Law is the theme for the Lent psalms (Year B)

Patterns in the Lent psalms for the third cycle

The Law is the recurring theme in the Lent psalms for Year B.  Year A puts  penitence in the foreground, and Year C celebrates mercy, but in Lent B we focus on the giving and receiving of the Law, and in case that seems too dry, its beauty and power.  This might seem a slightly odd idea, but there are lots of psalms with the Law as their theme, and Lent B doesn’t come close to using all of them.

people queueing up to go to church in Lent
Three Lectionary years, three Gospels
St John on Patmos, far away

We know that the Gospels follow a three-year rotation in the Lectionary.  Year A is Matthew, B is Mark, and C is Luke.  Mark is shorter than the others, so there is room for some of the Gospel of John to eke him out to a whole year’s length, though the other years do also borrow from John.  The Gospels were written at different times (John’s much later than the others), for different audiences (Matthew talking more for a Jewish audience, Luke for a Gentile), and stressing different aspects of the same story (Matthew Jesus’ teaching, Mark the events of his life, Luke famously the ‘Gospel of mercy’, about grace and forgiveness).   John comes from a different time and even place (Patmos), looking at the narrative of Jesus’ life from a different perspective.  So obviously all that is going to affect the story told across the six weeks of Lent.

Supporting and framing the Gospel

The First Reading is taken from the Old Testament to illuminate the Gospel from the angle of salvation history; the Responsorial Psalm is a response to it; then the Second Reading is usually from the Epistles, showing how the early Christians were grappling with some of the same problems that we have today in our own communities.   The Gospel is framed by these three separate pieces of text, like a painting on an easel.   The Psalm has been carefully chosen for its place out of the whole Psalter, and that is why I think it is worth investigating themes and cumulative effect.

First Sunday of Lent B

The First Readings for each of the Lent Years take us on a tour of salvation history following the line of the patriarchs.  It’s very clear in Year A ( Adam > Abram > Moses > David ),  and a bit more to-and-fro in Year C, because we focus on Moses, going forward and back in time.   In Year B, we start back in Genesis, this time with Noah.  But not the story of humanity’s wickedness and God’s plan to punish them by sending the Flood; this reading is about afterwards, about the setting up of a covenant, a legal bargain or binding contract, between God and the survivors, with commitments and obligations on both sides.  And we have the rainbow as a token of God’s promise that he will never again send a flood to destroy all living beings (note : not just the humans).

Psalm 24/25 for 1 Lent B
Noah's Ark
safe amid perils, in a very spaceship ark

The response to this reading is the Psalm 24/25, Lord, make me know your ways, […] teach me your paths, one of the alphabetical psalms, so quite long.  This is just an extract.  God is offering a covenant and we are keen to accept it and promise that we will follow it.  This psalm is familiar; it comes up regularly, most recently just a few weeks previously (Third Sunday in Ordinary Time B), though with a different Response.  We are extolling God’s ‘ways’, his rules, ideas, patterns, habits; this word can cover almost anything, but the request is for God to show us his ‘paths’ (three times in this short extract), his rules to follow.  It makes a good introductory, in this first week of Lent.  God’s ways are the right way to do anything, founded in his goodness and love for us; once we know what they are, obedience is all.  The Response is the next verse after the end of the stanzas we have here :  Your ways, Lord, are faithfulness and love for those who keep your covenant.  This is admirably on message, but quite long, so it’s important to give the congregation (if you are lucky enough to have one, and they may join in) enough time to grasp it before they have to sing it back.  I tried to keep it quite brisk so that it has a bit of momentum to help. 

Exotic Ark
another gorgeous ark

The second reading is when Paul talks about Noah.  The Gospel Acclamation is interesting, because it’s Jesus’ words in answer to the first temptation in the wilderness.  Here it almost counts as subliminal messaging,  because Mark’s account of the encounter with the devil in the desert is only three lines long and has none of the dialogue.  You can see why Matthew and Luke decided to amplify the story, but Mark is always in a tearing hurry to move on to the next event.

Second Sunday of Lent B
look at the tension in the scene

The First Reading is still in Genesis, but a different patriarch this time, Abraham.  It is the excruciating story of the nearly-sacrifice of Isaac.  With sons myself, I find it difficult not to get caught up in the problems of this story, but the point is surely that this is a test for Abraham on how seriously he takes God’s word, and as soon as he passes the test, God amplifies the covenant with more and more blessings and rewards.  Abraham’s obedience means that the covenant has been strong enough to carry the weight placed upon it, and it can be developed, carried forward and built upon.

