Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 142 as a penitential psalm

David fleeing from Absalom, folio 72r
Belles Heures of Jean de France*

Today, I want to start the last stretch of this Lent series with an introduction to the last of the seven penitential psalms, Psalm 142 (143).

Psalm 142, like Psalm 129, the De Profundis, that proceeds it in this grouping, starts with the psalmist calling out from the last of his strength. Psalm 129 ended by looking forward to redemption through Our Lord; this psalm takes us a step further, to the coming of the Holy Spirit to guide us in God’s ways, and the eventual defeat of evil.

The text

Psalm 142: Domine, exaudi orationem meam
Psalmus David, quando persequebatur eum Absalom filius ejus.
A psalm of David, when his son Absalom pursued him
1 Dómine, exáudi oratiónem meam: áuribus pércipe obsecratiónem meam in veritáte tua : * exáudi me in tua justítia.
Hear, O Lord, my prayer: give ear to my supplication in your truth: hear me in your justice.

2  Et non intres in judícium cum servo tuo: * quia non justificábitur in conspéctu tuo omnis vivens.
And enter not into judgment with your servant: for in your sight no man living shall be justified.
3  Quia persecútus est inimícus ánimam meam: * humiliávit in terra vitam meam.
For the enemy has persecuted my soul: he has brought down my life to the earth.
4  Collocávit me in obscúris sicut mórtuos sæculi : * et anxiátus est super me spíritus meus, in me turbátum est cor meum.
He has made me to dwell in darkness as those that have been dead of old: And my spirit is in anguish within me: my heart within me is troubled.
5  Memor fui diérum antiquórum, meditátus sum in ómnibus opéribus tuis: * in factis mánuum tuárum meditábar.
I remembered the days of old, I meditated on all your works: I meditated upon the works of your hands.
6  Expándi manus meas ad te: * ánima mea sicut terra sine aqua tibi.
I stretched forth my hands to you: my soul is as earth without water unto you.
7  Velóciter exáudi me, Dómine: * defécit spíritus meus.
Hear me speedily, O Lord: my spirit has fainted away.
8  Non avértas fáciem tuam a me: * et símilis ero descendéntibus in lacum.
Turn not away your face from me, lest I be like unto them that go down into the pit.
9  Audítam fac mihi mane misericórdiam tuam: * quia in te sperávi.
Cause me to hear your mercy in the morning; for in you have I hoped.
10  Notam fac mihi viam, in qua ámbulem: * quia ad te levávi ánimam meam.
Make the way known to me, wherein I should walk: for I have lifted up my soul to you.
11  Eripe me de inimícis meis, Dómine, ad te confúgi: * doce me fácere voluntátem tuam, quia Deus meus es tu.
Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord, to you have I fled: Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.
12  Spíritus tuus bonus dedúcet me in terram rectam: * propter nomen tuum, Dómine, vivificábis me, in æquitáte tua.
Your good spirit shall lead me into the right land: For your name's sake, O Lord, you will quicken me in your justice.
13  Edúces de tribulatióne ánimam meam: * et in misericórdia tua dispérdes inimícos meos.
You will bring my soul out of trouble: And in your mercy you will destroy my enemies.
14  Et perdes omnes, qui tríbulant ánimam meam, * quóniam ego servus tuus sum.
And you will cut off all them that afflict my soul: for I am your servant.


Like Psalm 129, many modern commentators see Psalm 142 as reflecting the people of Israel at the time of the Exile, suggesting that it be thought of as Davidic in the sense of reflecting his ideas and style rather than strictly being of his authorship. The Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint, however, both clearly ascribe this psalm to David. And the Septuagint/Vulgate goes a step further, and adds a descriptor suggesting that it is set at the time described in 2 Kings 17, when King David took to the hills, pursued by his son Absalom and his rebellious army, as depicted in the picture above.

The possible specific context aside, the psalm can be seen as presenting David once more as a type of Our Lord. St Augustine, for example, sees the psalm primarily as a prophesy of Our Lord’s coming. The psalm is said at Lauds presumably because of its plea for mercy in the morning (verse 9) – but the morning reference is symbolic as well: the person dwelling in darkness, in the shadow of death (vs 4), looks to the light of Christ’s rising. Indeed, the psalm is used at the Ordinary Form Easter Vigil presumably for this very reason.

Key themes

Psalm 142, fittingly for the final psalm in the set, picks up a number of the themes that run through some or all of the penitential psalms: the dire nature of the psalmist’s personal situation; the sense of restlessness of a soul separated from God; and above all the sense that God has abandoned him on account of his sin.

The psalmist also develops further the idea set out in previous psalms that no one could truly withstand God’s judgment were it to be exercized strictly. As Pope John Paul II pointed out in his catechesis on this psalm:

“The text that we want to examine today was particularly dear to St Paul, who detected in it a radical sinfulness of every human creature: "for no man living is righteous before you, (O Lord)" (v. 2). This thought is used by the Apostle as the foundation of his teaching on sin and grace (cf. Gal 2: 16; Rm 3: 20).”

The last few verses, which pray for the defeat of the psalmist's enemies, can at first seem a little jarring to modern ears.  In fact the version of the Douay-Rheims I've quoted above makes them future tense rather than reflecting the subjunctive ('may he') of the Vulgate, and they are omitted altogether from the Liturgy of the Hours.  The key I think, is to interpret them in this context at least, primarily at least as a prayer for God's help in defeating our own personal demons, and overcoming sin, temptations and weaknesses with the help of God's grace.

The true core of the psalm, though, it seems to me, at least in the context of the penitential psalms, is the psalmist’s fervent desire to be with God, vividly expressed in verse 6, where he compares his soul to land parched dry by drought.

You can find verse by verse notes on this psalm starting here.

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