Background. A lament with political overtones, maybe from a king, focused on the “nations” (goyim) that are creating problems for “the city” of the Hebrews. It may be imagined that a restive population of “pagan” tribes subordinate to the Hebrews and dwelling in their midst is creating problems, perhaps insisting on calling out to its gods at night when it is difficult to locate and identify. Whoever they are, they return “howling like dogs and prowl about the city.” It is seen as a harassment stemming from open hostility.
It is in that context that the psalmist calls for a unique “punishment:” do not exterminate them (extermination was the standard treatment) or the Hebrews will forget what is was to live among enemies. Rather keep them alive in a state of wretchedness and impotence as a standing display of Yahweh’s power for the encouragement of the Hebrews and a constant warning to the subject tribes to remember their place.
Verses 11 to 13 contain the psalmist’s poetic call for Israel’s enemies to be punished in a way that would maximize its display value and Yahweh’s universal power. Do not kill them, the Hebrew poet says, let the consequences of their defeat remain visible as a standing manifestation of Yahweh’s supremacy. Augustine applied that literally to the Jews of his own time.
Reflection. Augustine’s elaboration of this theological fiction, like many of his fantasies, is conditioned by his belief in the divine destiny of the Roman Empire. It can be found in his Commentary On The Psalms. His remarks on these two verses of psalm 59 are extensive, verbose and convoluted. In summary they clearly illustrate: (1) Augustine’s insistence on identifying the Jews of his day with the Jews at the time of Christ who were instrumental in his death, (2) his claim that the mark of Cain mentioned in Genesis applies to all the Jews, implying contemporary Jews are “Christ-killers” by symbolic extension. It is that mark, he says, that makes the Jews stand out uniquely among all people as not being Romans. (3) His unwarranted identification of the hypocritical Pharisees in Matthew 23 with all contemporary Jews, and (4) the clear implication that Jews are to be kept alive as examples of punishment and failure, vitiates any claim that he held that mercy should dictate Christian policy toward the Jews in the Roman Empire.
Augustine’s injunction about the treatment of the Jews is used again in his Adversus Judaeos Tractatus, a 5,000 word piece that is usually omitted from collections of his writings, listed as PL-42 in the official collection of Latin Fathers. But psalms 44, 49, 68, and 79 are also each cited numerous times and played a major role in that exposition. Together with his unambiguous condemnation of the Jews in the City of God, the Tractatus makes it quite clear that the “policy” of not killing Jews based on verses 11 to 13 of psalm 59 was a theological justification for a vengeful and punitive segregation. It must also be acknowledged that its concurrence with the punitive and sadistic intention of the original Hebrew psalmist is spot on.
In the Tractatus Augustine says quite directly in two places “you,” referring to his contemporary existing Jews, “occidistis Christum in parentibus vestris.” — “You killed Christ in [the actions of] your parents.” Calling present day Jews “Christ-killers” as he does here, cannot square with historian Paula Fredricksen’s claim stated in the subtitle of her 2010 book, Augustine and the Jews, that Augustine’s “theology” derived from psalm 59 amounted to a “Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism.” His intentions were clearly vindictive and sadistic as he projected the future necessarily observable misery of the Jews as a real positive and desirable instrument in the promotion and supremacy of Christianity.
Augustine’s lame attempt to cite the “mercy” of God by saying “do not slay them,” while at the same time encouraging Jewish impoverishment and segregation as “Christ-killers,” was, predictably, ineffective. Pogroms of the Jews occurred with increasing frequency and intensity as Christendom became more self-consciously ascendant through the middle ages. Church-sanctioned violence against “infidels” during the crusades unleashed a pent-up Christian hatred of the Jews that showed that ordinary Christians had not even heard of Augustine’s theory. Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons in 1146 calling for Christians to slaughter Muslim infidels who despised Christ, and simultaneously to not kill Jews based on Augustine’s reading of psalm 59 fell on deaf ears. People were unable to fathom the difference, and pogroms continued despite his efforts.
