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Fathers of the Church

Homily on Psalm 54 [53]


Hilary explains that in this psalm the "suffering of the Prophet David is a type of the Passion of our God and Lord Jesus Christ."


Written sometime after his return from exile, Hilary's numerous works on the Psalms were later asssembled into one work, titled Commentary on the Psalms. Hilary drew heavily on Origen for many of his arguments and analysis, whose works he studied during his years of exile in the East.

by Hilary of Poitiers in 351-367 | translated by H. F. Stewart; Revised By E. W. Watson, M.A

For the end among the hymns, of the meaning of David when the Ziphims came and said Saul: behold, is not David hid with us?

Save me, O God, by Thy name, and judge me by Thy power. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear unto the words of my mouth, and so on.

1. The doctrines of the Gospel were well known to holy and blessed David in his capacity of Prophet, and although it was under the Law that he lived his bodily life, he yet filled, as far as in him lay, the requirements of the Apostolic behest and justified the witness borne to him by God in the words: I have found a man after My own heart, David, the son of Jesse. He did not avenge himself upon his foes by war, he did not oppose force of arms to those that laid wait for him, but after the pattern of the Lord, Whose name and Whose meekness alike he foreshadowed, when he was betrayed he entreated, when he was in danger he sang psalms, when he incurred hatred he rejoiced; and for tills cause he was found a man after God's own heart. For although twelve legions of angels might have come to the help of the Lord in His hour of passion, yet that He might perfectly fulfil His service of humble obedience, He surrendered Himself to suffering and weakness, only praying with the words: Father into Thy hands I commend My spirit. After the same pattern, David, whose actual sufferings prophetically foretold tile future sufferings of the Lord opposed not his enemies either by word or act; in obedience to the command of the Gospel, he would not render evil for evil, in imitation of his Master's meekness, in his affliction, in his betrayal, in his fight, he called upon the Lord and was content to use His weapons only in his contest with the ungodly.

2. Now to this Psalm is prefixed a title arising out of an historical event; but before the event is described we are instructed as to the scope, time and application of the incidents underlying it. First we have: For the end of the meaning of that David. Then there follows: When the Ziphims came and said to Saul: behold, is not David hid with us? Thus David's betrayal by the Ziphims awaits for its interpretation the end. This shews that what was actually being done to David contained a type of something yet to cone; an innocent man is harassed by railing, a prophet is mocked by reviling words, one approved by God is demanded for execution, a king is betrayed to his foe. So the Lord was betrayed to Herod and Pilate by those very men in whose hands He ought to have been safe. The Psalm then awaits the end for its interpretation, and finds its meaning in the true David, in Whom is the end of the Law, that David who holds the keys and opens with them the gate of knowledge, in fulfilling the things foretold of Him by David.

3. The meaning of the proper name, according to the exact sense of the Hebrew, affords us no small assistance in interpreting the passage. Ziphims mean what we call sprinklings of the face; these were called in Hebrew Ziphims. Now, by the Law, sprinkling was a cleansing from sins; it purified the people through faith by the sprinkling of blood, of which this same blessed David thus speaks: Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; the Law, through faith, providing as a temporary substitute, in the blood of whole burnt-offerings, a type of the sprinkling with the blood of the Lord, which was to be. But this people, like the people of the Ziphims, being sprinkled on their lace and not in their faith, and receiving the cleansing drops on their lips and not in their hearts, turned faithless and traitors towards their David, as God had foretold by the Prophet: This people honoureth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. They were ready to betray David because, the faith of their heart being dead, they had performed all the mystical ceremonies of the Law with deceitful face.

4. Save me, O God, by Thy Name, and judge me by Thy power. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear unto the words of my mouth.

The suffering of the Prophet David is, according to the account we have given of the title, a type of the Passion of our God and Lord Jesus Christ. This is why his prayer also corresponds in sense with the prayer of Him Who being the Word was made flesh: in such wise that He Who suffered all things after the manner of man, in everything He said, spoke after the manner of man; and He who bore the infirmities and took on Him the sins of men approached God in prayer with the humility proper to men. This interpretation, even though we be unwilling and slow to receive it, is required by the meaning and force of the words, so that there can be no doubt that everything in the Psalm is uttered by David as His mouthpiece. For he says: Save me O God, by Thy name. Thus prays in bodily humiliation, using the words of His own Prophet, the Only-begotten Son of God, Who at the same time was claiming again the glory which He had possessed before the ages. He asks to be saved by the Name of God whereby He was called and wherein He was begotten, in order that the Name of God which rightly belonged to His former nature and kind might avail to save Him in that body wherein He had been born.

