Compline Psalms 4 and 134

Psalm 4 from the Liber Usualis

Psalm 4 from the Liber Usualis

At Compline at St. Mark’s in Seattle, we often select the psalm according to the liturgical theme of the day, but occasionally we sing psalms that were prescribed by St. Benedict in his Rule for monasteries to be sung only and always at Compline.  Last Sunday we sang two of these – Psalms 4 and 134 (I’m using the Jewish numbering, which is widely used in bibles today, as opposed to the Latin Vulgate numbering, prevalent in scholarly discussions and  Catholic liturgy until the 1970s — here’s a decoder for the two numbering systems).  Peter Hallock composed for us a lovely setting of these two psalms, in which the very short Psalm 134 is used as a refrain (or antiphon) before and after Psalm 4.  Here is the text, taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (BCP) that you can read while listening to it on our podcast (click on the “Play” button — the Psalms begin at about 3:40):

Psalm 134
Behold now, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, you that stand by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the Lord; the Lord who made heaven and earth bless you out of Zion.

Psalm 4
1  Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; *
you set me free when I am hard-pressed;
have mercy on me and hear my prayer.
2  “You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; *
how long will you worship dumb idols
and run after false gods?”
3  Know that the LORD does wonders for the faithful; *
when I call upon the LORD, he will hear me.
4  Tremble, then, and do not sin; *
speak to your heart in silence upon your bed.
5  Offer the appointed sacrifices *
and put your trust in the LORD.
6  Many are saying,
“Oh, that we might see better times!” *
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.
7  You have put gladness in my heart, *
more than when grain and wine and oil increase,
8  I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; *
for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety.

Behold now, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, you that stand by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the Lord; the Lord who made heaven and earth bless you out of Zion.

Psalm 134 is the next-shortest psalm in the Bible – Psalm 117 has about half as many words.  Although the portion “you that stand by night in the house of the Lord” evokes the priestly class worshipping in the temple, Robert Alter, in his translation of The Book of Psalms (2007), comments (p. 464) that “the acts of the sacrificial cult were completed by sundown, but the reference here could be either to the tending of the fires and the temple lamps through the night or to those who stayed to pray, or perhaps to partake of the sacrificial feast, through the hours of the night”.  It seems like an excellent way to describe all who pray before retiring for the night.  Alter translates the psalm as three verses, beginning the third where the BCP has a semicolon.  His second verse begins “Lift up your hands toward the holy place and bless the Lord”, implying that the Hebrew qodesh (“holiness”) can not only designate the sanctuary, but might be “an epithet for the heavens”.  The psalm is wonderfully recripocal — we take the time at night to bless the Lord, and the Lord will bless us.  The fact that this psalm comes at the end of a cycle of fifteen “psalms of ascent” along with the night imagery makes it a natural end-of-the-day prayer.

A portion of Psalm 4 occurs as part of the Jewish Bedtime Shema, and I refer you to an excellent blog posting on this ritual by Paul Kent Oakley in his blog Night Prayers.  I knew that the Christian offices were built on the foundation of Jewish fixed-hour prayer, but I have only just begun to explore that history.  The “Shema Yisrael” (“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One”) is the most important prayer in Judaism; the whole passage, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, is worth quoting:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (NRSV)

The command to recite the Shema “when you lie down” is at the heart of Jewish prayer at the end of the day.  In the Bedtime Shema, after the psalmody, which includes Psalm 91 (the other psalm prescribed for Compline by St. Benedict), comes a threefold repetition of verse 4: “Quake, and do not offend.  Speak in your hearts on your beds, and be still.” (Alter translation, p. 11).  Another part of the Bedtime Shema could almost be a paraphrase of Psalm 4:

If you will only heed his every commandment—that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul— then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshipping them, for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly from the good land that the Lord is giving you. (Deuteronomy 11:13-21, NRSV)

I find it interesting that although Psalm 4:7 only mentions grain and wine (Alter translation: “You put joy in my heart, from the time their grain and their drink did abound”), the writers of the Latin Vulgate (or perhaps the Greek Septuagint from which it was translated) must have had the passage from Deuteronomy in mind when they formed the more poetic “more than when grain and wine and oil increase” (see the Latin in vs. 8 of the chant pictured).

And for our last thought before we close our eyes tonight, we could hardly choose better than this:

I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety.


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  1. #1 by Ken Peterson on February 11, 2011 - 2:10 pm

    I looked online at the Greek Septuagint for the verse about “grain and wine and oil” and saw a phrase with three nouns connected by the Greek kai (“and”), so it looks like this dates back to New Testament times.

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