Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 32

Why did St Benedict set Psalm 32 as the opener for Monday?  

The first and most obvious reason is surely its reference to the Incarnation, particularly in the phrase 'sing a new song' in verse 3. 

The new song of the Incarnation

When we read a psalm verse with the phrase sing 'a new song' (canticum novum), verse 3, we are liable to take it pretty literally, as 'compose a new hymn'.  Indeed, the Navarre commentary's take on the phrase in Psalm 39 (40) is "God inspires the psalmist to sing a "new" song as distinct from one of lamentation over his suffering..." (Psalms, p151).

Yet when a monk of a previous era read the phrase he would know that the phrase also occurs in a passage in Isaiah 42 that makes clear its Messianic significance.  And he would also read the psalm in the light of its use in Revelation 5, that makes it clear that what follows is a song of the people formed by the New Covenant, the Church:

"...and they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth." 

Accordingly, when the monk of St Benedict's time read the phrase 'canticum novum' (new song), then, (as occurs in Psalms 32, 39, 95, 97, 143, and 149) he was likely to interpret what followed as a song about Messianic times.  And St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus tells us exactly that:

"The new canticle means the Lord's incarnation, at which the world was filled with the exultation of salvation and the angels sounded forth with tuneful voices..." 

The vocation of praise

The Benedictine connections of this psalm, however, are I think deeper than this.  First, verses 1-3 instruct us to give praise to God.  Who is to do this? The just, or upright (v1), those who have put off the flesh of the old man who, as Bellarmine puts it, have "a taste for the things of the world, and is delighted with them:, but instead "renewed in the spirit of his mind, longs after the things of the other world, and takes pleasure in those things alone that appertain to heaven" (v3).  The people called out of every tribe and nation by God as his own (Rev 5:9). 

At one level this can obviously be applied to all Christians.  Yet it can also be applied in a special way to monks, as Pope Benedict XVI's comments on their vocation to give praise to God for no reason other than his goodness:

In fact St Robert Bellarmine's commentary on the opening verses of this psalm make the connection to the Benedictine charism very directly indeed:

"St Benedict, in his Rule, lays down that Psalmody is a divine work, and should be preferred to any other work.  St Bernard has:" My dearly beloved, I advise you to assist at the Divine Office, with a pure intention and an active mind; I say active, because I wish you to be active, as well as reverent; neither lazy, nor drowsy, nor nodding; nor sparing your voice, or clipping the words, not skipping sentences, nor in a weak and tremulous voice, full of sloth and effeminacy, but in an open and manly tone, vigorous, as well as affectionate, give out the language of the Holy Spirit.""

Renunciation of the world

There is another connection between this psalm and the monastic life as well, for St Basil the Great's commentary on it opens with an injunction for those who are God's servants, those who take up the invitation to be  labourers in his vineyard (RB Prologue), to ponder God's goodness, beauty and wisdom:

"Therefore, Scripture urges the just to be aware of their dignity, because they have been considered worthy to be the servants of so great a Master, and to glory in His service with inexpressible joy and exultation, since the heart is, as it were, bounding with ecstasy of love of the good."

St Basil goes on to suggest the progress we hope to experience, starting with brief moments of illumination, and progressing to the enjoyment of the fruits of the spirit with the permanent joy of heaven.

God the Creator and Lord of history

There are some other key themes of the day set up by this psalm as well.  The Opening verses, as noted above, go to the recreation of the world through Christ in the Incarnation.  But that recreation can only be effected by the creator himself, and verses 6-9 remind us of that, providing a recapitulation in poetic form of the account of creation contained in Genesis 1-2, with references to both the 'word' without whom nothing is made (John 1:3), and the 'spirit' who in Genesis is depicted as hovering over the cosmic waters.  God's power as creator is also featured at Vespers on Monday in Psalm 113 (In exitu Israel de Aegypto), where we are told that this is the God who 'odes whatever he wants', and 'who made heaven and earth'.

The psalm then goes on, in verses 10-17, to point to God as the Lord of history, and there are some allusions to  Old Testament salvation history, for example in the references armies and horses (perhaps an allusion to the destruction of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea) and other sources of earthly power proving of no use when confronted with God's power. 

Psalm 113, of course, also reflects this theme, with its references to some of the key evens in salvation history.  The main focus here though, is clearly Messianic, with some obvious links here to Psalms 1& 2 which are said at Prime on Monday.  In Psalm 1, the way of the good (consilio justorum) is contrasted with the councils of the evil (consilio impiorum).  In Psalm 2, the kings and princes gather together to plot against Christ:

2: 2  Astitérunt reges terræ, et príncipes convenérunt in unum * advérsus Dóminum, et advérsus Christum ejus.
The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes met together, against the Lord, and against his Christ.

