The Divine Lamp

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Background on Psalm 79 With Notes on Verses 8, 9, 11, 13

Posted by Dim Bulb on March 4, 2012

Verses 8, 9, 11, and 13 of this Psalm are used for the Responsorial at Mass for Monday in the Second Week of Lent, Year B, and on the Memorial of St Ignatius of Loyola. This post contains background to the entire Psalm, followed by notes on the above mentioned verses. I’ve included at the end a few suggested readings for those who want to delve more deeply into the Psalms.

Quotations are taken from the RSV unless noted otherwise. This translation is under the following copyright restrictions:

The [New] Revised Standard Version Bible may be quoted and/or reprinted up to and inclusive of five hundred (500) verses without express written permission of the publisher, provided the verses quoted do not amount to a complete book of the Bible or account for fifty percent (50%) of the total work in which they are quoted.

Notice of copyright must appear on the title or copyright page of the work as follows:

“Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

Citation links are to the NRSV Anglicized Edition.

Background~Psalm 79 is usually described as a communal lament (see Psalms 43 59 73 76 78 79 81 82 84 89 93 [105] 107 125 136). The historic occasion underlying the composition is certainly the Babylonian conquest which ended with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, and culminated in the taking of the people into exile (2 Kings 25:1-21; 2 Chron 36:15-21; Jer 39:1-10).

The cause of the lamentation is seen in Ps 79:1-4. Heathens have invaded the Lord’s inheritance, a reference to the promised land which the people held, not as primary owners but, rather, as stewards. See Deut 2:24 which speaks of Israel taking possession (רשׁ, yârash, “inherit”) of the land. The heathens themselves had inherited it from God but had been “driven out” ( והורישׁ, from רשׁ, yârash = disinherited) by him because of their sins (see Deut 11:23; Gen 15:13-16). The heathen have also destroyed the Temple and turned Jerusalem into a ruin (Ps 79:1). Death and destruction have been wrought, and bodies left unburied (Ps 79:2-3), a gross injustice in the Near Eastern world: Any lack of proper burial is still regarded in the East, as it was in ancient times, as a great indignity or a judgment from God. It is esteemed the greatest calamity that can befall a person. It gives men still untold distress to think they shall not receive suitable burial, according to the customs of their respective race, or family, or religion–a fact or sentiment that is often alluded or appealed to by way of illustration in the Scriptures. For a corpse to remain unburied and become food for beasts of prey was the climax of indignity or judgment (2 Sam 21:10-11; 1 Kings 13:22 1 Kings 14:11 1 Kings 16:4 1 Kings 21:24; Jer 7:33 Jer 8:1 Ezek 29:5 Ps 79:3 Rev 11:9), and uncovered blood cried for vengeance (Eek 24:6 f; Ezek 3911-16)~”Burial” in the ISBE.

Thus the community appeals to God, inquiring how long the situation will last (Ps 79:5), begging redress (Ps 79:6-7), and acknowledging their sins and seeking God compassion (Ps 79:8). This appeal to God’s compassion leads again to a plea for help and deliverance (Ps 79:9). The taunting of God’s people by their enemies (mentioned in verse 4) is in reality a taunting of God, action suggesting God will not or cannot act on their behalf (Ps 79:10). There is an appeal for the captives/exiles to be set free (Ps 79:11), followed by a request that the injustice done to God by His enemies be rectified (Ps 79:12). This will lead to perpetual thanksgiving on the part of His people (Ps 79:13).

8 Do not remember against us the iniquities of our forefathers; let thy compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.

Do not remember against us the iniquities of our forefathers. A better translation is found in the NAB, RNAB, NJPS, DRB, KJV and Latin Vulgate: ne memineris iniquitatum nostrarum antiquarum (“Remember not our former/previous/past iniquities”). The Hebrew ראשׁנים (Greek αρχαιων) is not being used as a substantive noun but as an adjective (see the usage in Gen 25:25; Deut 10:1-4; Hosea 2:9; Haggai 2:3, 9). The people are not claiming to be suffering for the sins of their fathers as is evident from verse 9 (and see Deut 24:16; 2 Kings 4:6; Ezek 18:20).

Let thy compassion come speedily to meet us. Compassion is רחמיך, derived from the Hebrew word for “womb”. I’ve seen it translated as womb love, parental love, etc. “Compassion, literally a feeling with and for others, is a fundamental and distinctive quality of the Biblical conception of God, and to its prominence the world owes more than words can express. (1) It lay at the foundation of Israel’s faith in Yahweh. For it was out of His compassion that He, by a marvelous act of power, delivered them from Egyptian bondage and called them to be His own people. Nothing, therefore, is more prominent in the Old Testament than the ascription of compassion, pity, mercy, etc., to God; the people may be said to have gloried in it. It is summed up in such sayings as that of the great declaration in Ex 34:6, “Yahweh–a God full of compassion (the ASV has merciful) and gracious” (compare Ps 78:38 Ps 86:15 Ps 111:4 Ps 112:4 Ps 145:8 Lam 3:22, “His compassions fail not”). And, because this was the character of their God, the prophets declared that compassion was an essential requirement on the part of members of the community (Hosea 6:6 Micah 6:8 compare Prov 19:17). (2) In Jesus Christ, in whom God was “manifest in the flesh,” compassion was an outstanding feature (Matt 9:36; Matt 14:14, etc. Mt) and He taught that it ought to be extended, not to friends and neighbors only, but to all without exception, even to enemies (Matt 5:43-48 Luke 10:30-37)”~”Compassion” in the ISBE.

