Thursday, March 9, 2017

Our help is in the name of the Lord - Psalm 123 (Gradual Psalm No 5)

3704 - Zermatt - Zermatterkirche.JPG
Zermatt Church, Zermatt, Switzerland
Photo credit: Andrew Bossi

The last of the first five psalms, the set usually said devotionally for the suffering souls, and second psalm of weekday Sext in the Benedictine office, Psalm 123, makes clear our total dependence on God.

In it 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).

In the face of these dangers, the psalms exhorts us, 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.

Some of the medieval manuscripts of this psalm include illuminations making a link to the image of a drowning person here, and Noah's saving ark.  And the Fathers also make a link between the wood of the Ark, and the wood of the Cross, making the psalm an appropriate one as we contemplate Christ on the Cross at Sext each day.

That is not to say that we have no role in co-operating with grace though; 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.

Progress in humility

It is also worth noting that St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus links this psalm back to the ladder of humility:
How splendidly the blessed devotion of confessors has mounted the fifth step, enabling them to rejoice in their advance to this fifth stage after their success in overcoming their bodily feelings with the Lord's help! The humility which is the remedy for the human race ensured that they did not fall or stagger through physical frailty. That humility enabled them to put all their hope in the Lord, and they attributed nothing good to themselves with the presumption that causes downfall.
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).

Verse by verse notes

You can find more detailed notes on this psalm by following the following links:
Or you can go on to Psalm 124.


  1. Thank you for your fine work. I appreciate it and read your posts with eagerness. A question I have never been able to answer sufficiently for myself. Why, in the traditional final blessing at a pontifical Mass, are verse 8 from this psalm and verse 2 from psalm 113 (Hebrew) used? Why those particular verses in the liturgical context? I am aware of the history of appending various psalm verses, etc. by why did those TWO in particular survive, as it were? what is the specific connection with the pontifical blessing/Mass? Thank you.

    1. Thank you Deacon.

      But I'm afraid I don't know the answer to the blessing, an intriguing puzzle!