Friday, 8 April 2011

Psalm 101: An introduction

Cambridge, Harvard University, Houghton Library
MS Typ 0311, folio 88v*

Continuing my Lent series of notes to support lectio divina on and the saying of the penitential psalms, today the fifth penitential psalm, Psalm 101 (102).

The first four penitential psalms are clearly attributed to King David. Psalm 101, however, although generally depicted as by David in medieval manuscripts (probably) actually takes us into slightly different territory, namely the Jewish nation at the time of the Babylon Exile.


The psalm is set during - perhaps towards the end of  - the Exilic period, with the author seeing perhaps a glimmer of hope on the horizon.  He is frustrated, though, at his inability to worship God properly in the currently destroyed Jerusalem (some commentators, inevitably I guess in this rationalist influenced age, assume that the psalm was actually written later, rather than being prophetic.  I don't see anything in the psalm itself to support that view; quite the contrary).

Feeling isolated and lonely, surrounded by enemies who spy on him, the psalmist is nonetheless conscious of his own guilt as a cause of his depressed state of mind and wasting body, and the destruction of the nation.

Thus the author petitions for God's help in addressing his own troubles, for the promised restoration of Jerusalem, and also looks forward to the end of this world, and the creation of the new heaven and earth at the end of time.


At 29 verses when arranged for liturgical use, Psalm 101 is the longest of the penitential psalms by a substantial margin. But it is also a psalm that deserves to be better known both because of its beautiful imagery, powerful storyline, and its theological importance.

In particular, it contains important verses on the eternal and unchanging nature of God, and God as creator; Hebrews uses it to support the argument for Christ’s divinity (this reading is used at the third Mass of Christmas Day); and it provides an important prophesy of the end of the world. Liturgically, several of the verses relating to the suffering individual are, as it were, put on the lips of Our Lord in the propers of the (EF) Mass for Wednesday of Holy Week. But it is the first verse (common to a few psalms) that will be most familiar to most people, as they are regularly used in the Mass, Office and other liturgical contexts to ask God’s help.

The text

So first, take a few minutes to read it through again. You can find the Vulgate and a setting of the psalm here. Here is the English by way of a refresher:

"Hear, O Lord, my prayer: and let my cry come to you. Turn not away your face from me: in the day when I am in trouble, incline your ear to me. In what day soever I shall call upon you, hear me speedily.

For my days are vanished like smoke, and my bones are grown dry like fuel for the fire. I am smitten as grass, and my heart is withered: because I forgot to eat my bread. Through the voice of my groaning, my bone has cleaved to my flesh.

I have become like to a pelican of the wilderness: I am like a night raven in the house. I have watched, and have become as a sparrow all alone on the housetop. All the day long my enemies reproached me: and they that praised me did swear against me.

For I ate ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping. Because of your anger and indignation: for having lifted me up you have thrown me down. My days have declined like a shadow, and I am withered like grass.

But you, O Lord, endure for ever: and your memorial to all generations. You shall arise and have mercy on Sion: for it is time to have mercy on it, for the time has come. For the stones thereof have pleased your servants: and they shall have pity on the earth thereof.

All the Gentiles shall fear your name, O Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory. For the Lord has built up Sion: and he shall be seen in his glory. He has had regard to the prayer of the humble: and he has not despised their petition. Let these things be written unto another generation: and the people that shall be created shall praise the Lord: Because he has looked forth from his high sanctuary: from heaven the Lord has looked upon the earth. That he might hear the groans of them that are in fetters: that he might release the children of the slain: That they may declare the name of the Lord in Sion: and his praise in Jerusalem; when the people assemble together, and kings, to serve the Lord.

He answered him in the way of his strength: Declare unto me the fewness of my days. Call me not away in the midst of my days: your years are unto generation and generation.

In the beginning, O Lord, you founded the earth: and the heavens are the works of your hands. They shall perish but you remain: and all of them shall grow old like a garment: And as a vesture you shall change them, and they shall be changed. But you are always the selfsame, and your years shall not fail. The children of your servants shall continue and their seed shall be directed for ever."

Unity of the psalm?

Form critics continue to be divided on whether or not there are actually two different poems conflated here, with the middle section an interpolation: the Ancient Christian Commentaries series goes so far as to split the psalm in two and provide separate overviews of the patristic commentaries for each part. Opinions continue to differ on this however.

Some have suggested that the original lament has been adapted here and there for communal use. Personally, however, I’m with those who argue that the entire psalm is an individual’s lament, with the poet first complaining about his own suffering, but then naturally progressing to very properly showing a concern for the fate Israel as much as his own personal destiny.  Indeed, he hopes that the two might be intertwined, so that he lives to see the restoration of Jerusalem.

artist Facundus, 1047
Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Ms Vit.14.2, f°253v

Key themes

Though there are some sudden transitions, the psalm’s themes do seem to me to be closely interrelated, as will hopefully become clearer as this mini-series progresses!

The overall theme of the psalm, in my view, is the re-creation of both ourselves individually; the re-creation of Israel, as a nation, and of course in the Church; and of the new heaven and earth after the Last Judgment.

God, the psalmist states, is immutable, unchanging and unchangeable. We, however, both individually and collectively, are on a long, hard journey; and to achieve our destiny we need God’s merciful, transforming grace.

More in the next part of this series.  In the meantime, some Purcell to meditate by...

1 comment:

darryn said...

Marvellous music! It is said that just as Bach could work magic with the German language, the monks with Latin in the chant, so equally Henry Purcell could do so with the English language in music.