Since at least the Rule of Saint Benedict, the three traditional Psalms for Compline have been 4, 91, and 134.  Sarum practice added some or all of Psalm 31, and recent Canadian and American Prayer Books have included its first six verses for the modern Compline liturgy.  The rubric’s permission of praying only “one or more” takes precedent from sources such as John Cosin’s Private Devotions of the Hours, which appointed only the first six verses of Psalm 91 for Compline.

The full text of Compline, with each of these psalms, can be found here.

Psalm 4

Along with two references to “your bed” and “take my rest”, this Psalm expresses a trusting confidence in the Lord’s ability to save and protect his people.  Even if surrounded by blasphemous “children of men”, the worshiper can acknowledge that it is God who gives us righteousness, and on the basis of his own godliness upon us will he also hear us.  And this is gladness in our hearts more than any earthly blessing or pleasure.

Psalm 31:1-6

This is another Trust Psalm, seeking God’s protection for the coming night.  Verse 6 provides part of the traditional Compline suffrages.

Psalm 91

Although sometimes blurred by Satan’s famous mis-use of this Psalm at the temptation of our Lord, and by others who similarly continue with the “Prosperity Gospel”, Psalm 91 nevertheless is a powerful declaration of hope and trust in the saving power of God.  The context of Compline helps the worshiper bring a line of interpretation that bears good fruit: the “snare of the hunter” and “the deadly pestilence” is sin; with our eyes we shall behold “and see the reward of the ungodly” in the life to come; God’s angels will have charge over us especially in our death, repose, and resurrection; it is ultimately and most importantly from sin and death that God will “lift him up, because he has known my name.”  We will be most satisfied “with long life” into eternity.

Psalm 134

Departing from the other psalms’ emphasis on trust and anticipation of death, this Psalm is a celebration of the endless worship that God’s people are to offer him – even “you that stand by night” to sing his praise.  This is fittingly the last psalm in the Compline sequence, ending with the true end, purpose, or telos of mankind.

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