St Basil On Psalm 61

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A Psalm of David for Idithun and a Body of Singers (ON PSALM 61)

WE KNOW TWO PSALMS with the title ‘For Idithun,’ the thirty-eighth and this one that we have at hand. And we think that the composition of the work is owed to David; that it was given to Idithun for his use that he might correct the passions of his soul, and also as a choral song to be sung in the presence of the people. Through it, also, God was glorified, and those who heard it amended their habits. Now, Idithun was a singer in the temple, as the history of the Faralipomenon testifies to us, saying: ‘And after them Heman and Idithun sounded the trumpets and played on the cymbals and all kinds of musical instruments to sing praises to God.’ And a little later it says: ‘Moreover David the king and the chief officers of the army separated for the ministry the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Idithun: to prophesy with harps, and with psalteries, and with tympana.’

Both psalms treat, for the most part, of patience, through which the passions of the soul are reduced to order, all arrogance is banished, and humility is acquired. For, it is impossible for anyone who has not accepted the lowest and last place with respect to all, ever to be able, when abused, to conquer his wrath, or when afflicted, to rise superior to his trials through patience. He who has acquired consummate humility, since he has condemned beforehand his greater vileness, will not be disturbed in soul in the midst of reproaches by words of disgrace; but, if he hears ‘poor man,’ he knows that he is a poor man and in want of all things, and that he has need of daily sustenance from the Lord; and, if he hears lowborn and obscure,’ he has already accepted in his heart the fact that he was made from clay. Therefore, in regard to that he says: ‘I said: I will take heed to my ways,’ and he explains the rebellion of the sinner and his own patience. ‘When the sinner,’ he says, ‘stood against me, I was dumb, and was humbled, and kept silence from good things.’ Then he continues, saying: ‘And indeed all things are vanity: every man living,’ then, ‘He storeth up; and he knoweth not for whom he shall gather these things.’

In the proposed psalm he begins in the form of a question, speaking, as it were, to his own soul, as if in consequence of the words previously spoken. In order that the soul, subjected to the pride of the flesh, may not be provoked to anger and sadness, ‘Why,’ he says, ‘do I make my soul, which was entrusted by its Creator, God, with the rule over the body and its emotions, the slave of evil passions?’ Accordingly, there is need to rule the passions and to serve God. It is impossible for it to be ruled by sin and by God; but, it must prevail over the evil and be subjected to the Lord of all things. Therefore, the prophet, threatening him who brings on the temptations and stirs up a great throng of evils in him and who has a great desire to enslave the will of the spirit and subject it to the flesh, as if refuting his idea against him as vain, says this: ‘Why do you force me to serve those whom it is not right? I have a Lord. I truly know my King.’

(2) ‘Shall not my soul be subject to God? For from him is my salvation.’ He tells the reason for his desire for subjection because his salvation is from God. It is characteristic of an artisan to take thought for the safety of his works of art. Or, by the words, ‘from him is salvation,’ since he foresees prophetically that there will be the future grace of the Incarnation of the Lord, he says that it is necessary to serve God and to love Him, who first directed such kindness toward the human race, as ‘not even to spare His own Son, but to deliver Him for us all.’ Now, it is a custom in Scripture to call the Christ of God, salvation, as somewhere Simeon says: ‘Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, because my eyes have seen thy salvation.’ Therefore, let us subject ourselves to God, because from Him is salvation. He explains what salvation is. It is not some mere active force, which provides us with a certain grace for deliverance from weakness and for the good health of our body. But, what is salvation? Tor he is my God and my saviour: he is my protector, I shall be moved no more.’ The Son, who is from God, is our God. He Himself is also Saviour of the human race, who supports our weakness, who corrects the disturbance that springs up in our souls from temptations. ‘I shall be moved no more.’ Humanly he confesses his disturbance. ‘More.’ For, it is impossible that there should not be some disturbance from temptations in the soul of man. While we are committing small and few sins, we are in a way mildly disturbed, being tossed about like the leaves by a gentle breeze; but, when our vices are more and greater, in proportion to the increase of our sins the disturbance is wont to be intensified. And some are moved more; but others, to the extent of being thrown down, even the self-rooted being overturned, whenever the spirits of evil, more violently than any hurricane, sever the roots, as it were, of the soul, by which it was supported through faith in God. I, accordingly, he says, was disturbed as a man; but, I shall not be disturbed more, because 1 am supported by the right hand of the Saviour.

