Much of this material formed my talk to the Prayer Book Society this Lent and the material on Psalm 119 has appeared in several places on blogs previously.
Fr Richard Peers SMMS
Towards the mercy-seat: the psalms in Christian life
Two years ago my mother died.
It was wonderful to be able to be around her bed as she breathed her last breath.
I am even more conscious of that privilege now that most people are not able to have their loved with them as they die. This is very real for you and also for my family, news of my dad dying coming on Palm Sunday afternoon.
As my mother died my brother and sister and I prayed the Rosary together and it was very beautiful to see her lips move with the prayers, so familiar to her, even though she could not make any sound.
Last words are rightly important. Jesus’s final words, the famous ‘seven last words’ are rightly treasured and meditated on by Christians. the fact that he chose words from the psalms My God, my God why have you forsaken me. is not insignificant.
Jesus in his dying breath gifts us the book of psalms as the very foundation of Christian prayer.
The apostolic church when it met together prayed with ‘hymns and psalms’.
Christians at all times and in all places have prayed the psalms, sanctifying time with the daily round of psalmody.
Psalms are, of course, the bread and butter of all Christian prayer but especially of the monastic life which is, after all. just an intensification, a living out of the Christian, the baptised life.
In my three talks this week I am going to reflect on the psalms. Today on praying Jesus in the psalms, tomorrow on the place of mercy in the psalms and on Wednesday a close reading of one psalm, psalm 28, from which, in the Coverdale, Book of Common Prayer version we get this lovely phrase: “towards the mercy seat” which is the overall title for my talks.
I love the psalms. I hope that i communicate something to you of how rich, delightful and lasting the psalms are for prayer; how much they delight me every single day with their complexity and density. I have been praying the psalms seriously for over 40 years and I never tire of them; I endlessly find new things in them; they constantly speak in me and for me in new ways. Most of all, I find Jesus in them. Over and over again I hear him speaking; over and over again they speak of Jesus.
Of course, that might seem odd. The psalms were written some many centuries before Jesus.
Finding Jesus in the psalms , praying Jesus in the psalms is essential to our Christian praying of the psalms. these are not simply ancient texts hallowed by use over the centuries. they are living prayers which give us the words to pray; which pray in Jesus, of Jesus and to Jesus.
The psalms are not simple. If they were they would become dull very quickly. We need to work at them. they are serious stuff. I always have a commentary by my prayer stall. John Eaton on the psalms is excellent. But if I could recommend one thing to read on the psalms it is Rowan Williams book ‘On Augustine’ and only one Chapter in that book, the second chapter on Augustin’;e reading of the psalms. I have sent M. Katherine a series of extracts from that chapter which pick up the key themes.
Here are two of the most significant things that Rowan has to say about Augustine’s reading of the psalms:
“Singing the Psalms … becomes a means of learning what it is to inhabit the Body of Christ and to be caught up in Christ’s prayer. Just as Christ makes his own our lament, our penitence and our fear by adopting the human condition in all its tragic fullness as the material of his Body, so we are inevitably identified with what he says to his Father as God (e.g. en.Ps. 30 (ii) 3–4; 74.4; 142.3). Our relation to Christ is manifested as multi-layered: ‘He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our Head, he is prayed to by us as our God’ (en.Ps. 85.1). The meaning of our salvation is that we are included in his life, given the right to speak with his divine voice, reassured that what our human voices say out of darkness and suffering has been owned by him as his voice, so that it may in some way be opened to the life of God for healing or forgiveness.”
Listen to that key sentence again:
‘He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our Head, he is prayed to by us as our God.’
When we pray as Christians we pray as Christ. We are the body of Christ, every baptised person prays in persona Christi.
And Rowan goes on:
“The church’s worship … is not accidental or marginal to the church’s very being. Obviously Augustine has much to say about the Eucharist as the prime locus for discovering ourselves as the Body; nevertheless, the singing of the Psalms becomes the most immediate routine means of identifying with the voice of Christ.”
Listen to that final sentence again:
“the singing of the Psalms becomes the most immediate routine means of identifying with the voice of Christ.”
Our praying of the psalms is the most immediate routine means. Our daily bread.
So, let’s look at one psalm together now. If you have your Office book or a Bible in front of you turn to the book of psalms and find Psalm 119.
