As I noted on Saturday, I pay attention when a Father of the Church quotes the Old Testament. So, when St. Gregory Palamas highlights Psalm 45:2 in his Homily Fifty-Eight on the Saving Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord and God and Savior, I went and re-read Psalm 45. Once again, Palamas demonstrates a level of intimacy with Scripture that I can only hope to aspire to.
On its surface, Psalm 45 is about a royal wedding. As St. Gregory points out, it praises the beauty of the king. Interestingly, most (if not all) English translations disagree with his reading of the verse. Whereas Palamas insists that the language is not comparative (He is fair in beauty beside the sons of men), these translations are:
You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever. (NIV)
Of all men you are the most handsome, gracefulness is a dew upon your lips, for God has blessed you for ever. (NJB)
You are fairer than the sons of men; Grace is poured upon Your lips; Therefore God has blessed You forever. (NKJ)
You are the most handsome of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever. (NRS)
It is useful to look at the Septuagint Greek translation (noted as LXX), the translation St. Gregory most likely knew and used.
ὡραῖος κάλλει παρὰ τοὺς υἱοὺς τῶν ἀνθρώπων
The key word here is παρὰ, which can be translated as “from (the side of)” in the genitive case which implies a comparison. This is how all English translations have come about. Palamas, however, uses παρὰ in the dative, where it means “beside.” St. Gregory isn’t playing a linguistic trick, nor are the various English translators wrong. Both are correct, depending on what perspective the Psalm is read. It demonstrates how the Holy Spirit uses language — in the same way Christ uses parables:
He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’ — Luke 8:10
As I noted earlier, Psalm 45 is about a royal wedding; however, the Church understands it to be a messianic Psalm with images of Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as the bride. St. Gregory understands Psalm 45:2 from this perspective, so he sees παρὰ in the dative, not the genitive.
Key to understanding this perspective is verse 6, where the king is called God:
Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity.
In verse 7, we get a glimpse of a Trinitarian understanding of God:
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.
The first God in this verse refers to the king — the Son — and the second God — the God of the king — refers to the Father.
In other words, St. Gregory quotes this Psalm, not out of happenstance, but because it specifically speaks to the Nativity. It helps us understand the reality of Christ — He is King, He is the Son of God, He is God and through His Incarnation He weds Himself to His Church. Not only that, Psalm 45 is the source of these verses which the Church strongly associates with the Theotokos:
Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house, and the king will desire your beauty. — Psalm 45:10-11
This is used as a Prokeimena (the verse chanted prior to an Epistle or Gospel reading) on feasts for the Theotokos.
Again, St. Gregory has the Nativity in mind when he seemingly refers to Psalm 45 in passing. It not only helps us understand the person of Christ, but it calls to mind His mother through whom He chose to take on flesh — the very event Palamas is preaching about.
This just goes to show how important the Old Testament is. In fact, Fr. Eugen Pentiuc, professor of the Old Testament and Hebrew at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, insists that we know more about Christ from the Old Testament than we do from the New. Seeing Psalm 45 as St. Gregory does allows us a glimpse of just how true this is.