Te decet hymnus—To you praise is due. These words form the Latin incipit, or opening words, of Psalm 65. The rest of the psalm—indeed, all of Scripture—tells us what this praise is and why it is due.
The answer to both the what and the why question is one and the same: Jesus Christ, the incarnate goodness of God. He is the content of our praise, and we offer him because God first gives him to us. Thinking of Jesus as the goodness of God, the basic message of the Te decet hymnus turns out to be as simple as it is profound: God is good—all the time and everywhere. And so, praise is due—all the time and everywhere. Put differently, God offers Jesus to us; we in return offer Jesus to God.
The Greek Bible has a lovely title for Psalm 65. It reads, “The song of Jeremiah and Ezekiel concerning the exiled people, when they were beginning to go forth.” Jeremiah prophesies an end to exile after seventy years. Ezekiel, too, announces the return from exile. Through both prophets, the Lord of the harvest promised to bring in his sheaves from the ends of the world.
Psalm 65 is a harvest song, a song of praise and gratitude. God’s people are harvest sheaves, which he takes home to himself. As Henry Alford’s well-known 1844 thanksgiving hymn has it:
Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide
For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come;
Raise the song of harvest home!
Our exilic hardship—our sinful alienation from God—sometimes makes it hard to confess the goodness of God. How can we trust that, despite all we go through, he hears us when we pray, “Grant, O harvest Lord, that we / Wholesome grain and pure may be”? Yet Saint James underscores God’s generosity in Christ unequivocally: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). God is good, not just some of the time, but all the time, for God does not change. Hence, God does not tempt us (1:13). It is our own desires, claims James, that tempt us, lure us, make us sin, and then yield death (1:14–15).
God has defined his goodness in Christ. When God fills us with Christ, he fills us with goodness. And so, the tradition confesses: God became man, that man might become God.
God satisfies us with Christ—so much so that David cannot stop talking about it. The first four verses of Psalm 65 place us—back home from exile—in the courts of the temple. When God brings us there, he “satisfies” us with the land’s harvest. David calls what we feast on the goodness of God’s house, the holiness of his temple (65:4).
What makes this possible? Two things, David explains. First is the power of God’s cosmic rule, described in the middle part of the psalm (65:5–8). “You make fast the mountains by your power….You still the roaring of the seas.” We find satisfaction in God because he is the one who establishes mountains and silences seas. They all join in a cosmic song of praise: “You make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy” (65:8).
Second is the abundance of God’s goodness in the Promised Land, outlined in the third part of the psalm (65:9–14). David piles on words and phrases to illustrate God piling on his goodness. God, he exclaims, waters the earth “abundantly”; he makes it “plenteous.” The river flowing from God’s throne is “full” of water (65:9). God “drenches” the furrows; with heavy rain he blesses the increase of the ground (65:11). Even the tracks from the wagons “overflow with plenty” (65:12).
Filled with his goodness—that is to say, with God himself—the land is full; it is satisfied. The temple revelers turn to this fullness of harvest emanating from God, take its firstfruits to the temple, and there eat their fill from the fullness of God.
Both the land and the pilgrims are satisfied with one and the same thing—the goodness of God. When God gives us his gifts, he gives us his goodness; he gives us himself. Christian tradition calls this the proodos or exitus from God: Everything that has being proceeds from the overflow of the goodness of God. Everything that has being proceeds from the Incarnation of the Son of God.
The land cannot but sing a song of praise in return. The hills are “clothed with joy” (65:13). The valleys “shout for joy and sing” (65:14). And the psalmist too sings his song of praise, while sacrificing his votive offering in Zion (65:1). In so doing, land and people both return the goodness of God: “All things come from thee, and of thy own have we given thee” (1 Chron. 29:14). Christian tradition calls this the epistrophē or reditus of creation to God. Everything returns to God in the Incarnate Son of Man.
Te decet hymnus—To you praise is due. Why is it due? Because God is good, all the time and everywhere, in his effusive self-giving in our incarnate Lord. And what is this praise? It is none other than the goodness of God that we offer to him in return: As divinized people, we lift up the fruit of the harvest—the body of Christ—in Eucharistic thanksgiving. We sacrifice God’s goodness to God, now knowing its name, for God’s goodness is Jesus the Christ.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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