Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Penitential Psalms - Introduction to Psalm 101

Cambridge, Harvard University, Houghton Library
MS Typ 0311, folio 88v*

Continuing my Lent series of notes to support lectio divina on and the saying of the penitential psalms, today the fifth penitential psalm, Psalm 101 (102).

The first four penitential psalms are clearly attributed to King David. Psalm 101, however, although generally depicted as by David in medieval manuscripts (probably) takes us into slightly different territory, namely the Jewish nation at the time of the Babylon Exile.

Psalm 101: Domine exaudi orationem meam
Oratio pauperis, cum anxius fuerit, et in conspectu Domini effuderit precem suam.
The prayer of the poor man, when he was anxious, and poured out his supplication before the Lord.
1 Dómine, exáudi oratiónem meam: * et clamor meus ad te véniat.
Hear, O Lord, my prayer: and let my cry come to you.
2  Non avértas fáciem tuam a me: * in quacúmque die tríbulor, inclína ad me aurem tuam.
Turn not away your face from me: in the day when I am in trouble, incline your ear to me.
3  In quacúmque die invocávero te: * velóciter exáudi me.
In what day soever I shall call upon you, hear me speedily.
4  Quia defecérunt sicut fumus dies mei: * et ossa mea sicut crémium aruérunt.
4 For my days are vanished like smoke, and my bones are grown dry like fuel for the fire.
5  Percússus sum ut fœnum, et áruit cor meum: * quia oblítus sum comédere panem meum.
5 I am smitten as grass, and my heart is withered: because I forgot to eat my bread.
6  A voce gémitus mei: * adhæsit os meum carni meæ.
6 Through the voice of my groaning, my bone has cleaved to my flesh.
7  Símilis factus sum pellicáno solitúdinis: * factus sum sicut nyctícorax in domicílio.
7 I have become like to a pelican of the wilderness: I am like a night raven in the house.
8  Vigilávi, * et factus sum sicut passer solitárius in tecto.
8 I have watched, and have become as a sparrow all alone on the housetop.
9  Tota die exprobrábant mihi inimíci mei: * et qui laudábant me, advérsum me jurábant.
9 All the day long my enemies reproached me: and they that praised me did swear against me.
10  Quia cínerem tamquam panem manducábam, * et potum meum cum fletu miscébam.
10 For I ate ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping.
11  A fácie iræ et indignatiónis tuæ: * quia élevans allisísti me.
11 Because of your anger and indignation: for having lifted me up you have thrown me down.
12  Dies mei sicut umbra declinavérunt: * et ego sicut fœnum árui.
12 My days have declined like a shadow, and I am withered like grass.
13  Tu autem, Dómine, in ætérnum pérmanes: * et memoriále tuum in generatiónem et generatiónem.
13 But you, O Lord, endure for ever: and your memorial to all generations.
14  Tu exsúrgens miseréberis Sion: * quia tempus miseréndi ejus, quia venit tempus.
14 You shall arise and have mercy on Sion: for it is time to have mercy on it, for the time has come.
15  Quóniam placuérunt servis tuis lápides ejus: * et terræ ejus miserebúntur.
15 For the stones thereof have pleased your servants: and they shall have pity on the earth thereof.
16  Et timébunt gentes nomen tuum, Dómine: * et omnes reges terræ glóriam tuam.
16 All the Gentiles shall fear your name, O Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory.
17  Quia ædificávit Dóminus Sion: * et vidébitur in glória sua.
17 For the Lord has built up Sion: and he shall be seen in his glory.
18  Respéxit in oratiónem humílium: * et non sprevit precem eórum.
18 He has had regard to the prayer of the humble: and he has not despised their petition.
19  Scribántur hæc in generatióne áltera: * et pópulus qui creábitur, laudábit Dóminum.
19 Let these things be written unto another generation: and the people that shall be created shall praise the Lord:
20  Quia prospéxit de excélso sancto suo: * Dóminus de cælo in terram aspéxit:
20 Because he has looked forth from his high sanctuary: from heaven the Lord has looked upon the earth.
21  Ut audíret gémitus compeditórum: * ut sólveret fílios interemptórum.
21 That he might hear the groans of them that are in fetters: that he might release the children of the slain:
22  Ut annúntient in Sion nomen Dómini: * et laudem ejus in Jerúsalem.
22 That they may declare the name of the Lord in Sion: and his praise in Jerusalem;
23  In conveniéndo pópulos in unum: * et reges ut sérviant Dómino.
23 when the people assemble together, and kings, to serve the Lord.
24  Respóndit ei in via virtútis suæ: * Paucitátem diérum meórum núntia mihi.
24 He answered him in the way of his strength: Declare unto me the fewness of my days.
25  Ne révoces me in dimídio diérum meórum: * in generatiónem et generatiónem anni tui.
25 Call me not away in the midst of my days: your years are unto generation and generation.
26  Inítio tu, Dómine, terram fundásti: * et ópera mánuum tuárum sunt cæli.
26 In the beginning, O Lord, you founded the earth: and the heavens are the works of your hands.
27  Ipsi peribunt, tu autem pérmanes: * et omnes sicut vestiméntum veteráscent.
27 They shall perish but you remain: and all of them shall grow old like a garment:
28  Et sicut opertórium mutábis eos, et mutabúntur: * tu autem idem ipse es, et anni tui non defícient.
And as a vesture you shall change them, and they shall be changed. 28 But you are always the selfsame, and your years shall not fail.
29  Fílii servórum tuórum habitábunt: * et semen eórum in sæculum dirigétur.
29 The children of your servants shall continue and their seed shall be directed for ever.


