PEOPLE FAMILIAR WITH the Church’s morning service (Matins or Orthros) would recognize the term “Ninth Ode.” It refers to the Biblical canticle of the Theotokos which begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord…” (cf., Luke 1:46-55) sung at this service. This hymn expresses the joyful gratitude of the holy Virgin at the incarnation of Christ in her womb.
Calling this canticle the “Ninth Ode” raises a question. Where are the other eight? We rarely, if ever, hear of them.
There are nine Biblical canticles which at one time were sung at Matins/Orthros. With the development of the poetic hymn-form called the Canon, all but the Canticle of the Theotokos disappeared from general use… except during the Great Fast. During this period three odes are sung daily: the eighth, the ninth and one other. Hence the period and its liturgical book are called the “Triodion.”
The canticles in question are the following:
- Exodus 15:1-19
- Deuteronomy 32:1-43
- 1 Samuel 2:1-10
- Habakkuk 3:1-19
- Isaiah 26:9-20
- Jonah 2:2-9
- Daniel 3:26-56 (LXX)
- Daniel 3:57-88 (LXX)
- Luke 1:68-79 (in addition to Mary’s canticle)
While few have the opportunity of attending daily Matins and hearing these canticles sung, we all can profit from reading them in the course of our daily prayers and reflecting on their message.
The Songs of Moses
The first two canticles are attributed to Moses and form a part of two Biblical retellings of the early history of Israel in the Torah: one from the Book of Exodus and the second from the Book of Deuteronomy. The Israelites were welcomed into Egypt during a famine in the days of Joseph who had acquired great influence over the pharaoh. Some years later, as we read in Exodus 1:8, “There arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph,” and the slavery of Joseph’s descendants began.
The Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt at the hand of Moses is the central event in their history, which is celebrated to this day at Passover. The first part of Moses’ first canticle recounts the story of what God did for the Israelites, emphasizing the defeat of the Egyptians:
“I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea! The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation; He is my God, and I will praise Him; My father’s God, and I will exalt Him. The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is His name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; His chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea. The depths have covered them; they sank to the bottom like a stone.
Your right hand, O Lord, has become glorious in power; Your right hand, O Lord, has dashed the enemy in pieces. And in the greatness of Your excellence You have overthrown those who rose against You; You sent forth Your wrath; It consumed them like stubble. And with the blast of Your nostrils the waters were gathered together; The floods stood upright like a heap; the depths congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; My desire shall be satisfied on them. I will draw my sword, My hand shall destroy them.’ You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
Who is like You, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? You stretched out Your right hand; the earth swallowed them. You in Your mercy have led forth the people whom You have redeemed;
You have guided them in Your strength to Your holy habitation.”
The second part of the canticle looks ahead. It affirms that the God who drowned the Egyptians in the Sea would continue to defend His people Israel in the future. As He routed their enemies in the past, He will also preserve them from the hands of their present foes, the Philistines, the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land which God had promised to Abraham:
“The people will hear and be afraid; sorrow will take hold of the inhabitants of Philistia. Then the chiefs of Edom will be dismayed; the mighty men of Moab – trembling will take hold of them; all the inhabitants of Canaan will melt away. Fear and dread will fall on them; by the greatness of Your arm they will be as still as a stone Till Your people pass over, O Lord, till the people pass over whom You have purchased. You will bring them in and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which You have made for Your own dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established.
The Lord shall reign forever and ever.”
The Song of Moses is one of the earliest hymns sung in Christian worship. In the Book of Revelation it is attributed to the angels: “They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying: ‘Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways … for your righteous acts have been revealed’” (Revelation 15:3-4).
The Second Song of Moses
God was faithful to His people but, as is so often the case, the people were not faithful to Him. And so the second song of Moses dwells on this contrast between God’s fidelity and the people’s faithlessness. The hymn sarcastically calls the Israelites the “so-called righteous ones” (Jeshurun): “But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked; You grew fat, you grew thick, You are obese! Then he forsook God who made him, And scornfully esteemed the Rock of his salvation…”
In return, the Lord warns them: “I will heap disasters on them; I will spend My arrows on them…I would have said, “I will dash them in pieces, I will make the memory of them to cease from among men,” had I not feared the wrath of the enemy: lest their adversaries should misunderstand, lest they should say, ‘Our hand is high; and it is not the Lord who has done all this.’
Lest anyone think otherwise, the Lord will vindicate Himself and redeem His people. This redemption will not come because God’s people have earned it, but because God is who He is: loving and faithful despite our weaknesses.
“Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; nor is there any who can deliver from My hand…
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants, and render vengeance to His adversaries; He will provide atonement for His land and His people.”
Clearly a call to repentance, this canticle is only sung during fasting seasons.