Saturday, 16 April 2011

Introduction to Psalm 142

David fleeing from Absalom, folio 72r
Belles Heures of Jean de France*
Today, I want to start the last stretch of this Lent series with an introduction to the last of the seven penitential psalms, Psalm 142 (143).

Psalm 142, like Psalm 129, the De Profundis, that proceeds it in this grouping, starts with the psalmist calling out from the last of his strength. Psalm 129 ended by looking forward to redemption through Our Lord; this psalm takes us a step further, to the coming of the Holy Spirit to guide us in God’s ways, and the eventual defeat of evil.

The text

First, read through the psalm again. You can find the Vulgate and the first part of a setting of it by Lassus here (the link to the second half is below). The English translation, following as usual the Vulgate arrangement of verses for liturgical use, is:

“Hear, O Lord, my prayer: give ear to my supplication in your truth: hear me in your justice.
And enter not into judgment with your servant: for in your sight no man living shall be justified.
For the enemy has persecuted my soul: he has brought down my life to the earth.
He has made me to dwell in darkness as those that have been dead of old: And my spirit is in anguish within me: my heart within me is troubled.
I remembered the days of old, I meditated on all your works: I meditated upon the works of your hands.
I stretched forth my hands to you: my soul is as earth without water unto you.
Hear me speedily, O Lord: my spirit has fainted away.
Turn not away your face from me, lest I be like unto them that go down into the pit.
Cause me to hear your mercy in the morning; for in you have I hoped.
Make the way known to me, wherein I should walk: for I have lifted up my soul to you.
Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord, to you have I fled: Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Your good spirit shall lead me into the right land: For your name's sake, O Lord, you will quicken me in your justice.
You will bring my soul out of trouble: And in your mercy you will destroy my enemies.
And you will cut off all them that afflict my soul: for I am your servant.”

Psalm 142, Folio 72r*


Like Psalm 129, many modern commentators see Psalm 142 as reflecting the people of Israel at the time of the Exile, suggesting that it be thought of as Davidic in the sense of reflecting his ideas and style rather than strictly being of his authorship. The Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint, however, both clearly ascribe this psalm to David. And the Vulgate goes a step further, and adds a descriptor suggesting that it is set at the time described in 2 Kings 17 when King David took to the hills, pursued by his son Absalom and his rebellious army, as depicted in the picture above.

Nonetheless, this context should probably be regarded as purely speculative, particularly given that few of the major commentators seem to make much of it, preferring to see it as about David in a more generic sense, particularly as a type of Our Lord. St Augustine, for example, sees the psalm primarily as a prophesy of Our Lord’s coming.   In fact, in the Divine Office this psalm is said at Lauds because of its plea for mercy in the morning (verse 9) – but the morning reference is symbolic as well: the person dwelling in darkness, in the shadow of death (vs 4), looks to the light of Christ’s rising. Indeed, the psalm is used at the Ordinary Form Easter Vigil presumably for this very reason.

Key themes

Psalm 142, fittingly for the final psalm in the set, picks up a number of the themes that run through some or all of the penitential psalms: the dire nature of the psalmist’s personal situation; the sense of restlessness of a soul separated from God; and above all the sense that God has abandoned him on account of his sin.

The psalmist also develops further the idea set out in previous psalms that no one could truly withstand God’s judgment were it to be exercized strictly. As Pope John Paul II points out in his catechesis on this psalm:

“The text that we want to examine today was particularly dear to St Paul, who detected in it a radical sinfulness of every human creature: "for no man living is righteous before you, (O Lord)" (v. 2). This thought is used by the Apostle as the foundation of his teaching on sin and grace (cf. Gal 2: 16; Rm 3: 20).”

The true core of the psalm, though, it seems to me, at least in the context of the penitential psalms, is the psalmist’s fervent desire to be with God, vividly expressed in verse 6, where he compares his soul to land parched dry by drought. And it is the means by which he proposes this drought be brought to an end that I want to focus on in the next few parts of this mini-series.

The last few verses, which pray for the defeat of the psalmist's enemies, can at first seem a little jarring to modern ears.  In fact the version of the Douay-Rheims I've quoted above makes them future tense rather than reflecting the subjunctive ('may he') of the Vulgate, and they are omitted altogether from the Liturgy of the Hours.  The key I think, is to interpret them in this context at least, primarily at least as a prayer for God's help in defeating our own personal demons, and overcoming sin, temptations and weaknesses with the help of God's grace.  But more on that in the next part of this mini-series.

In the meantime, enjoy the continuation of Orlando di Lasso's setting from his Septimus Psalmus Poenitentialis (you can find the first part back with the text of the psalm in Latin and English here).

* Illuminations above both from: Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, 1405–1408/9. Herman, Paul, and Jean de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum; 9 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. (23.8 x 16.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1).

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