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NPNF1-08. St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms
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Psalm CXX.53935393     Lat. CXIX.

1. The Psalm which we have just heard chanted, and have responded to with our voices, is short, and very profitable. Ye will not long toil in hearing, nor will ye toil fruitlessly in working. For it is, according to the title prefixed to it, “A song of degrees.”53945394     In Greek it is written ‡ναβαθμῶν. Degrees are either of ascent or of descent. But degrees, as they are used in this Psalm, are of ascending…There are therefore both those who ascend and those who descend on that ladder.53955395     Gen. xxviii. 12. Who are they that ascend? They who progress towards the understanding of things spiritual. Who are they that descend? They who, although, as far as men may, they enjoy the comprehension of things spiritual: nevertheless, descend unto the infants, to say to them such things as they can receive, so that, after being nourished with milk, they may become fitted and strong enough to take spiritual meat…

2. When therefore a man hath commenced thus to order his ascent; to speak more plainly, when a Christian hath begun to think of spiritual amendment, he beginneth to suffer the tongues of adversaries. Whoever hath not yet suffered from them, hath not yet made progress; whoever suffereth them not, doth not even endeavour to improve. Doth he wish to know what we mean? Let him at the same time experience what is reported of us. Let him begin to improve, let him begin to wish to ascend, to wish to despise earthly, fragile, temporal objects, to hold worldly happiness for nothing, to think of God alone, not to rejoice in gain, not to pine at losses, to wish even to sell all his substance, and distribute it among the poor, and to follow Christ; let us see how he suffereth the tongues of detractors and of constant opponents, and—a still greater peril—of pretended counsellors, who lead him astray from salvation…He then, who will ascend, first of all prayeth God against these very tongues: for he saith, “When I was in trouble, I called on the Lord; and He heard me” (ver. 1). Why did He hear him? That He might now place him at the steps of ascent.

3. “Deliver my soul, O Lord, from unrighteous lips, and from a deceitful tongue” (ver. 2). What is a deceitful tongue? A treacherous tongue, one that hath the semblance of counsel, and the bane of real mischief. Such are those who say, And wilt thou do this, that nobody doth? Wilt thou be the only Christian?…Some deter by dissuasion, others discourage yet more by their praise. For since such is the life that hath for some time been diffused over the world, so great is the authority of Christ, that not even a pagan ventureth to blame Christ.53965396     [Noteworthy.—C.] He who cannot be censured is read. They cannot contradict Christ, they cannot contradict the Gospel, Christ cannot be censured; the deceitful tongue turneth itself to praise as an hindrance. If thou praisest, exhort. Why dost thou discourage with thy praise?…Thou turnest thyself to another mode of dissuasion, that by false praise thou mayest turn me away from true praise;53975397     [The stratagem of those who glorify Jesus as a man, to deny His true character as Christ.—C.] nay, that by praising Christ thou mayest keep me away from Christ, saying, What is this? Behold these men have done this: thou, perhaps, wilt not be able: thou beginnest to ascend, thou fallest. It seemeth to warn thee: it is the serpent, it is the deceitful tongue, it hath poison. Pray against it, if thou wishest to ascend.

4. And thy Lord saith unto thee, “What shall be given thee, or what shall be set before thee, against the deceitful tongue?” (ver. 3). What shall be given thee, that is, as a weapon to oppose to the deceitful tongue, to guard thyself against the deceitful tongue? “Or what shall be set before thee?” He asketh to try thee: for He will answer His own question. For He answers following up his own inquiry, “even sharp arrows of the Mighty One, with coals that desolate, or that lay waste” (ver. 4). They that desolate, or that lay waste (for it is variously written in different copies), are the same, because by laying waste, as ye may observe, they easily lead unto desolation. What are these coals? First, beloved brethren, understand what are arrows. The “sharp arrows of the Mighty One,” are the words of God…What then are the “coals that lay waste?” It is not enough to plead with words against a deceitful tongue and unrighteous lips: it is not enough to plead with words; we must plead with examples also…The word coals, then, is used to express the examples of many sinners converted to the Lord. Thou hearest men wonder, and say, I knew that man, how addicted he was to drinking, what a villain, what a lover of the circus, or of the amphitheatre, what a cheat: now how he serveth God, how innocent he hath become! Wonder not; he is a live coal. Thou rejoicest that he is alive, whom thou wast mourning as dead. But when thou praisest the living, if thou knowest how to praise, apply him to the dead, that he may be inflamed; whosoever is still slow to follow God, apply to him the coal which was extinguished, and have the arrow of God’s word, and the coal that layeth waste, that thou mayest meet the deceitful tongue and the lying lips.

