Early Church Fathers
1. This Psalm is addressed "to the sons of Korah," as its title shows. Now Korah is equivalent to the word baldness; and we find in the Gospel that our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified in "the place of a skull." It is clear then that this Psalm is sung to the "sons of His `Passion.'" Now we have on this point a most certain and most evident testimony from the Apostle Paul; because that at the time when the Church was suffering under the persecutions of the Gentiles, he quoted from hence a verse, to insert by way of consolation, and encouragement to patience. For that which he inserted in his Epistle, is said here: "For Thy sake are we killed all the day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter." Let us then hear in this Psalm the voice of the Martyrs; and see how good is the cause which the voice of the Martyrs pleads, saying, For Thy sake, etc. ...
2. The title then is not simply "To the sons of Korah," but, "For understanding, to the sons of Korah." This is the case also with that Psalm, the first verse of which the Lord Himself uttered on the Cross: "My God, My God, look upon Me; why hast Thou forsaken Me?" For "transferring us in a figure" to what He was saying, and to His own Body (for we are also "His Body," and He is our "Head"), He uttered from the Cross not His own cry, but ours. For God never "forsook" Him: nor did He Himself ever depart from the Father; but it was in behalf of us that He spake this: "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?" For there follows, "Far from My health are the words of My offences:" and it shows in whose person He said this; for sin could not be found in Him. ...
3. "O God, we have heard with our ears; our fathers have told us the work that Thou didst in their days, and in the days of old" (ver. 1). Wondering wherefore, in these days, He has seemingly forsaken those whom it was His will to exercise in sufferings, they recall the past events which they have heard of from their fathers; as if they said, It is not of these things that we suffer, that our fathers told us! For in that other Psalm also, He said this, "Our fathers trusted in Thee; they trusted, and Thou didst deliver them. But I am a worm and no man; a reproach of men, and the outcast of the people." They trusted, and Thou didst deliver them; have I then hoped, and hast Thou forsaken me? And have I believed upon Thee in vain? And is it in vain that my name has been written in Thy Book, and Thy name has been inscribed on me? What our fathers told us was this:
"Thy hand destroyed the nations; and Thou plantedst them: Thou didst weaken the peoples, and cast them out" (ver. 2). That is to say: "Thou didst drive out 'the peoples' from their own land, that Thou mightest bring 'them' in, and plant them; and mightest by Thy mercy stablish their kingdom." These are the things that we heard from our fathers. But perhaps it was because they were brave, were men of battle, were invincible, were well-disciplined, and warlike, that they could do these things. Far from it. This is not what our fathers told us; this is not what is contained in Scripture. But what does it say, but what follows?
"For they gat not the land in possession by their own sword, neither did their own arm save them; but Thy right hand, and Thine arm, and the light of Thy countenance" (ver. 3). Thy "right hand" is Thy Power: Thine "arm" is Thy Son Himself. And "the light of Thy countenance." What means this, but that Thou wert present with them, in miracles of such a sort that Thy presence was perceived. For when God's presence with us appears by any miracle, do we see His face with our own eyes? No. It is by the effect of the miracle He intimates to man His presence. In fact, what do all persons say, who express wonder at facts of this description? "I saw God present." "But Thy right hand, and Thine arm, and the light of Thy countenance; because Thou pleasedst in them:" i.e. didst so deal with them, that Thou wert well-pleasing in them: that whoso considered how they were being dealt with, might say, that "God is with them of a truth;" and it is God that moves them.
4. "What? Was He then other than now He is?" Away with the supposition. For what follows?
