Augustin on Psalms 90
1. This Psalm is entitled, "The prayer of Moses the man of God," through whom, His man, God gave the law to His people, through whom He freed them from the house of slavery, and led them forty years through the wilderness. Moses was therefore the Minister of the Old, and the Prophet of the New Testament. For "all these things," saith the Apostle, "happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, unto whom the ends of the world come."(2) In accordance therefore with this dispensation which was vouchsafed to Moses, this Psalm is to be examined, as it has received its title from his prayer.
2. "Lord," he saith, "Thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another" (verse 1): either in every generation, or in two generations, the old and new: because, as I said, he was the Minister of the Testament that related to the old generation, and the Prophet of the Testament which appertained to the new. Jesus Himself, the Surety of that covenant, and the Bridegroom in the marriage which He entered into in that generation, saith, "Had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed Me: for he wrote of Me."(3) Now it is not to be believed that this Psalm was entirely the composition of that Moses, as it is not distinguished by any of those of his expressions(4) which are used in his songs: but the name of the great servant of God is used for the sake of some intimation, which should direct the attention of the reader or listener. "Lord," he saith, "Thou hast been our refuge from one generation to the other."
3. He adds, how He became our refuge, since He began to be that, viz. a refuge, to us which He had not been before, not that He had not existed before He became our refuge: "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made: and from age even unto age Thou art" (verse 2). Thou therefore who art for ever, and before we were, and before the world was, hast become our refuge ever since we turned to Thee. But the expression, "before the mountains," etc., seems to me to contain a particular meaning; for mountains are the higher parts of the earth, and if God was before even the earth were formed (or, as some books have it, from the same Greek word, "framed"(5)) , since it was by Him that it was formed, what is the need of saying that He was before the mountains, or any certain parts of it, since God was not only before the earth, but before heaven and earth, and even the whole bodily and spiritual creation? But it may certainly be that the whole rational creation is marked by this distinction; that while the loftiness of Angels is signified by the mountains, the lowliness of man is meant by the earth. And for this reason, although all the works of creation are not improperly said to be either made or formed; nevertheless, if there is any propriety in these words, the Angels are "made;" for as they are enumerated among His heavenly works, the enumeration itself is thus concluded: "He spake the word, and they were made; He commanded, and they were created;"(6) but the earth was "formed," that man might thence be created in the body. For the Scripture uses this word, where we read, God made, or "God formed man out of the dust of the ground."(7) Before then the noblest parts of the creation (for what is higher than the rational part of the Heavenly creation) were made: before the earth was made, that Thou mightest have worshippers upon the earth; and even this is little, as all these had a beginning either in or with time; but "from age to age Thou art." It would have been better, from everlasting to everlasting: for God, who is before the ages, exists not from a certain age, nor to a certain age, which has an end, since He is without end. But it often happens in the Scripture, that the equivocal Greek word causes the Latin translator to put age for eternity and eternity for age. But he very rightly does not say, Thou wast from ages, and unto ages Thou shalt be: but puts the verb in the present, intimating that the substance of God is altogether immutable. It is not, He was, and Shall be, but only Is. Whence the expression, I Am that I am; and, I am "hath sent me unto you;"(1) and, "Thou shalt change them, and they shall be changed: but Thou art the same, and Thy years shall not fail."(2) Behold then the eternity that is our refuge, that we may fly thither from the mutability of time, there to remain for evermore.
4. But as our life here is exposed to numerous and great temptations, and it is to be feared lest we may be turned aside by them from that refuge, let us see what in consequence of this the prayer of the man of God seeks for. "Turn not Thou man to lowness" (verse 3): that is, let not man, turned aside from Thy eternal and sublime things, lust for things of time, savour of earthly things. This prayer is what God has Himself enjoined us, in the Prayer, "Lead us not into temptation,"(3) He adds, "Again Thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men." As if he said, I ask of Thee what Thou hast commanded me to ask: giving glory to His grace, that "he that glorieth, in the Lord he may glory:"(4) without whose help we cannot by an exertion of our own will overcome the temptations of this life. "Turn not Thou man to lowness: again thou sayest, Turn again, ye children of men." But grant what Thou has enjoined, by hearing the prayer s of him who can at least pray, and aiding the faith of the willing soul.
5. "For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday, which is past by" (verse 4): hence we ought to turn to Thy refuge, where Thou art without any change, from the fleeting scenes around us; since however long a time may be wished for for this life, "a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday:" not as to-morrow, which is to come: for all limited periods of time are reckoned as having already passed. Hence the Apostle's choice is rather to aim at what is before,(6) that is, to desire things eternal, and to forget things behind, by which temporal matters should be understood. But that no one may imagine a thousand years are reckoned by God as one day, as if with God days were so long, when this is only said in contempt of the extent of time: he adds, "and as a watch in the night:" which only lasts three hours. Nevertheless men have ventured to assert their knowledge of times, to the pretenders to which our Lord said, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power:"(7) and they allege that this period may be defined six thousand years, as of six days. Nor have they heeded the words, "are but as one day which is past by:" for, when this was uttered, not a thousand years only had passed, and the expression, "as a watch in the night," ought to have warned them that they might not be deceived by the uncertainty of the seasons: for even if the six first days in which God finished His works seemed to give some plausibility to their opinion, six watches, which amount to eighteen hours, will not consist with that opinion.
6. Next, the man of God, or rather the Prophetic spirit, seems to be reciting some law written in the secret wisdom of God, in which He has fixed a limit to the sinful life of mortals, and determined the troubles of mortality, in the following words: "Their years are as things which are nothing worth: in the morning let it fade away like the grass" (verse 5). The happiness therefore of the heirs of the old covenant, which they asked of the Lord their God as a great boon, attained to receive this Law in His mysterious Providence. Moses seems to be reciting it: "Their years shall be things which are esteemed as nothing." Such are those things which are not before they are come: and when come, shall soon not be: for they do not come to be here, but to be gone. "In the morning," that is, before they come, "as a heat(8) let it pass by;" but "in the evening," it means after they come, "let it fall, and be dried up, and withered" (verse 6). It is "to fall" in death, be "dried up" in the corpse, "withered" in the dust. What is this but flesh, wherein is the accursed lust of fleshly things? "For all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness of man as the flower of the field; the grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of the Lord abideth for ever."(9)
7. Making no secret that this fate is a penalty inflicted for sin, he adds at once, "For we consume away in Thy displeasure, and are troubled at Thy wrathful indignation" (verse 7): we consume away in our weakness, and are troubled from the fear of death; for we are become weak, and yet fearful to end that weakness. "Another," saith He, "shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not:"(10) although not to be punished, but to be crowned, by martyrdom; and the soul of our Lord, transforming us into Himself, was sorrowful even unto death: for "the Lord's going out" is no other than in "death."
