07 July 2022

Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
7 July 2022 (Psalm 134)

‘Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord’ (Psalm 134: 2) … hands raised in the priestly blessing on a gravestone in the Jewish cemetery in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church, we are in Ordinary Time. Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 134:

Psalm 134 is the fifteenth and last in a series of 15 short psalms (Psalm 120-134) known as the ‘Songs of Ascents.’ These psalms begin with the Hebrew words שיר המעלות‎ (Shir Hama’a lot). In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is counted as Psalm 133.

It is often known by its Latin title, Ecce nunc benedicite Dominum. In Churches in the Anglican Communion, including the Church of Ireland and the Church of England, this psalm is also a canticle known as Ecce Nunc.

Many scholars say these psalms were sung by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals. Others say they were sung by the Levite singers as they ascended the 15 steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Mishnah notes the correspondence between the 15 songs and the 15 steps between the men’s court and the women’s courtyards in the Temple. A Talmudic legend says King David composed or sang the 15 songs to calm the rising waters at the foundation of the Temple.

One view says the Levites first sang the Songs of Ascent at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple during the night of 15 Tishri 959 BCE. Another study suggests they were composed for a celebration after Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 445 BCE. Others suggest they may originally have been songs sung by the exiles returning from Babylon, ascending to Jerusalem or individual poems later collected together and given the title linking them to pilgrimage after the Babylonian captivity.

These psalms are cheerful and hopeful, and they place an emphasis on Zion. They were suited for being sung because of their poetic style and the sentiments they express. They are brief, almost like epigrams, and they are marked by the use of a keyword or repeated phrase that serves as a rung on which the poem ascends to its final theme.

Psalm 134 is one of the shortest chapters in the Book of Psalms, being one of three psalms with three verses, the others being Psalm 131 and Psalm 133. The shortest psalm is Psalm 117, with two verses.

Psalm 134 brings the sequence of the Songs of Ascent to a close by calling on the people to bless God and on God to bless the people. This psalm is a fitting conclusion to the Songs of Ascents which were sung in the Temple in Jerusalem by day, exhorting the ministers or servants of the Lord to continue with their work in the house of the Lord by night, when the solemnities of the day are over.

The psalm could also be interpreted as a dialogue, as the priests and Levites who serve in the Temple are enjoined in verses 1 and 2 to spend their time during the night watch in acts of devotion rather than small talk.

In verse 3, they are urged to pray for the one who enjoined them in verse 1 – either the high priest or a captain of the night guard.

The former Chief Rabbi, the late Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, says the juxtaposition in the last verse of ‘heaven and earth’ and Zion, encapsulates the two dimensions of Judaism – the universal and the particular. God is everywhere, but it is in Zion that his presence is most apparent.

The Midrash Tehillim connects the contents of this psalm with several Jewish practices. Rabbi Yochanan says that ‘servants of the Lord who stand in the house of the Lord at night’ (verse 1) are those who engage in Torah study at night, which God considers in the same light ‘as if they occupied themselves with the priest’s service in the house of the Lord.’

The Midrash connects the lifting of the hands in preparation for blessing the Lord in verse 2 with the practice of lifting up the cup of wine with both hands for the recital of the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals).

The Midrash also further connects this verse to the Priestly Blessing, as Rabbi Simeon ben Pazzi says that a Kohen who has not ritually washed his hands may not lift them to invoke the Priestly Blessing.

The Zohar explains verse 2 as referring to the kohanim or priests who bestow the priestly blessing with raised hands. Before pronouncing the blessing, the kohanim must ritually wash their hands. This handwashing is performed by the Levites, ‘who themselves are holy.’ If a Levite is not present, a firstborn son pours the water, since he too is called ‘holy.’

Prayer shawls and prayer books in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania, Crete … a man’s children come under his tallit to be blessed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 134 (NRSVA):

A Song of Ascents.

1 Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,
who stand by night in the house of the Lord!
2 Lift up your hands to the holy place,
and bless the Lord.

3 May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) this week is ‘Tackling Poverty.’ It was introduced on Sunday by Niall Cooper, Director at Church Action on Poverty.

Thursday 7 July 2022:

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for the physical and mental wellbeing of all people struggling to meet the rising cost of living.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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