"Thou art Thyself my King and my God." (ver. 4). "Thou art Thyself;" for Thou art not changed. I see that the times are changed; but the Creator of times is unchanged. "Thou art Thyself my King and my God." Thou art wont to guide me: to govern me, to save me. "Thou who commandest salvation unto Jacob." What is, "Thou who commandest"? Even though in Thine own proper Substance and Nature, in which Thou art whatsoever Thou art, Thou wast hid from them; and though Thou didst not converse with the fathers in that which Thou art in Thyself, so that they could see Thee "face to face," yet by any created being whatsoever "Thou commandest salvation unto Israel." For that sight of Thee "face to face" is reserved for those set free in the Resurrection. And the very "fathers" of the New Testament too, although they saw Thy mysteries revealed, although they preached the secret things so revealed to them, nevertheless said that they themselves saw but "in a glass, darkly," but that "seeing face to face" is reserved to a future time, when what the Apostle himself speaks of shall have come. "When Christ our life shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory." It is against that time then that vision "face to face" is reserved for you, of which John also speaks: "Beloved, we are now the sons of God: and it doth not yet appear what we shall be. We know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is." Although then at that time our fathers saw Thee not as Thou art, "face to face," although that vision is reserved against the resurrection, yet, even though they were Angels who presented themselves, it is Thou, "Who commandest salvation unto Jacob." Thou art not only present by Thine own Self; but by whatsoever created being Thou didst appear, it is Thou that dost "command" by them, that which Thou doest by Thine own Self in order to the salvation of Thy servants: but that which they do whom Thou "commandest" it, is done to procure the salvation of Thy servants. Since then Thou art Thyself "my King and my God, and Thou commandest salvation unto Jacob," wherefore are we suffering these things?
5. But perhaps it is only what is past that has been described to us: but nothing of the kind is to be hoped for by us for the future. Nay indeed, it is still to be hoped for. "Through Thee will we winnow away our enemies" (ver. 5). Our fathers then have declared to us a work that Thou didst "in their days, and in the days of old," that Thy hand destroyed the Gentiles: that Thou "didst cast out the peoples; and didst plant them." Such was the past; but what is to be hereafter? "Through Thee we shall winnow away our enemies." A time will come, when all the enemies of Christians will be winnowed away like chaff, be blown like dust, and be cast off from the earth. ...Thus much of the future. "I will not trust in my bow," even as our fathers did not in "their sword. Neither shall my sword help me" (ver. 6).
6. "For Thou hast saved us from our enemies" (ver. 7). This too is spoken of the future under the figure of the past. But this is the reason that it is spoken of as if it were past, that it is as certain as if it were past. Give heed, wherefore many things are expressed by the Prophets as if they were past; whereas it is things future, not past facts that are the subject of prophecy. For the future Passion of our Lord Himself was foretold: and yet it says, "They pierced My hands and My feet. They told all My bones;" not, "They shall pierce," and "shall tell." "They looked and stared upon Me;" not "They shall look and stare upon Me." "They parted My garments among them." It does not say, "They shall part" them. All these things are expressed as if they were past, although they were yet to come: because to God things to come also are as certain as if they were past. ...It is for this reason, in consequence of their certainty, that those things which are yet future, are spoken of as if past. This it is then that we hope. For it is, "Thou hast saved us from our enemies, and hast put them to shame that hated us."
7. "In God will we boast all the day long" (ver. 8). Observe how he intermingles words expressive of a future time, that you may perceive that what was spoken of before as in past time was foretold of future times. "In God will we boast all day long; and in Thy name will we confess for ever." What is, "We shall boast"? What, "We shall confess"? That Thou hast "saved us from our enemies;" that Thou art to give us an everlasting kingdom: that in us are to be fulfilled the words, "Blessed are they that dwell in Thine house: they will be always praising Thee."
8. Since then we have the certainty that these things are to be hereafter, and since we have heard from our fathers that those we spoke of were in time past, what is our state at present? "But now Thou hast cast us off, and put us to shame" (ver. 9). Thou hast "put us to shame" not before our own consciences, but in the sight of men. For there was a time when Christians were persecuted; when in every place they were outcasts, when in every place it used to be said, "He is a Christian!" as if it conveyed an insult and reproach. Where then is He, "our God, our King," who "commands salvation unto Jacob"? Where is He who did all those works, which "our fathers have told us"? Where is He who is hereafter to do all those things which He revealed unto us by His Spirit? Is He changed? No. These things are done in order to "understanding, for the sons of Korah." For we ought to "understand" something of the reason, why He has willed we should suffer all these things in the mean time. What "all things"? "But now Thou hast cast us off and put us to shame: and goest not forth, O God, in our powers." We go forth to meet our enemies, and Thou goest not forth with us. We see them: they are very strong, and we are without strength. Where is that might of Thine? Where Thy "right hand," and Thy power? Where the sea dried up, and the Egyptian pursuers overwhelmed with the waves? Where Amalek's resistance subdued by the sign of the Cross? "And Thou, O God, goest not forth in our powers."
