GILH 109: Christ in the Psalms

As inclusive language proponents often discover, there is an Old Testament tripping obstacle: the christological interpretation of the psalms.

109. Those who pray the psalms in the name of the Church should be aware of their full sense (sensus plenus), especially their Messianic sense, which was the reason for the Church’s introduction of the psalter into its prayer. This Messianic sense was fully revealed in the New Testament and indeed was affirmed publicly by Christ the Lord in person when he said to the apostles: “All that is written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44). The best-known example of this Messianic sense is the dialogue in Matthew’s Gospel on the Messiah as Son of David and David’s Lord, [See Mt 22:44ff.] where Ps 110 is interpreted as Messianic.

The question of christology in the psalms is always this: no serious theologian would discount it, but how much weight does christology have? The notion is an old one, going back to the Patristic Era. Even when Jesus is not in the content, the early Christians would see Jesus praying the psalms (as he did) or see the Father communicating with the Son:

Following this line of thought, the Fathers of the Church saw the whole psalter as a prophecy of Christ and the Church and explained it in this sense; for the same reason the psalms have been chosen for use in the liturgy. Though somewhat contrived interpretations were at times proposed, in general the Fathers and the liturgy itself had the right to hear in the singing of the psalms the voice of Christ crying out to the Father or of the Father conversing with the Son; indeed, they also recognized in the psalms the voice of the Church, the apostles, and the martyrs. This method of interpretation also flourished in the Middle Ages; in many manuscripts of the period the Christological meaning of each psalm was set before those praying by means of the caption prefixed. A Christological meaning is by no means confined to the recognized Messianic psalms but is given also to many others. Some of these interpretations are doubtless Christological only in an accommodated sense, but they have the support of the Church’s tradition.

I suppose that Psalm 131 is not seen as a christological piece. Too bad.

On the great feasts especially, the choice of psalms is often based on their Christological meaning and antiphons taken from these psalms are frequently used to throw light on this meaning.

And we know that the antiphons often point those praying in the direction of Christ. This is a laudable development, in balance. I’m reminded, though, of my friend Mary who thought that the New Testament was lacking a Psalter with explicit songs and canticles to Christ. Such songs are in the text of the letters and Revelation–just not 150 of them.

Any comments?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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15 Responses to GILH 109: Christ in the Psalms

  1. talmida says:

    Todd, I think it’s less an issue of inclusive language than it is of good inclusive language translation.

    Happy is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked…
    Happy is the person who does not walk…

    I would choose either of these versions over “Happy are those…” simply for accuracy!

    Whether the so-called “singular they” or the indeterminate “he” is used for pronoun, an introduction to the Psalms reminding Christian readers of the need to keep the text open to a Christological interpretation would be very helpful.

    Jesus became human to save humans, not male to save males. As long as the translation refers to an individual human being, I think the Christological interpretation can still be made, without barring women from interpretations in which the pray-er places themself (singular they!) in the words of the psalmist.

  2. Darwin says:

    I’ve never exactly why in an age of universal literacy and wide education, some people have managed to convinced themselves that women as a population are so stupid that if they don’t have the original text (which used the masculine as generic) modified they’ll somehow think that women are not blessed when they do not walk in the way of the wicked.

    By the same logic, we would need to remove all references to Israel and replace them with “God’s People” lest someone think that OT references to Israel could only be thought of us referring to Jews and not to all of God’s followers.

  3. Mike says:

    Darwin, you really need to get out more.

  4. talmida says:


    Hebrew does NOT use the masculine as the generic. Masculine nouns (house, sea, day) use the masculine pronoun. Feminine nouns (land, spirit, year) use the feminine pronoun.

    Can we call God’s Spirit “she”? That is the accurate literal translation of the original Hebrew, and if I’m not mistaken, it has been explicitly rejected by the Vatican. The Church modifies the original text.

    Latin, Greek, and Hebrew all have gender as a component of language. English is deficient in this way and so our translations of the original texts are deficient.

    The only place I see the word “man” used in its collective sense is in the LOTH or Vatican documents. It is not used in this sense anymore in media, in literature, in speech. It has not been used in the Mass in Canada for over a generation. You don’t hear it on TV or in films, and since most Bible translations in America aim for somewhere between a grade 8 and a grade 11 reading level (education may be wide, but it is not deep), that is important.