8. "Thou hast set our misdeeds before Thee" (verse 8): that is, Thou hast not dissembled Thine anger: "and our age in the light of Thy countenance." "The light of Thy countenance" answers to "before Thee," and to "our misdeeds," as above.
9. "For all our days are failed, and in Thine anger we have failed (verse 9). These words sufficiently prove that our subjection to death is a punishment. He speaks of our days failing, either because men fail in them from loving things that pass away, or because they are reduced to so small a number; which he asserts in the following lines: "our years are spent in thought like a spider."(1) "The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years, yet is more of them but labour and sorrow" (verse 10). These words appear to express the shortness and misery of this life: since those who have reached their seventieth year are styled old men. Up to eighty, however, they appear to have some strength; but if they live beyond this, their existence is laborious through multiplied sorrows. Yet many even below the age of seventy experience an old age the most infirm and wretched: and old men have often been found to be wonderfully vigorous even beyond eighty years. It is therefore better to search for some spiritual meaning in these numbers. For the anger of God is not greater on the sins of Adam (through whom alone "sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men"),(2) because they live a much shorter time than the men of old; since even the length of their days is ridiculed in the comparison of a thousand years to yesterday that is past, and to three hours: especially since at the very time when they provoked the anger of God to send the deluge in which they perished, their life was at its longest span.
10. Moreover, seventy and eighty years equal a hundred and fifty; a number which the Psalms clearly insinuate to be a sacred one. One hundred and fifty have the same relative signification as fifteen, the latter number being composed of seven and eight together: the first of which points to the Old Testament through the observation of the Sabbath; the latter to the New, referring to the resurrection of our Lord. Hence the fifteen steps in the Temple. Hence in the Psalms, fifteen "songs of degrees." Hence the waters of the deluge overtopped the highest mountains by fifteen cubits:(3) and many other instances of the same nature. "Our years are passed in thought like a spider." We were labouring in things corruptible, corruptible works were we weaving together: which, as the Prophet Isaiah saith, by no means covered us.(4) "The days of our years are in themselves," etc. A distinction is here made between themselves and their strength:(5) "in themselves," that is, in the years or days themselves, may mean in temporal things, which are promised in the Old Testament, signified by the number seventy; "but if" not in themselves, but "in their strength," refers not to temporal things, but to things eternal, "fourscore years," as the New Testament contains the hope of a new life and resurrection for evermore: and what is added, that if they pass this latter period,(6) "their strength is labour and sorrow," intimates that such shall be the fate of him who goes beyond this faith, and seeks for more. It may also be understood thus: because although we are established in the New Testament, which the number eighty signifies, yet still our life is one of labour and sorrow, while "we groan within ourselves, awaiting the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body; for we are saved by hope; and if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it."(7) This relates to the mercy of God, of which he proceeds to say, "Since thy mercy cometh over us,(8) and we shall be chastened:" for "the Lord chasteneth whom He loveth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth,"(9) and to some mighty ones He giveth a thorn in the flesh, to buffet them, that they may not be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, so that strength be made perfect in weakness.(10) Some copies read, we shall be "taught," instead of "chastened," which is equally expressive of the Divine Mercy; for no man can be taught without labour and sorrow; since strength is made perfect in weakness.
11. "For who knoweth the power of Thy wrath: and for the fear of Thee to number Thine anger?" (verse 11). It belongs to very few men, he saith, to know the power of Thy wrath; for when Thou dost spare, Thy anger is so far heavier against most men; that we may know that labour and sorrow belong not to wrath, but rather to Thy mercy, when Thou chastenest and teachest those whom Thou lovest, to save them from the torments of eternal punishment: as it is said in another Psalm,(11) "The sinner hath provoked the Lord: He will not require it of him according to the greatness of His wrath." With this also is understood, "Who knoweth?" Such is the difficulty of finding any one who knoweth how to number Thine anger by Thy fear, that he adds this, meaning that it is to the purpose that Thou appearest to spare some, with whom Thou art more angry, that the sinner may be prospered in his path, and receive a heavier doom at the last. For when the power of human wrath hath killed the body, it hath nothing more to do: but God hath power both to punish here, and after the death of the body to send into Hell, and by the few who are thus taught, the vain and seductive prosperity of the wicked is judged to be greater wrath of God.(1) ...
12. "Make Thy right hand so well known" (verse 12). This is the reading of most of the Greek copies: not of some in Latin, which is thus, "Make Thy right hand well known to me." What is, "Thy right hand," but Thy Christ, of whom it is said, And to whom is the Arm of the Lord revealed?(2) Make Him so well known, that Thy faithful may learn in Him to ask and to hope for those things rather of Thee as rewards of their faith, which do not appear in the Old Testament, but are revealed in the New: that they may not imagine that the happiness derived from earthly and temporal blessings is to be highly esteemed, desired, or loved, and thus their feet slip,(3) when they see it in men who honour Thee not: that their steps may not give way, while they know not how to number Thine anger. Finally, in accordance with this prayer of the Man that is His,(4) He has made His Christ so well known as to show by His sufferings that not these rewards which seem so highly prized in the Old Testament, where they are shadows of things to come, but things eternal, are to be desired. The right hand of God may also be understood in this sense, as that by which He will separate His saints from the wicked: because that hand becomes well known, when it scourgeth every son whom He receiveth, and suffers him not, in greater anger, to prosper in his sins, but in His mercy scourgeth him with the left,(5) that He may place him purified on His right hand.(6) The reading of most copies, "make Thy right hand well known to me," may be referred either to Christ, or to eternal happiness: for God has not a right hand in bodily shape, as He has not that anger which is aroused into violent passion.
