Psalm 118: A Commentary by St. Theophan the Recluse
...Everyone should read this book. Well suited as well for non-Orthodox, and even non-Christians.
“Therefore he who studies the law of the Lord day and night is like the tree which is planted by the streams of the waters, which shall bring forth its fruit in its season (Ps 1:3). Scripture knows nothing of scholarly research with the goal of barren knowledge: All its talk is about life and its arrangement. Scholarly research is begotten by a lack of concern for life, in order to cover up its empty idleness by this outward appearance.” [verse 129]
“There is a joy in the Lord, and there is sorrow in God; and there are joy and grief that are false. There is a fear of God and a hope that are to salvation; and there are unwarranted fears and deceptive hopes.” [verse 2]
Psalm 118: A Commentary by St. Theophan the Recluse.
Translated from the Russian by Archpriest Gleb Wleskov; translation edited by Seraphim Englehardt. After nearly 30 years of engagement with this text, we are delighted at long last to make it available to the faithful in permanent library form. Each reading (and there have been many) has deepened our appreciation of the profundity of the commentary, which never succumbs to the temptation of mere academicism. It is a book which can be read from beginning to end -- or from any random point -- with equal benefit. Deluxe edition: silver binding, gold-stamped, gilded edges, marker ribbon.
Item# 3492. Saddle-stitched. $40.00
The one hundred and eighteenth psalm differs from the other psalms by many obvious features which even from the first glance cannot go unnoticed — the number of verses is self-evident; this psalm comprises an entire kathisma in our Psalter. Reading it through attentively, one cannot but notice its other peculiarity: each of its 176 verses says something about the law of God, only calling it by different names. Either of these might not be so important, except that one can only marvel that, in so many verses concerning one and the same subject — as people who study the Scriptures extensively have observed — there are no weak statements and no identical repetitions. There are similar verses, but they differ in their descriptions of varying aspects of the divine law or shades of those aspects. Similarly, some unpretentious pronouncements, when examined carefully, give the eyes of the mind an insight into the depths of divine law-giving.
There is another peculiarity in this psalm, not noticeable in the Greek, Slavonic, or other translations, but is immediately evident in the original Hebrew. This psalm is constructed as an alphabetical acrostic. It is not, however, that each verse begins with a new letter of the alphabet, following the preceding. Rather, eight consecutive verses form an octave, each verse beginning with one and the same letter. The following octave then has its verses beginning with the subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Since the Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, this makes 22 groups of eight verses, 22 octaves —— 176 verses, the number of verses in this psalm.
This last feature points to a solution to the question concerning the origin and intent of this psalm. One interpreter mentions the opinion of Hebrew scholars that the holy prophet David, preparing his son Solomon to succeed him, arranged this psalm to teach him the law of God and the art of prayer. Zigabenos, a Greek commentator, cites Origen's information that the Hebrews had their children memorize this psalm along with the alphabet.
Putting this together, we may assume that the prophet David at the end of his days, having passed through so many and varied experiences in his life, of which not one occurred without a direct relationship to God and His law, having judiciously passed through all moral and religious conditions and having comprehended all of them in the light of the face of God, conceived the good thought of passing on to his son Solomon all of his spiritual experience. But he did this having in mind not only the children of the fathers of his own time. but of all generations to come.
Blessed Theodoret wrote the following about this psalm: “The divine David passed through many different changes in his life. He both had to flee from his enemies, and made his enemies flee. He fell into misfortunes and knew happy days. He followed the divine path, stumbled on his way, and again followed the divine laws. He gathered all of these experience into this one psalm. And all the prayers he offered to God in various circumstances were assembled in one harmonious composition, offering to men of all times a teaching on how to succeed in leading a virtuous life."
We hasten, however, to caution against a possible idea: “This psalm may be for children’s reading and learning; why should we adults, especially learned ones, bother with it?" True, this psalm was taught in childhood, but it gave guidance for a whole life. Memorized once and for all, it served not only as guidance, but as a subject for constant reflection and a means for constant immersion in the mysteries of God's lawgiving.