Until a reform of the liturgy in 1910 Psalm 119 was prayed in its entirety every day at the Little Hours of the Office: prime, terce, Sext and None. by all who used the Roman Breviary. Many Anglican religious communities did this and continued to do so in to the 1960s and beyond. In the Rule of St Benedict this was the pattern on Sundays but on other days the psalms of Ascent were used.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm with 176 verses. It is an alphabet acrostic with every verse of each section beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Evert verse except one (122) also contains a synonym for the Torah, the law.
But we should not think of the ;aw as a set of regulations. Torah is a much richer word than that. If you have ever seen Jews dancing with the Torah scrolls in the synagogue or reaching out to touch and kiss the scrolls you will know the passionate devotion and love felt for Torah.
And this is key to a Christian praying of the psalms.
Jesus said I am the way the truth and the life John 14:16.
In Psalm 119 Torah is described as the Way: nine times; the truth 7 times and as life 12 times.
When Jesus says this he is saying that he is the living Torah; Torah made flesh if you like.
And this is how we can pray this psalm. Richard Meux Benson reviver of the religious life in the Church of England and former student of Christ Church where I am writing from now suggests that a form of devotion we could use is pray this psalm replacing the synonyms for Torah with the holy Name of Jesus.
Here is an example secion:
153 Under affliction see me and rescue me,
for I have not forgotten Jesus.
154 Uphold my cause, and deliver me;
true to Jesus, grant me life.
155 Unknown your mercy to the sinner
who do not study Jesus.
156 Unnumbered, Lord, are your blessings;
according to Jesus grant me life.
157 Under all the assaults of my oppressors,
I keep true to Jesus.
158 Unhappy I looked at the faithless
because they did not keep Jesus.
159 Up, Lord, and witness the love I bear Jesus;
in your kindness preserve my life.
160 Unchanging truth is your Word’s fountain-head,
Jesus is just.
One of my favourite short commentaries on Psalm 119 is by Jonathan Graham who was a monk at Mirfield.
In this quotation he captures something profoundly special for me about the praying of this psalm.
“Psalm 119 is a love song.
Not a passionate love song; certainly not.
It is not the song of love at first sight,
nor of the bitter sweet of emotion and desire.
It is the song of happy married life.
That is not to say that it is, literally, the song of a poet happily wedded; but it breathes all the way through
the charmed monotony of a life vowed to another;
it repeats with endless variety and sweet restraint
the simple inexpressible truth that can never grow weary or stale
– I love thee. Thou, thee, thine;
every verse of the poem, except the three which introduce it,
contains thou, thee or thine.
And a very large number of them echo: I, me, mine.
Well might its author find the sum total of his song in the high priestly prayer of Jesus:
All mine are thine and thine are mine.”
May the praying of the psalms teach us this charmed monotony of a life vowed to Jesus in the vows of baptism, in the vows of religious life.
As we know well, the psalms contain the whole of human experience: lament and praise; passion and longing; victory and defeat; depression and ecstasy. An even, as we say in yesterday’s talk, in Psalm 119 the gentle and charmed monotony of daily life.
The psalms are compendium of human experience; an encyclopedia of our human-ness. By praying the psalms day by day we are giving prayerful voice to the sentiment that “nothing human is alien to me”.
In the proclamation of the Christian faith in our time we face an enormous hurdle in what I like to think of as the existentialist fallacy; the myth that we are merely accidental organisms existing in isolation from one another. Christianity relies on our having a shared, common humanity; that the stuff, the material of which we are made is something that we have in common with every human being that has ever and will ver exist. This is important because without it the incarnation is unnecessary and the redemption wrought by the cross and resurrection can have no possible effect on us.
We are saved only because our common human-ness is saved.
That human-ness has its roots in the biblical account of creation where God creates us in our own image and likeness. Again, this is really important because it both means that God’s first revelation of God-ness is in our own being but also that when God became man in Jesus the gulf is at the same time immense and yet not impossible. God could become human because it was always going to be a good fit, to use clumsy language. When mystical theology speaks of our becoming divine, our divinisation, the gulf is not impossible to bridge because we are already God shaped.
So when we recite the psalms they both help us to realise our human-ness and remind us that there is something in that which correlates closely to divine nature.
For many years i have taught mindfulness meditation to children and adults. Simple mindfulness of breathing and occasional loving-kindness visualisations. Adults are always rather self-conscious about describing their experience but children speak very powerfully about it. Over and over again i have heard children say two things: It is like there is someone there.” and “Its’s like coming home, like I belong.”.
This is exactly right, our busy-ness the many things which we pass the time and fill our days all too easily alienate us from ourselves. So that we experience the nausea that the existentialists identify.