13. But what he addeth,(7) "and those fettered in heart in wisdom;" other copies read, "instructed," not "lettered:" the Greek verb, expressing both senses, only differing by a single syllable.(8) But since these also, as it is said, put their "feet in the fetters" of wisdom, are taught wisdom (he means the feet of the heart, not of the body), and bound by its golden chains(9) depart not from the path of God, and become not runaways from him; whichever reading we adopt, the truth in the meaning is safe. Them thus lettered, or instructed in heart in wisdom, God makes so well known in the New Testament, that they despised all things for the Faith which the impiety of Jews and Gentiles abhorred; and allowed themselves to be deprived of those things which in the Old Testament are thought high promises by those who judge after the flesh.
14. And as when they became so well known, as to despise these things, and by setting their affections on things eternal, gave a testimony through their sufferings (whence they are called witnesses or martyrs in the Greek), they endured for a long while many bitter temporal afflictions. This man of God giveth heed to this, and the prophetic spirit under the name of Moses continues thus, "Return, O Lord, how long? and be softened concerning Thy servants" (verse 13). These are the words of those, who, enduring many evils in that persecuting age, become known because their hearts are bound in the chain of wisdom so firmly, that not even such hardships can induce them to fly from their Lord to the good things of this world. "How long wilt Thou hide Thy face from me, O Lord?"(10) occurs in another Psalm, in unison with this sentence, "Return, O Lord, how long?" And that they who, in a most carnal spirit, ascribe to God the form of a human body, may know that the "turning away" and "turning again" of His countenance is not like those motions of our own frame, let them recollect these words from above in the same Psalm, "Thou hast set our misdeeds before Thee, and our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance." How then does he say in this passage, "Return," that God may be favourable, as if He had turned away His face in anger; when as in the former he speaks of God's anger in such a manner, as to insinuate that He had not turned away His countenance from the misdeeds and the course of life of those He was angry with, but rather had set them before Him, and in the light of His countenance? The word, "How long," belongs to righteousness beseeching, not indignant impatience. "Be softened," some have rendered by a verb, "soften." But "be softened" avoids an ambiguity; since to soften is a common verb: for he may be said to soften who pours out prayers, and be to whom they are poured out: for we say, I soften thee, and I soften toward thee.(11)
15. Next, in anticipation of future blessings, of which he speaks as already vouchsafed, he says, "We are satisfied with Thy mercy in the morning" (verse 14). Prophecy has thus been kindled for us, in the midst of these toils and sorrows of the night, like a lamp in the darkness, until day dawn, and the Day-star arise in our hearts.(12) For blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God: then shall the righteous be filled with that blessing for which they hunger and thirst now,(1) while, walking in faith, they are absent from the Lord.(2) Hence are the words, "In Thy presence is fulness of joy:"(3) and, "Early in the morning they shall stand by, and shall look up:"(4) and as other translators have said it, "We shall be satisfied with Thy mercy in the morning;" then they shall be satisfied. As he says elsewhere, "I shall be satisfied, when Thy glory shall be revealed."(5) So it is said, "Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us:" and our Lord Himself answereth, "I will manifest Myself to Zion;"(6) and until this promise is fulfilled, no blessing satisfies us, or ought to do so, lest our longings should be arrested in their course, when they ought to be increased until they gain their objects. "And we rejoiced and were glad all the days of our life." Those days are days without end: they all exist together: it is thus they satisfy us: for they give not way to days succeeding: since there is nothing there which exists not yet because it has not reached us, or ceases to exist because it has passed; all are together: because there is one day only, which remains and passes not away: this is eternity itself. These are the days respecting which it is written, "What man is he that lusteth to live, and would fain see good days?"(7) These days in another passage are styled years: where unto God it is said, "But Thou art the same, and Thy years shall not fail:"(8) for these are not years that are accounted for nothing, or days that perish like a shadow: but they are days which have a real existence, the number of which he who thus spoke, "Lord, let me know mine end" (that is, after reaching what term I shall remain unchanged, and have no further blessing to crave), "and the number of my days, what it is" (what is, not what is not): prayed to know. He distinguishes them from the days of this life, of which he speaks as follows, "Behold, Thou hast made my days as it were a span long,"(9) which are not, because they stand not, remain not, but change in quick succession: nor is there a single hour in them in which our being is not such, but that one part of it has already passed, another is about to come, and none remains as it is. But those years and days, in which we too shall never fail, but evermore be refreshed, will never fail. Let our souls long earnestly for those days, let them thirst ardently for them, that there we may be filled, be satisfied, and say what we now say in anticipation, "We have been satisfied," etc. "We have been comforted again now, after the time that Thou hast brought us low, and for the years wherein we have seen evil" (verse 15).
16. But now in days that are as yet evil, let us speak as follows. "Look upon Thy servants, and upon Thy works" (verse 16). For Thy servants themselves are Thy works, not only inasmuch as they are men, but as Thy servants, that is, obedient to Thy commands. For we are His workmanship, created not merely in Adam, but in Christ Jesus, unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them:(10) "for it is God which worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure."(11) "And direct their sons:" that they may be right in heart, for to such God is bountiful; for "God is bountiful to Israel, to those that are right in heart." ...
