Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 149

The three 'Laudate' psalms are all said under one Gloria each day at Lauds in the Benedictine Office, reflecting the fact that they are all very closely related.  Indeed Psalm 149 very much picks up where Psalm 148 leaves off, for the last verse of Psalm 148 shifts from the universal praise of God to the role of the faithful (the 'saints') in particular, and this is the main focus of Psalm 149.

Psalm 149: Cantate Domino

Cantáte Dómino cánticum novum: * laus ejus in ecclésia sanctórum.
Sing to the Lord a new canticle: let his praise be in the church of the saints.
2  Lætétur Israël in eo, qui fecit eum: * et fílii Sion exsúltent in rege suo.
2 Let Israel rejoice in him that made him: and let the children of Sion be joyful in their king.
3  Laudent nomen ejus in choro: * in tympano, et psaltério psallant ei.
3 Let them praise his name in choir: let them sing to him with the timbrel and the psaltery.
4  Quia beneplácitum est Dómino in pópulo suo: * et exaltábit mansuétos in salútem.
4 For the Lord is well pleased with his people: and he will exalt the meek unto salvation.
5  Exsultábunt sancti in glória: * lætabúntur in cubílibus suis.
5 The saints shall rejoice in glory: they shall be joyful in their beds.
6  Exaltatiónes Dei in gútture eórum: * et gládii ancípites in mánibus eórum.
6 The high praises of God shall be in their mouth: and two-edged swords in their hands:
7  Ad faciéndam vindíctam in natiónibus: * increpatiónes in pópulis
7 To execute vengeance upon the nations, chastisements among the people:
8  Ad alligándos reges eórum in compédibus: * et nóbiles eórum in mánicis férreis.
To bind their kings with fetters, and their nobles with manacles of iron. 
9  Ut fáciant in eis judícium conscríptum: * glória hæc est ómnibus sanctis ejus.
9 To execute upon them the judgment that is written: this glory is to all his saints. Alleluia.

A new song

The psalm opens with a call to sing a 'new song', a phrase that the Fathers always interpret as a reference to the Messianic era inaugurated by Christ's Incarnation and Resurrection, and especially the conversion of the nations to Christianity (cf Rev 5:9). 

Verses 1-3 are a call to worship God, this time focusing on the members of the Church, the 'children of Sion' rather than all creation as in the previous psalm.  Building on this, the psalm can be seen as inviting us to praise and thank God for the great gift he has given us of membership of the Church, with its special means of holiness (above all the sacraments), through which he has made us afresh.

It is worth noting that many of the Fathers interpreted the references to a choir and instruments, to music and dancing as both a call to unity, and showing how the diverse contributions of each individual Christian each contribute in their own way to the unified worship of God.

He will exult the meek

Verses 4-5 attest to God's satisfaction with his Church: those who have accepted his call to humility and meekness will be exalted, and given the strength to carry out their mission in the world, namely worshipping God and advancing his kingdom (verse 6).  In fact verse 6 is arguably the climax of the three psalms, summing up their message, for the two-edged sword, following the letter to the Hebrews, is generally interpreted as the Word of God.  St Augustine explains:

"By swords sharpened on both sides, we understand the Word of the Lord (Hebrews 4:12) it is one sword, but therefore are they called many, because there are many mouths and many tongues of the saints. How is it two edged? It speaks of things temporal, it speaks also of things eternal. In both cases it proves what it says, and him whom it strikes, it severs from the world. Is not this the sword whereof the Lord said, I am not come to send peace upon earth, but a sword? (Matthew 10:34) ...What is meant by, was put in his hand? It was put into his power to preach the Word of the Lord. Lastly, we can understand these hands in another way also. For they who spoke had the word of God in their tongues, they who wrote, in their hands."

Towards victory

The closing verses of Psalm 149, verses 7-9 can be looked at from three different perspectives.  They can be seen first of all, as a promise of ultimate victory against the powers and principalities against whom we wage spiritual war in our own lives.  Secondly, they point to the mission of spreading the Gospel to others: we execute justice when we convert others, turning them away from the path of evil.  Finally, they can be read as a reference to the role of the saints in the final judgment. 

The three Laudate psalms bring the book of psalms to a close, and so it is not surprising that some commentators have seen them as responding in some ways, to the psalms that open the psalter.  And in fact the connections currently pointed to are to the three psalms St Benedict sets for Prime on Monday, the de facto beginning of the week in his Office.  In particular, the references in this second last psalm of the psalter to binding the kings in fetters (v8) can be seen as the counterpoint to Psalm 2 (let us break their bonds asunder), while the reference to joy in their beds (v5) is the counter to the tears drenching the bed of the sinner in Psalm 6.

And for verse by verse notes on this psalm, continue on here.

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