November 2009 - Vol. 34
pray the Psalms is to pray them in Jesus’ name,
Each week the Church recites her way through the Psalter, section by section, at the various canonical Hours throughout the days and even nights. Each section is called a kathisma, the word indicating that one may be seated for the recitation. This recitation begins on Saturday evening, at the "first Vespers" for Sunday, when we chant the first kathisma (Psalms 1-8).
Thus, the Church's liturgical week normally begins with the opening words of Psalm I: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the godless, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful." Like the Sermon on the Mount, the Book of Psalms commences with a "beatitude," a pronunciation of the blessings of God on the just man. The original Hebrew is delicious to pronounce at this point-"oh, the blessings of the man who walks not. ..” - ‘ashrei ha’ish 'asher lo halak.
Three postures are considered: walking, standing, and sitting. There are three places the just man will not be found: following the counsel of the godless, standing in the way that sinners go, seated among the scoffers. Warnings against these three categories are found all through the Bible's wisdom literature, but the scoffers (letsim) appear here as the very climax of evil. Outside of this verse and Isaiah 29:20, "scoffer" is found only in the Book of Proverbs (14 times) and is a synonym for the consummate fool.
What is warned against in verse I is evil counsel (etsah), an idea that appears all through Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Job, as well as in many narrative passages, such as "the counsel of Ahithophel" in 2 Samuel 16-17, the "counsel of the young men" in I Kings 12:14, etc. Many individuals in the Bible are led astray by following evil counsel: Absalom, Rehoboam, Sennacherib (cf 2 Kings 18-20; Isaiah 36:5), Zedekiah, Ahaziah (2 Chronicles 22:5), Amnon (counseled by Jonadab in 2 Samuel 13), the Sanhedrin under Caiaphas, and so on.
It is significant, then, that the Book of Psalms (and hence the liturgical week) commences with a consideration of certain wisdom themes. So far, the emphasis is entirely negative - that is, we are told what the just man does not do. Now just what does the just man do?
"He delights in the law of the Lord, and on that Law does he meditate day and night." Here is our program for the week: at various times during the day and even the night to enjoy (hepets) med itation on God's Law. (Sf. Paul also speaks of "delighting" in the Law of the Lord -- Romans 7:22). The "meditation" could also be translated as "musing," and it is a source of pleasure "amusing." This is how the week of prayer will be spent, our psalm is saying: in the enjoyment of meditation.
And to what does this constant meditation lead? "And he shall be like the tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth his fruit in his season." Already, in the opening lines of the liturgical week, we are told that this is a matter of observing seasons. The habit of prayer, this incessant meditation on God's Law, is not supposed to be something immediately useful. Trees do not bear fruit right away. They first must eat amply of the earth and drink deeply of its water. Such nourishment must serve first to build up the tree. The fruit will come later on, when it is supposed to. The life of Christian prayer and meditation knows nothing of instant holiness; it is all a matter of perseverance and patience. Some trees do not even begin to bear fruit for many years.
The idea of the fruit-bearing tree as image of the just man is found elsewhere in the Bible, particularly Psalm 91 (92):13-15. By way of comparison, we observe that the latter psalm, like this one, portrays a contrast between the wicked who perish and the just who abide. Thus, the liturgical week begins with a wisdom format.
But there is a great deal more here. Just who
is this "blessed man" of whom the psalmist speaks? It is not man in general.
In truth, it really is not simply a "human being." The underlying words,
here translated as "man," are emphatically masculine-that is, gender specific-in
the original Hebrew (ish), as well as the Greek (aner) and
Latin (vir) versions. They are not the Hebrew (adam) and Greek (anthropos)
nouns accurately translated as "human being." The "man" of reference here
is a particular man. According to the Fathers of the Church, he is the
one Mediator between God and man, the Man Jesus Christ. The Law of the
Lord, which is to be our delight and meditation day and night, finds its
meaning only in Him. Christ is the one who fulfills it, and He is the key
to its understanding.
This article is excerpted from the book Christ in the Psalms, written by Patrick Henry Reardon, Copyright © 2002, published by Conciliar Press, Ben Lomond, California. Used with permission.
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