17. "And let the brightness of the Lord our God be upon us" (verse 17); whence the words, "O Lord, the light of Thy countenance is marked upon us."(12) And, "Make Thou straight the works of our hands upon us:" that we may do them not for hope of earthly reward: for then they are not straight, but crooked. In many copies the Psalm goes thus far, but in some there is found an additional verse at the end, as follows, "And make straight the work of our hands." To these words the learned have prefixed a star, called an asterisk, to show that they are found in the Hebrew, or in some other Greek translations, but not in the Septuagint. The meaning of this verse, if we are to expound it, appears to me this, that all our good works are one work of love: for love is the fulfilling of the Law.(13) For as in the former verse he had said, "And the works of our hands make Thou straight upon us," here he says "work," not works, as if anxious to show, in the last verse, that all our works are one, that is, are directed with a view to one work. For then are works righteous, when they are directed to this one end: "for the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned."(14) There is therefore one work, in which are all, "faith which worketh by love:"(15) whence our Lord's words in the Gospel, "This is the work of God, that ye believe in Him whom He hath sent."(16) Since, therefore, in this Psalm, both old and new life, life both mortal and everlasting, years that are counted for nought, and years that have the fulness of loving-kindness and of true joy, that is, the penalty of the first and the reign of the Second Man, are marked so very clearly; I imagine, that the name of Moses, the man of God, became the title of the Psalm, that pious and right-minded readers of the Scriptures might gain an intimation that the Mosaic laws, in which God appears to promise only, or nearly only, earthly rewards for good works, without doubt contains under a veil some such hopes as this Psalm displays. But when any one has passed over to Christ, the veil will be taken away:(1) and his eyes will be unveiled, that he may consider the wonderful things in the law of God, by the gift of Him, to whom we pray, "Open Thou mine eyes, and I shall see the wondrous things of Thy law.(2)
1. This Psalm is that from which the Devil dared to tempt our Lord Jesus Christ: let us therefore attend to it, that thus armed, we may be enabled to resist the tempter, not presuming in ourselves, but in Him who before us was tempted, that we might not be overcome when tempted. Temptation to Him was not necessary: the temptation of Christ is our learning, but if we listen to His answers to the devil, in order that, when ourselves are tempted, we may answer in like manner, we are then entering through the gate, as ye have heard it read in the Gospel. For what is to enter by the gate? To enter by Christ, who Himself said, "I am the door:"(4) and to enter through Christ, is to imitate His ways. ... He urges us to imitate Him in those works which He could not have done had He not been made Man; for how could He endure sufferings, unless He had become a Man? How could He otherwise have died, been crucified, been humbled? Thus then do thou, when thou sufferest the troubles of this world, which the devil, openly by men, or secretly, as in Job's case, inflicts; be courageous, be of long suffering; "thou shall dwell under the defence of the Most High," as this Psalm expresses it: for if thou depart from the help of the Most High, without strength to aid thyself, thou wilt fall.
2. For many men are brave, when they are enduring persecution from men, and see them openly rage against themselves: imagining they are then imitating the sufferings of Christ, in case men openly persecute them; but if assailed by the hidden attack of the devil, they believe they are not being crowned by Christ. Never fear when thou dost imitate Christ. For when the devil tempted our Lord, there was no man in the wilderness; he tempted Him secretly; but he was conquered, and conquered too when openly attacking Him. This do thou, if thou wishest to enter by the door, when the enemy secretly assails thee, when he asks for a man that he may do him some hurt by bodily troubles, by fever, by sickness, or any other bodily sufferings, like those of Job. He saw not the devil, yet he acknowledged the power of God. He knew that the devil had no power against him, unless from the Almighty Ruler of all things he received that power: the whole glory he gave to God, power to the devil he gave not. ...
3. He then who so imitates Christ as to endure all the troubles of this world, with his hopes set upon God, that he falls into no snare, is broken down by no panic fears, he it is "who dwelleth under the defence of the Most High, who shall abide under the protection of God" (verse 1), in the words with which the Psalm, which you have heard and sung, begins. You will recognise the words, so well known, in which the devil tempted our Lord, when we come to them. "He shall say unto the Lord, Thou art my taker up, and my refuge: my God" (verse 2). Who speaks thus to the Lord? "He who dwelleth under the defence of the Most High:" not under his own defence. Who is this? He dwelleth under the defence of the Most High, who is not proud, like those who ate, that they might become as Gods, and lost the immortality in which they were made. For they chose to dwell under a defence of their own, not under that of the Most High: thus they listened to the suggestions of the serpent? and despised the precept of God: and discovered at last that what God threatened, not what the devil promised, had come to pass in them.
4. Thus then do thou say also, "In Him will I trust. For He Himself shall deliver me" (verse 3), not I myself. Observe whether he teaches anything but this, that all our trust be in God, none in man. Whence shall he deliver thee? "From the snare of the hunter, and from a harsh word." Deliverance from the hunter's net is indeed a great blessing: but how is deliverance from a harsh word so? Many have fallen into the hunter's net through a harsh word. What is it that I say? The devil and his angels spread their snares, as hunters do: and those who walk in Christ tread afar from those snares: for he dares not spread his net in Christ: he sets it on the verge of the way, not in the way. Let then thy way be Christ, and thou shall not fall into the snares of the devil. ... But what is, "from a harsh word"? The devil has entrapped many by a harsh word: for instance, those who profess Christianity among Pagans suffer insult from the heathen: they blush when they hear reproach, and shrinking out of their path in consequence, fall into the hunter's snares. And yet what will a harsh word do to you? Nothing. Can the snares with which the enemy entraps you by means of reproaches, do nothing to you? Nets are usually spread for birds at the end of a hedge, and stones are thrown into the hedge: those stones will not harm the birds. When did any one ever hit a bird by throwing a stone into a hedge? But the bird, frightened at the harmless noise, falls into the nets; and thus men who fear the vain reproaches of their calumniators, and who blush at unprovoked insults, fall into the snares of the hunters, and are taken captive by the devil... Just as among the heathen, the Christian who fears their reproaches falls into the snare of the hunter: so among the Christians, those who endeavour to be more diligent and better than the rest, are doomed to bear insults from Christians themselves. What then doth it profit, my brother, if thou occasionally find a city in which there is no heathen? No one there insults a man because he is a Christian, for this reason, that there is no Pagan therein: but there are many Christians who lead a bad life, among whom those who are resolved to live righteously, and to be sober among the drunken, and chaste among the unchaste, and amid the consulters of astrologers sincerely to worship God, and to ask after no such things, and among spectators of frivolous shows will go only to church, suffer from those very Christians reproaches, and harsh words, when they address such a one,"Thou art the mighty, the righteous, thou art Elias thou art Peter: thou hast come from heaven." They insult him: whichever way he turns, he hears harsh sayings on each side: and if he fears, and abandons the way of Christ, he falls into the snares of the hunters. But what is it, when he hears such words, not to swerve from the way? On hearing them, what comfort has he, which prevents his heeding them, and enables him to enter by the door? Let him say; What words am I called, who am a servant and a sinner? To my Lord Jesus they said, "Thou hast a devil."(1) You have just heard the harsh words spoken against our Lord: it was not necessary for our Lord to suffer this, but in doing so He has warned thee against harsh words, lest thou fall into the snares of the hunters.
