Monday, May 5, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 94

I'm looking, in this series, at the repeated psalms of the Benedictine Office, and today I want to turn to Psalm 94.

The second invitatory psalm of Matins, Psalm 94, is a joyful invitation to worship our creator, redeemer and protector.  But it also has a darker message, namely a warning not to put off repentance, but to respond to God’s call here and now.

Psalm 94: Venite Exultemus Domino
Psalter (Vetus latina)
Laus cantici ipsi David.

Praise of a canticle for David himself.
1 Venite, exsultemus Domino; jubilemus Deo salutari nostro;
1. Veníte, exsultémus Dómino, jubilémus Deo, salutári nostro:
Come let us praise the Lord with joy: let us joyfully sing to God our saviour.
2 præoccupemus faciem ejus in confessione, et in psalmis jubilemus ei
præoccupémus fáciem ejus in confessióne, et in psalmis jubilémus ei.
2 Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; and make a joyful noise to him with psalms.
3 quoniam Deus magnus Dominus, et rex magnus super omnes deos.
2. Quóniam Deus magnus Dóminus, et Rex magnus super omnes deos
3 For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.
4 Quia in manu ejus sunt omnes fines terræ, et altitudines montium ipsius sunt;
: quóniam non repéllet Dóminus plebem suam : quia in manu ejus sunt omnes fines terræ, et altitúdines móntium ipse cónspicit.
4 For in his hand are all the ends of the earth: and the heights of the mountains are his.

5 quoniam ipsius est mare, et ipse fecit illud, et siccam manus ejus formaverunt
3. Quóniam ipsíus est mare, et ipse fecit illud, et áridam fundavérunt manus ejus
5 For the sea is his, and he made it: and his hands formed the dry land.
6  Venite, adoremus, et procidamus, et ploremus ante Dominum qui fecit nos:
Veníte, adorémus, et procidámus ante Deum : plorémus coram Dómino, qui fecit nos,
6 Come let us adore and fall down: and weep before the Lord that made us.
7  quia ipse est Dominus Deus noster, et nos populus pascuæ ejus, et oves manus ejus.
quia ipse est Dóminus Deus noster ; nos autem pópulus ejus, et oves páscuæ ejus.
7 For he is the Lord our God: and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.
8 Hodie si vocem ejus audieritis, nolite obdurare corda vestra
4. Hódie, si vocem ejus audiéritis, nolíte obduráre corda vestra,
8 Today if you shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts:
9 sicut in irritatione, secundum diem tentationis in deserto, ubi tentaverunt me patres vestri : probaverunt me, et viderunt opera mea.
sicut in exacerbatióne, secúndum diem tentatiónis in desérto : ubi tentavérunt me patres vestri, probavérunt et vidérunt ópera mea.
9 As in the provocation, according to the day of temptation in the wilderness: where your fathers tempted me, they proved me, and saw my works.
10 Quadraginta annis offensus fui generationi illi, et dixi : Semper hi errant corde.
5. Quadragínta annis próximus fui generatióni huic, et dixi : Semper hi errant corde;
10 Forty years long was I offended with that generation, and I said: These always err in heart.
11 Et isti non cognoverunt vias meas : ut juravi in ira mea : Si introibunt in requiem meam.
ipsi vero non cognovérunt vias meas : quibus jurávi in ira mea : Si introíbunt in réquiem meam.
11 And these men have not known my ways: so I swore in my wrath that they shall not enter into my rest.

 Scriptural context

Psalm 94 is part of a group of psalms (consisting of Psalm 92-99) which proclaim the kingship of God, express their hope and faith in the establishment of God’s domain over the whole world.  Some commentators view this as a psalm used in liturgical processions; others see it as a pilgrimage song.

The second half of the psalm (verses 9-11) refers to the events described in Exodus 17:1-7 when the Israelites doubted God because there was no water where they camped, and threatened to stone Moses until he, on God’s instructions, struck a rock and water poured out.  As punishment for their murmuring and doubting of God, none of those involved were allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Liturgical context

This psalm is used daily as the invitatory at Matins in both the Roman and Benedictine Breviaries, and though the direction of influence is unclear, this is probably a case of the Roman Office adopting it from the Benedictine.  

The reasons for its selection are reasonably clear cut: St Benedict quotes from this psalm extensively in the Prologue of his Rule, weaving it into his extended invitation to one who would become a monk.  And St Benedict often seems to enjoy employing nice literalisms, such as its opening call to 'come before his presence with thanksgiving; and make a joyful noise to him with psalms'.

There are two peculiarities, though, in the way this psalm is used in the Office.  

First, after each verse or group of verses a responsorial antiphon is said, the only survival of this approach in the Office.  

Secondly, the text used in the Office is not the Vulgate (St Jerome’s Gallican), but the Old Roman translation.  The ‘Roman Psalter’ translation was the one almost certainly used by St Benedict, and indeed throughout the West until the ninth century, and survived in Rome itself until the sixteenth century.  Its survival in the Office in this translation is presumably due to the ancient chant settings of the psalm, which can be found in the Liber Hymnarius and other places.

A call to adoration

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, adoration is our first duty towards God (CCC2628).  In the modern world, we do everything possible to avoid acknowledging that our lives are not in fact under our control, but at God’s.  But if we are truly conscious of God’s greatness as creator and sustainer or the world and ourselves, the psalmist instructs in verse 6, we would prostrate ourselves before him, and weep for the sins that offend him.  

Accordingly, the psalm sets out a number of reasons why we should joyfully adore God.    He offers us the promise of salvation (v1); he is the true, real God, unlike the impotent inventions worshipped by the pagans (v3); he controls all things, and instead of rejecting us, has reopened the way to salvation (v4); he created the world (v5) and us (v6); he provides the necessities of life to us, spiritual and physical, and guides us through his continuing providential care (v7).  It is worth noting that the Fathers interpret the references to the sea, mountains and so forth not just as references to the natural world, but all as standing for the construction of our culture, society and in particular the Church.

If today you hear his voice...

St Benedict uses verse 8 to call us to the more intense spiritual life he proposes in his Rule:

“Let us arise, then, at last,  for the Scripture stirs us up, saying, "Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep" (Rom. 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the deifying light,  let us hear with attentive ears  the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us, "Today if you hear His voice,  harden not your hearts" (Ps. 94[95]:8).  And again, "Whoever has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Matt. 11-15; Apoc. 2:7).”

Hebrews provides an extended commentary on verses 8-11, pointing out that there are consequences to God’s providential care for us: we are part of a covenant relationship which means we too have obligations towards God, most importantly not to reject him through sin and unbelief.  Instead, we are called not only to adore God, but to obey his commandments and do good works.  As St Benedict instructs:

"Whenever you start out to do some good task, you should first ask God, who has deigned to count us among his children, that he bring it to its proper end; for then we shall never be downcast by our failure to do well. At all times we should make ourselves subject to Him in the use of all those goods he has placed at our disposal…With our eyes wide open to the divine light, we will clearly hear what the voice of God says to us every day: If you listen to his voice, your heart will not be hardened; and: Let him who has ears, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. And what does He say? Come, my children, listen to me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Walk while it is still light, before you are caught out by the darkness of death. Girded with the belt of faith and the practice of good works, we will make our way forward along his paths, taking the Gospel as our guide, so that we may arrive to see the one who has called us into his kingdom. If we wish to make our home in his heavenly kingdom, we should always bear in mind that to reach his court we must travel with haste along the path of good works."

If we let him, he will lead us into the promised land of heaven. But if we reject him…

You can find the first set of verse by verse notes on the psalm here.

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