Thursday, 8 March 2012

Psalm 118 Heth: Our portion is God; God’s portion is the Church

Today I want to move to the next stanza of Psalm 118, which in the Hebrew starts with the letter Heth. In the Benedictine Office it marks the start of Sunday Sext; in the Roman 1962, it is said at Sunday Terce.

And on this one, Pope Benedict XVI has provided extensive catechesis on the first verse, Verse 57 of the Psalm, that is well worth reading. So today I want to present and reflect on his comments which go to the commitment we must make as Christians; and over the next two days I’ll look at the rest of the verses of this important stanza.

My portion it is...

Here is verse 57:

57 Portio mea, Domine, dixi custodire legem tuam.
O Lord, my portion, I have said, I would keep your law.

The first half of the stanza follows this up with an expression of longing for God's grace:

58 I entreated your face with all my heart: have mercy on me according to your word.
59 I have thought on my ways: and turned my feet unto your testimonies.
60 I am ready, and am not troubled: that I may keep your commandments.

Our portion is God; God’s portion is the Church

Today’s verse focuses on the idea that God is our portion or inheritance. This is a mutual relationship though, for we are utterly dependent in realizing it, on God’s grace, which will come if we but pray for it, as the lesson for yesterday’s Mass (Wednesday in the Second Week of Lent) reminds us. In that reading, from Esther 13, Mordecai prayed to God imploring him to save the Israelites, depicting them – and for us the Church – from the destruction they faced:

“And now, O Lord, O king, O God of Abraham, have mercy on your people, because our enemies resolve to destroy us, and extinguish your inheritance. Despise not your portion, which you have redeemed for yourself out of Egypt. Hear my supplication, and be merciful to your lot and inheritance, and turn our mourning into joy, that we may live and praise your name, O Lord, and shut not the mouths of them that sing to you.”

God, in other words, has chosen his Church and called us into it, and we in turn must actively respond, and choose him over all other things.

The idea that God is the portion or inheritance of the psalmist features in several other of the psalms, two of which (Psalms 15 and 141) are explicitly attributed in Scripture to King David. Pope Benedict XVI comments:

“In other Psalms too the person praying affirms that the Lord is his “portion”, his inheritance: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup”, Psalm 16[15] says. “God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever” is the protestation of faith of the faithful person in Psalm 73 [72]: v. 26b, and again, in Psalm 142[141], the Psalmist cries to the Lord: “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living” (v. 5b).”

The priestly portion

In the Old Testament, the Pope notes, the notion of God as the ‘portion’ elsewhere generally has a particular application to priests:

“This term “portion” calls to mind the event of the division of the promised land between the tribes of Israel, when no piece of land was assigned to the Levites because their “portion” was the Lord himself. Two texts of the Pentateuch, using the term in question, are explicit in this regard, the Lord said to Aaron: “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel”, as the Book of Numbers (18:20) declares and as Deuteronomy reaffirms “Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him” (Deut 10:9; cf. Deut 18:2; Josh 13:33; Ezek 44:28).

The Priests, who belong to the tribe of Levi cannot be landowners in the land that God was to bequeath as a legacy to his people, thus bringing to completion the promise he had made to Abraham (cf. Gen 12:1-7). The ownership of land, a fundamental element for permanence and for survival, was a sign of blessing because it presupposed the possibility of building a house, of raising children, of cultivating the fields and of living on the produce of the earth.

Well, the Levites, mediators of the sacred and of the divine blessing, unlike the other Israelites could not own possessions, this external sign of blessing and source of subsistence. Totally dedicated to the Lord, they had to live on him alone, reliant on his provident love and on the generosity of their brethren without any other inheritance since God was their portion, God was the land that enabled them to live to the full.”

Pope Benedict draws out the implications of this verse first for priests today, who have embraced the choice of celibacy:

“Dear brothers and sisters, these verses are also of great importance for all of us. First of all for priests, who are called to live on the Lord and his word alone with no other means of security, with him as their one possession and as their only source of true life. In this light one understands the free choice of celibacy for the Kingdom of Heaven in order to rediscover it in its beauty and power.”

A priestly people

It is worth noting however that the person speaking in this psalm is almost certainly not a priest: while the psalm is not explicitly attributed to David, the general consensus is that he did in fact compose it. In any case, as noted above, David certainly did appropriate the sentiment to himself in other psalms. Pope Benedict continues:

“The person praying in Psalm 119 then applies this reality to himself: “the Lord is my portion”. His love for God and for his word leads him to make the radical decision to have the Lord as his one possession and also to treasure his words as a precious gift more valuable than any legacy or earthly possession. There are two different ways in which our verse may be translated and it could also be translated as “my portion Lord, as I have said, is to preserve your words”. The two translations are not contradictory but on the contrary complete each other: the Psalmist meant that his portion was the Lord but that preserving the divine words was also part of his inheritance, as he was to say later in v. 111: “your testimonies are my heritage for ever; yea, they are the joy of my heart”. This is the happiness of the Psalmist, like the Levites, he has been given the word of God as his portion, his inheritance.”

But he also points to their importance for us all:

“Yet these verses are also important for all the faithful, the People of God that belong to him alone, “a kingdom and priests” for the Lord (cf. 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 1:6, 5:10), called to the radicalism of the Gospel, witnesses of the life brought by Christ, the new and definitive “High Priest” who gave himself as a sacrifice for the salvation of the world (cf. Heb 2:17; 4:14-16; 5:5-10; 9, 11ff.). The Lord and his word: these are our “land”, in which to live in communion and in joy.

Let us therefore permit the Lord to instil this love for his word in our hearts and to grant that we may always place him and his holy will at the centre of our life. Let us ask that our prayers and the whole of our life be illuminated by the word of God, the lamp to light our footsteps and a light on our path, as Psalm 119 (cf. 105) says, so that we may walk safely in the land of men. And may Mary, who generously welcomed the Word, be our guide and comfort, the polestar that indicates the way to happiness.

Then we too shall be able to rejoice in our prayers, like the praying person of Psalm 16, in the unexpected gifts of the Lord and in the undeserved legacy that fell to us: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup... the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage” (Ps 16:5, 6).”


57 Portio mea, Domine, dixi custodire legem tuam.
58 Deprecatus sum faciem tuam in toto corde meo; miserere mei secundum eloquium tuum. 59 Cogitavi vias meas, et converti pedes meos in testimonia tua.
60 Paratus sum, et non sum turbatus, ut custodiam mandata tua.
61 Funes peccatorum circumplexi sunt me, et legem tuam non sum oblitus.
62 Media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi, super judicia justificationis tuæ.
63 Particeps ego sum omnium timentium te, et custodientium mandata tua.
64 Misericordia tua, Domine, plena est terra; justificationes tuas doce me.

57 O Lord, my portion, I have said, I would keep your law.
58 I entreated your face with all my heart: have mercy on me according to your word.
59 I have thought on my ways: and turned my feet unto your testimonies.
60 I am ready, and am not troubled: that I may keep your commandments.
61 The cords of the wicked have encompassed me: but I have not forgotten your law.
62 I rose at midnight to give praise to you; for the judgments of your justification.
63 I am a partaker with all them that fear you, and that keep your commandments.
64 The earth, O Lord, is full of your mercy: teach me your justifications.

And now enjoy an aria from one of my favourite Bach Cantatas, which so beautifully expresses the sense of longing in these verses.  The opening words are, When will you come, my saviour?  I come, your portion...

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