Psalm 87:2 – Very excellent things are spoken of thee, * thou city of God.

When you and I say the psalms we must understand that we are not speaking with our own voice, but rather with the voice of Christ or of his Church.  Just as the priest at the altar during the Prayer of Consecration in the Eucharistic canon stands in the place of Christ and speaks Christ’s words in the first person singular, saying, ‘[T]his is my Body, which is given for you….this is my Blood of the new testament which is shed for you….’, so too we as the churchly body of Christ in the world say in the psalms things which we would not say ourselves as private individuals.  As private individuals we might well be reluctant to say to God, for instance, what Psalm 17 says,

Thou hast proved and visited mine heart in the night season; thou hast tried me, and shalt find no wickedness in me; * for I am utterly purposed that my mouth shall not offend.  (v. 3)

You and I cannot really say of ourselves that God shall find no wickedness in us or that we are utterly purposed that our mouths shall not offend.  When have you or I been thoroughly without wickedness?  When have you are or been utterly determined not to offend with our mouths?  Yet when we say such things in the psalms we put on our identity as members of Christ and as partakers in his life.  We may say such things because we are members of Christ’s body and bride, and as such share in Christ’s merits and perfections.  What we dare not say because of our personal qualities, we dare to say because of Christ’s qualities.

In my previous post I considered the many ways in which Christ speaks in the psalms.  In this meditation I would like us to consider the ways in which the Church speaks, or in which the Church is spoken of, in these same psalms. 

I began a moment ago with a quotation from Psalm 87.  It might help to look at this psalm as a whole.  Psalm 87 is a song of praise for Sion, which is, of course, a religious name for Jerusalem, the city of God, or of that part of Jerusalem where the tabernacle and temple of God’s worship were housed.  The psalm tells us that Sion is founded upon the holy hills; that God loves her more than any other place; that very excellent things are spoken of her; that God shall establish her; that all the world shall praise her. 

The psalm says that ‘Egypt and Babylon’, the two great powers of the ancient Middle East, know Sion, and that people in Philistia, Tyre, and Ethiopia were born in Sion.  This probably referred originally to Jews who were scattered in the dispersion in those various ancient lands, though it might also or instead refer to Gentiles from these places who converted to Judaism.  In either case the psalm seems to suggest

…a universalist message about Jerusalem.  Though in biographical fact every person is born in his or her native place…, all who come up to Zion to acclaim God’s kingship there are considered to be reborn in Zion.  (Alter, p. 207)

In any case, the Church appropriates the psalm and understands it to be a hymn about herself and her universal­ embrace.  The Church now includes, not just Jews, but also Egyptians and Babylonians and all the world.  People born in Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia and all the lands of the world, now also are born again into the spiritual Sion by the grace of baptism.  To be born in Sion is to be baptized into the body of Christ, which is the Church.  

We see this same interpretation of this psalm in the well-known hymn, ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’, which draws for its inspiration on Psalm 87 among other Old Testament texts.  So too Saint Augustine interprets this psalm as a song of the Church, symbolized by Sion.  Augustine says,

The subject of song and praise in [this] Psalm is a city, whose citizens are we, as far as we are Christians:  whence we are absent, as long as we are mortal:  whither we are tending:  through whose approaches, undiscoverable among the brakes and thorns that entangle them, the Sovereign of the city made Himself a path for us to reach it.  Walking thus in Christ, and pilgrims till we arrive, and sighing as we long for a certain ineffable repose that dwells within that city…let us chant the song of a longing heart…. (Augustine, p. 419)

So too elsewhere Augustine writes that of ‘Sion…we must not understand it of anything other than of the Church’ (Augustine, p. 3).  And again,

[T]he Church herself…is Sion:  not that one place, at first proud, afterwards taken captive; but the Sion whose shadow was that Sion…. (Augustine, p. 500)

In the psalms the city of God, the city of David, the holy city, Sion, Jerusalem, Israel, Jacob, Ephraim, and many other related places and names all can stand as symbols for the Church.  This teaching already is present in the New Testament, for the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that faithful Christians come

…unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.  (12:22ff.)

