Essays/Articles and Scriptural Studies

PSALM 126 

We continue our examination of the five vesperal psalms and antiphons in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary (English texts are taken from the DouaiRheims Challoner version).

The fourth psalm of Vespers in the Little Office is Psalm 126: Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, “Unless the Lord build the house: they labour in vain that build it. Unless the Lord keep the city: he watcheth in vain that keepeth it” (v. 1). Like last week’s psalm (Ps. 121), this one belongs to the subgroup called the “Psalms of Ascent.”

In his commentary on this psalm, St. Robert Bellarmine locates its composition with the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple in the postexilic period (538-425 B.C.). At this time, as he indicates, the returned exiles and their leaders had not only to rebuild, but also to fend off foreign neighboring enemies who sought to pull down again what was being restored. The people often felt as if their efforts were in vain.

The psalmist highlights the utter transitoriness of life, and there is a certain frustrating edge to the psalmist’s tone, too, when such transitoriness is compared to our often slaving efforts to hold everything together. Accordingly, he seeks to draw us upward above the daily grind in order to contemplate the One who is ultimately in control, He Who IS (cf. Ex. 3:14)- the living God who utterly transcends the fleeing vapor of our lives. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has this to say in his commentary on this psalm:  

“Thus, the Psalmist desires to exalt the primacy of divine grace that impresses substance and value on human action, although it is marked by limitations and transience. In the serene and faithful abandonment of our freedom to the Lord, our work also becomes solid, capable of bearing lasting fruit.”

Thus, for the pilgrims chanting this psalm en route to Jerusalem - likely a welcome break from the drudgery of daily toil and hardship- this must have been a wholesome reminder of the very purpose of making pilgrimage: they were traveling to Jerusalem once again to acknowledge ritually that all aspects of their lives were subject to God’s sovereign providence, just as for their ancestors who re-built and defended Jerusalem and its Temple.

Spiritually, SS. Augustine and Robert Bellarmine interpret this psalm as applying to the continual efforts of the clergy to build up the Church while enemies attack her. Bellarmine writes, “[u]nless the primary architect be there, He who said, ‘On this rock I will build my church,’ in vain will men build, and doctors preach, because, as the Lord Himself said, ‘Without Me you can do nothing,’” quoting Mt. 16:18 and Jn. 15:5.

We then have an abrupt shift in the psalm to a discussion about the benefits of child-bearing in vv. 3ff.: “lo, children are an heritage from the Lord, and the fruit of the womb a reward.” The literal sense here is the ongoing fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham regarding His innumerable progeny (cf. Gen. 15:5). The spiritual sense regards the progeny of the New Covenant in Christ, whose mother is simultaneously both Our Lady and the Church, as we saw in previous columns.

The Marian antiphon for this psalm in the Little Office is again drawn from the Song of Solomon. It relates the mystical spousal dialogue between Christ and the Church, between God and Our Lady: “Now is the winter past, the rain is over and gone: arise, my beloved, and come” (Song of Solomon 2:10-11).  

According to the spiritual sense, winter and rain refer to the trials of earthly life, and the Bridegroom’s invitation to “arise” refers to Our Lord’s invitation to eternal life and resurrection. As it applies to Our Lady, this invitation from Christ is the singular grace of her Assumption, whereby she shares already in the grace of bodily resurrection.  


(David Allen)

Mr. David Allen, M.T.S., is the lay Pastoral Associate for our parish of Mary Immaculate of Lourdes.


About Our Parish

Mary Immaculate of Lourdes is Newton and Needham Massachusetts's oldest Roman Catholic Parish. Founded as Saint Mary's Parish in 1870 it was renamed "Mary Immaculate of Lourdes" when the new Church was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, 1910. In addition to being a regular territorial parish of the Archdiocese of Boston it is also a "Mission Parish" since 2007 with a special apostolate for the Traditional Latin Mass (1962 Missal).

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