Psalm 115/116 for 2 Lent B

This psalm in this position actually helps us to understand what is going on in the first reading.  The words in the stanzas are acutely pointed : I trusted, even when I said:/ ‘I am sorely afflicted.’ / O precious in the eyes of the Lord / is the death of his faithful […] My vows to the Lord I will fulfil… and you can imagine Abraham’s gritted teeth, if it was going through his head also.  But the mood is set by the Response, which is unusually taken from a different psalm.  In fact it is the last verse of the previous psalm (the Hebrew text does not put a break between them, so you could argue it’s not from a different psalm really, but this is one of the areas where the numbering is moot and very confusing) :  I will walk in the presence of the Lord / in the land of the living.  It is an expression of absolute confidence.  I have sung it at funerals and always found it extremely comforting to think of heaven as ‘the land of the living’. 

The middle stanza develops again the covenant idea, with rules and rights : Your servant am I […] you have loosened my bonds – and then the psalm goes on to make promises of thanksgiving : I make a sacrifice to show my gratitude, I call on the Lord’s name and make vows which I will fulfil in Jerusalem.  We have a working contract here.  Abraham trusted God even when it seemed mad to do so, and God did not let him down.

The second reading is the beautiful bit from Paul ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?‘ but again we find ourselves in the language of laws and courts. ‘Could anyone accuse those that God has chosen?  When God acquits, could anyone condemn? [..] at God’s right hand [Jesus] stands and pleads for us.’ (Romans 8.32f).  The Gospel (and Acclamation) are the Transfiguration, the glory of God made manifest, like the rainbow in the first reading.

Christ shining whiter than wool, brighter than light
Third Sunday of Lent B

The First Reading this week is from Exodus (so we’ve moved from Noah, to Abraham, and now to Moses), and it is where God lays out the Commandments.  This is earlier than the occasion where God writes them down on the tablets.  This reading here is only part of the instructions which God issues;  he continues for another two chapters.   These later commandments don’t make it into the ten on the tablets,  but contain among other things the touching detail about returning someone’s cloak at sunset if he has left it with you as security, as otherwise he will have no blanket. So here we have the great Law set out properly for the first time, in God’s voice, accompanied by peals of thunder, lightning, a smoking mountain, and the sound of trumpets : the law in majesty.

Psalm 18/19 for 3 Lent B
Law in 2 scrolls
Lord, how I love your Law

The answering psalm is a hymn of praise for the law itself, listing its perfections, extolling its beauty, celebrating it.  Several of the psalms are on this topic, especially the longest psalm of all (Psalm 118/119)and we may have to make an effort of imagination to understand how beloved the law was, especially in times of exile and persecution.  It’s like having a sheriff in the Wild West (see Blazing Saddles or Dodge City); it’s like Sir Thomas More’s explanation to Roper in A Man for All Seasons, even though there he’s deliberately drawing a distinction between man’s law and God’s Law.  Any law is your protection so long as you are among people who obey it.  Before Jesus brought his Good News, the only way to please God was to keep the laws that you had been given, because that was God’s own word.  The Response is not taken from the psalm itself, but from John’s Gospel, and it’s the second half of what Peter says when Jesus asks the apostles whether they will also go away, after a group of disciples have left, which always sounds very forlorn.  Peter answers, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life’ (Jn 6.68).  So the stanzas celebrate the Law of the Old Testament, and the Response links it to the message of Jesus.

Crucifixion scene on a living tree
The tree of life, still green

The second reading is St Paul explaining that this does not mean success in human or worldly terms.  Jesus was crucified; but God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, his weakness stronger than our strength.  It doesn’t contradict the message of the psalm, but it prepares us for future events.  The Gospel is Christ throwing the merchants and moneylenders out of the Temple, taken from John’s Gospel.  Here we see God’s law being broken in his own house,  and Jesus registers his protest, even though presumably the merchants were able to set up again once he had gone.

Fourth Sunday of Lent B

This is mid-Lent Sunday, where Mass starts with the words ‘Rejoice’ and the priest wears pink, but the First Reading (from Chronicles) changes the mood immediately, with its account of the sins of the priests and the people (including a reference to defiling the Temple, linking to the previous week) and the breaking of the covenant.  God has allowed Israel’s enemies to sack Jerusalem, destroy the Temple (another link to Christ’s words the previous week) and carry the people off as slaves, to suffer in Babylon.  But the final paragraph sends a message of hope, when Cyrus, king of Persia, proclaims to the people that God has ordered him to build a new Temple in Jerusalem, and he calls all the faithful to come to it, in words which ring down the ages: ‘Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him! Let him go up.’.

