Psalm 118 (Lxx) / 119 (MT): Intro
The Psalms are the songbook of the Church & they comprise an extremely large part of Orthodox services. They are divided into 20 sections called Kathisma (plural: Kathismata) which literally means “sitting”. Traditionally, the faithful would sit & listen attentively while the Kathisma was being chanted. Each Kathisma is further divided into 3 stasis, or parts. This is how I will present Psalm 118 with an Introduction article & then according to the Orthodox division of its 3 stasis.
This psalm has always been my favorite. It is the longest Psalm with 176 verses arranged in 22 octaves with each octave having 8 verses. Not only is it the longest Psalm, but it is also the longest chapter in the Scriptures & even longer than many other books. In the original Hebrew each octave started with a Hebrew letter from the alphabet. However, this usage did not carry over to the Greek Septuagint.
Psalm 118 is Kathisma 17. In the Daily Cycle of Prayer for the Orthodox, this Psalm is chanted at Saturday Matins as well as the Midnight Office for weekdays. If one was to follow the Daily Office in its fullest, one would read the entire Psalter once through weekly & twice through weekly during Great Lent. This Psalm also figures prominently in the Orthodox funeral service.
For this series I am using excerpts heavily from the book Grace For Grace: The Psalter & the Holy Fathers, pp. 459-513, compiled & edited by Johanna Manley. From this text I intend to use commentary by St. Theophan the Recluse in which he comments on the Hebrew letters & their relationship to the theme of Psalm 118. I will put these comments & quotes in bold-italic type. I will close this Intro to Psalm 118 with comments by Johanna Manley:
Concerning the reading of the Book of Psalms:
If, to the modern “sophisticated” reader, some of the connections, types, & allegorical flights of imagery appear strained, we should remember that, after all, we are dealing with prophecy. To our prophet David—and indeed to the other biblical & holy prophets— whole worlds & visions & centuries of time opened up, in a manner unknown to us sinful, pedestrian beings. In trying to comprehend the import of the words pouring from David, we have no choice but to open up our hearts & minds & imaginations to their widest degree. & to a devout Christian, searching for spiritual understanding—be he of the 1st centuries A.D. or of modern times—what enters in this event but our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ? In many instances, moreover, any other explanation than of prophecies of Christ would seem either even more far-fetched or simply missing.
St. Hilary of Poitiers also came to this conclusion. “There is no doubt,” he says, “that the language of the Psalms must be interpreted by the light of the teaching of the Gospel.* Thus, whoever he be by whose mouth the Spirit of Prophecy is spoken, the whole purpose of his words is our instruction concerning the glory & the power of the Coming, the Incarnation, the Passion, the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ & of our resurrection. Moreover, although prophecies are shut & scale to worldly sense & pagan wisdom, as Isaiah says, ‘and all the same shall be into you as the words of the sealed book’ (Isa. 29:11)…The whole is a texture woven of allegorical & typical meanings, whereby our spread before our view all the mysteries of the Only-begotten Son of God, who was to be born in the body, to suffer, to die, to rise again, to reign forever with those who share His glory because they believed on Him, to be the Judge of the rest of mankind.” (Grace For Grace, p. viii)
Concerning Psalm 118:
Many ask—some cynically-how do we know the will of God? Psalm 118 is intended as a book of instructions to answer this question, to present guidance on how to live a godly & God-fearing life, approached in simplicity, sincerity, humility & faith & thereby know His will.
In ancient times, this guidance was linked to the Hebrew alphabet, which has 22 letters, as a mnemonic vehicle, as if to offer the full gamut from Aleph to Tau—or “A to Z” as we would call it. Eight verses are assigned to each letter, for which reason it is referred to below as an octave. In the Hebrew text, each of the eight verses began with the respective letter of the octave. These Hebrew letters are missing from the Septuagint.
Many of the subjects summarized in this psalm have also been covered in previous psalms, as indicated below, but Psalm 118 serves as a beautiful & profound Book of Instructions for Asaph & the Sons of Korah & for us to read, reread & to chant. This psalm, Kathisma XVII (17)**, is chanted in the Orthodox Church on Saturdays at Vespers with some exceptions.***
The early Christian commentators varied in the significance given to the specific Hebrew letters. For example, Origen wrote of the letters, but St. Hilary of Poitiers, who borrowed liberally from Origen’s commentaries on the psalms, de-emphasized the importance of the alphabetical presentation. Set forth below, introducing each octave, are St. Theophan the Recluse’s comments on the Hebrew letters & their relationship to the overall theme of Psalm 118, as translated, summarized & paraphrased by F. Gleb. St. Theophan was deeply read in Patristics & in the Psalms, & this would seem to be the best means to cover this aspect. (Grace For Grace, p. 464)
* “The lens of Christ” should be the rule for interpretation of the entire OT canon, not just the Psalms!
** “(17)” added
*** Most Psalters have charts showing Kathismata 16 & 17 to be read at Saturday Matins while Kathisma 1 is to be read for Saturday Vespers. Ironically, even the chart located on pp. 675-6 of Grace For Grace stipulates this order for reading.