5. "He shall defend thee between His shoulders, and thou shall hope under His wings" (verse 4). He says this, that thy protection may not be to thee from thyself, that thou mayest not imagine that thou canst defend thyself; He will defend thee, to deliver thee from the hunter's snare, and from an harsh word. The expression, "between His shoulders," may be understood both in front and behind: for the shoulders are about the head; but in the words, "thou shalt hope under His wings," it is clear that the protection of the wings of God expanded places thee between His shoulders, so that God's wings on this side and that have thee in the midst, where thou shalt not fear lest any one hurt thee: only be thou careful never to leave that spot, where no foe dares approach. If the hen defends her chickens beneath her wings; how much more shalt thou be safe beneath the wings of God, even against the devil and his angels, the powers who fly about in mid air like hawks, to carry off the weak young one? For the comparison of the hen to the very Wisdom of God is not without ground; for Christ Himself, our Lord and Saviour, speaks of Himself as likened to a hen; "how often would I have gathered thy children," etc.(2) That Jerusalem would not: let us be willing. ... If you consider other birds, brethren, you will find many that hatch their eggs, and keep their young warm: but none that weakens herself in sympathy with her chickens, as the hen does. We see swallows, sparrows, and storks outside their nests, without being able to decide whether they have young or no: but we know the hen to be a mother by the weakness of her voice, and the loosening of her feathers: she changes altogether from love for her chickens: she weakens herself because they are weak. Thus since we were weak, the Wisdom of God made Itself weak, when the Word was made flesh, and dwelt in us,(3) that we might hope under His wings.
6. "His truth shall surround thee with a shield" (verse 5). What are "the wings," the same is "the shield:" since there are neither wings nor shield. If either were literally, how could the one be the same as the other? can wings be a shield or a shield wings? But all these expressions, indeed, are figuratively used through likenesses. If Christ were really a Stone,(4) He could not be a Lion; if a Lion,(5) He could not be a Lamb: but He is called both Lion, and Lamb,(6) and Stone, and Calf, and anything else of the sort, metaphorically, because He is neither Stone, nor Lion, nor Lamb, nor Calf, but Jesus Christ, the Saviour of all of us, for these are likenesses, not literal names. "His truth shall be thy shield," it is said: a shield to assure us that He will not confound those whose trust is in themselves with those who hope in God. One is a sinner, and the other a sinner: but suppose one that presumes upon himself is a despiser, confesses not his sins, and he will say, if my sins displeased God, He would not suffer me to live. But another dared not even raise his eyes, but beat upon his breast, saying, "God be merciful to me a sinner."(7) Both this was a sinner, and that: but the one mocked, the other mourned: the one was a despiser, the other a confessor, of his sins. But the truth of God, which respects not persons, discerns the penitent from him who denies his sin, the humble from the proud, him who presumes upon himself from him who presumes on God. "Thou shall not be afraid for any terror by night."
7. "Nor for the arrow that flieth by day, for the matter(1) that walketh in darkness, nor for the ruin and the devil that is in the noonday" (verse 6). These two clauses above correspond to the two below; "Thou shall not fear" for "the terror by night, from the arrow that flieth by day:" both because of "the terror by night," from "the matter that walketh in darkness:" and because of "the arrow that flieth by day," from "the ruin of the devil of the noon-day." What ought to be feared by night, and what by day? When any man sins in ignorance, he sins, as it were, by night: when he sins in full knowledge, by day. The two former sins then are the lighter: the second are much heavier; but this is obscure, and will repay your attention, if, by God's blessing, I can explain it so that you may understand it. He calls the light temptation, which the ignorant yield to, "terror by night:" the light temptation, which assails men who well know, "the arrow that flieth by day." What are light temptations? Those which do not press upon us so urgently, as to overcome us, but may pass by quickly if declined. Suppose these, again, heavy ones. If the persecutor threatens, and frightens the ignorant grievously, I mean those whose faith is as yet unstable, and know not that they are Christians that they may hope for a life to come; as soon as they are alarmed with temporal ills, they imagine that Christ has forsaken them, and that they are Christians to no purpose; they are not aware that they are Christians for this reason, that they may conquer the present, and hope for the future: the matter that walketh in darkness has found and seized them. But some there are who know that they are called to a future hope; that what God has promised is not of this life, or this earth; that all these temptations must be endured, that we may receive what God hath promised us for evermore; all this they know: when however the persecutor urges them more strenuously, and plies them with threats, penalties, tortures, at length they yield, and although they are well aware of their sin, yet they fall as it were by day.
