Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Gradual Psalms - Introduction to Psalm 123

The second psalm of weekday Sext in the Benedictine office, Psalm 123, makes clear our total dependence on God.

In the previous psalm, the speaker has had enough, is sick of being treated with being an object of derision.  Here the psalmist rejoices because God has heard his plea and intervened to strengthen the souls of the people with faith and patience, and bring them safely through the raging waters and the hunter’s trap.

The psalm contrasts the helplessness of man in the face of his enemies, with God, the Creator of all and saviour of the people under attack.

Psalm 123: Nisi quia Dóminus erat in nobis 
Canticum graduum

 Nisi quia Dóminus erat in nobis, dicat nunc Israël: * nisi quia Dóminus erat in nobis,
If it had not been that the Lord was with us, let Israel now say: 2 If it had not been that the Lord was with us,
2  Cum exsúrgerent hómines in nos, * forte vivos deglutíssent nos:
When men rose up against us, 3 perhaps they had swallowed us up alive.
3  Cum irascerétur furor eórum in nos, * fórsitan aqua absorbuísset nos.
When their fury was enkindled against us, perhaps the waters had swallowed us up.
4  Torréntem pertransívit ánima nostra: * fórsitan pertransísset ánima nostra aquam intolerábilem.
5 Our soul has passed through a torrent: perhaps our soul had passed through a water insupportable.
5  Benedíctus Dóminus * qui non dedit nos, in captiónem déntibus eórum.
6 Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us to be a prey to their teeth.
6  Anima nostra sicut passer erépta est * de láqueo venántium.
7 Our soul has been delivered as a sparrow out of the snare of the fowlers.
7  Láqueus contrítus est, * et nos liberáti sumus.
The snare is broken, and we are delivered.
8  Adjutórium nostrum in nómine Dómini, * qui fecit cælum et terram.
8 Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth

In the Hebrew Masoretic Text version (but not the Septuagint) this psalm, the fourth of the gradual psalms, is attributed to David.

There are also a number of minor differences in this psalm between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint.

How to face trials

The psalm opens with a a formula that is an exhortation to prayer: ‘dicat nunc Israël’,  or 'let Israel say'.   It then provides two images of the dire straits the pilgrims finds themselves in: first a sea monster intent on swallowing them alive as they struggle, caught up in a raging flood (verses 2-5); and secondly of birds caught in a trap set by hunters (verses 6-7).

It seems to me to conjure up the image of a people facing certain death, a challenge faced by all too many Christians in our time.  And in this situation, it argues, what counts is not our own virtues, planning or resources, but God’s mercy and aid.

As in the previous psalm, the emphasis here is on cultivating patience and self-abandonment to God.

St John Chrysostom adds another key dimension to this message, stressing the importance of trials in building our character and virtue, and thus helping us progress towards perfection: great troubles bring forth great good for us and from us.

Song of the martyrs

Above all, the psalm reminds us that, in facing our noonday demons, it is the fate of the soul, not the body that counts: St Augustine portrays this psalm as the song of the martyrs, rejoicing that they have passed through the torrents and traps that afflict the body only, their souls resting safe with the Lord in heaven.  Pope Benedict XVI summarises his view thus:

St Augustine comments clearly on this Psalm. He first observes that it is fittingly sung by the "members of Christ who have reached blessedness". In particular, "it has been sung by the holy martyrs who, upon leaving this world are with Christ in joy, ready to take up incorrupt again those same bodies that were previously corruptible. In life they suffered torments in the body, but in eternity these torments will be transformed into ornaments of justice". However, in a second instance the Bishop of Hippo tells us that we too, not only the blessed in Heaven, can sing this Psalm with hope. He declares: "We too are enlivened by unfailing hope and will sing in exaltation. Indeed, the singers of this Psalm are not strangers to us.... Therefore, let us all sing with one heart: both the saints who already possess the crown as well as ourselves, who with affection and hope unite ourselves to their crown. Together we desire the life that we do not have here below, but that we will never obtain if we have not first desired it".’

The psalm contains a threefold profession of faith: faith that the Lord is with us in our trials (verse 1); that he will not abandon us to temptations (verse 6); and above all in that final triumphant statement, that the God who is creator of all things will save us (verse 8).

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