5. And because the whole of this passage is the utterance of One in the form of a servant—of a servant obedient unto the death of the Cross—which He took upon Him and for which He supplicates the saving help of the Name that belongs to God, and being sure of salvation by that Name, He immediately adds: and judge Me by Thy power. For now as the reward for His humility in emptying Himself and assuming the form of a servant, in the same humility in which He had assumed it, He was asking to resume the form which He shared with God, having saved to bear the Name of God that humanity in which as God He had obediently condescended to be born. And in order to teach us that the dignity of this Name whereby He prayed to be saved is something more than an empty title, He prays to be judged by the power of God. For a right award is he essential result of judgment, as the Scripture says: Becoming obedient unto death, yea, the death of the Cross. Wherefore also God highly exalted Him and gave unto Him the name which is above every name. Thus, first of all the name which is above every name is given unto Him; then next, this is a judgment of decisive force, because by the power of God, He, Who after being God had died as man, rose again from death as man to be God, as the Apostle says: He was crucified from weakness, yet He liveth by the power of God, and again: For I am not ashamed of the Gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth. For by the power of the Judgment human weakness is rescued to bear God's name and nature; and thus as the reward for His obedience He is exalted by the power of this judgment unto the saving protection of God's name; whence He possesses both the Name and the Power of God. Again, if the Prophet had begun this utterance in the way men generally speak, he would have asked to be judged by mercy or kindness, not by power. But judgment by power was a necessity in the case of One Who being the Son of Got was born of a virgin to be Son of Man, and Who now being Son of Man was to have the Name and power of the Son of God restored to Him by the power of judgment.

6. Next there follows: Hear my prayer, O God, give ear unto the words of my mouth. The obvious thing for the Prophet to say was, O God, hear me. But because he is speaking as the mouthpiece of Him, Who alone knew how to pray, we are given a constantly reiterated demand that prayer shall be heard. The words of St. Paul teach us that no man knows how he ought to pray: For we know not how to pray as we ought. Man in his weakness, therefore, has no right to demand that his prayer shall be heard: for even the teacher of the Gentiles does not know the true object and scope of prayer, and that, after the Lord had given a model. What we are shewn here is the perfect confidence of Him, Who alone sees the Father, Who alone knows the Father, Who alone can pray the whole night through—the Gospel tells us that the Lord continued all night in prayer—Who in the mirror of words has shewn us the true image of the deepest of all mysteries in the simple words we use in prayer. And so, in making the demand that His prayer should be heard, he added, in order to teach us that this was the prerogative of His perfect confidence: Give ear unto the words of My mouth. Now can any man suppose that it is a human confidence which can thus desire that the words of his mouth should be heard? Those words, for instance, in which we express the motions and instincts of the mind, either when anger inflames us, or hatred moves us to slander, or pain to complaint, when flattery makes us fawn, when hope of gain or shame of the truth begets the lie, or resentment over injury, the insult? Was there ever any man at all points so pure and patient in his life as not to be liable to these failings of human instability? He alone could confidently desire this Who did no sin, in Whose mouth was no deceit, Who gave His back to the smiters, Who turned not His cheek from the blow, Who did not resent scorn and spitting, Who never crossed the will of Him, to Whose Will ordering it all He gave in all points glad obedience.

7. He has next added the reason why He prays for His words to be heard: For strangers are risen up against Me and violent men have sought after My soul; they have not set God before their eyes. The Only-begotten Son of God, the Word of God and God the Word—although assuredly He could Himself do all things that the Father could, as He says: What things soever the Father doeth, the Son also doeth in like manner, while the name describing the divine nature which was His inseparably involved the inseparable possession of divine power,—yet in order that He might present to us a perfect example of human humility, both prayed for and underwent all things that are the lot of man. Sharing in our common weakness He prayed the Father to save Him, so that He might teach us that He was born man under all the conditions of man's infirmity. This is why He was hungry and thirsty, slept and was weary, shunned the assemblies of the ungodly, was sad and wept, suffered and died. And it was in order to make it clear that He was subject to all these conditions, not by His nature, but by assumption, that when He had undergone them all He rose again. Thus all His complaints in the Psalms spring from a mental state belonging to our nature. Nor must it cause surprise if we take the words of the Psalms in this sense, seeing that the Lord Himself testified, if we believe the Gospel, that the Psalms spiritually foretold His Passion.

