On Psalm 33

from Neil

An early Christian gloss, based on Isaiah 52:6, envisioned the incarnate Christ saying, “I myself, who was speaking in the prophets, have now come.” And at the head of older liturgical psalters, you could find written, “Incipit liber hymnorum vel soliloquorum prophetae de Christo” – “Here begins the book of the hymns or soliloquies of the Prophet concerning Christ.” We must read the psalms as Christians, believing that the Word that inspired the psalmists later became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Now, this doesn’t mean that the historical meaning of the Psalms is effaced or needs some sort of weirdly esoteric decoding; we should instead imagine a deepening, an intensification.

Sometimes this is obvious. In last week’s psalm, David, his sin “ever before” him, trusts in God’s “lovingkindness” and “tender mercies.” Something similar to Irenaeus’ exegesis has probably already come to our minds, “David sang the psalm of confession in expectation of the advent of the Lord who washes and cleanses a man ensnared in sin.” Of course, Jesus himself recited other Psalms, most movingly on the Cross – “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” (22:1), and “Into thine hand I commit my spirit” (31:5). Early Christians used the Psalms to make sense of Jesus – on Pentecost, Peter spoke of a Jesus not abandoned to Hades, a descendant of David set upon his throne and seated at the right hand of the Father until his enemies are made his “footstool” (16:8-11, 132:11, 110:1). But sometimes reading the Psalms as “hymns or soliloquies of the Prophet concerning Christ” does take a bit more attention.

But it can be useful. This week we will look at Psalm 33. As one recent commentator summarizes, “Psalm 33, with hints of a wisdom reflection, is a hymn to the sovereign God, creator of all and owner of history.” God’s word and work are described by five terms – uprightness, faithfulness, righteousness, justice, and, above all, “hesed” (steadfast love). Indeed, “the earth is full of the Lord’s hesed” (33:5). The sense is one of completeness – the psalm’s 22 lines correspond to the sum of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. I want to deepen our exegesis by consciously re-reading the Psalm as Christian, and therefore as Trinitarian (here, I will be indebted to an article by the excellent Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright in Ex Auditu 16 [2000]).

The sixth verse of Psalm 33 says, “By the word (dabar; verbum) of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath (ruach; spiritus) of his mouth.” Irenaeus takes this verse, among others, to suggest that it is “by his Word and his Spirit” that God “makes, orders, governs, and gives being to all things.” Basil cites Psalm 33:6 to suggest, “As God the Word is the creator of the heavens, so the Holy Spirit gives to the heavenly powers their stability and firmness.” Likewise, Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on Psalm 33 tells us that vv. 6-9 refers to the three divine persons – the Father is the “power” of creation, the Son as Word is its “shaping idea,” and the Spirit as Love is “the strength that moves it.”

Geoffrey Wainwright gives a Trinitarian interpretation of the entire psalm. The first five verses are an invitation to praise God: “Having been placed ‘in’ Christ, we can ‘in the Spirit’ praise the Father, who is ‘Lord of heaven and earth’; we can also praise Christ ‘as’ Lord; and we can praise as ‘Lord’ the Holy Spirit, who ‘with the Father and with the Son together is worshipped and glorified.’” Verses 6-9’s depiction of God’s word and work shows us, as the tradition would suggest, that in God’s creation and salvation “each divine person plays his part … from the originating Father through the mediating Son to the perfecting Spirit.” The “counsel” of the Lord that “standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations” (33:11) reminds us of the “mystery of his will” that “in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ” (Ep 1:11-12). And the psalmist’s final hope for the future – “our soul waiteth for the Lord: he is our help and our shield” (33:20) is our belief that “he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you” (Rom 8:11).

The commentator’s summary, “Psalm 33, with hints of a wisdom reflection, is a hymn to the sovereign God, creator of all and owner of history,” might seem terribly abstract. But the sovereign God is an unbroken communion of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and it is in this divine life that we must participate. How? “The Earth is full of the Lord’s hesed” (33:5); and the Gospel that goes with this Psalm on the Second Sunday of Lent is about the sign of this “hesed” – the “Beloved Son” whose transfigured face shines like the sun, dressed in clothes as white as light. This Jesus soon tells us what “hesed” is really about – he will be “handed over.” And, as Rowan Williams says, “We can’t understand the glorious brightness of God unless we see that God’s power and splendor is entirely focused on that sacrifice of love which sets us free and gives us life.” We will only really pray the last line of the Psalm, “Let thy ‘hesed’, O Lord, be upon us, according as we hope in thee” (33:22), when we remember who the “Word of the Lord” by which “the heavens were made” (33:6) really is. Psalm 33 leads us to the Cross.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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