St Basil On Psalm 59

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A Psalm of David on Hope in Defeat (ON PSALM 59)

WHEN I COMPARED the eagerness with which you listened and the inadequacy of my ability there came to my mind a certain similitude of a young child, already rather active but not yet weaned from its mother’s milk, annoying the maternal breasts which were dry from weakness. The mother, even though she perceived that the sources of her milk were dry, being pulled and torn by him, offered him her breast, not in order that she might nourish the infant, but that she might make him stop crying. Accordingly, even though our powers have been dried up by this long and varied bodily illness, nevertheless, there is set before you, not a pleasure deserving of mention, but some things which satisfy, be- cause your extraordinary love is strong enough to appease your longing for us even by means of our voice alone. There- fore, let the Church of God be saluted and let it be taught to say what we were just saying: ‘Give us help from trouble: for vain is the salvation of man.’ So, perhaps, the meaning of the psalm does not at all permit us to allege weakness, if indeed affliction is a patron of help and not an occasion of infirmity. To those, then, who were rejected through sin, but then received again through the kindness of God, it is appropriate to say: ‘O God, thou hast cast us off, and hast destroyed us: thou hast been angry, and hast had mercy on us.’ 2 Or rather, since the homily on the meaning of the psalm has fallen within the series, let us apply ourselves within due limits to the explanation of it.

(2) The history of the present psalm, in the very same words as the title, has not yet, even to this time, been found anywhere in the inspired narratives. However, accounts equivalent to it will be found by those who seek diligently for . it in the second book of Kings, in which it is written: ‘David defeated also Adarezer the son of Rohob king of Soba, when he went to extend his dominion over the river Euphrates. And David took from him a thousand chariots and seven thousand horsemen, and twenty thousand footmen. And David destroyed all the chariots: and only reserved of them one hundred chariots.’ And a little later it says: ‘And David reigned over all Israel: and David did judgment and justice to all his people. And Joab the son of Sarvia was over the army.’ And after a little while: ‘And the children of Ammon sent and hired the Syrians of Rohob, and the Syrians of Soba, twenty thousand men; then Joab saw that the battle was prepared against him, and he chose from all the sons of Israel, and put them in array against the Syrians. And all the auxiliaries of Adarezer saw that they were overcome by Israel, and they fled to Israel and served them.’

We find that the title of the psalm agrees with this fragment of the history, except that the time of this inscription is that at which David was most magnificent and illustrious for his brave deeds in war. Therefore, it is worth investigating how he begins with lamentations and dirges, when he ought to be very happy and cheerful because of his valorous deeds. Some of the words are the words of those who are celebrating a festival; others, of those who are sad. An epinicia is a speech for a general festival, not only for the soldiers, but also for the farmers, the merchants, the artisans, and all who share in the blessings of peace. How, then, ‘O God, hast thou cast us off, and hast destroyed us? Truly, He has helped the victors. But, how did He destroy those whom He enriched so much, delivering to them arms and chariots, and horses, and subjects, and tributary lands, all Arabia, Phoenicia, and Mesopotamia?

It is worthwhile to notice whether die words contain some ingratitude. For, he had first destroyed Adarezer the king of Soba, and had taken from him a thousand chariots and seven thousand, horsemen and twenty thousand infantrymen, and again, had subjected to himself the king of Syria, who was giving aid to the fallen one, and he had made him a tributary, and in one instant of time had slaughtered his twenty-two thousand. When the sons of Ammon were drawn up in battle line beside the gate of the city, he had conquered them in a third victory through Joab the commander in chief, who separating the force into two parts, met some in front, and going around, overpowered those in the rear. How is it that amidst such valorous deeds he is making such gloomy and sad utterances, saying: ‘O God, thou hast cast us off, and hast destroyed us. Thou hast been angry, and hast had mercy on us?

Certainly, the time of the writing of the inscription was this period of brave accomplishments, but the force of the writings has reference to the end [of time]; moreover, he says that the end is that which will pass away at the consummation of the world. Therefore, he says that the psalm has been written for those who will be changed. It is possible to understand this in general in regard to the whole race o men, because the advantage from the psalm affects all. Those who are changed and those who will be changed are they who neither preserve the same condition of body nor continue always in the same opinion, but, who, when they are changed in body through the modifications due to the time of life, change their mind in regard to the various occurrences. Some of us, in fact, are children, and others, adolescents, while others have become men; and again, we are completely changed when we have grown old. Some of us are in more cheerful states of affairs; some of the others of us have experienced the harsher conditions of the times; some are ill; and others are enjoying themselves; some are in the married state; others in the midst of sorrows. Or, since the saying was not ‘to those changed,’ but, ‘to those who will be changed,’ and the words contain an indication of prophecy, because the tense is changed to the future, it is more consistent to understand that those who will be changed are those who, having given up the foolish customs of their fathers, will regulate the conduct of their lives by the strictness of the Gospel. Accordingly, the psalm was not written to the Jews of that time, but to us who will be changed, who are exchanging polytheism for piety, the error concerning idols for the knowledge of Him who made us, who choose lawful self-control instead of lawless pleasure, who substitute a psalm and fasting and prayer for the flutes and choruses and drunkenness. If, then, someone would say that the psalm was written for us, he would not err from the truth. Therefore also, the divine oracles are ours, and in the Church of God they are read aloud at each assembly, like gifts sent by God, nourishment for the soul, as it were, furnished through the Spirit.

