Monday, March 6, 2017

I will not fear what man can do to me - Psalm 120 (Gradual Psalm No 2)

Folio 150r: Twee zogenoemde zoömorfe initialen. De beide openingsletters zijn grotendeels opgebouwd uit (fantasie)dieren. De bovenste initiaal L is van psalm 120 “Levavi oculos meos” (“Ik sla mijn ogen op”). De tweede initiaal, eveneens een L, is van psalm 121 “Letatus sum” (“Verheugd ben ik”).
Psalter of Lodewijk de Heilige, c1190

The second of the Gradual Psalms, Psalm 120, is also the second psalm of Terce during the week in the Benedictine Office.  It repeatedly stresses the strength of God's protection of us.

Psalm 120: Levávi óculos meos in montes
Canticum graduum.

1  Levávi óculos meos in montes, * unde véniet auxílium mihi.
I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains, from whence help shall come to me.
2  Auxílium meum a Dómino, * qui fecit cælum et terram.
2 My help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3  Non det in commotiónem pedem tuum: * neque dormítet qui custódit te.
3 May he not suffer your foot to be moved: neither let him slumber that keeps you.
4  Ecce, non dormitábit neque dórmiet, * qui custódit Israël.
4 Behold he shall neither slumber nor sleep, that keeps Israel.
5  Dóminus custódit te, Dóminus protéctio tua, * super manum déxteram tuam.
5 The Lord is your keeper, the Lord is your protection upon your right hand.
6  Per diem sol non uret te: * neque luna per noctem.
6 The sun shall not burn you by day: nor the moon by night.
7  Dóminus custódit te ab omni malo: * custódiat ánimam tuam Dóminus.
7 The Lord keeps you from all evil: may the Lord keep your soul.
8  Dóminus custódiat intróitum tuum, et éxitum tuum: * ex hoc nunc, et usque in sæculum.
8 May the Lord keep your coming in and your going out; from henceforth now and for ever.

Liturgical uses

As for the previous Gradual Psalm, Psalm 120 features in many forms of the Office, including the Little Office of Our Lady and the Office of the Dead.  In the latter context, the key verse is, I think, the last one: our coming in (to this world) and goings out from it are under God’s loving watch, and he will help us not to stumble at the end.

Ask for grace

In the previous psalm, the speaker had become restless with the realization that he is living in exile, far from God.

In this psalm, the speaker has decided to set out on the journey to Sion, and therefore asks for grace to accompany him on his journey, for as St Benedict instructs in the Prologue to his Rule, whatever good work you undertake, first pray to God asking him to perfect your efforts.

Cassiodorus comments on the pilgrim's progress so far:
Initially the prophet is afflicted, like the tax-collector who beat his breast and did not raise his eyes to heaven. He begs to be delivered from wicked lips and a deceitful tongue. But now he has recovered his breath and advanced to the second step. He has raised his eyes to the mountains, that is, to the holy intercessors by whose support he sought to win heavenly blessings.
Christological reading?

The most obvious way of reading this psalm is as a dialogue between the would be pilgrim and his supporters, or perhaps within the mind of the pilgrim, the person seeking to make the spiritual ascent.  He first asks where does my help come from, and gets the response, it comes from the creator, and so forth.

But we can also read it, I think, as a commentary on Christ's steadfast endurance as he faced his persecutors: fully knowing what was coming he didn't stumble or flinch; the God-man did not sleep, and though own perseverance, we are taught ' that we may confidently say: The Lord is my helper: I will not fear what man shall do to me'. (Hebrews 13:6)

Cultivate a longing for heaven

Verse 1 of Psalm 120 remind us that just as the traveller looks frequently in the direction he is travelling in, straining to catch a glimpse of his destination, so we should turn frequently, in our meditations, to the subject of heaven and the protection God affords those committed to him.

Verse 2 is a reminder that God will help us along the way, and help us to avoid the temptations that might tempt us to stop short of our true goal, and substitute other false gods, such as money, power and pleasure: the only true God is the creator of everything.

Strength of God's protection

The key theme of this psalm, though, is the protection God offers the pilgrim – the verb custodire, meaning to guard or protect, is used six times in the course of eight verses, and combines with other several other synonyms for God’s help.

The psalm emphasizes that this protection is always with us: day and night; in our our comings and our goings.

And it echoes in many ways, the petitions of the Lord’s prayer, asking that we not fall into temptation (our foot not be moved, v3), that we protected from all evil (v7), and that we not be led astray (v5&8).

Further reading

I have previously provided notes on this psalm in the context of the Office of the Dead and in a verse by verse series:
Or you can go on to Psalm 121.

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