Yet when we sit in stillness we can ‘come home’ to our basic humanity. And we can find that there is someone there.
The psalms function like that too. By repeating them over and over again we come home to being human and we find in their narration that Someone who is the constant in the story: God.
That recitation of the psalms either in order, as in the Prayer Book Office, or in some other arrangement has an objectivity to it that is important. Our common human-ness is not based on any individual’s ability to empathise with others. Nor is based on feeling that feelings that are expressed. The psalms simply reflect a human experience that is real, that exists, that is.
So I have described how the events that we are celebrating in this Holy Week rely on our common humanity to be efficacious, to have any effect. They also rely on another aspect of our human nature that is essential to make redemption not only possible, that is, of course, sin.
Sin is why we need saving. It is what makes salvation necessary.
In our world sin is not very fashionable. We prefer a more therapeutic understanding human nature. I believe therapies of many kinds are important and helpful, but if we don’t recognise sin in ourselves we will find it impossible to understand the Christian faith let alone participate in salvation.
The psalms of course are full of sins. The psalms of repentance; the penitential psalms; psalms that express anger and hatred and wish destruction on our enemies. I very much recommend that you pray those psalms too and don’t omit them as many modern arrangements of psalms for worship do. If we whitewash over human nature we are missing out on a crucial part of the picture.
When we think of sin we have a tendency to think of it in a legalistic kind of ways; as lists of rule-breaking; particular individual things that we wrong. This is, of course, true. We all commit sins; we all do break the rules.
But sin is more like the fundamental orientation of our lives. A picture that I find helpful is of a bicycle on which the front wheel is not properly aligned with the handle-bar. If you have ever tried to ride a bike in that state you will know how difficult it is. It is impossible to cycle in a straight line no matter how hard we try.
We are sinners.
That is who we are and who we will remain as long as we live.
The psalms show us how God reacts to the fact our sinfulness. It is in a simple Hebrew word, hesed (pronounced with a soft ‘ch’ at the start like Scottish loch).
It occurs an amazing 127 times in the book of Psalms in contrast to the next books where it occurs most often 1 Samuel and Genesis where it occurs a mere 11 times each.
hesed is translated a variety of ways. Most often in the Prayer Book-Coverdale psalms, as loving-kindness, but sometimes just as kindness, or mercy or goodness.
The problem with mercy is that it can all too easily sound like God’s reaction to that list of sins, a ticking off in the sense not of telling off but of forgiving each sin individually.
In fact God’s loving-kindness is much deeper and more significant than that. It embraces the whole of us, it embraces us as sinners.
Because of our culture people often come to the Confessional with deep seated self hatred. shame and loathing. I occasionally as a penance propose using a praise psalm for the sin. Praising God for the fact of sin which has brought us to the means of grace; brought us to repentance and which reveals our need for God, our need for Jesus.
I love the Jesus prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
It contains that hesed, that mercy which is God’s reaction to us.
It acknowledges that I am a sinner, and I find that tremendously liberating.
I am a sinner, I always will be a sinner, I will always need Jesus.
I don’t know if you have been able to make your confession this Lent, this Holy Week.
Allow me to set you a penance.
Read Psalm 135.
It is a great litany of hesed.
The refrain Great is his love, love without end.
His mercy endures for ever.
His hesed will never end.
Towards the mercy-seat
Read psalm 28 in the Coverdale/BCP version:
. PSALM XXVIII. Ad te, Domine.
1 Unto thee will I cry, O Lord my strength :
think no scorn of me; lest, if thou make as though thou hearest not,
I become like them that go down into the pit.
2 Hear the voice of my humble petitions, when I cry unto thee :
when I hold up my hands towards the mercy-seat of thy holy temple.
3. O pluck me not away, neither destroy me with the ungodly and wicked doers :
which speak friendly to their neighbours, but imagine mischief in their hearts.
4. Reward them according to their deeds :
and according to the wickedness of their own inventions.
5. Recompense them after the work of their hands :
pay them that they have deserved.
6. For they regard not in their mind the works of the Lord, nor the operation of his hands :
therefore shall he break them down, and not build them up.
7. Praised be the Lord :
for he hath heard the voice of my humble petitions.
8. The Lord is my strength, and my shield; my heart hath trusted in him, and I am helped :
therefore my heart danceth for joy, and in my song will I praise him.
9. The Lord is my strength :
and he is the wholesome defence of his Anointed.