5. “Alas, that my sojourning is become far off!” (ver. 5). It hath departed far from Thee: my pilgrimage hath become a far one. I have not yet reached that country, where I shall live with no wicked person; I have not yet reached that company of Angels, where I shall not fear offences. But why am I not as yet there? Because sojourning is pilgrimage. He is called a sojourner who dwells in a foreign land, not in his own country. And when is it far off? Sometimes, my brethren, when a man goeth abroad, he liveth among better persons, than he would perhaps live with in his own country: but it is not thus, when we go afar from that heavenly Jerusalem. For a man changeth his country, and this foreign sojourn is sometimes good for him; in travelling he findeth faithful friends, whom he could not find in his own country. He had enemies, so that he was driven from his country; and when he travelled, he found what he had not in his country. Such is not that country Jerusalem, where all are good: whoever travelleth away from thence, is among the evil; nor can he depart from the wicked, save when he shall return to the company of Angels, so as to be where he was before he travelled. There all are righteous and holy, who enjoy the word of God without reading, without letters: for what is written to us through pages,53985398     [See p. 512, note 4, supra.—C.] they perceive there through the Face of God. What a country! A great country indeed, and wretched are the wanderers from that country.

6. But what he saith, “My pilgrimage hath been made distant,” are the words of those, that is, of the Church herself, who toileth on this earth. It is her voice, which crieth out from the ends of the earth in another Psalm, saying, “From the ends of the earth have I cried unto Thee.53995399     Ps. lxi. 2. …Where then doth he groan, and among whom doth he dwell? “I have had my habitation among the tents of Kedar.” Since this is a Hebrew word, beyond doubt ye have not understood it. What meaneth, “I have had my habitation among the tents of Kedar”? “Kedar,” as far as we remember of the interpretation of Hebrew words, signifieth darkness. “Kedar” rendered into Latin is called tenebræ. Now ye know that Abraham had two sons, whom indeed the Apostle mentioneth, 54005400     Gal. iv. 22, etc. and declareth them to have been types of the two covenants…Ishmael therefore was in darkness, Isaac in light. Whoever here also seek earthly felicity in the Church, from God, shall belong to Ishmael. These are the very persons who gainsay the spiritual ones who are progressing, and detract from them, and have deceitful tongues and unrighteous lips. Against these the Psalmist, when ascending, prayed, and hot coals that lay waste, and swift and sharp arrows of the Mighty One, were given him for his defence. For among these he still liveth, until the whole floor be winnowed: he therefore said, “I have dwelt among the tents of Kedar.” The tents of Ishmael are called those of Kedar. Thus the book of Genesis hath it: thus it hath, that Kedar belongeth unto Ishmael.54015401     Gen. xxv. 13. Isaac therefore is with Ishmael: that is, they who belong unto Isaac, live among those who belong unto Ishmael.54025402     Gal. iv. 29. These wish to rise above, those wish to press them downwards: these wish to fly unto God, those endeavour to pluck their wings…

7. “My soul hath wandered much” (ver. 6). Lest thou shouldest understand bodily wandering, he hath said that the soul wandered. The body wandereth in places, the soul wandereth in its affections. If thou love the earth, thou wanderest from God: if thou lovest God, thou risest unto God. Let us be exercised in the love of God, and of our neighbour, that we may return unto charity. If we fall towards the earth, we wither and decay. But one descended unto this one who had fallen, in order that he might arise. Speaking of the time of his wandering, he said that he wandered in the tents of Kedar. Wherefore? Because “my soul hath wandered much.” He wandereth there where he ascendeth. He wandereth not in the body, he riseth not in the body. But wherein doth he ascend? “The ascent,” he saith, “is in the heart.”54035403     Ps. lxxxiv. 5.

8. “With them that hated peace, I was peaceful” (ver. 7). But howsoever ye may hear, most beloved brethren, ye will not be able to prove how truly ye sing, unless ye have begun to do that which ye sing. How much soever I say this, in whatsoever ways I may expound it, in whatsoever words I may turn it, it entereth not into the heart of him in whom its operation is not. Begin to act, and see what we speak. Then tears flow forth at each word, then the Psalm is sung, and the heart doeth what is sung in the Psalm…Who are they who hate peace? They who tear asunder unity. For had they not hated peace, they would have abode in unity. But they separated themselves, forsooth on this account, that they might be righteous, that they might not have the ungodly mixed with them. These words are either ours or theirs: decide whose. The Catholic Church saith, Unity must not be lost, the Church of God must not be cut off.54045404     [Unity on Nicene Constitutions, not those of the Decretals. Augustin himself, to maintain unity, refused communion with the See of Rome, and died in that position.—C.] God will judge afterwards of the wicked and the good…This we also say: Love ye peace, love ye Christ. For if they love peace, they love Christ. When therefore we say, Love ye peace, we say this, Love ye Christ. Wherefore? For the Apostle saith of Christ, “He is our peace, who hath made both one.”54055405     Eph. ii. 14. If Christ is therefore peace, because He hath made both one: why have ye made two of one? How then are ye peace-makers, if, when Christ maketh one of two, ye make two of one? But since we say these things, we are peace-makers with them that hate peace; and yet they who hate peace, when we spake to them, made war on us for nought.


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