8. Now they were strangers that rose up against Him. For these are no sons of Abraham, nor sons of God, but a brood of vipers, servants of sin, a Canaanitish seed, their father an Amorite and their mother a daughter of Heth, inheriting diabolical desires from the devil their parent. Further it is the violent that seek after His soul; such as was Herod when he asked the chief priests where Christ should be born, such as was the whole synagogue when it bore false witness against Him. But in deeming this sold to be of human nature and weakness they set not God before their eyes; for God had stooped from that estate wherein He abode as God, even to the beginnings of human birth; that is, He became Son of Man Who before was the Son of God. For the Son of God is none other than He Who is Son of Man, and Son of Man not in partial measure but born so, the Form of God divesting Itself of that which It was and becoming that which It was not, that so It might be born into a soul and body of Its own. Hence He is both Son of God and Son of Man, hence both God and Man: in other words the Son of God was born with the attributes derived from human birth, the Nature of God condescending to assume the nature of one born as man who is wholly moulded of soul and flesh. Wherefore strangers, when they rise up against Him, and the mighty, when they seek after that soul of His, which in the Gospels is often sad and cast down, set not God before their eyes, because God it was, and the Son of God existing from out the ages, that was born with the attributes of human nature, was born as man, that is, with our body and our soul, by a virgin birth; the mighty and glorious works He wrought never opened their eyes to the fact that the Son of Man Whose soul they were seeking had come to be man with a beginning of life after an eternal existence as Son of God.

9. The introduction of a pause marks a change of person. He no longer speaks but is addressed. For now the prophetic utterance assumes a general character. Thus immediately after the prayer addressed to God, he has added, in order that the confidence of the speaker might be understood to have obtained what He was asking even in the very moment of asking: Behold, God is My helper and the Lord is the upholder of My soul. He has requited evil unto Mine enemies. To each separate petition he has assigned its proper result, thus teaching us hath that God does not neglect to hear, and that to look for a pledge of His pitifulness in hearing our several petitions is not a thing unreasonable. For to the words, For strangers are risen up against Me, the corresponding statement is: God is My helper; while with regard to and the violent have sought after My soul, the exact result of the hearing of His prayer is expressed in the words: and the Lord is the upholder of My soul; lastly the statement, they have not set God before their eyes, is appropriately balanced by, He hath requites evil unto Mine enemies. Thus God both gives help against those that rise up, and upholds the soul of His Holy One when it is sought by the violent, and when He is not set before the eyes, nor considered by the ungodly, He requites upon His enemies the very evils which they had wrought; so that while without thinking upon God they seek the soul of the righteous and rise up against Him, He is saved and upheld, and they find that He Whom, absorbed in their wicked works, they did not consider, avenges their malice by turning it against themselves.

10. Let pure religion, therefore, have tiffs confidence, and doubt not that amid the persecutions at the hand of man anti the dangers to the soul, it still has God for its helper, knowing that, if at length it comes to a violent and unjust death, the soul on leaving the tabernacle of the body finds rest with God its upholder; let it have, moreover, perfect assurance of requital in the thought that all evil deeds return upon the heads of those that work them. God cannot be charged with injustice, and perfect goodness is unstained by the impulses and motions of an evil will. He does not awaken mischief out of malice, but requites it in vengeance; He does not inflict it because He wishes us ill, but He aims it against our sins. For these evils are universally appointed as instruments of retribution without destruction of life, such being the sternly just ordinance of that righteous judgment. But these evils are warded off from the righteous by the law of righteousness, and are turned back upon the unrighteous by the righteousness of that judgment. Each proceeding is equally just; for the righteous, because they are righteous, the warning exhibition of evil without actual infliction; for the wicked, because they so deserve, the punitive infliction of evil; the righteous will not suffer it, though it is displayed to them; the wicked will never cease to suffer it, because it is displayed to them.