The utterances of this psalm are simple in form, but not in content. Begin to look into it carefully, and you will always find in it a new, instructive approach, inviting you to follow along the paths of God.
Blessed Augustine wrote that for a long time he was unable to start his commentary on this psalm, being overwhelmed by its depth. “How often," said he, “was I asked to give its interpretation, but when I was ready to begin, I backed off, realizing that it was above my strength. For the simpler this psalm would seem to be, the deeper it actually turns out to be, and I am unable to say how profound it is. Other psalms have dark spots; this one is so clear that all one has to do is to read or listen; there is nothing to interpret. And yet, getting ready to comment on it, I cannot say I will be able to do anything even now.”
After this, there can be no doubt that, even if learned persons take a verse of this psalm and meditate on it, it will be very much like digging earth where a treasure is hidden. Just dig and you will find. No matter what his spiritual age, anyone will find something needful and beneficial.
Blessed Theodoret concludes his reflections on this psalm thus: “This psalm is sufficient to perfect those who seek absolute virtue, to bring those who live absentmindedly to be attentive to themselves, to inspire those whose spirit has fallen, to reform the careless — in a word, it gives the right medicine for all human weakness.”
St. Athanasios the Great, bypassing all the external implications to this psalm, looks at it with the eyes of an anchorite: “In this psalm the holy prophet describes the lives of the saints, their podvigs, their sorrows and hardships, the attacks of the demons, and thousands of their mental suggestions, nets. and other means of capture. But at the same time, it shows what makes the saints victorious: the law, the word of God, patience, help from above — and finally, what follows hard work: rewards, crowns and recompense."
St. Ambrose writes: “Other psalms contain moral issues, but they are like stars spread out in the sky; this one is like the sun, abundantly pouring forth its light at high noon."
Such richness of this psalm has disposed us to devote ample time to reflection on it and to offer whatever God will send us to the attention of God-Fearing and fervent Christians, zealous for their salvation, confident that it will be of some use.
The holy Church obviously wanted us to know this psalm better and understand it more deeply when it established its reading at the daily midnight service, when our mind, refreshed by sleep, is more apt to understand with greater clarity and penetrate more deeply.
Offering our reflections, we feel obligated to say that there will be little of our own. All will be borrowed from the holy fathers and teachers of the Church, who toiled in the interpretation of this psalm. St. Ambrose devoted an entire book to it; Blessed Augustine preached a series of sermons on it. St. Athanasios the Great, Blessed Theodoret and St. Hilary have commented on it along with their commentaries on all the psalms. In addition, our counsellors will be Euthymios, Zigabenos and Anthimos, the most blessed patriarch of Jerusalem.
In our presentation. we will preserve the division into octaves, following St. Ambrose and the most blessed Anthimos, although this is absent in the Slavonic and Greek texts, especially since it is not simply an external division to facilitate reading and support attention and interest without influence on the contents. We thought at first that the verses of each octave did not form a unity, but a more attentive reading showed each octave to have a guiding thought, upon which the verses are threaded like pearls on a string. Both the commentary itself and reflection on it will show how true this is.
What is the general form of the sayings in this psalm? They are not proverbs, but prayerful appeals to God. Each verse is a prayer, and always about one and the same subject: the fulfillment of the Lords law. Aware that salvation is only from God through performance of His holy will, a soul converses with God, entreating Him to enlighten, to bring understanding. to strengthen, to deliver from internal temptations and external troubles, to restore from falls, and to deliver from enemies — in short, to grant it, through His kindness, to please Him. The speech is always warm, addressed to God, straight from the heart.
One more consideration: God's will, mandatory for us, is expressed by more than one word. Besides the usual expressions of law and commandments, we encounter such words as testimonies, statues, words, judgments of Thy righteousness, the way, the way of truth, the way of Thy commandments, the way of Thy precepts, path of the commandments, counsels, and others. Each of these names stands for the same will of God, concerning how we should live, or the same law – but in its varied applications. If any of these designations should provide a shade to a thought within a saying, this will be mentioned at the appropriate place.