This is abhorrent. Augustine’s religious fantasies here as elsewhere were completely dominated by his more fundamental belief in the providential role of the Roman Empire, and the Roman obsession with control and punishment for non-compliance. We can do nothing but forcefully condemn such sadistic attitudes — seeing positive advantage in another’s suffering — clearly enunciated by the Hebrew poet, accurately identified by Augustine’s reading of the poem and reinforced as an acceptable and even laudatory sentiment by his “Christian” application of it to the Jews. Augustine’s treatment, citing the psalms over and over, is tantamount to saying: this is God’s will, confirmed in scripture and embedded in the psalms, the prayer life of the Church, the earthly embodiment of the risen Christ, which sings these psalms as its daily and continuous conversation with the Father. It is claiming this is what Christ wants, in blatant contradiction to what Jesus himself was recorded as saying on the cross: Father, forgive them, they know not what they do. Augustine’s ability to disregard the mind and spirit of Jesus’ message is not unique to the “Jewish issue.” His characterization of the Father’s rage at the insult of Original Sin completely contradicts Jesus’ image of the Father in the parable of the prodigal son. This anomaly is found throughout his theology. Its frequency and consistency is such that it may provide an interpretive clue for understanding opaque sections of Augustine’s thought: when in doubt about what he means, assume a punitive imperialist mindset.
The problems presented by this psalm are another reminder of what we are dealing with in this exercise. The psalms are not for us, as they were for Augustine, sacred words that come from the mouth of God, or even vehicles of trustworthy religious sentiments discovered by our forebears and passed on to us in poetry. The psalms, besides their primitive assumptions about divine intervention in history, in many cases call for responses that are simply beyond the pale of human decency and morality as we understand it. They cannot be used by people attempting to conform their attitudes and behavior to norms urged by Jesus and Buddha. We are forced to wrestle with the psalms for only one reason: they have been used since time immemorial to define and intensify the religious sentiments that supported our culture and civilization. They were powerful influences in our formation, and if we are going to transform ourselves we have to reconfigure the psalms in accordance. We go through them thoroughly and critique them without remorse, identifying and condemning attitudes and sentiments that we know now are inconsistent with our moral and spiritual values. Psalm 59 as interpreted by Augustine will deform and dehumanize anyone who uses it as prayer to guide and habituate a spiritual attitude. The process applies to all the psalms. The psalms must be wrested from their theocratic and self-serving tribal matrix and re-conceived in a way that conforms to our values. If that is not possible, they must be discarded. At the end of the day we must remind ourselves we are dealing with ancient tribal literature, not the revealed word of “God,” and prayer originates in the human heart, not from a printed page.
1 Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; protect me from those who rise up against me.
2 Deliver me from those who work evil; from the bloodthirsty save me.
3 Even now they lie in wait for my life; the mighty stir up strife against me. For no transgression or sin of mine, O LORD,
4 for no fault of mine, they run and make ready. Rouse yourself, come to my help and see!
5 You, LORD God of hosts, are God of Israel. Awake to punish all the nations; spare none of those who treacherously plot evil.
6 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.
7 There they are, bellowing with their mouths, with sharp words on their lips — for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?”
Analogously, for us, the “nations” who worship “false gods” are our own selfish proclivities that urge us to give our disciplined service to something other than LIFE. We dedicate ourselves to our own self-aggrandizement: the conspicuous accumulation of goods that identifies the respectable member of society; the pursuit of career recognition in the amassing of credentials, titles, achievements, and a level of remuneration that, delusional as it is, is considered an expression of personal worth. This is not even to speak of the grosser “gods” of physical gratification and display to which even those disciplined to ego-enhancement continue to maintain a surreptitious relationship. “Who will hear us? Who will condemn us”? since everyone is doing the same thing … no one dedicates their lives to LIFE, so there is no one who can even recognize the immensity of the breach.
They howl to satisfy their unfulfilled needs. They prowl at night, robbing us of sleep, our fantasies are filled with them: remorse for lost opportunities, imagined betrayals, beginning with our parents, that kept us from achieving the divinity we yearn for, the ego-surrogate for the LIFE we refuse to acknowledge and serve as our true selves.
But LIFE still resides deep within us. The real self, buried beneath the layers of pathetic fantasy may be muffled, but it is not mute. We can hear its voice — our own voice — quietly laughing at the debris that remains of our pointless efforts to replace it by building a “self” that doesn’t exist.