8. But why does he say, "at noon-day"? The persecution is very hot; and thus the noon signifies the excessive heat. ... The demon that is "in the noon-day," represents the heat of a furious persecution: for these are our Lord's words, "The sun was up; and because they had no root, they withered away:" and when explaining it, He applies it to those who are offended when persecution ariseth, "Because they have not root in themselves." We are therefore right in understanding by the demon that destroyeth in the noon-day, a violent persecution. Listen, beloved, while I describe the persecution, from which the Lord hath rescued His Church. At first, when the emperors and kings of the world imagined that they could extirpate from the earth the Christian name by persecution, they proclaimed, that any one who confessed himself a Christian, should be smitten. He who did not choose to be smitten, denied that he was a Christian, knowing the sin he was committing: the arrow that flieth by day reached him. But whoever regarded not the present life, but had a sure trust in a future one, avoided the arrow, by confessing himself a Christian; smitten in the flesh, he was liberated in the spirit: resting with God, he began peacefully to await the redemption of his body in the resurrection of the dead: he escaped from that temptation, from the arrow that flieth by day. "Whoever professes himself a Christian, let him be beheaded;" was as the arrow that flieth by day. The "devil that is in the noon-day" was not yet abroad, burning with a terrible persecution, and afflicting with great heat even the strong. For hear what followed; when the enemy saw that many were hastening to martyrdom, and that the number of fresh converts increased in proportion to that of the sufferers, they said among themselves, We shall annihilate the human race, so many thousands are there who believe in His Name; if we kill all of them, there will hardly be a survivor on earth. The sun then began to blaze, and to glow with a terrible heat. Their first edict had been, Whoever shall confess himself a Christian, let him be smitten. Their second edict was, Whoever shall have confessed himself a Christian, let him be tortured, and tortured even until he deny himself a Christian. ...Many therefore who denied not,(2) failed amid the tortures; for they were tortured until they denied. But to those who persevered in professing Christ, what could the sword do, by killing the body at one stroke, and sending the soul to God? This was the result of protracted tortures also: yet who could be found able to resist such cruel and continued torments? Many failed: those, I believe, who presumed upon themselves, who dwelt not under the defence of the Most High, and under the shadow of the God of Heaven; who said not to the Lord, "Thou art my lifter up:" who trusted not beneath the shadow of His wings, but reposed much confidence in their own strength. They are thrown down by God, to show them that it is He that protects them, He overrules their temptations, He allows so much only to befall them, as each person can sustain.
9. Many then fell before the demon of the noon-day. Would ye know how many? He goes on, and says, "A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee" (verse 7). To whom, brethren, but to Christ Jesus, is this said? ... For the members, the body, and the head, are not separate from one another: the body and the head are the Church and her Saviour. How then is it said," A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand by thy right hand"? Because they shall fall before the devil, that destroyeth at noon. It is a terrible thing, my brethren, to fall from beside Christ, from His right hand but how shall they fall from beside Him? Why the one beside Him, the other at His right hand? Why a thousand beside Him, ten thousand at His right hand? Why a thousand beside Him? Because a thousand are fewer than the ten thousand who shall fall at His right hand. Who these are will soon be clear in Christ's name; for to some He promised that they should judge with Him, namely, to the Apostles, who left all things, and followed Him. ... Those judges then are the heads of the Church, the perfect. To such He said, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor."(1) What means the expression, "if thou wilt be perfect"? it means, if thou wilt judge with Me, and not be judged. ...Many such at that period, who had distributed their all to the poor, and already promised themselves a seat beside Christ in judgment of the nations, failed amid their torments under the blazing fire of persecution, as before the demon of the noon-day, and denied Christ. These are they who have fallen "beside" Him: when about to sit with Christ for the judgment of the world, they fell.
10. I will now explain who are they who fall on the right hand of Christ. ... And because many have fallen from that hope of being judges, but yet many, many more from that of being on His right hand, the Psalmist thus addresses Christ, "A thousand shall fall beside Thee, and ten thousand at Thy right hand." And since there shall be many, who regarded not all these things, with whom, as it were with His own limbs, Christ is one, he adds, "But it shall not come nigh Thee." Were these words addressed to the Head alone? Surely not; surely neither (doth it come nigh) to Paul, nor Peter, nor all the Apostles, nor all the Martyrs, who failed not in their torments. What then do the words," it shall not come nigh," mean? Why were they thus tortured? The torture came nigh the flesh, but it did not reach the region of faith. Their faith then was far beyond the reach of the terrors threatened by their torturers. Let them torture, terror will not come nigh; let them torture, but they will mock the torture, putting their trust in Him who conquered before them, that the rest might conquer. And who conquer, except they who trust not in themselves? ... Who will not fear? He who trusts not in himself, but in Christ. But those who trust in themselves, although they even hope to judge at the side of Christ, although they hoped they should be at His right hand, as if He said to them, "Come, ye blessed of My Father," etc.; yet the devil that is at noon overtook them, the raging heat of persecution, terrifying with violence; and many fell from the hope of the seat of judgment, of whom it is said, "A thousand shall fall beside thee;" many too fell from the hope of reward for their duties,(2) of whom it was said, "And ten thousand at thy right hand." But this downfall and devil that is at noon-day "shall not come nigh thee," that is, the Head and the body; for the Lord knows who are His.(3)
11. "Nevertheless, with thine eyes shall thou behold, and see the reward of the ungodly" (verse 8). What is this? Why "nevertheless"? Because the wicked were allowed to tyrannize over Thy servants, and to persecute them. Will they then have been allowed to persecute Thy servants with impunity? Not with impunity, for although Thou hast permitted them, and Thine own have thence received a brighter crown, "nevertheless," etc. For the evil which they willed, not the good they unconsciously were the agents of, will be recompensed them. All that is wanting is the eye of faith, by which we may see that they are raised for a time only, while they shall mourn for evermore; and to those into whose hands is given temporal power over the servants of God, it shall be said, "Depart into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels."(4) But if every man have but eyes in the sense in which it is said, "With thine eyes shalt thou behold," it is no unimportant thing to look upon the wicked flourishing in this life, and to have an eye to him, to consider what will become of him in the end, if he fail to reform his ways: for those who now would thunder upon others, will afterwards feel the thunderbolt themselves.
12. "For Thou, Lord, art my hope" (verse 9). He has now come to the power Which rescues him from falling by the "downfall and the devil of the noon-day." "For Thou, Lord, art my hope: Thou hast set Thy house of defence very high." What do the words "very high" mean? For many make their house of defence in God a mere refuge from temporal persecution; but the defence of God is on high, and very secret, whither thou mayest fly from the wrath to come. Within "Thou hast set thine house of defence very high. There shall no evil happen unto Thee: neither shall any plague come nigh Thy dwelling" (verse 10).
