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Old Testament Prayer and Chant


Among the didactic books, there is one special book, a book of prayer. What Christian not only Orthodox, but of any confession or sect does not know the Psalter, or at least the penitential Fiftieth Psalm? Here is a book for all, for prayer in all its forms, for all occasions: in grief, in times of hopelessness and desperation, when one is afraid, surrounded by enemies, surrounded by unbelief and crime; in personal woes and communal disasters; for tears of repentance after a fall, and in the joy after receiving consolation; when feeling reverent exultation, the need to give thanks, to bear witness to one's faith, to strengthen one's hope and to send up pure praise to God when contemplating the greatness and beauty of His creation. In the Psalter, there are many thoughts addressed to one's own soul, much advice, and many words of consolation. Therefore, the exceptionally extensive use of the Psalter in the Church of Christ is not surprising. Not a single divine service could be conducted without psalms. Some of the psalms are read several times during the course of one day's cycle of divine services. And besides this, the entire Psalter is read through in church in the form of the kathismata not less than once a week. Finally, all Orthodox services are also interspersed with individual verses from the psalms, in the form of prokeimena, alleluia verses, verses for "God is the Lord," refrains to stichera, and other short prayers of petition, repentance and praise. Christian prayers recorded in the New Testament very often borrow expressions from the psalms.

The Psalter is Christianized in the full sense of the word. This means that the Church puts a Christian meaning into all its expressions, and the Old Testament element retreats into the background. The words "rise up" and "arise, O Lord," direct our thoughts to the Resurrection of Christ; words about captivity are understood in the sense of captivity to sin; the naming of peoples hostile to Israel as spiritual enemies; the name of Israel as the people of the Church; the appeal to slaughter our enemies as an appeal to struggle with passions; the salvation from Egypt and Babylon as salvation in Christ from idolatry. In almost every verse of the Psalter the Church finds a reflection of the New Testament, of some event, or thought, feeling, or confession of faith, hope and love. By citing verses from the psalms in their New Testament sense, the Apostles themselves in their writings, have taught us to approach the Psalter in this way.

Some psalms contain expressions and even groups of verses which are not clear, not only in the Slavonic text, but even in their ancient languages, in the original Hebrew and in the Greek translation; but next to them are verses which are brilliantly expressive. How many psalms there are which are completely clear and beautifully express our states of soul, and express them in prayer so fully that it is as if the divinely inspired chanter composed them not in some distant age, but in our times and for us!

Finally, there is one book among the didactic which speaks not of wisdom, not of prayer, but of love. This is the "Song of Songs," about the bride and her beloved. At first impression, this book can appear to be just a beautiful, lyric song. Many liberal commentators, who do not subscribe to the voice of the Fathers of the Church, interpret it in just this way. However, if we read the prophets, we see that, in the Old Testament, the image of the bride and her beloved is used in an elevated sense of the covenant between God and the chosen people. If this book entered the canon of the Israelite's sacred books, it did so because Old Testament tradition understood it in a lofty, symbolic sense. In the New Testament, without using the poetic form, Saint Paul employs the same symbol when, speaking of the husband's love for his wife, he compares it with Christ's love for the Church. In church hymns we often hear the same image of the bride and her betrothed, as a symbol of the burning love of a Christian soul for the Saviour: "Thy lamb, O Jesus, crieth out with a loud voice: I long for Thee, O my Bridegroom, and I endure sufferings as I seek for Thee..." we sing in the dismissal hymn to a woman martyr. A similar expression of the soul's love for Christ is also encountered in the writings of the Christian ascetics.

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