    The Scriptures are the Living Word of God. What lives grows. Each generation needs to find itself in the text. We don’t use thee and thy anymore, even though they helped us distinguish between 2nd person singular and 2nd person plural, and even though they were definitely present in all the original languages. The 2nd person singular fell into disuse in spoken English, so eventually Bible and liturgy translation caught up.

    Nobody suggested that people were too “stupid” to understand thee and thy.

    That is the core of what is happening here. The definition of the word “man” has changed. Of course men are not going to notice it as much — they never feel excluded when they hear it!

  5. Liam says:

    Man is certainly used in the generic sense in speech and even in writing. And not just by men. I hear it and read it, and others so attest as well. As a descriptive matter, any transition of “man” to exclusively non-generic has yet to be completed.

    The prescriptive issue is completely different.

  6. I’ll confess that I can’t read Hebrew, only Greek and Latin, so I can’t speak to the Hebrew OT, only to the Septuagint.

    However, in both Greek and Latin (which possess masculine, feminine and neuter forms) the masculine form is indeed used as a collective generic as well as to specify a group of males in particular. Thus, when you have:

    μακαριος ανηρ ος ουκ επορευθη εν βουλη ασεβων και εν
    οδω αμαρτωλων ουκ εστη και επι καθεδραν λοιμων ουκ εκαθισεν (psalm 1:1)

    We have “aner” which is a masculine word for a man which can refer specifically to a man, or indeed to a “husband” but can also (though not as much as “anthropos” be used in a more generic sense.

    More to the point, we have the fact that the ancient writers (for whatever reason) chose to write Psalm 1 using a masculine world. Perhaps it’s a result of having spent my college days dealing with texts and translation, but it seems rather key to me that a translation convey what the original author wrote, rather than what a modern audience might think he should have written. One may then go on to think whatever one chooses about the original author’s choice, but if the translater robs the reader of that opportunity the process of examination cannot even begin.

    But then, who am I to speak? I still do use thee and thou in a prayer setting, being one of those tiresome kids who when presented with an “easy modern” version of the standard prayers in second grade CCD figured that if we could open with “hail Mary” we certainly could hardly be shocked by “the Lord is with thee”.

  7. Todd says:

    Regarding Liam’s point, I think we’ll always have people using “man” and related terms. But it is true that we see less of this usage today than twenty or certainly fifty years ago.

    I find it ironic that with the push for more literalism, the concerns of sexist language are themselves a form of literalism. I think we have yet to see a definitive settling in on the topic, but I suspect that in another century or two, especially if feminist concerns get a revival in popular culture, the generic use of “man” will evolve into an archaic practice: understood, but not the first preference of usage.

  8. Talmida says:

    “Jesus became human to save humans, not male to save males.”

    Yes, but the fact is, his maleness is intrinsic to his humanity. There is no such thing as a non-sexual human being. The Trinity made a decision, first, to create man male and female, and then, in becoming human, to become male, not female. Then God the Son chose to refer to the First Person of the Trinity as Father. I don’t know why.

    I’m sorry Talmida and others somehow infer that Jesus’ maleness excludes them, but that is their inference; perhaps they will decide to give it up someday.

    “As long as the translation refers to an individual human being, I think the Christological interpretation can still be made, without barring women from interpretations”…

    Who “bars women”? Women are neither “barred” from the text, the translation nor the interpretation.

    “…in which the pray-er places themself (singular they!) in the words of the psalmist.”

    “Singular they”? What is that (other than very bad, colloquial English)? Or is even using standard English somehow “exclusionary”?

    The argument seems to be that a woman cannot — or finds it difficult — to place herself “in the text.” Two responses to that. First, how many women really experience that?

    Second, the facts belie the suggestion that this is a special problem for women approaching the Bible and Christianity. But not so.

    As a male, I don’t find it difficult at all to place myself in the words uttered by Judith or Mary or Elizabeth. Admittedly, I don’t easily see myself in the female beloved of Song of Songs, but to view it Christologically, that is what males must do, as we must deem ourselves as the adulterous wife of the prophets, the adulterous woman of John 8 (or do are we to believe males routinely don’t feel included in that passage, either as the sinner or the forgiven?), and to deem ourselves as the “Bride” of Christ.

    And somehow, for all these centuries, that is what Christian men have done; when was there any movement to re-translate this language so that males might more easily appropriate this imagery to themselves? I missed it.