11. After this there is a return to the Person of God, to Whom the petition was at the first addressed: Destroy them by Thy truth. Truth confounds falsehood, and lying is destroyed by truth. We have shewn that the whole of the foregoing prayer is the utterance of that human nature in which the Son of God was born; so here it is the voice of human nature calling upon God the Father to destroy His enemies in His truth. What this truth is, stands beyond doubt; it is of course He Who said: I am the Life, the Way, the Anti the enemies were destroyed by the truth when, for all their attempts to win Christ's condemnation by false witness, they heard that He was risen from the dead and had to admit that He had resumed His glory in all the reality of Godhead. Ere long they found, in ruin and destruction by famine and war, their reward for crucifying God; for they condemned the Lord of Life to death, and paid no heed to God's truth displayed in Him through His glorious works. And thus the Truth of God destroyed them when He rose again to resume the majesty of His Father's Glory, and gave proof of the truth of that perfect Divinity which He possessed.

12. Now in view of our repeated, nay our unbroken assertion both that it was the Only-begotten Son of God Who was uplifted on the cross, and that He was condemned to death Who is eternal by virtue of the origin which is His by the nature which He derives from the eternal Father, it must be clearly understood that He was subjected to suffering of no natural necessity, but to accomplish the mystery of man's salvation; that He submitted to suffering of His own Will, and not under compulsion. And although this suffering did not belong to His nature as eternal Son, the immutability of God being proof against the assault of any derogatory disturbance, yet it was freely undertaken, and was intended to fulfil a penal function without, however, inflicting the pain of penalty upon the sufferer: not that the suffering in question was not of a kind to cause pain, but because the divine Nature feels no pain. God suffered, then, by voluntarily submitting to suffering; but although He underwent the sufferings in all the fulness of their force, which necessarily causes pain to the sufferers, yet He never so abandoned the powers of His Nature as to feel pain.

13. For next there follows: I will sacrifice unto Thee freely. The sacrifices of the Law, which consisted of whole burnt-offerings and oblations of goats and of bulls, did not involve an expression of free will, because the sentence of a curse was pronounced on all who broke the Law. Whoever failed to sacrifice laid himself open to the curse. And it was always necessary to go through the whole sacrificial action because the addition of a curse to the commandment forbad any trifling with the obligation of offering. It was from this curse that our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us, when, as the Apostle says: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made curse for us, for it is written: cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree. Thus He offered Himself to the death of the accursed that He might break the curse of the Law, offering Himself voluntarily a victim to God the Father, in order that by means of a voluntary victim the curse which attended the discontinuance of the regular victim might be removed. Now of this sacrifice mention is made in another passage of the Psalms: Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared for Me(4a); that is, by offering to God the Father, Who refused the legal sacrifices, the acceptable offering of the body which He received. Of which offering the holy Apostle thus speaks: Far this He did once for all when He offered Himself up, securing complete salvation for the human race by the offering of this holy, perfect victim.

14. Then He gives thanks to God the Father for the accomplishment of all these acts: I will give thanks unto Thy name, O Lord, for it is good, for Than hast delivered Me out of all affliction. He has assigned to each clause its strict fulfilment. Thus at the beginning He bad said: Save Me, O God, by Thy name; after the prayers had been heard it was right that there should follow a corresponding ascription of thanks, in order that confession might be made to His name by Whose name He had prayed to be saved, and that inasmuch as He had asked for help against the strangers that rose up against Him, He might set on record that He had received it in the burst of joy expressed in the words: Thou hast delivered Me out of all affliction. Then in respect of the fact that the violent in seeking after His soul did not set God before their eyes, He has declared His eternal possession of unchangeable divinity in the words: And Mine eye hath looked down upon Mine enemies. For the Only-begotten Son of God was not cut off by death. It is true that in order to take the whole of our nature upon Him He submitted to death, that is to the apparent severance of soul and body, and made His way even to the realms below, the debt which man must manifestly pay: but He rose again and abides for ever and looks down with an eye that death cannot dim upon His enemies, being exalted unto the glory of God and born once more Son of God after becoming Son of Man, as He had been Son of God when He first became Son of Man, by the glory of His resurrection. He looks down upon His enemies to whom He once said: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it up. And so, now that this temple of His body has been built again, He surveys from His throne on high those who sought after His soul, and, set far beyond the power of human death, He looks down from heaven upon those who wrought His death, He who suffered death, yet could not die, the God-Man, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is blessed for ever and ever. Amen.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (LNPF II/IX, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.

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