Psalm 137 in Bede’s Psalter

Derek’s post on the importance of psalm 137 yesterday (here) brought to mind that psalm 136/137 is odd in Bede’s abbreviated psalter. It is the only verse in his abbreviated psalter that he changes to allegory. This is just so peculiar. Why change only one line of scripture? In Ward’s edition she seems not even sure that it is supposed to represent a line from 136/137, putting her translation in brackets with “136?” [Vulgate 136/modern 137]

The only line that Bede apparently chose to include from psalm 136/137 and then alter is verse 9: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” which is changed to “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord!” (Browne’s translation).

Gerald Browne and Benedicta Ward both address this unique alteration. Ward reported that she searched all of scripture, commentaries, psalters etc and couldn’t find it anywhere. She is at a loss for its source. Browne (p. 12-13) believes that Bede “may have drawn his inspiration from St Hilary, whose exposition of the verse in question reads: ‘Blessed…is he who…will drive out and destroy each desire of his every passion … in accordance with the fear of God'”. If this is true then Hilary of Poiters commentary on the psalms is important for Bede’s understanding of the psalms. Does anyone know of an English translation of Hilary? I’m not sure what I think of Hilary’s commentary either. The text is surely a cry for retribution.

The context of the line may be relevant in why Bede would make such a change.

[125] Change, Lord, our captivity, like a stream in the south. [126] Unless the Lord guards the city, he who guards it watches in vain. [127] Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways. [128] The blessing of the Lord be upon us. [129] Lord, hear my voice; let your ears become attentive to the voice of my entreaty. [130] Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are my eyes lifted up. [131] This is my rest forever, [132] for there the Lord has commanded blessing and life forever. [133] You who stand in the house of the Lord, [134] glorify the Lord, for the Lord is good. [135] Praise the God of heaven, for his mercy is forever. [136] Blessed is the man who fears the Lord. [137] I will praise you, Lord, with my whole heart. Lord, your mercy is forever; do not forsake the works of your hands. [138] If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I lie in hell, you are present. [139] Rescue me, Lord, from the evil man; from unjust men save me. (Browne, p. 80-86)

This section is obviously a string of very short abbreviations. One line or a part of a line from each psalm is it. I’ve included most of this section of one-liners. It actually goes back to psalm 119 but I’m not sure how much more I can quote for copyright reasons. I think its helpful to look at it in this continuous fashion because that is how it appears in medieval texts.

It is true that not much from psalm 136/137 fits the context to Bede’s abbreviations but perhaps ps. 137: 5-6 would have fit –“If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”. This would have fit the context above just fine and verse 5 would have fit a writer like Bede so well. Yet Bede choose to substitute an allegory for perhaps one of the most disturbing verses in the psalter. Suggestions on an explanation are welcome!

Unfortunately the (near) contemporary abbreviated psalter in the Book of Cerne lacks Psalm 136. It is the last psalm missing in a large gap probably due to a missing folio or two in its exemplar.

References:

Gerald M. Browne, trans. The Abbreviated Psalter of the Venerable Bede. Eerdmans, 2002.

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