  9. talmida says:

    Fr. Fox,

    In response to some of your points:

    *You may infer that Jesus’ maleness excludes women if you so choose, but I, for one, never implied it. Your sorrow is unnecessary.

    *Using the word “man” instead of “person” in modern English DOES exclude women and is not REQUIRED to make a Christological interpretation.

    *Who bars women? Masculine language can bar women.

    *The “singular they” was used by Shakespeare, Thackeray, and Austen, among others. None of them was famous for their/his or her “very bad, colloquial English.”

    Inclusive language has NOTHING to do with specific individuals (Mary, Judith, Jesus, Abraham, the lover & the beloved, etc.). Contrary to what some scaremongers believe, it is not about calling God the Mother. It is not about calling the Holy Spirit “she”.

    Inclusive language is about using terms that include all people when that is the obvious intent of the text.

    When the psalmist says, “Blessed is the man who…” he does not intend a male person, he intends all people. So why not say person? Why choose to make 1/2 the readers feel excluded when a perfectly legitimate translation can make everyone feel included?

    Man is not more accurate. It is not more literal. It is simply older, and more exclusive.

  10. At the risk of confirming the before stated opinion that I don’t get out much (or at least have little better to do)…

    When the psalmist says, “Blessed is the man who…” he does not intend a male person, he intends all people. So why not say person? Why choose to make 1/2 the readers feel excluded when a perfectly legitimate translation can make everyone feel included?

    Two things are worth noting here.

    First, in no sense does will half the readers feel excluded if we say “Blessed is the man who”, because the demonstrable fact is that the vast majority of women simply don’t care one way or another. (If you want to test this, stand outside your church or some random public building and ask every woman who passes you to read the line according to the Douay Rheims and tell you whether this refers to humans in general or males only.) What it does is create a token and intention sense of offence in a certain very small percentage of women (and “sensitive” men.)

    Man is not more accurate. It is not more literal. It is simply older, and more exclusive.

    Actually, man is both an accurate and literal translation of aner. If you pull out an elementary Greek text, the vocabulary in the back will give you “man, adult man, somethimes used to mean ‘husband'”. You’ll have to go to Lewis & Short to get a more generic meaning, and it’s rare at that. Indeed, one might argue that the generic use of aner is rather more rare in ancient Greek (remember that the Septuagint is in 2nd century Hellenistic Greek) than the generic use of “man” in modern English.

  11. Talmida:

    for those of us less literate than you, would you be so kind as to provide examples of Shakespeare, Thakarey, Austen using a “singular they”?

    ‘Using the word “man” instead of “person” in modern English DOES exclude women and is not REQUIRED to make a Christological interpretation.’

    Who says, other than you? Or is your authority sufficient to settle the matter?

    I would argue that “man” v. “person” is certainly required for sound Christology, for reasons that should be obvious — i.e., the fact of the Incarnation.

  12. talmida says:

    Fr. Fox,

    Arise; one knocks. / … / Hark, how they knock! — Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

    A person cannot help their birth. — Thackeray, Vanity Fair

    But to expose the former faults of any person, without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable. Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

    Google “singular they”. There are plenty of other examples.

  13. Darwin says:

    One should note that a few other things were different at the time that Thackarey and Austen wrote, much less Shakespeare.

    For inftance, it was ftandard to ufe an “f” to fignify an “s” if it was not the laft letter in a word.

    Plus spelling was pretty much a “do as you like” exercise — as shown by Shakespeare having four or more spellings of his own name. (Goodness knows I would be helped if we were to go back to those days.)

    Now it’s true that the regularization of English grammar and spelling was “imposed” on the language in the 18th century, based largely on the Latin models which were common to the experience of all educated people at the time. However, I’m not sure that rebelling against this systematization is really a good idea. A language does, after all, require some sort of order if it is to remain stable.

    Either way, the banishing of such things as the “singular they” goes back about 150 years, while the desire to get rid of the generic masculine goes back a mere 30. If we are to rule that using “they” is acceptible because the rule against it is of too recent origin, we should most certainly throw out any thought of considering the generic masculine abolished.

  14. Talmida:

    Thanks for the information; googling “singular they” yielded a very helpful Wikipedia article as the first hit.

  15. Pingback: OCF 25-26: Psalms « Catholic Sensibility

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