Psalm 134 (1) is a joyous song of praise rich in both liturgical and historical images. Psalm 134 is appointed to be sung as part of festal matins along with Psalm 135. They are referred to as the Polyeleos or rich in mercy. This designation comes from the refrain in Psalm 135, “for his mercy is forever.” The Polyeleos is a solemn liturgical moment with the Psalms sung to a special melody while the priest places the icon of the feast on the tetrapod (2) and the deacon serving with incense. The Polyeleos creates the atmosphere and set mood for the festal celebration to such a degree that the name Polyeleos is given to this rank of these feasts. (3)
Psalm 134 within the structure of the psalter
The word psalm comes to English transliterated from the Greek yalmo/ß meaning music by strings. This translates from the Hebrew title on most psalms (mizmor) meaning song, formed from the root (zamar) to make music especially with instrumental accompaniment. The Hebrew title for the book as a whole is (tehillim) meaning song of praise. But both the Latin and Greek translations of the Old Testament prefer psalm to praise for the title of the collection. In any case, the clear indication is that this is a collection of songs. The Psalter is generally arranged with the laments towards the front of the collection and a strong series of praises at the concluding end of the collection. Psalm 134 clearly fits into the concluding praise category.
Within the collection of songs in the Psalter, there are short sets of material placed together that have a similar superscription marking them as related psalms. The notation alleluia on Psalm 134—135 (4) and Psalms 145—150 marks such a set. Between these two alleluia psalm collections, Psalms 136—144 (5) all have a superscription containing “pertaining to David.” All three of these sets of Psalms have a strong element of praise for God. The three collections work well as a progression together.
Poetic Language, structure and imagery
Psalm 134 follows the pattern established for the Literary Form of Praise without the optional section of petitions.
- Invitation to praise—the psalm opens with the call to praise.
- Reason for praise—the psalm moves through God’s creation and the mini-history of deed on behalf of Israel and the comparison to other gods.
- Petitions—(Optional) these might not be present or might be implied in the text in the general pattern and are not present here.
- Final expansion or reprise—the psalm closes with the liturgical houses blessing the Lord.
Psalm 134 applies this formal pattern using a chiastic structure. In a chiasm there is a correlation of elements from the end to the beginning in a reversing parallel pattern. The following chart notes the parallel themes found by placing the end of the Psalm next to the opening with both working towards the middle.
1—4 four times Praise the Lord with the house of the Lord (temple building)
19—21 four times bless the Lord with the house of priests (family as house)
5—7 Lord as creator of all natural wonders
15—18 Idols are the work of human hands with no life
8—11 Lord strikes down the nations and takes their land
12—14 Name of the Lord endures and gives to his people
The literary voice of the Psalm is primarily imperative in relation to the psalmist and third person in relation to God and the idols. (6) This voicing helps to establish the deferential relationship between the psalmist and God throughout the poem. The psalm provides a creed like song remembering the glory of creation and the selection of the chosen people.
In the liturgical setting of matins, Psalm 134 is sung in a refrain structure. Alleluia is sung after each half of a verse. In addition, verse one is sung as a full refrain with a triple alleluia after each full verse. This mode of performance amplifies the element of praise already prominent in the psalm.
Praise the name of the Lord
Praise him, servants of the Lord!
Praise the name of the Lord!
Praise him, servants of the Lord!
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
The addition of alleluia and the refrain recur through the performance of the psalm. This structural change also serves to harmonize the structure of Psalm 134 with that of Psalm 135. In Psalm 135 the second half of verse one becomes the refrain through the psalm. The alleluia is also added in the singing of Psalm 135.
The chiasm places praise and blessing in parallelism in the psalm. This theme occupies the most prominent position in the psalm, the opening and closing sections. Thematically this sets the stage and reinforces the message. The placement of the theme of praise at the open and close is the key feature of the praise form as well. The psalm reinforces this thematic prominence through the formal structure of the chiasm.
The psalm places the two senses of “house” into parallel. The psalm opens with the house of the Lord, a reference to the temple or a physical house. In the blessing sequence at the end of the psalm we have the house of Aaron and Levi, in the sense of a family or dynasty. These human houses of priestly servants are in parallel to the divine house made by human hands. The selection of the priestly houses reinforces the theme of blessing and praising God. The houses of Aaron and Levi exist as an office to serve the Lord and the temple exists for the same reason. The psalm’s use of house in both senses connects the praise of the community with the physical and family. The community operates with both a sacred space and holy people.
The psalm’s parallelism places the creator God opposite a created idol set up as a god. The God of Jacob moves the wind and rain and controls the events of the nations in the exodus and history of Israel. By contrast, the idols are made by human hands and cannot do anything for themselves. They cannot see, hear, speak or breathe. The mocking of inanimate idols for their lack of senses is a common theme in prophetic literature. In the prophets, the mockery often takes shape in longer prose compositions. Here, the poetic style provides the brief tour of the lack of senses. The brief list calls to mind the full rebuke.
The final thematic pair in the psalm’s chiastic parallelism is the despoiling of other nations for the benefit of Israel. Starting with the reference to the exodus from Egypt we see a list of nations from the Promised Land story in Joshua. God the creator and controller of nature is also the God of history. The control of the land is in the hands of the Lord. The chiasm of the psalm passes neatly from the opening path to the closing path through the gift of the land. God takes from the nations and gives to Israel. In the process, we have begun the journey to the closing blessings.
The themes and structure of Psalm 134 soundly support entering into a festal celebration. The refrain structure in matins amplifies the element of praise. The praises of Psalm 134 are echoed in Psalm 135 as well. We also see many of the themes found Psalm 134 in 135 as well. The two psalms complement each other. In addition, these themes fit the liturgical moment perfectly. During vespers on the eve of the feast we first hear the festal story in the prayers. At the opening of the day in Matins, we enthrone the icon of the feast in the center of the church. This icon procession and offering of incense demand a festal song and tune. The Polyeleos provide this platform of praise.
1 Throughout this paper the Psalm numbering will be from the LXX and Vulgate tradition. This is the numbering scheme used in most liturgical books in both the Orthodox and Catholic tradition. In most cases the Hebrew numbering would be one higher.
2 The tetrapod is a small table in the center of the front of the church. The icon for the nearest feast is placed there for veneration with candles.
3 There are four named ranks of feasts in the typicon indicating special liturgical elements are added to a normal celebration. They are Six-Stichera, Great Doxology, Polyeleos and Vigil, in ascending order of prominence. Each is named after one of the elements added in the celebration of the feasts in that rank.
4 The Hebrew Masoretic Text tradition has an alleluia at the beginning and end of Psalm 134 instead of at the beginning of both 134 & 135. Both the LXX and the Vulgate have the alleluia as superscription on both psalms. This second arrangement seems to make more sense in the context of the collection as a whole from 134—150. This alleluia superscription to both psalms is also the motivation for joining both 134 & 135 as the Polyeleos in Byzantine Matins.
5 The Hebrew Masoretic Text tradition lacks the superscription “pertaining to David” on Psalm 136. Both the LXX and Vulgate include this designation. The current arrangement of the Psalter seems to be more intelligible with this consistent series of superscriptions.
6 The only exceptions are the second person used in verse two and first person in verse five for the Psalmist. This alternation to first person could be a shift from communal voices in the opening and closing of the Psalm with a single voice emerging in the central section to speak. But the overall communal orientation of the Psalm seems to militate against this possibility.
Originally Published 4/30/2021