In Psalm 2, the narrative, the continues with the appointment of a King to rule over them, God's son begotten that day.  Psalm 32 provides a summary of this:

32: 10  Dóminus díssipat consília Géntium: * réprobat autem cogitatiónes populórum et réprobat consília príncipum.
10 The Lord brings to nought the counsels of nations; and he rejects the devices of people, and casts away the counsels of princes.

Verse 12 provides another link to the Prime psalms with its beatitude: this time 'happy the nation'.

God our hope

There is another link to note between Psalm 32 and Vespers on Monday too, closing verses of Psalm 32 are strongly echoed in Psalm 113's concluding litany: in Psalm 113 he is mindful of his people and blesses them (Ps 113:20); in Psalm 32 his eyes are on us, to rescue us from death and famine.

In both psalms he is the hope of those who fear him (Ps 113:19; 32:18, 22); our 'protector and helper' (Ps 113:17-19; 32:20).

Psalm 32: Exsultáte, justi in Dómino
Psalmus David.
A psalm for David.
1 Exsultáte, justi in Dómino: * rectos decet collaudátio.
Rejoice in the Lord, O you just: praise becomes the upright.
2  Confitémini Dómino in cíthara: * in psaltério decem chordárum psállite illi.
2 Give praise to the Lord on the harp; sing to him with the psaltery, the instrument of ten strings
3  Cantáte ei cánticum novum: * bene psállite ei in vociferatióne.
3 Sing to him a new canticle, sing well unto him with a loud noise.
4  Quia rectum est verbum Dómini, * et ómnia ópera ejus in fide.
4 For the word of the Lord is right, and all his works are done with faithfulness.
5  Díligit misericórdiam et judícium: * misericórdia Dómini plena est terra.
5 He loves mercy and judgment; the earth is full of the mercy of the Lord.
6 Verbo Dómini cæli firmáti sunt: * et spíritu oris ejus omnis virtus eórum.
6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were established; and all the power of them by the spirit of his mouth:
7  Cóngregans sicut in utre aquas maris: * ponens in thesáuris abyssos.
7 Gathering together the waters of the sea, as in a vessel; laying up the depths in storehouses.
8  Tímeat Dóminum omnis terra: * ab eo autem commoveántur omnes inhabitántes orbem.
8 Let all the earth fear the Lord, and let all the inhabitants of the world be in awe of him.
9  Quóniam ipse dixit, et facta sunt: * ipse mandávit, et creáta sunt.
9 For he spoke and they were made: he commanded and they were created.
10  Dóminus díssipat consília Géntium: * réprobat autem cogitatiónes populórum et réprobat consília príncipum.
10 The Lord brings to nought the counsels of nations; and he rejects the devices of people, and casts away the counsels of princes.
11  Consílium autem Dómini in ætérnum manet: * cogitatiónes cordis ejus in generatióne et generatiónem.
11 But the counsel of the Lord stands for ever: the thoughts of his heart to all generations.

12 Beáta gens, cujus est Dóminus, Deus ejus: * pópulus, quem elégit in hereditátem sibi.
12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord: the people whom he has chosen for his inheritance.
13  De cælo respéxit Dóminus: * vidit omnes fílios hóminum.
13 The Lord has looked from heaven: he has beheld all the sons of men.
14  De præparáto habitáculo suo * respéxit super omnes, qui hábitant terram.
14 From his habitation which he has prepared, he has looked upon all that dwell on the earth.
15  Qui finxit sigillátim corda eórum: * qui intélligit ómnia ópera eórum.
15 He who has made the hearts of every one of them: who understands all their works.
16  Non salvátur rex per multam virtútem: * et gigas non salvábitur in multitúdine virtútis suæ.
16 The king is not saved by a great army: nor shall the giant be saved by his own great strength.
17  Fallax equus ad salútem: * in abundántia autem virtútis suæ non salvábitur.
17 Vain is the horse for safety: neither shall he be saved by the abundance of his strength.
18 Ecce óculi Dómini super metuéntes eum: * et in eis, qui sperant super misericórdia ejus :
18 Behold the eyes of the Lord are on them that fear him: and on them that hope in his mercy.
19  Ut éruat a morte ánimas eórum: * et alat eos in fame.
19 To deliver their souls from death; and feed them in famine.
20  Anima nostra sústinet Dóminum: * quóniam adjútor et protéctor noster est.
20 Our soul waits for the Lord: for he is our helper and protector.
21  Quia in eo lætábitur cor nostrum: * et in nómine sancto ejus sperávimus.
21 For in him our heart shall rejoice: and in his holy name we have trusted.
22  Fiat misericórdia tua, Dómine, super nos: * quemádmodum sperávimus in te.
22 Let your mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have hoped in you.

You can find verse by verse notes on this psalm in a series of posts starting here.

No comments:

Post a Comment