is clear that St Benedict has undertaken some extensive engineering of the hour compared to the Roman version of the Office from which he started.  He shifts nine psalms (Psalms 119-127) out of the hour altogether, and makes extensive use of divisions and amalgamations of psalms in order to shape each day's Office to his agenda.

That agenda, it seems to me, often runs both horizontally and vertically, something akin to a crossword puzzle.

In my overview posts for the psalms of the day, I've talked about his 'vertical' agenda, based around the life of Christ, and I'll come back to how this psalm fits into that schema below.

But there is often also a horizontal logic to the psalm choices as well, both within the hours for a particular day, and across the sequences set for particular hours.  In the case of Vespers, for example, I would suggest that all of the opening psalms have something important to say about the nature of God, with Monday to Wednesday focusing above all on God's providential interventions in salvation history.

A Redemption triptych?

Consider first of all that Psalm 134 on Wednesday takes us back to many of the themes of Psalm 113 on Monday.

Psalm 113's verses on the impotence of false idols are repeated here, in a slightly cut down version.

Both psalms take us to the miracles associated with the exodus from Egypt, and entry into the Promised Land.

And both end with a call to action on the part of the Houses of Israel, Aaron and all those who fear the Lord.

I would argue that St Benedict has deliberately created something of a triptych here for us, in the first psalms of Vespers on the first three days of the week.  The left-hand panel, Monday, focuses on those parting of the waters that prefigures our baptism.  In the middle stands Psalm 129's promise of the redemption of Israel.  And in Wednesday's right-hand panel of the picture we are presented with the opening of the covenant to the gentiles and the Church as the New Israel.

The election of the gentiles

As I noted above there is, in my view, a weekly programmatic cycle to St Benedict's design that gives a unity to each particular day in the Office.

I've suggested previously that the Lauds ferial canticles are the interpretative key for this.  Today's canticle, the The Canticle of Hannah, has long been interpreted, particularly in the monastic tradition, as being about God's election of Israel - the Church - as his people.  That's a key theme in this psalm, and an important one in these confused times when some see pretty much any religion as offering the potential for redeeming grace to flow.

Both this psalm and the next take us through key events in salvation history, emphasizing that God made a deliberate choice of the people of Israel (verse 4) as his people, and then guided history to lead them into the promised land, dispossessing their enemies to do so (verses 8-12).  And it is to him alone, and not to any false gods, that we are urged to put our trust in, and praise.

Psalms 113, 134 and 135 all witness to God's wonderful interventions in history.  They praise him not just for himself (though they have a lot to say on that subject as well), but also for his work of creation and redemption. He is, this psalm tells us, the God who deposed Pharaoh and caused the first-born of Egypt to be killed in retaliation for Pharaoh's refusal to release the Hebrew slaves.  He is the God who deposed great kings because of their evil deeds, and gave their lands to the Israelites instead.

Unsurprisingly, the Fathers have long applied this dispossession to the Jews: for the majority of the original people of Israel rejected their Messiah.  Because they rejected their God when he walked on the earth and preached the good news to them, choosing instead to make idols of the law itself and ultimately to kill him on the cross, now they too have been dispossessed, the old covenant closed off in favour of the new (and for those who dispute this and prefer  an entirely 'two covenants theory', please do read Fr Hunwick's useful analysis of Vatican II on this subject).  The chosen people, Israel, are no longer the Jewish people, but rather the Church which is open to Jews and gentiles alike, indeed all those who truly seek to become his servants; the earthly Jerusalem is no longer God's special dwelling, instead we focus on heaven.

Appropriating salvation

In reality of course, this dispossession applies equally  to all who would betray the living, personal God, 'the Lord of the universe and of history', as Pope Benedict XVI puts it, in favour of creating a false religion borne of our own desires.

We can, then, apply the warning in verses 14-18 of Psalm 134, about coming judgment and the uselessness of the false idols we make for ourselves, that is power, pride, money and pleasure, to Judas and all those who plotted to kill Jesus.  And of course to all those today who would follow their path.

And you can find verse by verse notes on this psalm starting here.