9. "Thou hast turned us away backward in presence of our enemies" (ver. 10), so that they are, as it were, before; we, behind; they are counted as conquerors, we as conquered. "And they which hate us spoiled for themselves." What did they "spoil" but ourselves?
10. "Thou has given us like sheep appointed for meat, and hast scattered us among the nations" (ver. 11). We have been "devoured" by "the nations." Those persons are meant, who, through their sufferings, have by process of assimilation, becomes part of the "body" of the Gentile world. For the Church mourns over them, as over members of her body, that have been devoured.
11. "Thou hast sold Thy people for no price" (ver. 12). For we see whom Thou hast made over; what Thou hast received, we have not seen. "And there was no multitude in their jubilees." For when the Christians were flying before the pursuit of enemies, who were idolaters, were there then held any congregations and "jubilees" to the honour of God? Were those Hymns chanted in concert from the Churches of God, that are wont to be sung in concert in time of peace, and to be sounded in a sweet accord of the brotherhood in the ears of God?
12. "Thou madest us a reproach to our neighbours; a scorn and a derision to them that are round about us" (ver. 13). "Thou madest us a similitude among the heathen" (ver. 14). What is meant by a "similitude"? It is when men in imprecating a curse make a "similitude" of his name whom they detest. "So mayest thou die;" "So mayest thou be punished!" What a number of such reproaches were then uttered! "So mayest thou be crucified!" Even in the present day there are not wanting enemies of Christ (those very Jews themselves), against whom whensoever we defend Christ, they say unto us, "So mayest thou die as He did." For they would not have inflicted that kind of death had they not an intense horror of dying by such a death: or had they been able to comprehend what mystery was contained in it. When the ointment is applied to the eyes of the blind man, he does not see the eye-salve in the physician's hand. For the very Cross was made for the benefit even of the persecutors themselves. Hereby they were healed afterwards; and they believed in Him whom they themselves had slain. "Thou madest us a similitude among the heathen; a shaking of the head among the peoples," a "shaking of the head" by way of insult. "They spake with their lips, they shook the head." This they did to the Lord: this to all His Saints also, whom they were able to pursue, to lay hold of, to mock, to betray, to afflict, and to slay.
13. "My shame is continually before me; and the confusion of my face has covered me" (ver. 15). "For the voice of him that reproacheth and blasphemeth" (ver. 16): that is to say, from the voice of them that insult over me, and who make it a charge against me that I worship Thee, that I confess Thee! and who make it a charge against me that I bear that name by which all charges against me shall be blotted out. "For the voice of him that reproacheth and blasphemeth," that is, of him that speaketh against me. "By reason of the enemy and the persecutor." And what is the "understanding" conveyed here? Those things which are told us of the time past, will not be done in our case: those which are hoped for, as to be hereafter, are not as yet manifest. Those which are past, as the leading out of Thy people with great glory from Egypt; its deliverance from its persecutors; the guiding of it through the nations, the placing of it in the kingdom, whence the nations had been expelled. What are those to be hereafter? The leading of the people out of this Egypt of the world, when Christ, our "leader" shall appear in His glory: the placing of the Saints at His right hand; of the wicked at His left; the condemnation of the wicked with the devil to eternal punishment; the receiving of a kingdom from Christ with the Saints to last for ever. These are the things that are yet to be: the former are what are past. In the interval, what is to be our lot? Tribulations! "Why so?" That it may be seen with respect to the soul that worships God, to what extent it worships God; that it may be seen whether it worships Him "freely" from whom it received salvation "freely." ...What hast thou given unto God? Thou wert wicked, and thou wert redeemed! What hast thou given unto God? What is there that thou hast not "received" from Him "freely"? With reason is it named "grace," because it is bestowed (gratis, i.e.) freely. What is required of thee then is this, "that thou too shouldest worship "Him freely;" not because He gives thee things temporal, but because He holds out to thee things eternal. ...
