“I was small among my brethren, and youngest in my father’s house: I tended my father’s sheep. My hands formed a musical instrument, and my fingers tuned a psaltery. And who shall tell my Lord? the Lord himself, he himself hears. He sent forth his angel, and took me from my father’s sheep, and he anointed me with the oil of his anointing. My brothers were handsome and tall; but the Lord did not take pleasure in them. I went forth to meet the Philistine; and he cursed me by his idols. But I drew his own sword, and beheaded him, and removed reproach from the children of Israel.” Psalm 151.1-7
These words of Psalm 151 may perhaps not be familiar to many of us and probably strike us a more biographical record rather than what we typically consider ‘the psalms’. It is deeply interesting that this psalm is chanted in the Coptic Church on Bright Saturday (an overnight service done only hours after Good Friday services have ended). In this instance, as in many others, the selection of this particular text to be sung on this day should give us an eye into what the tradition has understood this Psalm to mean. (For those who wish to listen, you can access a good English recording of part of it here: Bright Saturday – Psalm 151 in English)
Bright Saturday is the intervening day between Christ’s crucifixion and burial on Good Friday, and His glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday. St. Peter tells us that Christ went and preached to those in Hades,
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient.” 1 Peter 3.18-20.
Liturgically we commemorate this as well,
“He made us unto Himself an assembled people, and sanctified us by Your Holy Spirit. He loved His own who are in the world, and gave Himself up for our salvation unto death, which reigned over us, whereby we were bound and sold on account of our sins.He descended into Hades through the cross” to which the people acclaim, “Amen, I believe” Anaphora of St. Basil as per the Coptic Rite.
Small Among My Brothers
So what is the Church teaching us by having Psalm 151 sung on this particular day? One should first note that the tune with which all the hymnography is sung is a joyful one starting as of Bright Saturday. Having adorned the Church with darker colours and praying in the long mournful tunes of Good Friday, now the Church is arrayed in bright white as are the priest and altar servers.
First David speaks about the fact that he is the least among his brothers who are all handsome and tall or of some great stature. These words are true of The Lord Who became our brother according to the flesh as the saying of St. Athanasius goes,
“And men are clothed in flesh in order to be and to subsist; but the Word of God was made man in order to sanctify the flesh, and, though He was Lord, was in the form of a servant; for the whole creature is the Word’s servant, which by Him came to be, and was made.
Hence it holds that the Apostle’s expression, ‘He made,’ does not prove that the Word is made, but that body, which He took like ours; and in consequence He is called our brother, as having become man.” St. Athanasius, Against the Arians Book 2, Chapter 14 Tract 10.
Regarding Christ we see His self-abasement and self-emptying throughout the Gospels in that He yields to enter into our very condition as St. Paul says:
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” Philippians 2.5-8
It is nowhere more evident than the Cross where we see Him enter into the very depths of our condition. He enters even into death on our behalf. For St. Severus of Antioch, it is with this knowledge that we can begin to contemplate the self-emptying condescension of Christ in coming to our condition,
“But it is no shame for the healer in some sort to despise his honour, and to say and suffer something human to save and heal the sick. For from where (p. 28) do we know his self-emptying and his humiliation and his poverty by which he grew poor for our sake even though he was rich, except through the human expressions and voluntary and providential sufferings?” St. Severus of Antioch, Synodical Letter to Theodosius as in “Severus of Antioch (Early Church Fathers Series)” by Pauline Allen, p165.
And so we see that Christ is our brother according to the flesh and He has abased Himself that He might descend where we are. This may evoke for us the Scriptural imagery of Isaiah 53 (for a previous treatment of this see here: He Took Our Infirmities and Bore Our Diseases – A Theology of Healing),
“O Lord, who has believed our report? and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? We brought a report as of a child before him; he is as a root in a thirsty land: he has no form nor comeliness; and we saw him, but he had no form nor beauty. But his form was ignoble, and inferior to that of the children of men.” Isaiah 53.1-3
He Who is come into the flesh for us assumes our weaknesses and condescends even to death on the cross for our sakes. Christ is the One about Whom it can truly be said,
“And he anointed me with the oil of his anointing. My brothers were handsome and tall; but the Lord did not take pleasure in them.”
Christ literally means “The anointed One” and we see the Lord enter into the Baptismal waters of the Jordan to receive the Spirit once more for us (Theophany – The Spirit Descended and Remained Upon Him). Where David is the youngest and is not exalted as the most handsome of his brethren, Christ has come and assumed the form of a servant in order to save us. The imagery of the youngest of one’s brethren naturally calls our mind to the youngest of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, who is thrown into a pit by his brothers. St. Cyril of Alexandria says to us,
“When the Divine Joseph was thrown into the pit by his brothers, we have taken him to be a figurative representation of Christ. For the Only-Begotten condescended to empty himself becoming like one of us, and was called a brother to those upon the earth. In the presence of the rest of the people of Israel he suffered death, endured the cross, and descended into Hades, of which the pit was a figure.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra 6, on Genesis 36-48.
