August 20, 2014

Psalm 135

Praise the Lord! [LXX=Alleluia!]
1 Praise the name of the Lord,
O servants of the Lord,
2 you that stand in the house of the Lord,
  in the courts of the house of our God!
3 Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good;
  sing to His name, for He is gracious!
4 For the Lord has chosen Jacob for Himself,
  Israel as His own possession.
5 For I know that the Lord is great,
  and that our Lord is above all gods.
6 Whatever the Lord pleases He does,
  in heaven and on earth,
  in the seas and all deeps.
7 He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
  Who makes lightnings for the rain
  and brings forth the wind from His storehouses.
8 He it was who smote the first-born of Egypt,
  both of man and of beast;
9 who in thy midst, O Egypt,
  sent signs and wonders
  against Pharaoh and all his servants;
10 Who smote many nations
  and slew mighty kings,
11 Sihon, king of the Amorites,
  and Og, king of Bashan,
  and all the kingdoms of Canaan,
12 and gave their land as a heritage,
  a heritage to his people Israel.
13 Thy name, O Lord, endures for ever,
  Thy renown, O Lord, throughout all ages.
14 For the Lord will vindicate his people,
  and have compassion on His servants.
15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
  the work of men’s hands.
16 They have mouths, but they speak not,
  they have eyes, but they see not,
17 they have ears, but they hear not,
  nor is there any breath in their mouths.
18 Like them be those who make them!—
  yea, every one who trusts in them!
19 O house of Israel, bless the Lord!
  O house of Aaron, bless the Lord!
20 O house of Levi, bless the Lord!
  You that fear the Lord, bless the Lord!
21 Blessed be the Lord from Zion,
  he who dwells in Jerusalem!
Praise the Lord!

Psalm 135 is a hymn of thanksgiving and praise for God’s enduring love of His people demonstrated in His intervention in history.  For Christians the key moment of divine intervention is God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ. Everything else, before and after, is seen in the light of Christ. And so the great events recounted in this psalm—the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan—are partial, imperfect and incomplete, as is the violent “cleansing” of Canaanites from the Promised Land.

Granted, it was a brutal world in 1400 BC, the time of the conquest. Sihon of the Amorites and Og of Bashan were nasty people who rejected the peaceful overtures of Israel, so Israel proceeded to destroy them. 

[The] Lord said to Moses, “Do not fear [Og, King of Bashan]; for I have given him into your hand, and all his people, and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt at Heshbon.”  So they slew him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was not one survivor left to him; and they possessed his land. (Numbers 21:34-35).

For Christians, this example, even if correct and under perceived divine guidance at the time, and is not to be followed today. Indeed, Fr Georges Florovsky said that anything we encounter in the Old Testament that is incompatible with the teaching of Christ must be reinterpreted in light of the fuller divine revelation that He brings.

* * *

Hagia Sophia
Chandeliers in Haghia Sophia (572AD), Constantinople (originally olive oil lamps, now electric)

In Orthodox liturgical life, Psalms 135 and 136 are sung together as the joyful “polyeleos” (literally “many mercies”) at the heart of matins. This gets its name from the refrain after every verse of Psalm 136, “For his mercy endures forever.” And since at this point the lights are fully lit—oil lamps traditionally—there is some wordplay here, because “eleos” also means oil, hence polyeleos, “much oil.”

There are many variations in parish practice, but frequently the Polyeleos is abbreviated to the first and last verses of Psalms 135 and 136, with Alleuia sung in between as the refrain.

Waiting for the bride: “Praise the name of the Lord”

“Praise the Name of the Lord” is also often sung as a hymn at weddings, just before the start of the service as the groom waits for his bride to enter the church. Praise and thanksgiving are the perfect response for the mystery of a man and a woman, once strangers, being brought together as life partners. 

135:1 Praise the name of the Lord,
O servants of the Lord,Alleluia!
135:21 Blessed be the Lord from Zion,
  he who dwells in Jerusalem!Alleluia!
136:1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
  for his mercy endures for ever.Alleluia!
136:26 O give thanks to the God of heaven,
  for his mercy endures for ever.Alleluia!

A much fuller rendering is sung here antiphonally by the choirs of Saint Vladimir’s and Saint Tikhon’s Seminaries during the All-Night Vigil on Saturday, November 13, 2010: The relics of Saint Vladimir of Kiev were present during the service.


On Monday, His Beatitude was invited to listen-in on a call from the White House Office of Public Engagement with other religious leaders from around the country. The main purpose of the call was for Attorney General Eric Holder to brief the leaders on steps being taken to conduct a thorough investigation of events in Ferguson, Missouri and to enlist support of the faith communities for bringing a peaceful resolution to the conflict that has erupted there.

Father Eric Tosi and I joined Metropolitan Tikhon to hear the call. While the communication was all one way, I was impressed at the effort to reach out to the community in this way. Locally in Missouri there is an effort to foster two-way communication, and the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service will be conducting “stakeholder meetings” to ensure that voices are not left out.