14. "All this is come upon us; yet have we not forgotten Thee" (ver. 17). What is meant by, "have not forgotten Thee"? "Neither have we behaved ourselves frowardly in Thy covenant."
"Our heart has not turned back; and Thou hast turned aside our goings out of Thy way" (ver. 18). See here is "understanding," in that "our heart has not gone back;" that we have not "forgotten Thee, have not behaved frowardly in Thy covenant;" placed as we are in great tribulations, and persecutions of the Gentiles. "Thou hast turned aside our goings out of Thy way." Our "goings" were in the pleasures of the world; our "goings" were in the midst of temporal prosperities. Thou hast taken "our goings out of Thy way;" and hast shown us how "strait and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life." What is meant by, "hast turned aside our goings out of Thy way"? It is as if He said, "Ye are placed in the midst of tribulation; ye are suffering many things; ye have already lost many things that ye loved in this life: but I have not abandoned you on the way, the narrow way that I am teaching you. Ye were seeking "broad ways." What do I tell you? This is the way we go to everlasting life; by the way ye wish to walk, ye are going to death. How "broad and wide is the road that leads to destruction: and" how "many there be that find it! How strait and narrow the way that leadeth unto life, and" how "few there be" that walk therein! Who are the few? They who patiently endure tribulations, patiently endure temptations; who in all these troubles do not "fall away:" who do not rejoice in the word "for a season" only; and in the time of tribulation fade away, as on the sun's arising; but who have the "root" of "love," according to what we have lately heard read in the Gospel. ...
15. "For Thou hast brought us low in the place of infirmity" (ver. 18): therefore Thou wilt exalt us in the place of strength. "And the shadow of death has covered us" (ver. 19). For this mortality of ours is but the "shadow" of death. The true death is condemnation with the devil.
16. "If we have forgotten the Name of our God." Here is the "understanding" of the "sons of Korah." "And stretched out our hands to a strange God" (ver. 20). "Shall not God search this out? For He knoweth the secrets of the heart" (ver. 21). He "knows," and yet He "searches them out"? If He knows the secrets of the heart, what do the words, "Shall not God search it out," do there? He "knows" it in Himself; He "searches it out" for our sakes. For it is for this reason God sometimes "searches a thing out;" and speaks of that becoming known to Himself, which He is Himself making known to thee. He is speaking of His own work, not of His knowledge. We commonly say, "A gladsome day," when it is fine. Yet is it the day itself that experiences delight? No: we speak of the day as gladsome, because it fills us with delight. And we speak of a "sullen sky." Not that there is any such feeling in the clouds, but because men are affected with sullenness at the sight of such an appearance of the skies, it is called sullen for this reason, that it makes us sullen. So also God is said to "know" when He causes us to know. God says to Abraham, "Now I know that thou fearest God." Did He then not know it before then? But Abraham did not know himself till then: for it was in that very trial he came to know himself. ...And God is said to "know"that which He had caused him to know. Did Peter know himself, when he said to the Physician, "I will be with Thee even unto death?" The Physician had felt his pulse, and knew what was going on within His patient's soul: the patient knew it not. The crisis of trial came; and the Physician approved the correctness of His opinion: the sick man gave up his presumption. Thus God at once "knows" it and "searches it out." "He knows it already. Why does He `search it out'?" For thy sake: that thou mayest come to know thine own self, and mayest return thanks to Him that made thee. "Shall not God search it out?"
17. "For, for Thy sake we are killed all the day long: we are counted as sheep for the slaughter" (ver. 22). For you may see a man being put to death; you do not know why he is being put to death. God knoweth this. The thing in itself is hid. But some one will say to me, "See, he is detained in prison for the name of Christ, he is a confessor for the name of Christ." Why do not heretics also confess the name of Christ, and yet they do not die for His sake?Nay more; let me say it, in the Catholic Church itself, do you think there either are, or have been wanting persons such as would suffer for the sake of glory among men? Were there no such persons, the Apostle would not say, "Though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing." He knew therefore that there might be some persons, who did this not from "charity," but out of vainglory. It is therefore hid from us; God alone sees this; we cannot see it. He alone can judge of this, who "knoweth the secrets of the heart." "For," for Thy sake "are we killed all the day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter." I have already mentioned that from hence the Apostle Paul had borrowed a text for the encouragement of the Martyrs: that they might not "faint in the tribulations" undergone by them for the name of Christ.
