Friday, March 10, 2017

Introduction to Psalm 124 (Gradual Psalm No 6/1)


Image result for jerusalem image

Psalm 124 is the sixth of the Gradual psalms, and the first of the second block of five when the psalms are said as a devotion.  In its devotional use, this block of psalms is traditionally offered for the forgiveness of our own sins.  In the Benedictine Office, it is the last psalm of Sext on Tuesday to Saturday.

The image the Psalm opens with is of the mountains surrounding Jerusalem, suggesting perhaps that the pilgrims are now nearing the holy city.  The psalm is above all, though, a reminder of the message of Christ's crucifixion on the cross at this hour: it enjoins us to trust in God, as Pope Benedict XVI noted:
... the Psalm instils deep trust in the soul. This is a powerful help in facing difficult situations when the external crisis of loneliness, irony and contempt of believers is associated with the interior crisis that consists of discouragement, mediocrity and weariness. We know this situation, but the Psalm tells us that if we have trust, we are stronger than these evils…

Psalm 124 - Gradual Psalm No 6, Tuesday to Saturday Sext
Vulgate
Douay-Rheims
Canticum graduum.

1 Qui confídunt in Dómino, sicut mons Sion: * non commovébitur in ætérnum, qui hábitat in Jerúsalem.
They that trust in the Lord shall be as mount Sion: he shall not be moved for ever that dwells 2 in Jerusalem.
2  Montes in circúitu ejus: * et Dóminus in circúitu pópuli sui, ex hoc nunc et usque in sæculum.
Mountains are round about it: so the Lord is round about his people from henceforth now and for ever.
3  Quia non relínquet Dóminus virgam peccatórum super sortem justórum: * ut non exténdant justi ad iniquitátem manus suas.
3 For the Lord will not leave the rod of sinners upon the lot of the just: that the just may not stretch forth their hands to iniquity.
4  Bénefac, Dómine, bonis, * et rectis corde.
4 Do good, O Lord, to those that are good, and to the upright of heart.
5  Declinántes autem in obligatiónes addúcet Dóminus cum operántibus iniquitátem: * pax super Israël.
5 But such as turn aside into bonds, the Lord shall lead out with the workers of iniquity: peace upon Israel.






The need for grace

One of the key messages of this psalm is the need for grace: we cannot reach heaven through our own efforts; rather we need to entrust our efforts and very selves to God.  Cassiodorus, for example commented:
The Lord was aware of the unstable progress of human weakness, so He fashioned this path by the steps, so to say, of the virtues, so that our longing should strive more securely for the heights, since our feet were placed on level terrain. This is how we set foot on the ridges afforded by the steps, so that we do not confront a sloping ascent. But though this saving flight of steps is seen to be constructed with suitable assistance, we do not stand firmly upright unless we are kept there by the Lord's control. 
Cassiodorus also makes a nice contribution, in his commentary on this psalm, to resolving the seeming contradiction between the Christian life as pilgrimage, and the virtue of monastic stability:
The ascent, however, is mental and not physical. We mount these steps more successfully by remaining seated in the one place, withdrawn in the location of our tiny cell, than if we flit before the faces of men. The prophet cries that we must trust in the Lord so that we may not toil in vain....
Focus on eternity

The central theme of this psalm is the need to entrust ourselves to the eternal God's mercy and justice.
It makes a key contrast between God who is eternal and unchangeable; and the sinners who make our life difficult in the short term.

St Augustine, for example, sees it as encouraging us to turn away from the false promises of this world, and focus instead on eternity:
This Psalm, belonging to the number of the Songs of Degrees, teaches us, while we ascend and raise our minds unto the Lord our God in loving charity and piety, not to fix our gaze upon men who are prosperous in this world, with a happiness that is false and unstable, and altogether seductive; where they cherish nothing save pride, and their heart freezes up against God, and is made hard against the shower of His grace, so that it bears not fruit....
The psalm reminds us not to look for prosperity and power in the world now, but to seek to do God, so that God will reward us in kind.

Dealing with difficulties

The psalm tells us that all those who trust in God will be protected by him from falling; all we need to do is place our trust in God, as Pope Benedict XVI commented in a General Audience on the psalm:
Thus, the Psalm instils deep trust in the soul. This is a powerful help in facing difficult situations when the external crisis of loneliness, irony and contempt of believers is associated with the interior crisis that consists of discouragement, mediocrity and weariness. We know this situation, but the Psalm tells us that if we have trust, we are stronger than these evils…
In the next post, I will start looking at this psalm verse by verse.

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