912 Ps 91,10-16
13. The Holy City is not the Church of this country only, but of the whole world as well: not that of this age only, but from Abel himself down to those who shall to the end be born and believe in Christ, the whole assembly of the Saints, belonging to one city; which city is Christ's body, of which Christ is the Head. There, too, dwell the Angels, who are our fellow-citizens: we toil, because we are as yet pilgrims: while they within that city are awaiting our arrival. Letters have reached us too from that city, apart from which we are wandering: those letters are the Scriptures, which exhort us to live well. Why do I speak of letters only? The King himself descended, and became a path to us in our wanderings: that walking in Him, we may neither stray, nor faint nor fall among robbers, nor be caught in the snares that are set near our path. This character, then, we recognise in the whole Person of Christ, together with the Church. ... He Himself is our Head, He is God, co-equal with the Father, the Word of God, by whom all things were made:(1) but God to create, Man to renew; God to make, Man to restore. Looking upon Him, then, let us hear the Psalm. Listen, beloved. This is the teaching and doctrine of this school, which may enable you to understand, not this Psalm only, but many, if ye keep in mind this rule. Sometimes a Psalm, and all prophecy as well, in speaking of Christ, praises the Head alone, and sometimes from the Head goes to the Body, that is, the Church, and without apparently changing the Person spoken of: because the Head is not separate from the Body, and both are spoken of as one ...
14. What then, my brethren, what is said of our Head? "For Thou, Lord, art my hope," etc. Of this we have spoken, "for He hath given His angels charge over Thee, to keep Thee in all Thy ways" (verse 11). You heard these words but now, when the Gospel was being read; attend therefore. Our Lord, after He was baptized, fasted. Why was He baptized? That we might not scorn to be baptized. For when John said to our Lord, "Comest Thou to me to be baptized? I ought to be baptized by Thee;" and our Lord replied, "Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness;"(2) He wished to fulfil all humility, so that He should be washed, who had no defilement. ... Our Lord, then, was baptized, and after baptism He was tempted; He fasted forty days, a number which has, as I have often mentioned, a deep meaning. All things cannot be explained at once, lest needful time be too much taken up. After forty days He was an hungred. He could have fasted without ever feeling hunger; but then how could He be tempted? or had He not overcome the tempter, how couldest thou learn to struggle with him? He was hungry; and then the tempter said, "If Thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread." Was it a great thing for our Lord Jesus Christ to make bread out of stones, when He satisfied so many thousands with five loaves? He made bread out of nothing. For whence came that quantity of food, which could satisfy so many thousands? The sources of that bread are in the Lord's hands. This is nothing wonderful; for He Himself made out of five loaves bread enough for so many thousands? who also every day out of a few seeds raises up on earth immense harvests. These are the miracles of our Lord: but from their constant operation they are disregarded. What then, my brethren, was it impossible for the Lord to create bread out of stones? He made men even out of stones, in the words of John the Baptist himself, "God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham."(4) Why then did He not so? That he might teach thee how to answer the tempter, so that if thou wast reduced to any straits and the tempter suggested, if thou wast a Christian and belongedst to Christ, would He desert thee now? ... Listen to our Lord: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." Dost thou think the word of God bread? If the Word of God, through which all things were made, was not bread, He would not say, "I am the bread which came down from heaven."(5) Thou hast therefore learnt to answer the tempter, when pressed with hunger.
15. What if he tempt thee in these words: If thou wast a Christian, thou wouldest do miracles, as many Christians have done? Thou, deceived by a wicked suggestion, wouldest tempt the Lord thy God, so as to say to Him, If I am a Christian, and am before Thine eyes, and Thou dost account me at all in the number of Thine own, let me also do something like the many works which Thy Saints have done. Thou hast tempted God, as if thou weft not a Christian, unless thou didst this. Many who desired such things have fallen. For that Simon the sorcerer desired such gifts of the Apostles, when he wished to buy the Holy Spirit for money.(6) He loved the power of working miracles, but loved not the imitation of humility. ... What then, if he tempt thee thus, "work miracles"? that thou mayest not tempt God, what shouldest thou answer? What our Lord answered. The devil said to Him, "Cast Thyself down; for it is written, He shall give His Angels charge concerning Thee," etc. If Thou shalt cast Thyself down, Angels shall receive Thee. And it might indeed, my brethren, happen, if our Lord had cast Himself down, the attending Angels would receive our Lord's flesh; but what does He say to him? "It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God."(1) Thou thinkest Me a man. For the devil came to Him with this view, that he might try whether He were the Son of God. He saw His Flesh; but His might appeared in His works: the Angels had borne witness. He saw that He was mortal, so that he might tempt Him, that by Christ's temptation the Christian might be taught. What then is written? "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." Let us not then tempt the Lord, so as to say, If we belong to Thee, let us work a miracle.
