Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Significance of the "Six Psalms" of the Orthodox Matins Service

Icon of the Second Coming of Christ (source)

The Six Psalms

by Tyler Dykstra
The Six Psalms (Psalms 3, 37, 62, 87, 102, and 142) are a regular part of nearly every Orthros (Matins) service in the Church. Taken as a single unit, they are never omitted, except during Paschaltide (the 39 days after Pascha) [Or in other traditions, during Bright Week.]
  
The Six Psalms (in Greek, Hexapsalmos) is one of the most important parts of Orthros. It is “a time when all should put aside other thoughts, stand quietly, and concentrate on these penitential prayers.”1 Truly, it is one of the holiest moments in the Orthros service.
These Psalms are a summary of the Christian life, highlighting the sorrow that we so often meet along the way to our eternal joy.
In some traditions, all the candles or lights in the church are extinguished while these Psalms are read. This, along with the phrase “Glory to God in the highest,” calls to mind the dark night when Christ was born. It also affords us concentration on the Psalms’ words. According to Archbishop Benjamin of Nizhegorod and Arzamas:
This is done so that we, able to see nothing with our eyes, might listen to the Six Psalms attentively and with fear [of God] and so that everyone standing in the dark might shed a tear and release a tender sigh. For at night, and if there is no lighted candle nearby, it is difficult for people to see one another. It is for this reason that the ustav (rubric) directs: thus we pronounce the Six Psalms with all attentiveness and fear of God, as conversing with our invisible Christ God Himself, and praying over our sins.2
During the reading of the most bitter of the Psalms, Psalm 87, the priest leaves the altar to read his twelve morning prayers, which include intercessions for those standing in the church and for the forgiveness of their sins. This act symbolizes Christ, who heard the mourning of mankind and left his heavenly throne to rescue us, and ultimately shared in the suffering that Psalm 87 describes:
Wherefore, O Lord, dost Thou cast off my soul and turnest Thy face away from me? A poor man am I, and in troubles from my youth; yea, having been exalted, I was humbled and brought to distress. Thy furies have passed upon me, and Thy terrors have sorely troubled me. They came round about me like water, all the day long they compassed me about together. Thou hast removed afar from me friend and neighbour, and mine acquaintances because of my misery.3
There is also a tradition in the Church which says the Six Psalms will be read to each of us by our guardian angels at the Last Judgment, and during the time of the reading the whole world will be judged.
  
While it is a lengthy part of the Orthros service that can become tedious, we should try our best to stand and listen “with compunction and complete silence”4, meditating on the words of these Psalms:

The Six Psalms from Orthros5

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men. Thrice, with the sign of the Cross and a bow from the waist each time.
O Lord, Thou shalt open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Thy praise. Twice.

Psalm 3

O Lord, why are they multiplied that afflict me? Many rise up against me. Many say unto my soul: There is no salvation for him in his God. But Thou, O Lord, art my helper, my glory, and the lifter up of my head. I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and He heard me out of His holy mountain. I laid me down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord will help me. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people that set themselves against me round about. Arise, O Lord, save me, O my God, for Thou hast smitten all who without cause are mine enemies; the teeth of sinners hast Thou broken. Salvation is of the Lord, and Thy blessing is upon Thy people.
I laid me down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord will help me.

