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NPNF1-08. St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms
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Psalm CXXIV.54605460     Lat. CXXIII. A sermon to the people.

1. Ye already well know, dearest brethren, that a “Song of Degrees,” is a song of our ascent: and that this ascent is not effected by the feet of the body, but by the affections of the heart. This we have repeatedly reminded you of: and we need not repeat it too often, that there may be room for saying what hath not yet been said. This Psalm, therefore, which ye have now heard sung for you,54615461     [“Unto you,” in Oxford ed., which is not necessarily the sense of the original: quem nunc vobis cantatum audistis.—C.] is inscribed, “A Song of Degrees.” This is its title. They sing therefore while ascending: and sometimes as it were one man singeth, sometimes as it were many; because many are one, since Christ is One, and in Christ the members of Christ constitute one with Christ, and the Head of all these members is in heaven. But although the body toileth on earth, it is not cut off from its Head; for the Head looketh down from above, and regardeth the body. 54625462     Acts ix. 4. …Whether therefore one or many sing; many men are one man, because it is unity; and Christ, as we have said, is One, and all Christians are members of Christ.

2. …Certain members indeed of that body of which we also are, which can sing in truth, have gone before us. And this the holy Martyrs have sung: for they have already escaped, and are with Christ in joy about to receive at last incorruptible bodies, the very same which were at first corruptible, wherein they have suffered pains; of the same there will be made for them ornaments of righteousness. Therefore whether they in reality, or we in hope, joining our affections with their crowns, and longing for such a life as we have not here, and shall never gain unless we have longed for it here, let us all sing together, and say, “If the Lord Himself had not been in us.”…

3. “If the Lord Himself had not been in us, now may Israel say” (ver. 1)…When? “When men rose up against us” (ver. 2). Marvel not: they have been subdued: for they were men; but the Lord was in us, man was not in us: for men rose up against us. Nevertheless men would crush other men, unless in those men who could not be crushed, there were not man, but the Lord. For what could men do to you, while ye rejoiced, and sang, and securely held everlasting bliss? what could men do to you when they rose against you, if the Lord had not been on your side? what could they do? “Perchance they had swallowed us up quick” (ver. 3). “Swallowed us up:”54635463     [i.e., alive: vivos absorbuissent.—C.] they would not first have slain us, and so have swallowed us up. O inhuman, O cruel men! The Church swalloweth not thus.54645464     [Compare Ps. xxxv. 25, p. 86, supra.—C.] To Peter it was said, “Kill and eat:”54655465     Acts x. 13. not, Swallow quick. Because no man entereth into the body of the Church, save he be slain first.54665466     [“Ye are dead,” Col. iii. 3.—C.] What he was dieth, that he may be what he was not. Otherwise, he who is not slain, and is not eaten by the Church, may be in the visible number of the people: but he cannot be in the number of the people which is known to God, whereof the Apostle saith, “The Lord knoweth who are His,”54675467     2 Tim. ii. 19. save he be eaten; and eaten he cannot be, save he first be slain. The Pagan cometh, still in him idolatry liveth; he must be grafted among the members of Christ: that he may be engrafted, he must needs be eaten; but he cannot be eaten by the Church, save first he be slain. Let him renounce the world, then is he slain; let him believe in God, then is he eaten…But they in whom the Lord is, are slain and die not. But they who consent54685468     [i.e., to sacrifice to idols.—C.] and live, are swallowed quick, when swallowed up they die. But they who have suffered, and have not yielded to tribulations, rejoice and say, “If the Lord had not been in us,” etc.

4. …“When their fury was enraged upon us.” They are now in anger, they now openly rage: “perchance the water had drowned us” (ver. 4). By water he meaneth ungodly nations: and we shall see what sort of water in the following verses. Whoever had consented unto them, water would have overwhelmed him. For he would die by the death of the Egyptians, he would not pass through after the example of the Israelites. For ye know, brethren, that the people of Israel passed through the water, by which the Egyptians were overwhelmed.54695469     Exod. xiv. 22–29. But what sort of water is this? It is a torrent, it flows with violence, but it will pass by…Hence He, our Head, first drinketh, of whom it is said in the Psalms, “He shall drink of the torrent in the way: therefore shall He lift up His head.” For our Head is already exalted, because He drank of the torrent by the way; for our Lord hath suffered. If therefore our Head hath been already raised up, why doth the body fear the torrent? Without doubt, because the Head hath been raised, the body also will say hereafter, “Our soul hath passed over the torrent. Perhaps our soul hath passed over the water without substance” (ver. 5). Behold, what sort of water he was speaking of, “The water perchance had overwhelmed us.” But what meaneth, “without substance”?

