On the humanity of Jesus Christ
Psalm 110 is used with some frequency in the Liturgy of the Hours at Evening Prayer, and I have always stumbled over its final verse. Here is the text from the RSV-CE (verse 6 is not included in Evening Prayer):
1The LORD says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
till I make your enemies your footstool.”
2The LORD sends forth from Zion
your mighty scepter.
Rule in the midst of your foes!
3Your people will offer themselves freely
on the day you lead your host
upon the holy mountains.
From the womb of the morning
like dew your youth will come to you.
4The LORD has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest for ever
after the order of Melchiz’edek.”
5The Lord is at your right hand;
he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
6He will execute judgment among the nations,
filling them with corpses;
he will shatter chiefs
over the wide earth.
7He will drink from the brook by the way;
therefore he will lift up his head.
One understands why verse 6 is not used in the Breviary; the clergy need not dwell, while in this world, on filling the earth with corpses. This refers at once to God’s intervention on behalf of His Chosen People and, presumably, to the Last Judgment, and it is mercy that ought to be the main focus of the Church. But what could it possibly mean that the Lord “will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head”?
Many commentators have seen in this verse the single-minded focus on the victory of justice by Christ, who does not rest in a life of ease but rather takes only the minimal necessary refreshment without ceasing His pursuit of His enemies. The verse becomes, then, a description of the rigors of warfare for those who have a seriousness that ensures ultimate victory. The Lord, at the right hand of the Father, will neither falter nor fail in the execution of judgment upon His enemies.
For all I know, this exclusively martial interpretation may be both true and complete, but it has never struck me as sufficiently comprehensive of the psalm as a whole. This interpretation would seem to fit the context of verses 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6, but it leaves out of its reckoning the surprising verse at the very center of the psalm, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek’.” And this priestly verse calls to mind a key to the understanding of Jesus Christ: He is the sole permanent and universal high priest—a man who can offer once and for all an unfailing and infinitely pure and comprehensive sacrifice for sin.
To me, the phrase “therefore he will lift up his head” implies not merely victory but worthiness of victory. The one who can “lift” or “hold” up his head is the one who has no cause for shame. The last verse of Psalm 110 seems to say that Our Lord, so often described in the Psalms in terms of his rejection, disfigurement and passion, will now be able to “lift up his head” precisely because he will have drunk “from the brook by the way”.
And what has He drunk? This mighty Lord, this priest forever, this Jesus Christ has drunk to the dregs the cup of His human passion. For as Psalm 22 says so clearly, he was “scorned by men, and despised by the people”. And again: “All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads” (vv. 6-8). Six verses further on, He says: “I am poured out like water” (v. 14). Much later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, He prays: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Mt 26:39). Surely, in many layered senses, it is this Lord who has drunk from the brook along the way.
Now of course we see in all this the same interplay between blood and water that we see when Christ’s side was pierced, but here I am soaring above and beyond the text of Psalm 110: “He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.” Nonetheless, the word “therefore” is pregnant with meaning for the Son of God who has become man. Might it not be reasonable to interpret “He will drink from the brook by the way” as a concrete image of the stupendous reality of the Incarnation? Is it not Christ alone who, precisely in becoming man, “drinks from the brook by the way” just as all of us do, and just as God (without the Incarnation) does not? Might this not be a statement about the very humanity of our Savior who has in fact become the form, model and reality of the perfect man?
St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that we must all “build up the body of Christ, till we become one in faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, and form that perfect man who is Christ come to full stature” (4:12-13). Or, as another translation expresses it: “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” And to the Romans Paul explained: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (5:19).
Given this entire context, I personally see in the Psalm verse in question—“He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head”—a strong hint that in becoming man, Our Lord has in effect earned the right to hold up his head in what then becomes, unmistakably, a perfectly appropriate and perfectly just victory over His enemies. He has walked the walk. He has drunk by the stream by the wayside as only a man can and must do. And when he lifts up his head, so too does he lift up ours.
Am I correct that this is the meaning of verse 7 in Psalm 110? The Church has not said so. But I write this on December 30, 2021, during the octave of the Nativity of the Lord, and one thing is sure: This is both the meaning and the promise of Christmas.
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Posted by: chapman18668 -
Jan. 01, 2022 1:51 PM ET USA
Beautiful reflection and I thank you for sharing it. I like your reasoning for why verse 6, and others of that ilk, have been omitted from the breviary, but I tend to think, whilie it may be well-intentioned, it was an act that lacked Faith and Hope, that those whom the Holy Spirit calls and enlightens can't take in the "darker meat" of the Scriptures. It is not as if those verses have been pulled out of the Bible as well; they are there for all to read and ponder. Loved this reflection though!
Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Dec. 31, 2021 5:25 PM ET USA
rghatt6599: You raise an interesting point. I understand the reasons for dropping certain Psalms and some particular verses from the Divine Office, which was done by Pope St. Paul VI, but on the whole, I too would prefer that they were all retained, even in this age when the laity are encouraged to pray the Office. A proper catechesis or commentary would be a better way to ensure that these more warlike and apparently vengeful verses are not misunderstood or mishandled psychologically. Similar difficulties, with a different focus, have traditionally attended the reading of the Song of Songs, which at various times has been restricted as much as possible to those who have the spiritual maturity to interpret them correctly. But, again, I agree with your position.
Posted by: timmccmd3591 -
Dec. 30, 2021 11:10 PM ET USA
Jeff...worthy of St. Augustine! Rereading Augustine's theology of the Incarnation, the meaning of this holy birth and gift, your column dovetailed quite well with Augustine's own explanations of Jesus the Christ...the Son of God/Son of Man. And even one of Newman's Christmas sermons relates much the same thoughts as you've expressed here: 'And when He lifts up...' The Eucharist is the summation/meaning of the gift of this birth...and its something the Protestants have rejected.
Posted by: rghatt6599 -
Dec. 30, 2021 8:33 PM ET USA
Some of us think it was a loss to omit the so-called difficult psalm verses from the liturgy of the hours. Jesus in his humanity prayed and pondered all of the verses of the psalms in his Sacred Heart. Why should the priest as alter Christus who represents Him today not do the same? Verse 6 is no less spiritual food than the other verses for those who dwell on its reckoning of the demands of God’s justice. The distorted emphasis on God’s mercy has led to much confusion in the past 60 years.