(3) ‘How long do you rush in upon a man? you all kill, as if you were thrusting down a leaning wall, and a tottering fence.’ Again the homily fights against the depraved ministers of the devil, charging a lack of moderation in the snares laid by them. Certainly, men are weak animals; but you rush on, not content with the first attack, but you bring on a second and a third, until you subdue to such an extent the soul which has fallen beside you that it is very similar to a leaning wall and a tottering fence. Now, a wall, as long as it maintains an upright position, remains steadfast; but, when it leans, since it has been weakened, it needs must fall. For, heavy bodies, if united into one, stand erect after inclining, but those which are composed of several parts no longer admit of correction when they endure pressure on one part. The homily shows, therefore, that the nature of man, which is composite, was one inaccessible to plots for a second fall. ‘You are God’s tillage, God’s building,’ it is said. The enemy has shaken down this building; the Craftsman has repaired the rents made in it. Thus the fall was necessary because of sin, but the resurrection was great because of immortality.

‘But they have thought to cast away my price; they ran in thirst: they blessed with their mouth, but cursed with their heart.’ The price of man is the blood of Christ: ‘You have been bought,’ it is said, ‘with a price; do not become the slaves of men.’ The soldiers of the evil one planned, therefore, to render this price useless to us, leading again into slavery those who had been once freed. ‘They ran in thirst.’ He is speaking of the eager plots of the demons, because they run against us, thirsting for our destruction. ‘They blessed with their mouth, but cursed with their heart.’ There are many who approve evil deeds and say that the witty person is charming; the foulmouthed, statesmanlike; the bitter and irascible they name as one not to be despised; the niggardly and selfish they praise as thrifty; the spendthrift, as bountiful; the fornicator and lewd, as a man devoted to enjoyment and ease; and, in general, they gloss over every evil with the name of the proximate virtue. Such men bless with their mouth, but curse with their heart. For, by the auspiciousness of the words, they bring every curse upon their life, making themselves liable to action at the eternal Judgment because of those things which they approved.

Again, he speaks to his soul, urging its obedience to God. ‘But, be thou, O my soul/ he says, ‘subject to God: for from him is my patience.’ He shows the magnitude of the temptations, and he speaks the words of the Apostle, that He will not permit us to be tempted beyond what we are able to bear. ‘From him is my patience.’

(4) ‘In God is my salvation and my glory; he is the God of my help, and my hope is in God.’ Blessed is he who exults in none of the lofty things of life, but regards God as his glory; who holds Christ as his boast; who is able to say, according to the Apostle: ‘But as for me, God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of Christ.’ Many are glorified in body, who devote their time to gymnastic contests, or, on the whole, who are vigorous in the flower of their age; and many, because of their valour in the wars, who consider the murdering of those of the same race bravery. In fact, rewards in wars, and the trophies raised by a general and by cities, are according to the magnitude of the slaughter. Others are glorified because they put walls around cities; and others, because of the structures of the aqueducts and the buildings of the great gymnasia. That man who has spent his wealth in fighting wild beasts and who exults in vain words of the people, is puffed up with the praises and thinks himself something great, having his glory in his shame. He even shows his sin inscribed on tablets in conspicuous places of the city. Another is extolled for his wealth; another, because he is a skillful and invincible orator, or he is acquainted with the wisdom of the world. It is proper to pity the glory of all these, and to deem happy those who make God their glory. For, if a certain one thinks he is something great because he is the servant of a king and is held in great honour by him, how much ought you to exalt yourself, because you ar a servant of the great King and are called by Him to the closest intimacy, having received the Spirit of the promise, so that, sealed with His approval, you are shown to be a son of God?

Since he is conscious of the use of sincere hope in God, he invites the people to a zeal equal to his own, saying: ‘Trust in him, all ye congregation of people; pour out your hearts before him.’ It is impossible for us to become capable of divine grace, unless we have driven out the evil passions which have preoccupied our souls. I know doctors who do not give the salutary medicines before they have drained out by means of an emetic the matter that was causing the sickness, which the intemperate had stored up in themselves through a bad diet. Even a vessel which has been filled before with some ill smelling liquid, unless it has been washed out will not admit an inpouring of perfume. Therefore, it is necessary for that which first had possession to be poured out, in order that it may be able to contain that which is being brought in.

‘But vain are the sons of men.’ He knew that not all follow his instruction nor permit themselves to hope in God, but that they have their hope in the follies of life. Therefore, he says: ‘But vain are the sons of men, the sons of men are liars.’ Why vain? Because they are liars. Where, especially, is their deceit proved? ‘In the balances used for defrauding,’ he says. In what sort of balances does he mean? All men do not weigh in the balance, do they? All men are not wool sellers, or butchers, are they? Or do not handle gold or silver, or in general exert themselves about these materials which the merchants are accustomed to exchange by means of scales and weights, do they? But there is a large class of artisans, which does not need scales at all for its work; and there are many sailors, and many who are always engaged about courts of justice and the duty of ruling, among whom there is deceit, but the deceit is not practiced through scales. What is it, then, that he means? That there is a certain balance constructed in the interior of each of us by our Creator, on which it is possible to judge the nature of things. ‘I have set before thee life and death, good and evil,’ two natures contrary to each other; balance them against each other in your own tribunal; weigh accurately which is more profitable to you: to choose a temporary pleasure and through it to receive eternal death, or, having chosen suffering in the practice of virtue, to use it to attain everlasting delights.