The psalm is probably set during - perhaps towards the end of - the Exilic period, with the author seeing perhaps a glimmer of hope on the horizon.  He is frustrated, though, at his inability to worship God properly in the currently destroyed Jerusalem (some commentators, inevitably I guess in this rationalist influenced age, assume that the psalm was actually written later, rather than being prophetic.  I don't see anything in the psalm itself to support that view; quite the contrary).

Feeling isolated and lonely, surrounded by enemies who spy on him, the psalmist is nonetheless conscious of his own guilt as a cause of his depressed state of mind and wasting body, and the destruction of the nation.

Thus the author petitions for God's help in addressing his own troubles, for the promised restoration of Jerusalem, and also looks forward to the end of this world, and the creation of the new heaven and earth at the end of time.


At 29 verses when arranged for liturgical use, Psalm 101 is the longest of the penitential psalms by a substantial margin. But it is also a psalm that deserves to be better known both because of its beautiful imagery, powerful storyline, and its theological importance.

In particular, it contains important verses on the eternal and unchanging nature of God, and God as creator; Hebrews uses it to support the argument for Christ’s divinity (this reading is used at the third Mass of Christmas Day); and it provides an important prophesy of the end of the world. Liturgically, several of the verses relating to the suffering individual are, as it were, put on the lips of Our Lord in the propers of the (EF) Mass for Wednesday of Holy Week. But it is the first verse (common to a few psalms) that will be most familiar to most people, as they are regularly used in the Mass, Office and other liturgical contexts to ask God’s help.

Unity of the psalm?

Form critics continue to be divided on whether or not there are actually two different poems conflated here, with the middle section an interpolation: the Ancient Christian Commentaries series goes so far as to split the psalm in two and provide separate overviews of the patristic commentaries for each part. Opinions continue to differ on this however.

Some have suggested that the original lament has been adapted here and there for communal use. Personally, however, I’m with those who argue that the entire psalm is an individual’s lament, with the poet first complaining about his own suffering, but then naturally progressing to very properly showing a concern for the fate Israel as much as his own personal destiny.  Indeed, he hopes that the two might be intertwined, so that he lives to see the restoration of Jerusalem.

artist Facundus, 1047
Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Ms Vit.14.2, f°253v

Key themes

Though there are some sudden transitions, the psalm’s themes do seem to me to be closely interrelated, as will hopefully become clearer as this mini-series progresses!

The overall theme of the psalm, in my view, is the re-creation of both ourselves individually; the re-creation of Israel, as a nation, and of course in the Church; and of the new heaven and earth after the Last Judgment.

God, the psalmist states, is immutable, unchanging and unchangeable. We, however, both individually and collectively, are on a long, hard journey; and to achieve our destiny we need God’s merciful, transforming grace.

More in the next part of this series.  In the meantime, some Purcell to meditate by...

No comments:

Post a Comment