The request is that God’s compassion come speedily to meet us; an appeal to the Divine condescension. God must come to them for they are brought very low. The God who comes down to confront sinners (Gen 11:5; Amos 4:10-12) is also the God who comes to forgive them, if only they will have it (Isaiah 64:1-5. In the NAB the reference is to 63:19-64:4).

9 Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for thy name’s sake!

Help us, and deliver us indicates a time of need. The need for help and deliverance is the result of sin which needs to be forgiven.  The word “our” in the phrase O God of our salvation provides an interesting connection with the repeated use of pronoun “your” in reference to God’s relation to his land and people (the RSV uses “Thy”): “thy inheritance,” “thy holy temple,” (vs 1); “thy servants,” “thy saints,” (vs 2). Because it is God’s land and people that are suffering, the divine action taken to eliminate it is for the glory of thy (God’s) name…for thy name’s sake. There is an intimate connection between the name of God (his essence, his being) and his people (Ps 23:3; Ps 25:11; Ps 31:3; Ps 24:6).

11 Let the groans of the prisoners come before thee; according to thy great power preserve those doomed to die!

Let the groans of the prisoners come before thee. A request that the prayer of those held captive in the Babylonian exile be heard. According to thy great power is, literally, “according to the greatness of your arm.” The arm of God is anthropomorphic, indicating his power to save (Ex 6:6; Ex 15:16; Deut 4:34: Ezek 20:33). He is asked to preserve those doomed to die. The Hebrew here is בני  תמותה׃, (Greek, υιους των τεθανατωμενων) literally, sons of death.  Release of these exiled sons of death means their return to the promised land, God’s inheritance or heritage to them (verse 1), which means their regaining status as sons of God.

13 Then we thy people, the flock of thy pasture, will give thanks to thee for ever; from generation to generation we will recount thy praise.

This is not merely a promise but is also an expression of confidence that their rescue will in fact take place.

The flock of they pasture. The people’s place of pasturing is the promised land; this, and the phrase from generation to generation take us back to the beginning of the psalm with its reference to the heathens having invaded God’s inheritance. The reversal of that situation and its effects is confidently expected, and will lead to endless praise of God.

Will give thanks to thee for ever. In verse 11 God was bidden to act according to his great power, or, more literally, according to the greatness (or might) of  his arm. Recall this was a request to set the exiles free. The act of thanksgiving which will take place once the exiles  (sons of death) return to their inheritance is here designated by the word  נודה, to stretch out or extend the hand. This is a reference to the “orans” position (or something similar) which is characteristic of many cultures.  The proper response to God’s saving arm (acts) is to raise up the hands (arms) in thanksgiving.

We will recount thy praise. Recounting the praise of God stands in opposition to verse 12 which speaks of those who taunt God. The Hebrew word for praise is  תהלתך׃, from a word meaning “clear sound.” The inarticulate groaning, sighing, shrieking of the prisoners in exile (vs. 11, the Hebrew can have all these meanings) is turned into clear, articulate praise.


Suggested Readings:

Volume 1 PSALMS: Old Testament Message Series. See next link and note.

Volume 2 PSALMS: Old Testament Message SeriesBoth Volumes by Father Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. Out of print but used copies (and sometimes new) can be found.

PSALMS 1-72: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. See next link and note.

PSALMS 73-150: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. Both volumes by Father Richard J Clifford, S.J. Most contributors to this series are non-Catholic.

PSALMS: Berit Olam Series. Father Konrad Schaefer, O.S.B. Contributors to this series are from a wide variety of religious traditions.

THE SCHOOL OF PRAYER: An Introduction to the Divine Office. John Brook. Not an explanation or guide on how to navigate the Office, rather, the first part is a general introduction to the Office, the second part is commentary on the Psalms and Canticles of the morning, evening, and night prayers of the four week Psalter.

The Commentaries of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the Psalms and Canticles of Lauds (Morning Prayer) and Vespers (Evening Prayer) from the Liturgy of the Hours. Free and online. The site has links to all the commentaries conveniently arranged. Why these have not been published in book form is unknown to me.

SINGING IN THE REIGN: The Psalms and the Liturgy of God’s Kingdom. By Dr. Michael Barber. Catholic biblical scholar and contributor to the Sacred Page Blog. Seeks to expound the theology of the Psalms in relation to Christ, the Kingdom, and the Church.

THE PSALMS AND THE SONG OF SOLOMON: Navarre Bible Commentary. A good place to begin. The Navarre Commentary series on the Old and New Testaments was the idea of St Jose Marie Escriva. The volumes were prepared by the theological faculty of Navarre University. The Song of Solomon is more commonly known in the USA as The Song of Songs, or The Canticle of Canticles.

SING A NEW SONG: The Psalms in the Sunday Lectionary. Sister Irene Nowell, O.S.B. From the Introduction~”After a short analysis of the genre, each psalm will be analyzed briefly in its own right. Then each psalm will be considered in its relationship to each set of readings which it accompanies. Because there are many studies of the readings of the three-year Sunday Lectionary, this work will touch the other readings lightly, focusing primarily on the effect of juxtaposing this particular psalm with this set of readings.”

PSALMS 1-50: Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. Father Mitchell Dahood, S.J.See next link and note.

PSALMS 51-100: Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. Father Mitchell Dahood, S.J. See next link and note.

Psalms 101-150: Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. Father Mitchell Dahood, S.J. Best to leave these volumes to the more advanced student of the Psalms. Contributors to the commentary series come from a variety of religious traditions, a sizable number are Catholic.

One Response to “Background on Psalm 79 With Notes on Verses 8, 9, 11, 13”

  1. […] of CorinthA Lectio Divina Commentary on Psalm 67 « My Notes on Jeremiah 17:5-10 Background on Psalm 79 With Notes on Verses 8, 9, 11, 13 […]

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