But, the psalm was also written for an inscription on a column; that is to say, the hearing of it should not be just casual and you should not engrave these things on your mind for the brief time of memory, then permit them to be confused and obliterated in the same way as things written on perishable wood meet with speedy destruction; but you should keep them recorded on your mind as on a column, that is, settled immovably and steadfastly in your memory for all time. And, if the Jew rejects us as strangers to what has been written, from the very writings let us shame him, revealing the absence of discrimination in the general call; the manner in which it brings together things that are separated, calls together those which are far off, and makes the many into one through faith in Christ. ‘Galaad is mine’ he says, ‘and Manasses is mine.’ He mentioned Ephraim, and he added Juda, and also counted Moab. He threatens to enter into Idumea, and he proclaims the subjection of all at the same time: *To me the foreigners are made subject.’

(3) Therefore, ‘O God, thou hast cast us off.’ You have cast off those who in proportion to their sins removed themselves to a distance from You. You have destroyed the accumulations of our wickedness, doing good to us because of our weakness. You were angry, since ‘we were by nature children of wrath,’ having no hope, and being without God in the world. You had mercy on us when ‘You set forth Your only-begotten Son as a propitiation for our sins,’ in order that in His blood we might find redemption. We would not know that we were having these kindnesses done to us, unless ‘Thou hast made us drink the wine of sorrow.’ By wine he means the words which lead the hardened heart to conscious perception.

‘Thou hast given a sign to them that fear thee: that they may flee from before the bow.’ Moses caused the doorposts of the Israelites to be signed with the blood of a lamb; but You have given us a sign, the blood itself of a Lamb without blemish, slain for the sin of the world. And Ezechiel says that a sign was given on the foreheads of the persons. For he says: ‘Go ye after him and strike; do not spare, nor be ye moved with pity, Utterly destroy old and young, maidens, children, and women; but all on whom there is the sign do not approach.’

‘God hath spoken in his holy place: I will rejoice, and I will divide Sichem.’ Sichem is a special place given by Jacob to Joseph, a type of the covenant which seems to have been presented to Israel alone. Accordingly, I shall bring this special covenant and inheritance of the people for apportionment, and I shall make it common to all the rest. Therefore, after the covenant has been divided for all, and the advantage from it has been made common to all those who are having kind- ness done them by God, then, too, the deep valley of the tabernacles will be measured; that is to say, the whole world, as if by certain lots, will be divided by dioceses in each place. At that time also He will join together things that are far apart, He ‘who makes peace whether on the earth or in the heavens,’ ‘and he who has broken down the intervening wall of the enclosure will make both one.’

(4) ‘Galaad is mine, and Manasses is mine.’ Galaacl is a grandson of Manasses; this is said in order that he may show that the succession of the patriarchs, from whom is Christ according to the flesh, comes down from God. ‘And Ephraim is the support of my head. Juda is my king.’ He will join together by agreement the parts that are severed. ‘Moab is the pot of my hope.’ Or ‘a pot for washing,’ another of the interpreters says; or ‘a pot of security’; that is to say, the excommunicated man, who has been forbidden with threats to enter the Church of the Lord. For, the Moabite and the Ammonite will not enter until the third and until the tenth generation and until everlasting time. Nevertheless, since baptism possesses remission for sins, and produces security for the debtors, he, showing the deliverance through baptism and the affection for God, says: ‘Moab is a pot for washing,’ or ‘a pot of security,’ Therefore, all ‘foreigners are made subject,’ bowing down under the yoke of Christ; for this reason Fie will set His shoe in Edom. The shoe of the divinity is the God-bearing flesh, through which He approaches men. In this hope, pronouncing blessed, the time of the coming of the Lord, the prophet says: ‘Who will bring me into the fortified city.’ Perhaps, he means the Church, a city, indeed, because it is a community governed conformably to laws; and fortified, because of the faith encompassing it. Whence one of the interpreters gave out a very clear translation: ‘Into a city fortified all around,’ Who, then, will permit me to see this great spectacle, God living among men? These are the words of the Lord: ‘Many prophets and just men have longed to see what you see, and they have not seen it.’

(5) ‘Give us help from trouble.’ Let us not seek help from strength, nor from a good condition of body; let us not ask to obtain succour from anyone of those among men who are considered renowned. Not in the amount of money, not in the pride of power, not in the height of glory is victory gained, but the Lord freely gives His help to those who seek Him through excessive affliction. Such was Paul, who made his afflictions his boast. Therefore, he was able to say: ‘When I am weak, then I am strong.’ ‘Give us, therefore, O Lord, help from trouble/ since ‘tribulation works out endurance, and endurance tried virtue, and tried virtue, hope. And hope does not disappoint.’ Do you see where affliction leads you? To hope that does not disappoint. Are you ill? Be of good cheer, because ‘whom the Lord loves, he chastises.’ Are you poor? Rejoice, because the blessings of Lazarus will receive you in turn. Are you held in dishonour because of the name of Christ? You are blessed, because your shame will be changed into the glory of an angel. Let us persuade ourselves, brothers, in the time of temptation not to run away to human hopes, nor to seek assistance for ourselves from them, but in tears and in groanings and in assiduous prayers and in strenuous watchfulness to make our petitions. For, that man receives help from troubles who despises human help as vain and stands firmly on the hope that is founded on Him who is able to save us, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power forever. Amen.