Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

The Prescribed Hour for Prayer is “Always”

From what we saw yesterday, we might suppose that Calvin would make similar comments on Ps. 119:164, often used as textual support for seven daily times of prayer (i.e., the liturgy of the hours; cf. here, in bold): “Seven times a day I praise you for your just and righteous decrees.” But, in spite of his reputation in the popular imagination, Calvin is an extremely varied and undogmatic commentator, and his approach to this passage is quite different from his approach to Ps. 55:17.

It is often noted that the number seven in Scripture is a number of completeness, and Calvin takes it in that way here: it denotes continual (or very frequent) action. To support his point, he cites Proverbs 24:16.

By the adverb seven times, the Prophet means that he was continually or very often engaged in celebrating the praises of God; just as it is said in Proverbs 24:16, “A just man falleth seven times,” when he often falls into divers temptations. 35 The phrase the judgments of God being in many places taken for the punishments which God inflicts upon sinners, and also sometimes applied in general to the providence by which he governs the world, some understand the Prophet as praising God because he affords such manifest proofs of his justice both in punishing the wicked and in the whole government of the world. But I rather agree with others who refer the phrase to the divine law; not that I dislike the former interpretation, but because in this psalm the great topic upon which the Psalmist chiefly insists is the commendation of God’s law. The amount then is, that when David was assiduously occupied in meditating upon the law of God, he found it distinguished by so great perfection of righteousness and wisdom, that from time to time he burst forth into the exercise of praise and thanksgiving. This diligence in praising God shows that David not only spoke reverently and honourably of the divine law, but that he accounted it an inestimable boon conferred upon the human race. It was not simply admiration which constrained him to this commendation, but a principle of gratitude; for he saw that nothing more excellent could be bestowed upon men than their being renewed to a blessed and an endless life by the incorruptible seed of heavenly truth. Yet scarcely one in a hundred of those to whom God offers this treasure puts himself to the trouble of giving God thanks for it even in an ordinary manner. On the contrary, there reigns such vile ingratitude everywhere in the world, that some scornfully reject divine truth, and others despise or slight it, while others rail and gnash their teeth against it if they find anything in it which does not please them.

Calvin was an independent exegete who was not too frightened to exercise his own judgment on the meaning of the text, but he also was, as is well known, deeply indebted to the Church’s tradition of commentary on Scripture. What was he reading when commenting on this verse?

I have a hunch that it was Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos; the treatment of this Psalm, from late in Augustine’s life, consists of 32 sermons altogether (v. 164 is treated in Sermon 31, excerpted here; Latin here). The reason I say this is because (1) Augustine also interprets “seven times” as standing for completeness or “universality” and because (2) he cites the same verse in Proverbs as a proof-text (while adding an argument from the creation account in Genesis).

Such was, assuredly, the conduct of the Psalmist, who says, Seven times a day do I praise You, because of Your righteous judgmentsPsalm 118:164The words seven times a day, signify evermore. For this number is wont to be a symbol of universality; because after six days of the divine work of creation, a seventh of rest was added; Genesis 2:2 and all times roll on through a revolving cycle of seven days. For no other reason it was said, just man falls seven times, and rises up again: Proverbs 24:16 that is, the just man perishes not, though brought low in every way, yet not induced to transgress, otherwise he will not be just. For the words, falls seven times, are employed to express every kind of tribulation, whereby man is cast down in the sight of men: and the words, rises up again, signify that he profits from all these tribulations. The following sentence in this passage sufficiently illustrates the foregoing words: for it follows, but the wicked shall fall into mischief. Not to be deprived of strength in any evils, is therefore the falling seven times, and the rising again of the just man.

The foregoing does not preclude regular times of prayer: seven may mean “the number seven,” in addition to “always” or “very often.” For instance, even if seven stands for “universality” in general, there nevertheless are actually seven days, numerically speaking, in a week. Augustine may mean something along those lines in what immediately follows:

Justly has the Church then praised God seven times in a day for His righteous judgments; because, when it was time that judgment should begin at the house of God1 Peter 4:17 she did not faint in all her tribulations, but was glorified with the crowns of Martyrs.

As I say, that may be what he means–though, if it is, this passage should not be taken as a reference to “canonical hours” as we know of them in their standardized form, because that final form (as in the Rule of Benedict, which in any case was intended for monks and not the Christian people in general) postdates,1 as far as I know, this sermon (which dates from 422), though that form was in development at this time.

On the other hand, the remark may be simply an ascription to the Church of what the singer of the Psalm says, in the same sense in which it is said there. In Augustine’s version, the Psalmist says, Septies in die laudavi te, super iudicia iustitiae tuae. Of the Church, Augustine says, septies in die laudavit Ecclesia Deum super iudicia iustitiae ipsius. If this latter suggestion is correct, Augustine would mean by his expression something consistent with his construal of v. 164 itself: “The Church praises God evermore.” Just as was the case with the righteous man in Proverbs 24, the Church was tested but did not finally fall, as the Martyrs prove.

  1. Though there are several times specified for prayer in the Apostolic Tradition.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

One reply on “The Prescribed Hour for Prayer is “Always””

Comments are closed.