Psalm 140 (MT141); Numbers 16; 2 Cor 5:21-6:1; Romans 5:1-2, 1 Thess 5:23-4
The first of the four “lamp-lighting” Psalms of Vespers has been prayed in the evening for about three millennia, since the time of King David, to whom Psalm 140/141 is ascribed. Because its context in the evening is clear from the first few verses, numerous Church fathers have commented on the importance of regular prayer for those who would know God. This is an intensely personal psalm, using the first person “I” throughout, but in no way individualistic: the one who prays has in view corporate worship (the evening sacrifice), and the significance of the influence of others, both those who are righteous, and those who are rebellious towards God. It begins by calling upon the LORD:
LORD, I call upon you, hear me! Hear me, O LORD!
Receive the voice of my prayer when I call upon you. Hear me, O LORD!
Let my prayer arise in your sight as incense,
And let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice, Hear me, O LORD!
The great exegete, Origen, sees the psalm as a reminder that we should pray at all times, and formally at least three times a day, as he shows from examples in the Scriptures:
He prays ‘constantly’ … who unites prayer with the deeds required and right deeds with prayer…. [T]he only way we can accept the command to “pray constantly” as referring to a real possibility is by saying that the entire life of the saint taken as a whole is a single great prayer. What is customarily called prayer is, then, a part of this [life of] prayer. (On Prayer 12.2 Origen, R. Green 104-5)
Origen is speaking, of course, about how the psalm unites actual prayer, the lifting of hands to God, with the determination to follow in the righteous activity of the godly, but refuse the seducing flattery of the wicked.
St. Augustine goes even further in drawing out the corporate nature of this Psalm when he addresses a congregation during the Vesperal service, and reminds them that they are in Christ, the one who lifted up His holy hands to form a cross. We pray in him, and form our lives to be cruciform: as He sacrificed His life, we offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving:
A sermon has to be preached about the evening sacrifice. We prayed after all as we sang, and we sang as we prayed, “May my prayer rise straight up like incense in your presence; the lifting up of my hands an evening sacrifice.” In the prayer we observe the person, in the extension of the hands we recognize the cross. So this is the sign that we carry on our foreheads, the sign by which we have been saved. A sign that was mocked, in order to be honored; despised in order to be glorified. God appears in visible form, so that as man he may intercede; he remains hidden so that as man he may die. “For if they had known, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.” So this sacrifice, in which the Priest is also the Victim, has redeemed us by the shedding of the Creator’s blood. (Sermon 342.1 Rotelle, Works of St Augustine 3 10.34)
St. John Cassian speaks also of the evening as a reminder of when Jesus first celebrated the Holy Mysteries, and how these are joined to his being lifted up upon the cross that we might be raised up with him:
The true evening sacrifice is what was given by the Lord our Savior in the evening to the apostles at the Supper, when he instituted the holy mysteries of the Church, and what he himself, on the following day at the end of the ages, offered up to the Father by the lifting up of his hands for the salvation of the whole world. The spreading forth of his hands on the Cross is quite correctly called a “lifting up.” For when we were all lying in Hades, he raised us to heaven, according to the word of his own promise, when he says: “When I have been lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (Institutes 3.3. NPNF2 11.214, alt.)
These three Church fathers, then, show us the solemn beauty of this Psalm, and how it pictures us in solidarity with each other, and with Christ. Christ is then the center of this Psalm, too, for in the vulnerability which He assumed, Je required the aid of His Father, and knew the snares and traps of the wicked.
The Psalm then goes on to place the worshipper not only in the presence of God, but in the context of a world that is both hostile and nurturing:
Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth, and a strong door about my lips.
Incline not my heart to words of evil, to make excuses for sins
With men that work iniquity,
And I will never enjoy their delicacies. (or, I will not keep company with their choicest ones)
A righteous man shall chasten me with mercy and reprove me,
But let not the oil of the sinner anoint my head.
For still my prayer abides even while they enjoy their pleasures.
In our mind’s eye, we picture both the healing pain of chastening by a godly friend, and the harming pain that can come in the presence of those who reject God—the Psalmist knows his (and our) human weakness, and asks for fortitude and strength. We are reminded of the LORD Jesus, who like a lamb set for slaughter, did not open his mouth, though if he had done so, it would not have been to sin or to make excuses, as we do. We ask the LORD to make us like a fortress against evil, perhaps remembering the great sealing that was done to all of the members of our body when we were chrismated: God’s oil will protect us from “the oil of the sinner,” so that we are neither seduced by what seem like delicacies, or perhaps attracted by the “choicest” sinners who appear strong and fit, but are not. There are some differences between the Greek and Hebrew in this passage, and various ways of translating the Greek text, but the major point remains the same—God can keep us safe from temptation, and open to godly correction.