Psalm 136/137 for 4 Lent B
Initial letter Super flumina
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

But that is in the future, and the psalm (By the rivers of Babylon) is a response to the collapse of the covenant and the years of exile and desolation.  I’ve already written a blog on this psalm alone, because it is so beautiful and resonant, so here I will just say that there is no reference to law in the words at all.  The people are broken by what has happened to them, and this is shown by the fact that they cannot sing.  All their songs are the songs of the Lord, and they belong only to the land that the Lord had given them to live in and the city where God lived with them, a visible sign of the covenant which they did not keep.  This psalm is hard to sing.

The second reading returns us to hope, as Paul explains that God’s love means that we have all been saved by grace as God’s gift, despite our sins.  The Gospel continues and reinforces this, in Christ’s words to Nicodemus (one of the borrowings from John’s Gospel).  The emphasis is not on condemnation but on salvation, and of the whole world.  The legal words this week are in the Gospel (‘On these grounds is sentence pronounced’ Jn 3.19).

Fifth Sunday of Lent B

We are back with the law again even in the Entrance Acclamation (Give me justice, O God, and plead my cause..), and the First Reading continues the legal theme.  The prophet Jeremiah brings God’s message that he will make a new covenant with his people.  It’s a really interesting reading, with God repeating four times in a short reading, ‘It is the Lord who speaks’, so that we are in no doubt about how serious and authoritative this is. God reviews the history of the previous covenant, explains what went wrong and sets out his new plan for his people. ‘Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts’, and he will do this for every single individual, so no one will be left out or ignorant, and it ends with a promise that God will not only forgive iniquity but even deliberately forget it.  This reading is from Jeremiah, but the tone is so positive and encouraging that you might even call it joyful. 

Psalm 50/51  for 5 Lent B

All this encouragement is in the future tense, though.   The Responsorial Psalm follows the same curve as the First Reading, starting with what went wrong and expressing contrition, but then moving forward to renewal and a new start, and even daring to look forward to some joy in the last stanza, though I have to say the last couplet makes me smile : ‘that I may teach transgressors your ways...’, when God has just said (via Jeremiah) that ‘there will be no further need for neighbour to try to teach neighbour’.   Motes and beams, and human nature means we’re all still struggling with that one.  Paul explains that the suffering of Christ led to the salvation of everyone, and the Gospel (John again) is Jesus’ words about his approaching ordeal, though in unclear terms still.  His hearers include some Greeks who have come to see him, so his audience is widening even as his end approaches.

terrible things can happen to good people

The next Sunday is Palm Sunday, with the reading of the Passion and Psalm 21/22.  It will come as less of a shock than it does in Year C, because the readings through Lent have prepared us for the Law to take its course, and the atmosphere has been more sombre.  We have celebrated the Law, but we have also seen what happens when the covenant is broken.  There will be a new covenant, but that means there has to be a sacrifice, as there was for the previous covenant with Abraham in Week 2;  and the victim supplied for it is the only one who is not at fault.   This beloved Son is not rescued at the last minute.  This is shocking. It is meant to be.


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Psalm 118/119, longest psalm, longest blog [sorry]

Sunday’s psalm : four verses but lots more to choose from

This week we have a small extract of Psalm 118/119 as our Sunday psalm (6 OTA), but don’t let that fool you.  Psalm 118/119 is the longest of all the psalms in the Psalter by a long way.  It is a technical tour de force.  It is full of loving variatio and verbal fireworks.  It fizzes with brio and enthusiasm, even in translation.  What is its topic, that calls out such devotion, passion and panache?  God’s Law, as laid out in the rule books of the Torah.  You might think this a dry topic, but this psalmist would not agree, and he is so invested in it that he is going to keep explaining it to you in the most elegant ways he can devise until you agree with him.

