We’ve reached verse 7, the second last verse, in this verse by verse study of Psalm 3 drawing on the catechesis of Pope Benedict XVI, and its one of those good old-fashioned smiting verses that give modern readers so much trouble. Accordingly, it is worth looking at how to interpret it properly.
Psalm 3 so far...
Here is the psalm so far, with today’s verse highlighted:
Dómine quid multiplicáti sunt qui tríbulant me? * multi insúrgunt advérsum me.
Multi dicunt ánimæ meæ: * Non est salus ipsi in Deo ejus.
Tu autem, Dómine, suscéptor meus es, * glória mea, et exáltans caput meum.
Voce mea ad Dóminum clamávi: * et exaudívit me de monte sancto suo.
Ego dormívi, et soporátus sum: * et exsurréxi, quia Dóminus suscépit me.
Non timébo míllia pópuli circumdántis me: * exsúrge, Dómine, salvum me fac, Deus meus.
Quóniam tu percussísti omnes adversántes mihi sine causa: * dentes peccatórum contrivísti.
For thou hast struck all them who are my adversaries without cause: thou hast broken the teeth of sinners.
The first point to note is that Pope Benedict XVI, in his catechesis on the psalm, does not back away from the strong message this verse sends to those who oppose Christ and those who stand for him and do his work:
“The enemy’s visible, massive, impressive attack is countered by the invisible presence of God with all his invincible power. And it is to him that the Psalmist, after his trusting words, once again addresses the prayer: “Arise, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God!”. His assailants “are rising” (cf. v. 2) against their victim; instead the One who will “arise” is the Lord and it will be to defeat them. God will deliver him, answering his cry. Thus the Psalm ends with the vision of liberation from the peril that kills, and from the temptation that can cause us to perish. After addressing his plea to the Lord to arise and deliver him, the praying person describes the divine victory: the enemies — who with their unjust and cruel oppression are the symbol of all that opposes God and his plan of salvation — are defeated. Struck on the mouth, they will no longer attack with their destructive violence and will be unable to instil evil and doubt in God’s presence and action. Their senseless and blasphemous talk is denied once and for all and is reduced to silence by the Lord's saving intervention.”
Let’s look at the text in more detail, then come back to its message.
Verse 7 phrase by phrase
Quóniam tu percussísti =for you have smitten/struck/slayed
omnes adversántes mihi = all opposing/resisting to me without cause = all who were resisting me/my enemies/adversaries
sine causa = without cause/reason (relates back to the adversantes)
dentes peccatórum = the teeth of sinners Note that the neo-Vulgate changes the teeth to the jaw (maxilla), following the Hebrew Masoretic Text.
contrivísti = you have broken
God smites the enemy
Psalm 3 is one of those psalms that anthropomorphizes and uses vivid imagery that the modern ear may find uncomfortable. But there is a real message for us here that the stark language is meant to make us notice. We can take it as read that this is poetry – it isn’t meant to be taken too literally. We can interpret images like ‘break the teeth’ as meaning ‘render harmless’, or as St Thomas Aquinas puts it, ‘you have rendered their lying words ineffectual’ for example. And in fact, the Vulgate actually softens the Hebrew to some degree.
Still, in this verse God engages in a bit of smiting, striking down the psalmist’s enemies, and breaking their teeth, giving us a vivid imagery of a bar brawl or similar. This isn’t exactly how we tend to think of God acting these days, or encouraging us to act on his behalf! Yet the Fathers and Theologians consistently read this verse as a reminder that error – whether in the form of heresy, paganism or atheism – should not be tolerated, but taken head on. Yes, it will cause enemies to rise up against us and attack. But just as Our Lord wasn’t backward about using strong words to correct the errors prevalent in his day, and those who propagated them, neither should we, for God will protect and sustain us.
quoniam, conj., for, because, since, seeing that, whereas.
percuto, cussi, cussum, ere 3 to smite, strike; to kill, slay
omnis, e, all, each, every; subst., all men, all things, everything
adversor, atus sum, ari to oppose, resist, withstand, to be ill-disposed towards any one.
causa, ae, cause, reason; sine causa, without cause, without good reason, unjustly; in vain, to no purpose.
dens, dentis, m. a tooth
peccator, oris, m. a sinner, transgressor; the wicked, the godless.
contero, trivi, Itum, ere 3, to break, crush, destroy
And now for the last part of this series on Psalm 3.