Men, then, are liars, since they have destroyed the tribunals of their soul, and the prophet deems them unhappy, for he says: ‘Woe to you that call darkness light and light darkness; that call bitter sweet and sweet bitter.’ For me, he says, the present; who, indeed, knows the future? You weigh badly, choosing evils instead of blessings, preferring empty things to the genuine, placing the temporary before the eternal, electing passing pleasure for unending and unbroken joy. Therefore, ‘the sons of men are liars in the balances used for defrauding.’ They wrong, first, themselves, and then, their neighbours; for, since they are the wicked advisers to themselves in their action, they are a bad example to the others. It is not possible for you to say on the day of Judgment, ‘I did not know the good.’ Your own balances, which provide sufficiently the discrimination between good and bad, are presented to you. We test the weight of the body by the inclinations of the balance, but we determine the choices of our life by the free judgment of our soul. This we call the balance because it can incline equally both ways.

(5) ‘Trust not in inequity, and covet not robberies.’ Above he said: Trust in him, all ye congregation of people.’ He saw the hesitation in their obedience, and he declared: ‘But vain are the sons of men.’ Again, he bids them not to trust in iniquity. He who judges that wealth, collected unjustly, is sufficient means for him to be strong and powerful is like a sick man who alleges good health in serious illness. ‘Trust not in iniquity.’ This itself hinders you in every good work. ‘And covet not robberies.’ He exhorts us not to be covetous of other men’s possessions.

‘If riches flow around, set not your heart upon them.’ If you see anyone exceedingly rich, do not deem his life happy. If from all sides and from plenteous sources money flows around you, do not accept a superabundance of it. ‘If riches flow around.’ Admire the expression. The nature of riches is a state of flux. They run past their possessors more swiftly than the torrent; they are wont at one time to pass by one, and again, another. As a river, swept down from a height, approaches those standing on the bank, it at the same time reaches and immediately withdraws, so also the satisfaction from riches has a very swift and slippery presence, being wont to change time and again from some to others. Today the field belongs to this man, tomorrow, to another, and a little after, to still another. Look at the houses in the city, how many names they have received in succession since they were constructed, being called at one time from the name of one possessor, at another, from that of another. And gold, always flowing through the hand of him who possesses it, passes to another, and from him to still another. You are more able, when you have caught some water, to hold it in your hand, than to preserve riches lastingly for yourself. So it has been well said: ‘If riches flow around, set not your heart upon them.’ Do not be further affected in your soul, but accept the use of them, not as if loving exceedingly and admiring some good thing, but as if choosing its service as something practical.

Then he brings up a decision for all that was said, not now from his own words, but one which he heard from God Himself. ‘God hath spoken once, these two things have I heard,’ he says. And let it not disturb anyone that what was said is, as it were, incredible, namely, that God spoke once and the prophet heard two things. For, it is possible for someone to speak once, but for the things spoken on the one occasion to be many. A certain man, in fact, when he met someone once, discussed many things, and he who heard his words is able to say: ‘He talked with me once, but he spoke about many things,’ This is what was meant on the present occasion, the manifestation of God occurred to me once, but, there are two matters of which He talked. He did not say: ‘God spoke of one thing, but 1 heard these two’; for, thus the statement would seem to have some discrepancy in it. What were the two things which he heard? ‘That power belongeth to God, and mercy to thee, O Lord.’ God is powerful, he says, in judgment, and likewise merciful. Trust not, therefore, in iniquity, do not hand yourself over to riches; do not choose vanity; do not carry around the corrupt tribunal of your soul. Knowing that our Lord is mighty, fear His strength, and do not despair of His kindness. Now, in order that we may not do wrong, fear is good; and in order that he who has once slipped into sin may not throw himself away through despair, the hope of mercy is good. For, power belongs to God, and mercy is from Him. Tor thou wilt render to every man according to his works.’ ‘For with what measure you measure, it shall be measured back to you.’ Have you afflicted your brother? Expect the same. Did you snatch away the means of your inferiors, maltreat the poor, cover with disgrace by reproaches, blackmail, make false accusations, tamper with other’s marriages, swear falsely, change your ancestral boundaries, attack the possessions of orphans, oppress widows, prefer the present pleasure to the blessings in the promises? Expect the reciprocal measure of these. In fact, what each one sows, such also shall he reap. And yet, if you have performed any good acts, expect also manifold compensations in return for these. ‘For thou wilt render to every man according to his works.’ If you remember this sentence throughout all your life, you will be enabled to flee many sins, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power forever. Amen.