Psalm 37

O Lord, rebuke me not in Thine anger, nor chasten me in Thy wrath. For Thine arrows are fastened in me, and Thou hast laid Thy hand heavily upon me. There is no healing in my flesh in the face of Thy wrath; and there is no peace in my bones in the face of my sins. For mine iniquities are risen higher than my head; as a heavy burden have they pressed heavily upon me. My bruises are become noisome and corrupt in the face of my folly. I have been wretched and utterly bowed down until the end; all the day long I went with downcast face. For my loins are filled with mockings, and there is no healing in my flesh. I am afflicted and humbled exceedingly, I have roared from the groaning of my heart. O Lord, before Thee is all my desire, and my groaning is not hid from Thee. My heart is troubled, my strength hath failed me; and the light of mine eyes, even this is not with me. My friends and my neighbors drew nigh over against me and stood, and my nearest of kin stood afar off. And they that sought after my soul used violence; and they that sought evils for me spake vain things, and craftinesses all the day long did they meditate. But as for me, like a deaf man I heard them not, and was as a speechless man that openeth not his mouth. And I became as a man that heareth not, and that hath in his mouth no reproofs. For in Thee have I hoped, O Lord; Thou wilt hearken unto me, O Lord my God. For I said: Let never mine enemies rejoice over me; yea, when my feet were shaken, those men spake boastful words against me. For I am ready for scourges, and my sorrow is continually before me. For I will declare mine iniquity, and I will take heed concerning my sin. But mine enemies live and are made stronger than I, and they that hated me unjustly are multiplied. They that render me evil for good slandered me, because I pursued goodness. Forsake me not, O Lord my God, depart not from me. Be attentive unto my help, O Lord of my salvation.
Forsake me not, O Lord my God, depart not from me. Be attentive unto my help, O Lord of my salvation.

Psalm 62

O God, my God, unto Thee I rise early at dawn. My soul hath thirsted for Thee; how often hath my flesh longed after Thee in a land barren and untrodden and unwatered. So in the sanctuary have I appeared before Thee to see Thy power and Thy glory. For Thy mercy is better than lives; my lips shall praise Thee. So shall I bless Thee in my life, and in Thy name will I lift up my hands. As with marrow and fatness let my soul be filled, and with lips of rejoicing shall my mouth praise Thee. If I remembered Thee on my bed, at the dawn I meditated on Thee. For Thou art become my helper; in the shelter of Thy wings will I rejoice. My soul hath cleaved after Thee, Thy right hand hath been quick to help me. But as for these, in vain have they sought after my soul; they shall go into the nethermost parts of the earth, they shall be surrendered unto the edge of the sword; portions for foxes shall they be. But the king shall be glad in God, everyone shall be praised that sweareth by Him; for the mouth of them is stopped that speak unjust things.
At the dawn I meditated on Thee. For Thou art become my helper; in the shelter of Thy wings will I rejoice. My soul hath cleaved after Thee, Thy right hand hath been quick to help me.
  
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Glory to Thee, O God.
Thrice, with the sign of the Cross, but without bows***.
  
[***Other traditions hold that one does not even make the sign of the Cross at this point, as this period is one in which we stand in utter silence and stillness before the face of the Lord, as we will on Judgment Day.]
  
Lord. have mercy. Thrice.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Psalm 87

O Lord God of my salvation, by day have I cried and by night before Thee. Let my prayer come before Thee, bow down Thine ear unto my supplication. For filled with evils is my soul, and my life unto hades hath drawn nigh. I am counted with them that go down into the pit; I am become as a man without help, free among the dead. Like the bodies of the slain that sleep in the grave, whom Thou rememberest no more, and they are cut off from Thy hand. They laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness and in the shadow of death. Against me is Thine anger made strong, and all Thy billows hast Thou brought upon me. Thou hast removed my friends afar from me; they have made me an abomination unto themselves. I have been delivered up, and have not come forth; mine eyes are grown weak from poverty. I have cried unto Thee, O Lord, the whole day long; I have stretched out my hands unto Thee. Nay, for the dead wilt Thou work wonders? Or shall physicians raise them up that they may give thanks unto Thee? Nay, shall any in the grave tell of Thy mercy, and of Thy truth in Thy destruction? Nay, shall Thy wonders be known in that darkness, and Thy righteousness in that land that is forgotten? But as for me, unto Thee, O Lord, have I cried; and in the morning shall my prayer come before Thee. Wherefore, O Lord, dost Thou cast off my soul and turnest Thy face away from me? A poor man am I, and in troubles from my youth; yea, having been exalted, I was humbled and brought to distress. Thy furies have passed upon me, and Thy terrors have sorely troubled me. They came round about me like water, all the day long they compassed me about together. Thou hast removed afar from me friend and neighbor, and mine acquaintances because of my misery.
O Lord God of my salvation, by day have I cried and by night before Thee. Let my prayer come before Thee, bow down Thine ear unto my supplication.