Christ Does Battle with Humanity’s Oppressor
“I went forth to meet the Philistine; and he cursed me by his idols. But I drew his own sword, and beheaded him, and removed reproach from the children of Israel.”
We next read in this hymn that David went out to do battle with Goliath and thereby remove the reproach from Israel. Reading this text on Bright Saturday we might start to see that Christ too enters into Hades to do battle for humanity. The Church does not accidentally include this psalm wherein David speaks about using Goliath’s own sword to slay him. In like manner, Christ destroys death by His death. Death comes to consume Him but is consumed by His presence there. By the very device that it thought to conquer Him, death is destroyed. It is said perhaps most poignantly by St. Ephrem,
“Our Lord was trampled by death, and turned to tread a path beyond death. He is the One Who submitted and endured death, as it willed, in order to overthrow death, contrary to (death’s) will. Our Lord carried His cross and set forth as death willed. But on the cross He called out and brought the dead out of Sheol, contrary to death’s will. With the very weapon that death had used to kill Him, He gained the victory over death. Divinity disguised itself in humanity and approached death, which killed, then was killed: death killed natural life, but supernatural Life killed death. Since death was unable to devour Him without a body, or Sheol to swallow Him without flesh, He came to a virgin to provide Himself with a means to Sheol… And with a body from a virgin He entered Sheol, broke into its vaults and carried off its treasures.” St. Ephrem the Syrian, Homily on Our Lord, 3.1-2.
St. Gregory of Nyssa uses the analogy of a fish who grabs the bait on a hook,
“The Divine was hidden by the veil of our nature, in order that, as in the case of greedy fish, the hook of the Divinity might be swallowed with the bait of the fish, and thus when life came to dwell in death and light shone in the darkness, that which is understood as the opposite of light and life might be utterly destroyed. For it is not in the nature of darkness to remain in the presence of light, nor death to exist where life is active.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Discourse, 24.
Much like David uses Goliath’s sword to slay him, Christ uses death’s own weapon to slay it. Thinking to take hold of Him, it was destroyed by its own sword. St. Paul says exactly this in Hebrews,
“But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honour, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying:
“I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You.”
“I will put My trust in Him.”
“Here am I and the children whom God has given Me.”
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” Hebrews 2. 10-18.
Thus, we see that the Church’s selection of this beautiful little psalm to be sung on bright Saturday can allow us greater insight into the meaning of this text. Christ is become our brother according to the flesh and He has come to take away our reproach. He does not come with cavalry and military force, but rather uses the weapon of humanity’s enemy against him. This cosmic victory is won for us through Christ by His descent into hades and it is this reason that we celebrate Bright Saturday in joyous tune and vestments. The medicine of Life has entered into hades and destroyed it so that in Him we might have the victory.
‘The death of Jesus to me is a torment.
I prefer for myself His life rather than His death.
This is the Dead [one] whose death (lo!) is hateful to me.
In the death of all men else I rejoice, but His death, even His, I detest.
That He may come back to life I hope. While He was living three that were dead
He brought to life and restored, but now by his death
at the gate of Sheol they have trampled on me-the dead who have come to life, whom I was going to shut in.
‘I will haste and will close the gates of Sheol
before this Dead [one] whose death as spoiled me.
Whoso hears will wonder at my humiliation that by a dead man who is without I am overcome. All the dead seek to go forth
but this one presses to enter in. A medicine of life has entered into Sheol
and has restored life to its dead. Who then has brought in and hidden from me
that living fire whereby was loosed
the cold and dark womb of Sheol?” St. Ephrem the Syrian, Nisebene hymns, 36.
St. Cyril of Alexandria also says,
“Since there was no other way to raise what had fallen into death back to life except for the only begotten word of God to become (and once he became human he certainly had to suffer), He made what was unwilled into something willed, and the divine nature accepts this because of its love for us.
Wisdom, the craftsman of all, that is, the Son, turned the fabrication of diabolical perversity (I mean his death according to the flesh) into the way of salvation for us and the way of life. The devil’s hopes were overturned, and the devil learned the hard way by experience that it is difficult for him to fight against God. The divine psalmist too seems to me to agree with what I have said about this and suggests something like it when he says concerning Christ and the devil, ‘In his snare will he humble him (Ps 10.9-10). The devil laid death as a snare for Christ, but he has been humbled in his own snare. Death has been destroyed in the death of Christ, and the tyrant who did not expect to fall was rendered powerless.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Book 4, Chapter 1, On John 6.38-39
In this hope we look ahead towards Pascha where we see the utter destruction of death in the Life of the One Who conquers it and emerges from the grave victorious.