8 But you laugh at them, O LORD; you hold all the nations in derision.
9 O my strength, I will watch for you; for you, O God, are my fortress.
10 My God in his steadfast love will meet me; my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies.
11 Do not kill them, or my people may forget; make them totter by your power, and bring them down, O Lord, our shield.
12 For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter,
13 consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob.
These “gods” are liars, howling about our emptiness as if we had it in our power to fill it by satisfying selfish desires. It can’t be done. When I think of the damage they have caused, my head swirls with fantasies of retaliation. But then I realize, it is this false self — me — that I want to punish; for these “gods” are not other than myself. No, the solution is to stop building a replacement for what already exists in all its pristine perfection, the Self that is my LIFE. The solution is to stop serving my false self and serve LIFE. The Buddha saw it and said it very clearly:
But now, I have seen you, housebuilder; you shall not build this house again. All its rafters are broken, its roof is shattered; the mind has attained the extinction of all selfish desires. (Dhammapada XI: 154)
14 Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city.
15 They roam about for food, and growl if they do not get their fill.
16 But I will sing of your might; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been a fortress for me and a refuge in the day of my distress.
17 O my strength, I will sing praises to you, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love.
Background. A national lament after a military defeat. It might be taken as a royal complaint that Yahweh permitted Judah’s defeat. Murphy (The Jerome Biblical Commentary) conjectures the battle in question may have been with the Edomites and failed to take their fortified city, Bozrah. An ancient oracle is restated (vv. 6,7,8) that confirms Yahweh’s dominion over all of Palestine and Transjordan. Murphy cites another commentator who gives a possible date around 720 bce seeing allusions to the conquest of Northern Israel by the Assyrians in a campaign that occasioned an Edomite uprising. At any rate the king’s complaint that Yahweh is not upholding his side of the contract is unambiguous. A war god that does not provide victory is quickly changed for one that will. Amos and Hosea’s complaint about the recrudescence of B’aal worship in this era correlates with this possibility.
Reflection. Yahweh was a tribal war god. LIFE is not. We can file no complaint when we fail to defeat our enemies, because they are, in fact, ourselves. The LIFE that makes possible my behavior in the world among my fellow humans provides the possibility of true moral action. That is a guarantee. What it does not promise is that our efforts to replace our natural selves with another one, concocted out of figments of our imagination, and designed to re-invent our selves as lords over others, will work. It does not because it cannot promise the impossible. That imaginary “self,” artificially constructed out of imaginary elements in order to achieve an imaginary superiority, will last exactly as long as the conjurer’s art can make others believe it is real. And that sleight-of-hand is difficult to pull off because the magician himself knows what a fraud he really is. The mirage will last until the first attempt at drinking real water by someone really thirsty reveals that there is nothing there but desert sand. To drink real water that sustains LIFE, you’ve got to go to your real self, LIFE itself, the sustaining core of your own being. Tap that well, serve that master, and you cannot fail to live.
1 O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; now restore us!
2 You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, it is tottering.
3 You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel.
LIFE has not failed us, we have failed LIFE by seeking to project ourselves over others when our real job was to serve them. Forcing what was never meant to be has left us staggering, exhausted and directionless.
4 You have set up a banner for those who fear you, to rally to it out of bowshot.
5 Give victory with your right hand, and answer us, so that those whom you love may be rescued.
6 God has promised in his sanctuary:
“With exultation I will divide up Shechem, and portion out the Vale of Succoth.
7 Gilead is mine, and Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is my helmet; Judah is my scepter.
8 Moab is my washbasin; on Edom I hurl my shoe; over Philistia I shout in triumph.”
The promises of LIFE are infallible and its potential is unlimited. Even now leaders and heroes abound who would gather us together to make another attempt at conquering our false selves, usurpers installed by our own treachery in the place of LIFE. Ourselves … this is territory we were meant to conquer for LIFE. It is our destiny. It is ours by right of birth.
9 Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom?
10 Have you not rejected us, O God? You do not go out, O God, with our armies.
It’s no use whining … trying to lay the blame on someone else. There is no one else. By ourselves we have created this selfish vortex and set it spinning in the world; and by ourselves we can re-capture and train it to selfless service. For help we can call on LIFE, our real self.
11 O grant us help against the foe, for human help is worthless.
12 With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.