the Canticle of Hezekiah, and a shout-out to Fr. Mike Schmitz

The Divine Office makes heavy use of many canticles (that is, “little songs”) which quickly become familiar friends to us who practice the Liturgy of the Hours. One that is frequently repeated on from King Hezekiah, titled Ego dixi in dimidio in Latin, and found in Isaiah 38:10-20. It is a meditation on the fragility of life, by a man who expected to die untimely, but was graced by God with a reprieve. This song has many memorable lines: “you have folded up my life”, “you cast behind your back all my sins”, “it is not the nether world that gives you thanks”, and more.

(What is the Divine Office, a.k.a. the Liturgy of the Hours? Glad you asked! There are many resources on the web, and here are a few we like.)

You can hear this canticle in two very different ways in two recent podcasts: Father Mike Schmitz read and commented on it a few days ago in Episode 208 (for July 26) of his epic series The Bible in a Year, and we posted it also. Fr. Mike’s series is a project he is running for Ascension Press, to read every word of the Bible publicly in the calendar year of 2021.

(To many listeners like me, “Episode 208 for July 26” means we will eventually catch up and hear it some future day. But as Fr. Mike says, God is outside time and it doesn’t matter so much when we encounter Him, and they wisely downplay the dates attached to the episodes.)

Our own Sing the Hours podcast, a very small sibling to Fr. Mike’s, has also been up and running all this year, and it so happens that Paul will be singing Hezekiah’s canticle tomorrow in Lauds (August 3). This is not a big coincidence, because, as Fr. Mike explains, anybody that prays the Divine Office, which includes the intrepid listeners of Sing The Hours, repeats this canticle a lot.

For me, somewhat past the noontide of my own natural span, this canticle resonates with sober wisdom and humility. Indeed, when we pray this in the Liturgy of the Hours, it makes me consider my own hours, and resolve again to learn from God and praise him while I have daylight to do so.

I said, “I shall see the Lord no more
in the land of the living.
No longer shall I behold my fellow men
among those who dwell in the world.”

My dwelling, like a shepherd’s tent,
is struck down and borne away from me;
you have folded up my life, like a weaver
who severs the last thread…

  quia non infernus confitebitur tibi neque mors laudabit te
  non expectabunt qui descendunt in lacum veritatem tuam

For hell shall not confess to thee, neither shall death praise thee:
nor shall they that go down into the pit, look for thy truth. 

  vivens vivens ipse confitebitur tibi sicut et ego hodie
  pater filiis notam faciet veritatem tuam

The living, the living, he shall give praise to thee, as I do this day:
the father shall make the truth known to the children. 

To me, the song Hezekiah reminds me of the Prayer of Moses (in Psalm 90):

The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or even by reason of strength fourscore;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom…

Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.

Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us,
yes, establish the work of our hands.

I think the common message is, “Know your time, O man.” (Or, as the new translators would have it, “O mortal”, or just “you there”. But I digress.)

Those of you who have been enjoying the riches of scripture passages like these, in the Liturgy of the Hours, may also enjoy them in the context of Fr. Mike’s reading. It’s not too late to join; remember that God is outside of time. Fr. Mike’s sponsors, Ascension Press, are not outside of time, but they have promised something almost as good: Fr. Mike’s podcast will be available indefinitely even after this year is over.

For the curious, or those who need to read themselves to sleep, here are a few more notes on translation of the first line of this canticle.

The official translation of Hezekiah’s canticle in the Divine Office reads, “Once I said, In the noontime of life I must depart! To the gates of the nether world I shall be consigned for the rest of my years.” Jerome’s Latin translation begins “ego dixi in dimidio dierum meorum vadam ad portas inferi”.

Translations vary: In the RSVCE as read by Fr. Mike in Episode 208, we hear “I said, In the noontide of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years.” (Actually he reads the RSVCE2 which lightly updates the “thees” and “thous”.) Translators for the Divine Office seem to prefer “the netherworld” to the Hebrew “Sheol” or its Greek translation “Hades”. The KJV and ESV have “gates of the grave”, while Douay Rheims says “gates of Hell”; indeed the Old English meaning of “hell” is simply… the netherworld. As we saw above, Jerome chose “portas inferi”, “gates of the low”, not to be confused with “portas infernas”, “infernal gates”.

Also, the “noontide of life” is a poetic translation of an obscure Hebrew expression. Douay Rheims has “in the midst of life” which exactly tracks Jerome’s “in dimidio”. The Greek translation of the Hebrew by the famous Seventy Translators, which was authoritative to the early Church, says “in the height of my days”, which is more like a high noon. But the Hebrew seems to speak of either a cutting in half, or the clipping of a cloth, or both.

Looking forward into the text, I noted many footnotes in the rest of the canticle which say “Hebrew uncertain”. Kind of scary, given the amount of complexity in the history of that first line alone. I guess such complexity one reason we still need to read Jerome’s Vulgate and the Septuagint, on the grounds that they had access to traditions about the “uncertain Hebrew” that have since been lost. St. Jerome, patron of translators, pray for us!