Mount Sion here is a symbol of heaven, and heaven has already begun to appear in the life of the Catholic Church.  Saint Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of ‘Sion’ builds on this idea already present in Hebrews.

When the psalms speak of Sion’s sufferings and oppressions, we should interpret this as a reference to the Church’s sufferings in the age of martyrs and to the continual suffering that Christians experience as pilgrims in this world.  ‘…Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.’ (Heb. 13:14)  As pilgrims, who are not entirely at home in this world and its cities, we long for our true home, just as the psalmist longs for Sion: 

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.  If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; yea, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.  (Ps. 87:5f.)

But not all in the psalms is suffering and longing.  The psalms also show us the glory and the splendor of the Church.  Psalm 45, for instance, tells us that ‘[t]he King’s daughter is all glorious within.’  The King’s daughter is the Church.  Again the psalm says, ‘She shall be brought unto the King in raiment of needlework:  the virgins that be her fellows shall bear her company, and shall be brought unto thee.’  This is a vision of the Church, the royal daughter, the bride, being presented to her bridegroom with all of her members.  ‘What a nuptial song!’ Saint Augustine exclaims (Augustine, p. 152).  The psalm continues, ‘Instead of thy fathers, thou shalt have children, whom thou mayest make princes in all lands.’  The fathers are old Israel.  The Church may have lost these old fathers, but in their place comes a multitude of children, princes of all the nations of the earth.  Psalm 45 is a hymn to the marriage of the Lamb and his Bride; it is a hymn to the Church and to her pentecostal spread throughout the world.

I said near the beginning of this study that I would not pursue the typical modern interest in discovering the original dates and occasions for the psalms.  Psalm 45 no doubt originally was written on the occasion of some ancient royal Israelite wedding.  But of what conceivable significance is that original, long dead occasion in comparison to the messianic nuptial song that Saint Augustine correctly hears echoing through this psalm?  Modern scholars would turn this psalm into the dead artifact of an ancient occasion with no abiding significance or interest  The allegorical interpretation present already in the New Testament and elaborated at length by Augustine and the other Fathers sees this psalm instead as charged with living significance for the Gentile Church and for all of us who are invited to the bridal Supper of the Lord.  The modern scholar would uproot the tree to stare at its roots.  The Christian instead should shelter under the tree in gratitude for its beauty and its shade.

What is true of this nuptial psalm is true of most of the psalms.  The psalms of victory have their origins, no doubt, in ancient historical doings.  But for us they more truly describe the triumph of the Church in Christ over all her foes.  The psalms of lament had their origin in ancient national setbacks and defeats, such as the exile in Babylon.  But for us they more truly describe the longing of the Church for the Second Coming and our sorrow as ‘poor banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.’  So too the cursing psalms, whatever their historical original, more truly curse the Church’s demonic enemies.  The liturgical psalms give voice to the Church’s worship and praise of God.  The psalms that review the Exodus and other events from Israel’s history concern the foreshadowings of the Church in the Old Testament.  The psalms in honor of the Law speak of the wisdom and order with which the Holy Ghost shapes and directs the Church.  From beginning to end the Psalter speaks of the Church and speaks for the Church; and speaks for us, the unworthy children of the Church, our glorious mother.  Interpreted this way, the psalms are filled with living meaning.

4 thoughts on “The Psalms. 6. Israel, New and Old: the Church in the Psalms

  1. Really appreciate these lessons. Always felt very awkward reading portions of the psalter, like your example in psalm 17. Your explanation “put me in my place”. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you. I think your sense of awkwardness or discomfort is very common. Given the frequent liturgical use of the psalms, it seems particularly important to help people be able to say them without that sense. If these post do help with that, they’ve served their purpose.

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  2. Wonderful reflection on Psalm 6. This is certainly about Holy Mother Church. Isn’t it also about Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin? I have long felt that what we say about the Blessed Virgin in her person is true of the Church, and what we say about the Church finds itself also in Our Lady. Thank you!

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