Both the Old and New Testaments are clear-headed about the attraction of evil: we do well to remember the reference in Psalm 54:22/55:21 about lips that are “smoother than oil,” as well as St. Paul’s cry in Roman 7:24 when he recognizes our human inclination to sin, and calls out to God for help: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?” Both St. Augustine and St. Caesarea of Arles are realistic regarding our weaknesses. St. Augustine gives examples of excuses that can be heard even in our day:
Now to make excuses is to look for reasons and to adduce pretexts why a sin should not be regarded as belonging to you. One says, “The devil did it for me”; another says, “My luck did it for me”; another, “I was forced to it by fate”; no one blames himself. (Sermon 29.3. Works of St. Augustine 3 2. 117).
St. Caesarea explains how it is necessary, since we are infected by the rot of sin, for us to receive the correction of others, even when it may to hurt:
He would seem to speak harshly, but inside he would be gentle in mercy, according to the words “The just person shall correct me in mercy and shall reprove me.” When the just person thus reproves and shouts and rages, he shows mercy, for it all arises from his paternal pity and not hostile cruelty. Moreover, since he does not want you to die in sin, he loves you all the more when he cuts; he is unwilling to allow your other members to decay from the rottenness of sin. (Sermon 59.6 FC 31 293-4)
Of course, the “righteous” or “just” person par excellence is Christ Himself, the very Righteousness of God (1 Cor 1:30), whose delight it is to be the great Physician, and to remove all this rottenness, no matter how long it takes. We begin with the great bath and unction of Baptism and Chrismation, and go on throughout our lives to be healed of all that separates us from life and truth. As we begin by dying to this world, we continue by carrying our cross. Because the Father has made Christ, “who knew no sin, to become sin for us” we will become “the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21), and are called, to that end, to be “coworkers” (2 Cor 6:1) with Him, cleaving to the good, and eschewing all that is evil.
This includes accepting the judgment of God against evil, and refusing the skewed judgment of our confused and rebellious age, that has mistaken evil for good. And so, the Psalm continues:
Their judges have been swallowed up near the rock;
They shall hear my words, for they are sweet:
As a clod of ground has been crushed upon the earth,
So have the bones been scattered near the mouth of Hades.
This part of the psalm may be difficult for some in our tolerant age to accept. Many today speak of working with one’s own personal moral compass, and of not “judging” the values of others. There is confusion here, it would seem. Though it is not our business to pass final judgment upon anybody, both our LORD and St. Paul tell us that it is indeed within our pay grade, and essential, to make “righteous judgments” (John 7:24; 1 Cor 6:1-4) and to rightly discern good from evil. Those who judge, or make decisions, in a worldly manner, without the eyes of Christ, will not stand. We may be reminded in these verses of the psalm, of the rebellious leaders Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who ironically accused Moses and Aaron of arrogance, but who took power upon themselves until the LORD had them swallowed up by the earth, to go down into Hades. As a result, the rest of the Hebrew people heard God’s chastening word through Moses, and eventually lived to see the generous provision of God on their behalf, including water from the rock. Their would-be judges had to be removed before they could recognize the “sweetness” of Moses’ words. Difficult though it is to hear about “swallowing up,” “crushing” the earth to get it ready for planting, and the scattering of bones, these metaphors speak powerfully of the danger of sin and death, and how right judgment (though never self-righteous judgmentalism against others) is a part of godly living.
In the end, the Psalm finally directs us toward God, the only true Judge:
For mine eyes are toward you, O LORD,
LORD, I have hoped in you: take not my soul away!
Keep me from the snare which they have set for me,
And from the stumbling blocks of those who work iniquity.
The sinners shall fall into their own net, while I alone escape.
Here is the stance of the one who will be preserved by God, in contrast to those who continue in rebellion: eyes towards God will keep our feet out of the nets, and give us an escape from the inclinations that all of us have towards evil. We hope in the LORD, and it is this hope in the all-powerful, all-good One that opens us to His rescue. We know all too well the designs of the Evil One upon us, the snares that he has set—and it is hope in the LORD, who made heaven and earth, and who rescues the needy from Hades, that will be our means of escape. Only the one who hopes can escape—not those who trust in their own plans! As St. Paul reminds the Thessalonians, it is the delight of the God of peace that we be “sanctified completely,” and that our “whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless when Jesus comes.” For “He who calls you is faithful, and also will do it!” (1 Thess 5:23-24).
In the end, then, this Psalm is about God’s righteousness and faithfulness. His character means that He will do something about rebellion, but provide a means of escape for all who stand in His presence and life up hands in prayer. Escape from harm is indeed wonderful, but so too is the full hope of the Christian, which we do not hear in this psalm, but in which we will rejoice as we continue to sing during the lighting of the lamps. With St. Paul, this Psalm reminds us that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” but not only that, we also “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:1-2). As our prayer arises with the incense, and as our arms, lifted out, make the sign of the cross, we look to the resurrection morning, and God’s great action to raise us up. The Vesperal cry, “Hear me, O LORD!” is full of hope.