10. O save thy people, and give thy blessing unto thine inheritance :
feed them, and set them up for ever.
Biblical scholars on the psalms have spent much energy identifying different types or genres of psalm. Psalm 28 is agreed by all scholars to be a lament of an individual. There may also be a royal element to this with the voice of the speaker being identified with that of the king; we know that the psalms are traditionally ascribed to David and this one even includes the word Anointed in verse 9. As Christians we know that Jesus is the descendant of David and the anointed messiah, so we should always sit up when we notice the word in Scripture.
It is in fact a rather nicely constructed psalm and typical of psalms of lament that move from woe to praise. This is, of course true of Psalm 22 which Jesus prayed from the cross and moves from the desolation in the opening to praise at the end, a movement frequently commented on in devotional writing about the crucifixion.
I am going to comment on two features of the psalm.
The first is the passage that forms verses 4 – 6 (read them again). In the current form of the Roman Catholic Daily Office these verses are omitted as being unsuitable for public worship. I imagine this entire psalm does not appear in Common Worship provision either.
As I said earlier in the week I think it is a shame to omit this important part of human life.
One of my favourite psalms is psalm 93. It is a psalm I have often used in school assemblies.
When I was Headteacher of a rage comprehensive school in south London almost all of the children were black. The older boys would quite often be stopped by the police and sometimes searched, the controversial stop and search policy; if the young men reacted badly they might find themselves taken done to the local police station. On one occasion our Head Boy thus found himself under arrest and his mother rang me to meet her there to take him home. I had often spoken to the school about the importance of good manners and how we are more likely to get what we want by speaking politely. By the time his mum and I got there he had calmed down and was being extremely polite. He was soon released and we were on our way out.
As we walked out of the station this young man bent down (he is very tall) and whispered to me the opening lines of Psalm 93. Do you know them?
Here is the Grail version:
O Lord, avengingGod, avenging God draw near.
I was thrilled. He understood that his anger was appropriate, but he also understood that there was an appropriate time and place and means of expressing it.
These psalms, these verses are important. We might like to think ourselves incapable of wanting revenge, or even victory, or even of having enemies. But that is probably unlikely. What is certain is that these are common human feelings. Acknowledging the reality of them is essential if we are to be fully human and if we are to allow that full humanity to be redeemed.
The second element in this psalm that I want to draw your attention to is in the second half verse 2 when the psalmist talks of the mercy-seat.
Mercy-seat has now become an established part of the English language. Even some modern translations use it.
When Miles Coverdale was translating the psalms in the early sixteenth century he consulted the German translation of the Bible that Martin Luther had produced. In that text this word gnadenstuhl appears. Mercy-seat, is a translation of the Hebrew word kaporet. It doesn’t really mean seat at all. It refers to the lid on the box or container in which the tablets of the law were stored. The lid, the kaporet had a statue of an angel, a cherubim at each side. If you google this you will find some images. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur – kippur having the same root as kaporet) the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed ram on the kaporet.
I like the translation mercy-seat because it captures the sense of something concrete, is not an abstract concept or even a place it is a thing. I haven’t found any modern translation that does better; most do worse by turning it into something abstract.
In my first two talks I have reflected on the Christian use of the psalms, this word kaporet is a good example of that.
In the century before Jesus the Hebrew bible was translated, allegedly by 70 scholars, into Greek. These seventy led to the translation being called the Septuagint, often in books indicated by the Roman numerals for 70, LXX. It is this version of the Hebrew Bible that St Paul quotes from.
The Septuagint translates our word kaporet by the Greek word Hilasterion. This word occurs just twice in the New Testament, both in St Paul’s writing at Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5.
In Romans this verse is key to understanding what Jesus does.
[Christ] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. [ESV]
I have already spoken about the importance of sin in Christian life and the necessity of our common humanity for Jesus’ saving work to be possible, to be effective.
the hilasterion, the kaporet, the mercy seat is the propitation, the offering of Jesus himself.
Reading the psalms, reciting them day by day as Christians takes us to the heart of our biblical, Christian faith. The Old and New Testaments as we call them are not in any way separate. They are a continuum; the new is foreshadowed in the old because they are simply the single story of salvation history; of God’s plan for humanity. Just as our very humanity, our own beings reveals God to us because we are created in his image and likeness.
This Holy Week, we are on pilgrimage to the mercy-seat. Not to the container of the tablets of the Law but to the living Torah, Jesus himself who is the way, the truth and the life.