Psalm 102

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all that He hath done for thee, Who is gracious unto all thine iniquities, Who healeth all thine infirmities, Who redeemeth thy life from corruption, Who crowneth thee with mercy and compassion, Who fulfilleth thy desire with good things; thy youth shall be renewed as the eagle’s. The Lord performeth deeds of mercy, and executeth judgment for all them that are wronged. He hath made His ways known unto Moses, unto the sons of Israel the things that He hath willed. Compassionate and merciful is the Lord, longsuffering and plenteous in mercy; not unto the end will He be angered, neither unto eternity will He be wroth. Not according to our iniquities hath He dealt with us, neither according to our sins hath He rewarded us. For according to the height of heaven from the earth, the Lord hath made His mercy to prevail over them that fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our iniquities from us. Like as a father hath compassion upon his sons, so hath the Lord had compassion upon them that fear Him; for He knoweth whereof we are made, He hath remembered that we are dust. As for man, his days are as the grass; as a flower of the field, so shall he blossom forth. For when the wind is passed over it, then it shall be gone, and no longer will it know the place thereof. But the mercy of the Lord is from eternity, even unto eternity, upon them that fear Him. And His righteousness is upon sons of sons, upon them that keep His testament and remember His commandments to do them. The Lord in heaven hath prepared His throne, and His kingdom ruleth over all. Bless the Lord, all ye His angels, mighty in strength, that perform His word, to hear the voice of His words. Bless the Lord, all ye His hosts, His ministers that do His will. Bless the Lord, all ye His works, in every place of His dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul.
In every place of His dominion, bless the Lord, O my soul.

Psalm 142

O Lord, hear my prayer, give ear unto my supplication in Thy truth; hearken unto me in Thy righteousness. And enter not into judgment with Thy servant, for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified. For the enemy hath persecuted my soul; he hath humbled my life down to the earth. He hath sat me in darkness as those that have been long dead, and my spirit within me is become despondent; within me my heart is troubled. I remembered days of old, I meditated on all Thy works, I pondered on the creations of Thy hands. I stretched forth my hands unto Thee; my soul thirsteth after thee like a waterless land. Quickly hear me, O Lord; my spirit hath fainted away. Turn not Thy face away from me, lest I be like unto them that go down into the pit. Cause me to hear Thy mercy in the morning; for in Thee have I put my hope. cause me to know, O Lord, the way wherein I should walk; for unto Thee have I lifted up my soul. Rescue me from mine enemies, O Lord; unto Thee have I fled for refuge. Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God. Thy good Spirit shall lead me in the land of uprightness; for Thy name’s sake, O Lord, shalt Thou quicken me. In Thy righteousness shalt Thou bring my soul out of affliction, and in Thy mercy shalt Thou utterly destroy mine enemies. And Thou shalt cut off all them that afflict my soul, for I am Thy servant.
Hearken unto me, O Lord, in Thy righteousness, and enter not into judgment with Thy servant. Twice.
Thy good Spirit shall lead me in the land of uprightness.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Glory to Thee, O God. Thrice, with the sign of the Cross and a bow each time.
Lord, have mercy. Twelve times.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Works Cited

1. V. Potapov. The Six Psalms and the Extinguishing of Candles. 2001.
2. Abp Benjamin of Nizhegorod and Arzamas. The New Testament, or Explanations of the Church, the Liturgy, and of all Church Services and Furnishings. St Petersburg, 1908.
3. Holy Transfiguration Monastery. The Psalter According to the Seventy. Boston, 1974.
4. Protopsaltes Georgios Biolakes. “The Daily Diataxis.” The Protheoria of the Typikon of the Great Church of Christ. 1888. Trans. Fr Konstantinos Terzopoulos, 2008.
5. Fr John Whiteford. “Daily Matins (Outside of Lent) As a Reader Service.” The Online Reader Service Horologion. 2002.
  
For a prophecy by Elder Ambrose of Dadiou that corroborates the Church tradition linking the Six Psalms with the Last Judgment, see here.
  
The Second Coming of Christ, and the Last Judgment (source)
  
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

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