16. Let us return to the words of the Psalm. "They shall bear Thee in their hands, lest at any time Thou hurt Thy foot against a stone" (verse 12). Christ was raised up in the hands of Angels, when He was taken up into heaven: not that, if Angels had not sustained Him, He would have fallen: but because they were attending on their King. Say not, Those who sustained Him are better than He who was sustained. Are then cattle better than men, because they sustain the weakness of men? And we ought not to speak thus either; for if the cattle withdraw their support, their riders fall. But how ought we to speak of it? For it is said even of God, "Heaven is My throne."(2) Because then heaven supports Him, and God sits thereon, is therefore heaven the better? Thus also in this Psalm we may understand it of the service of the Angels: it does not pertain to any infirmity in our Lord, but to the honour they pay, and to their service. ...What the finger of God is, the Gospel explaineth to us; for the finger of God is the Holy Ghost. How do we prove this? Our Lord, when answering those who accused Him of casting out devils in the name of Beelzebub, saith, "If I cast out devils by the Spirit of God;"(3) and another Evangelist, in relating the same saying, saith, "If I with the finger of God cast out devils."(4) What therefore is in one stated clearly, is darkly expressed in another. Thou didst not know what was the finger of God, but another Evangelist explains it by terming it the Spirit of God. The Law then written by the finger of God was given on the fiftieth day after the slaughter of the lamb, and the Holy Ghost descended on the fiftieth day after the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lamb was slain, the Passover was celebrated, the fifty days were completed, and the Law was given. But that Law was to cause fear, not love: but that fear might be changed into love, He who was truly righteous was slain: of whom that lamb whom the Jews were slaying was the type. He arose from the dead: and from the day of our Lord's Passover, as from that of the slaying of the Paschal lamb, fifty days are counted; and the Holy Ghost descended, now in the fulness of love, not in the punishment of fear.(5) Why have I said this? For this then our Lord arose, and was glorified, that He might send His Holy Spirit. And I said long ago that this was so, because His head is in heaven, His feet on earth. If His head is in heaven, His feet on earth; what means our Lord's feet on earth? Our Lord's saints on earth. Who are our Lord's feet? The Apostles sent throughout the whole world. Who are our Lord's feet? All the Evangelists, in whom our Lord travelleth over all nations. ... We need not therefore wonder that our Lord was raised up to heaven by the hands of Angels, that His foot might not dash against a stone: lest those who on earth toiled in His body, while they were travelling over the whole world might become guilty of the Law, He took from them fear, and filled them with love. Through fear Peter thrice denied Him,(6) for he had not yet received the Holy Ghost: afterwards, when he had received the Holy Spirit, he began to preach with confidence. ... Our Lord so dealt with him, as if He said, thrice thou hast denied Me through fear: thrice confess Me through love. With that love and that charity He filled His disciples. Why? Because He hath set His house of defence very high: because when glorified He sent the Holy Ghost, He released the faithful from the guilt of the Law, that His feet might not dash against a stone.
17. "Thou(7) shall go upon the asp and the basilisk; the lion and the dragon shalt thou tread under thy feet" (verse 13). Ye know who the serpent is, and how the Church treadeth upon him, as she is not conquered, because she is on her guard against his cunning. And after what manner he is a lion and a dragon, I believe you know also, beloved. The lion openly rages, the dragon lies secretly in covert: the devil hath each of these forces and powers. When the Martyrs were being slain, it was the raging lion: when heretics are plotting, it is the dragon creeping beneath us. Thou hast conquered the lion; conquer also the dragon: the lion hath not crushed(8) thee, let not the dragon deceive thee. ... A few women in the Church have bodily virginity: but the virginity of the heart all the faithful have. In the very matter of faith he feared that the heart's virginity would be corrupted by the devil: and those who have lost it, are uselessly virgins in their bodies. What does a woman who is corrupt in heart preserve in her body? Thus a Catholic married woman is before a virgin heretic. For the first is not indeed a virgin in her body, but the second has become married in her heart; and married not unto God as her husband, but unto the dragon. But what shall the Church do? The basilisk is the king of serpents, as the devil is the king of wicked spirits.
18. These are the words of God to the Church. "Because he hath set his love in me, therefore will I deliver him" (verse 14). Not only therefore the Head, which now sits in heaven, because He hath set His house of defence very high, to which no evil shall happen, neither shall any plague come nigh His dwelling; but we also who are toiling on earth, and are still living in temptations, whose steps are feared for, lest they fall into snares, may hear the voice of the Lord our God consoling us, and saying to us, "Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him up, because he hath known my name."
19. "He shall call upon me, and I will hear him: yea, I am with him in trouble" (verse 15). Fear not when thou art in trouble, as if the Lord were not with thee. Let faith be with thee, and God is with thee in thy trouble. There are waves on the sea, and thou art tossed in thy bark, because Christ sleepeth. Christ slept in the ship, while the men were perishing.(1) If thy, faith sleep in thy heart, Christ is as it were sleeping in thy ship: because Christ dwelleth in thee through faith, when thou beginnest to be tossed, awake Christ sleeping: rouse up thy faith, and thou shalt be assured that He deserts thee not. But thou thinkest thou art forsaken, because He rescueth thee not when thou thyself dost wish. He delivered the Three Children from the fire?(2) Did He, who did this, desert the Maccabees?(3) God forbid! He delivered both of these: the first bodily, that the faithless might be confounded; the last spiritually, that the faithful might imitate them. "I will deliver him, and bring him to honour."
20. "With length of days will I satisfy him" (verse 16). What is length of days? Eternal life. Brethren, imagine not that length of days is spoken of in the same sense as days are said to be long in summer, short in winter. Hath he such days to give us? That length is one that hath no end, eternal life, that is promised us in long days. And truly, since this sufficeth, with reason he saith, "will I satisfy him." What is long in time, if it hath an end, satisfieth us not: for that reason it should not be even called long. And if we are covetous, we ought to be covetous of eternal life: long for such a life, as hath no end. Lo, a line in which our covetousness may be extended. Dost thou wish money without limit? Long for eternal life without limit. Dost thou wish that thy possession may have no end? Seek for eternal life. "I will show him my salvation." Nor is this, my brethren, to be briefly passed overse "I will show him my salvation:" He means, I will show him Christ Himself. Why? Was He not seen on earth? What great thing hath He to show us? But He did not appear such as we shall see Him. He appeared in that shape in which those who saw Him crucified Him: behold, those who saw Him, crucified Him: we have not seen Him, yet we have believed. They had eyes, have not we? yea, we too have the eyes of the heart: but, as yet we see through faith, not by sight. When will it be sight? When shall we, as the Apostle saith, see Him "face to face"?(4) which God promiseth us as the high reward of all our toils. Whatever thou toilest in, thou toilest for this purpose, that thou mayest see Him. Some great thing it is we are to see, since all our reward is seeing; and our Lord Jesus Christ is that very great sight. He who appeared humble, will Himself appear great, and will rejoice us, as He is even now seen of His Angels. ... Let us love and imitate Him: let us run after his ointments, as is said in the Song of Solomon: "Because of the savour of thy good ointments, we will run after thee."(5) For He came, and gave forth a savour that filled the world. Whence was that fragrance? From heaven. Follow then towards heaven, if thou do not answer(6) falsely when it is said, "Lift up your hearts," lift up your thoughts, your love, your hope: that it may not rot upon the earth. ... "For wherever thy treasure is, there will be thy heart also."(7)
Augustin on Psalms 90