Discussing the beauty of the Law

Nothing is accidentally in the Bible

Because the text of the Bible is so ancient, we can assume that everything about it is significant. All the chapters of all the books have been studied again and again, and before they became the canonical books of the Christian version they were studied yet again to decide whether they qualified for inclusion.  We took all the writings about God’s Law without leaving anything out.  There may be other things which were left out which maybe should not have been (e.g. Anna’s words in the Temple, other female conversations), but we can be sure that anything left in was done so deliberately.  Sometimes we regret this (fill in your own least favourite bits here), but we have to deal with the text we have been given in its entirety.  As a Christian, I am allowed to prefer Jesus’ line on any question over that of the Old Testament, which is a relief; but I do have to take the Old Testament seriously and try to understand it on its own terms.

studying the Law, and asking for help

Form and content both have significance

And this means that I can also draw conclusions from its form. At the most basic level, this means that I don’t read all of it in the same way (some of it is history, some of it poetry, some of it prophecy, and so on), but I can assume that the arrangement of psalms in the Book of Psalms is significant and draw conclusions from it. The Book of Psalms is not a loose-leaf folder, where you can shuffle the individual songs to suit yourself, though of course you can choose which you want to use on any particular occasion. It has been organised over time, and for a long time, in a way that makes a particular sense.  It has sections and subdivisions which can help us to understand more about what it is telling us.

The context of Psalm 118/119

So when I look at a particular psalm, I can also look at its near neighbours, to see if there is something significant about that grouping or family of songs.  In Advent I discussed one of these families, the ‘Psalms of Ascents’ (120/121 to 134/135).   Here is another interesting cluster, the group which comes just before that one.  It’s not a group with its own long-established label, like Ascents, but there is at least one recognised sub-group within it :  Pss 112/113 to 117/118.  These psalms make up a group for Passover: the first two are sung before the meal (the Seder) and the last four after it.  But I want to go back slightly further than that, to Ps 110/111, and forward to include Ps 118/119.  Ps 110/111 starts a run where the first word of every psalm is Alleluia (until 117/118,  with only Ps 115/116 starting without it).

Alphabetical psalms

Ps 110/111 and Ps 111/112 are both alphabetical psalms, and so is Ps 118/119. The first two are short versions of the form, where each line starts with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  This has twentytwo letters, so each of these two psalms is twentytwo lines long.  (In Ps 118/119, the letter sequence is the same, but there are twentytwo eight-line stanzas, the longest psalm in the entire book.)

the Hebrew alphabet

There’s always a danger with formal poetry that the form become more important than the content, and it has to be admitted that Ps 110/111 is more choppy than the one after it.  It is a praise poem, but each line is a separate little idea, so the effect is rather like a collage on a noticeboard.  One of the lines praises the Lord’s ‘precepts […] all of them sure’, another word for ‘Law’.  Ps 111/112 works better, as it sets its topic, the just man (or maybe we could say ‘person’) and addresses it from several different angles, but the central idea gives it a better shape.  This is the psalm we had last week (again not the whole thing).   The beginning of the psalm reflects on the just person not just fearing and obeying God, but ‘taking delight in his commands’ (another synonym for the Law).

There are other alphabetical psalms (and other pieces of alphabetic poetry, like the praise of the good wife in Proverbs) in the Bible, but I gather that technically these three (110/111, 111/112 and 118/119) are the best and most complete.  I’m not qualified to judge this, so I don’t plan to discuss it; I’m just focussing on the shape and the contents of these psalms.

Praise and celebration after danger

Following the two shorter alphabeticals, we have Ps 112/113, a short and beautiful hymn of praise.  Then Ps 113/114 starts with a vivid retelling of Exodus but is quickly diverted (this is one of the places where the numbering changes in Hebrew, and another psalm begins) into praise for our God who is alive and active (and scorn for other people’s idols, who aren’t).  So the believers can be in fearful peril, but God will save them.  And the Alleluia shows that we are singing after reaching safety; we are celebrating after a happy ending.

personal peril and anguish

There is the same narrative, but a more individual tone in Ps 114/115 : more emphasis on personal peril and anguish, followed by calling on the Lord and rescue.  Ps 115/116 is prayer and sacrifice after deliverance, looking from safety at past danger, and looking forward to celebrating and thanking God as it were formally,  in the Temple at Jerusalem.  Following this  we have Ps 116/117, the tiny psalm, extending the prayer and praise to ‘all you nations’, which I have discussed before.