18. "Awake; why sleepest Thou, O Lord?" (ver. 23). Who is addressed, and who is the speaker? Would not he be more correctly said to sleep and slumber, who speaks such words as these? He replies to you, I know what I am saying: I know that "He that keepeth Israel doth not sleep:" but yet the Martyrs cry, "Awake; why sleepest Thou, O Lord?" O Lord Jesus, Thou wast slain; Thou didst "sleep" in Thy Passion; to us Thou hast now "awaked" from sleep. For "we" know that Thou hast now "awaked" again. To what purpose hast Thou awaked and risen again? The Gentiles that persecute us, think Thee to be dead; do not believe Thee to have risen again. "Arise Thou" then to them also! "Why sleepest Thou," though not to us, yet to them? For if they already believed Thee to have risen again, could they persecute us who believe in Thee? But why do they persecute? "Destroy, slay so and so, whoever have believed in Thee, such an one, who died an ill death!" As yet to them "Thou sleepest;" arise to them, that they may perceive that Thou hast "awaked" again; and may be at rest. Lastly, it has come to pass, while the Martyrs die, and say these things; while they sleep, and "awaken" Christ, truly dead in their sleepings, Christ has, in a certain sense, risen again in the Gentiles; i.e. it becomes believed, that He has risen again; so by degrees they themselves, becoming converted to Christ by believing, collected a numerous body: such as the persecutors dreaded; and the persecutions have come to an end. Why? Because Christ, who before was asleep to them, as not believing, bath risen in the Gentiles. "Arise, and cast us not off for ever!"
19. "Wherefore hidest Thou Thy face:" as if Thou wert not present; as if thou hadst forgotten us? "And forgettest our misery and trouble?" (ver. 24).
20. "For our soul is bowed down to the dust" (ver. 25). Where is it bowed down? "To the dust:" i.e. dust persecutes us. They persecute us, of whom Thou hast said, "The ungodly are not so; but are like the dust, which the wind driveth away from the face of the earth." "Our belly hath cleaved to the earth." He seems to me to have expressed the punishment of the extreme of humiliation, in which, when any one prostrates himself, "his belly cleaveth to the earth." For whosoever is humbled so as to be on his knees, has yet a lower degree of humiliation to which he can come: but he who is so humbled, that his "belly cleaveth to the ground," there is no farther humiliation for him. Should one wish to do still farther, it will, after that point, be not bowing him down, but crushing him. Perhaps then he may have meant this We are "bowed down very low" in this dust; there is no farther point to which humiliation can go. Humiliation has now reached its highest point: let mercy then come also. ...
21. "Arise, O Lord, help us" (ver. 26). And indeed, dearly beloved, He has arisen and helped us. For when he awaked (i.e. when He arose again, and became known to the Gentiles) on the cessation of persecutions, even those who had cleaved to the earth were raised up from the earth, and on performing penance, have been restored to Christ's body, feeble and imperfect though they were: so that in them was fulfilled the text, "Thine eyes did see my substance yet being imperfect; and in Thy book shall they all be written."
"Arise, O Lord, help us, and redeem us for Thy Name's sake;" that is to say, freely; for Thy Name's sake, not for the sake of my merits: because Thou hast vouchsafed to do it, not because I am worthy that Thou shouldest do it unto me. For this very thing, that "we have not forgotten Thee;" that "our heart hath not gone back;" that we "have not stretched out our hands to any strange god;" how should we have been able to achieve, except with Thy help? How should we have strength for it, except through Thy appealing to us within, exhorting us, and not forsaking us? Whether then we suffer in tribulations, or rejoice in prosperities, redeem Thou us, not for our merits, but for Thy Name's sake.