5. In the first place, what meaneth,54705470     Gesenius, Monum. Phœn. p. 390, thinks both may be from the first root, signifying “difficulty;” or the latter possibly=ארְיַ, ארֶי” “let one see.” [Our author says: “The Latin interpreters have thus rendered as far as they were able the Greek word ˆρα. For thus the Greek copies have it; ˆρα: and as it is an expression of doubt, it is rendered by an expression of doubt, the word ‘perchance’ (fortasse): but this is not the exact sense. We may express this Greek word by one not so Latin in its use, but adapted to your comprehension. The Punic word, iar, I mean not that which signifieth a wood, but the expression of doubt, is the Greek ˆρα. This the Latins may or usually do express by Putas: as in this instance, Dost thou think (putas) I have escaped this? If we say, Perchance I have escaped, ye see that it hath not this meaning: but the word, Thinkest thou, is commonly used: but not in Latin in this sense. Although I may use it, when expounding to you; for I often use words that are not Latin, that ye may understand. But in Scripture this could not be used, because it was not Latin; and as Latin failed, that was used for it which had not this meaning.”—C.] “Perchance our soul hath passed over”? (ver. 5). Understand however the meaning to be this: “Thinkest thou our soul hath passed over?” and why do they say, “Thinkest thou”? Because the greatness of the danger maketh it hardly credible that he hath escaped. They have endured a great death: they have been in great dangers; they have been so much oppressed, that they almost gave consent while alive, and were all but swallowed up alive: now therefore that they have escaped, now that they are secure, but still remember the danger, the great danger, say, “Thinkest thou our soul hath passed over the water without substance?”

6. What is the water without substance, save the water of sins without substance? For sins have not substance: they have destitution, not substance; they have want, not substance. In that water without substance, the younger son lost the whole of his substance…Dost thou wish to see how the water is without substance? Take away with thee to the world below what thou hast acquired: what wilt thou do? Thou hast acquired gold: thou hast lost thy faith: after a few days thou leavest this life; thou canst not take away with thee the gold thou hast acquired by the loss of thy good faith; thy heart, destitute of faith, goeth forth into punishment—thy heart, which if full of faith, would go forth unto a crown. Behold, what thou hast done is nothing: and thou hast offended God for nothing.

7. Men hear that common proverb; and the proverbs of God slumber in them. What proverb? “Better in hand than in hope.”54715471     Malo quod teneo, quam quod spero. [Eng. “A bird in the hand,” etc.—C.] Unhappy man, what hast thou in hand? Thou sayest, “Better in hand.” Hold it so as not to lose it, and then say, “Better in hand.” But if thou holdest it not, why dost thou not hold fast that which thou canst not lose? What then hast thou in hand? Gold. Keep it in hand, therefore: if thou hast it in hand, let it not be taken away without thy consent. But if through gold also thou art carried where thou wishest not, and if a more powerful robber seeketh thee, because he findeth thee a less powerful robber; if a stronger eagle pursue thee, because thou hast carried off a hare before him: the lesser was thy prey, thou wilt be a prey unto the greater. Men see not these things in human affairs: by so much avarice are they blinded…

8. Let them escape the water without substance, and say, “Blessed be the Lord, who hath not given us over for a prey unto their teeth” (ver. 6). For the hunters were following, and had placed a bait in their trap. What bait? The sweetness of this life, so that each man for the sake of the sweetness of this life may thrust his head into iniquity, and be caught in the trap. Not they, in whom the Lord was, they who say, “If the Lord Himself had not been in us;” they have not been taken in the trap. Let the Lord be in thee, and thou wilt not be taken in the trap.

9. “Our soul is escaped, even as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers” (ver. 7). Because the Lord was in the soul itself, therefore hath that soul escaped, even as a bird out of the snare of the fowler. Why like a bird? Because it had fallen heedlessly, like a bird; and it could say afterwards, God will forgive me. Unstable bird, rather set thy feet firm upon the rock: go not into the trap. Thou wilt be taken, consumed, crushed. Let the Lord be in thee, and He will deliver thee from greater threats, from the snare of the fowlers. As if thou wert to see a bird about to fall into a snare, thou makest a greater noise that it may fly away from the net; so also, when perhaps some even of the Martyrs were stretching out their neck after the enjoyment of this life, the Lord, who was in them, made the noise of hell, and the bird was delivered from the snare of the fowlers. The snare was the sweetness of this life: they were not entangled in the snare, and were slain; by their slaughter the net was broken; no longer did the sweetness of this life remain, that they might again be entangled by it, but it was crushed. Was the bird also crushed? Far be it! for it was not in the snare: “The snare is broken, and we are delivered.”

10. …“Our help standeth in the Name of the Lord, who hath made heaven and earth” (ver. 8). For if this were not our help, the snare would not indeed remain for ever; but when the bird was once taken, it would be crushed. For this life will pass away; and they who shall have been taken in by its pleasures, and through these pleasures have offended God, will pass away with this life. For the snare will be broken; be ye assured of this: all the sweetness of this present life will no longer exist, when the lot assigned to it hath been fulfilled; but we must not be enthralled by it, so that when the net is broken, thou mayest then rejoice and say, “The snare is broken, and we are delivered.” But lest thou think that thou canst do this of thy own strength, consider whose work thy deliverance is (for if thou art proud, thou fallest into the snare), and say, “Our help standeth in the Name of the Lord, who hath made heaven and earth.”…


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