The Easter psalm (117/118)

Christ leaving tomb
resurrexit sicut dixit

The next psalm in this sequence is the one which we sing over and over again through the Easter season.  It is the psalm which contains many favourite lines and images.  It is difficult to choose among them, but there is the classic call to praise ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good’,

the repeated answer, like a shanty, ‘For his love endures forever’, and the crucial image about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone, and so on.  This is precisely the sort of formal, processional thanksgiving song to which the psalmist looks forward in Ps 115/116.

And finally….Ps 118/119

And so we arrive at Psalm 118/119, the song about the Law.  There are twentytwo stanzas, each corresponding to a different letter of the alphabet, and each verse in that stanza also starts with the same letter.  Every stanza describes the beauty of the Law in a very formal way, using several different words for it (law, will, word, precepts, statutes, commands, decrees, paths, promises, instructions, ordinances; – and this is not an exhaustive list, as it varies in different translations).   The words sound again and again, in a different order in almost every stanza.  It reminds me more of bellringing than anything else : there is a pattern, and it’s made up of subtle variations in the order of the different bells, but it’s more a mathematical pleasure than just a tune.  C.S. Lewis compared this technique to ‘a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftmanship’ (Reflections on the Psalms, ch.6).

A rare exclamation mark

You would think that such a concentration on quite literally the letter of the law would make for a dry narrative, and even lead to self-satisfaction or arrogance; but in fact, if you read it all the way through, what strikes you much more is the warmth and sincerity of the psalmist and his lack of priggery.  He starts by putting in the foreground not himself but those who follow God’s law, and this is the line that gives us our Response.  It is also interesting because it has an exclamation mark, rare in the Psalms, indeed rare in the Bible altogether, and not there in the original text, but sufficiently indicated by the words we have that all the different translations do have the exclamation mark there.  It’s even in Mary Herbert’s translation in the Sidney psalter.

Singing an exclamation mark?

You can’t sing an exclamation mark, but I did try to keep the Response definitely upbeat, and a bit more so than the verses, because they are more of a meditation.  I hadn’t come across the C.S.Lewis remarks before I set this psalm, but I’m glad that I’ve picked up the same atmosphere, and I think the verse tune conveys the leisureliness, even though you need a bit more brightness in the Response.

Less about the form, more about the content

The other reason why the psalmist does not sound like an obnoxious Pharisee is that, despite the bravura technique and artistic flourishes, his tone is almost tentative in places, and the psalm in its entirety shows an ongoing movement to embrace the Law,  his delight in finding it and his intention to follow it (I will obey your statutes, v.8), while at the same time the speaker moves freely between past, present and future.  He does not think that he knows it all, indeed he says repeatedly that he needs to know more about it and asks God to instruct him.  He repents of the past and refers to past suffering (Before I was afflicted I strayed, v.67), but he feels safe when he thinks of God’s law.  Even when things go wrong (v.81 ff), all his confidence is in the law and in God, although the tone occasionally sounds like someone bravely whistling in the dark.  The person he is encouraging is himself.  He speaks confidently about God’s love; and he keeps calling out to God to do something.  His attitude is a fine one to emulate.  He is not following God’s law for any other reason that that of love, as he declares repeatedly; the Law is his delight (he says that more than twenty times).  The Law is his nearest way of relating to God;  he is a deeds not words man, as we are all supposed to be.

In extremis veritas

The last stanza is particularly telling.  It is an elegant little poem all on its own, from the formal point of view.  It begins with a list of what he is doing to ask God for help, with God’s hoped-for action in the second half of the line. Let my cry come before you: teach me […]. Let my pleading come before you: save me […].  Then the causation is emphasized : Let my lips proclaim your praise because you teach me […], Let my tongue sing[..] for your commands are just.  Then there is a complete 180 degree turn. Let your hand be ready to help me, since I have chosen your precepts […].  He repeats again the central point of the psalm, with the stress back on the Law : I long for your saving help and your law is my delight. /Give life to my soul that I may praise you. Let your decrees give me help.

Job talking to Jesus
Link NT/OT : Byzantine Jesus coming to comfort Job

The last two lines are completely unexpected.  I am lost like a sheep; seek your servant : for I remember your commands.  This is no dry ascetic academic, no arrogant lawyer.  This is someone who is clinging to the law as his only protection.  He is in exactly the same position that St Paul was in, before God knocked him off his horse and Jesus came to look for the lost sheep.   Psalm 118/119 is not one of the psalms that people always quote as a foreshadowing of the New Testament, but I think it’s a wonderful example.

Conversion of St Paul
rescuing the lost sheep, and then having him learn all about it