Monday, February 20, 2012

Will Christ come again with a bang or a whimper? Psalm 109/8

Georgios Klontzas, c16th
Some today suggest that the Second Coming of Christ will be like the first, something that happens quietly, almost without most people even realising it is happening. Today’s verse of Psalm 109 seems to suggest otherwise.  But is that first impression misleading?

Here is the verse itself, in a variety of translations:

Vulgate: Judicábit in natiónibus, implébit ruínas: * conquassábit cápita in terra multórum.
Neo-Vulgate: Iudicabit in nationibus: cumulantur cadavera, conquassabit capita in terra spatiosa.
Septuagint: κρινεῖ ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν πληρώσει πτώματα συνθλάσει κεφαλὰς ἐπὶ γῆς πολλῶν
Douay-Rheims: He shall judge among nations, he shall fill ruins: he shall crush the heads in the land of many

Looking at the Latin

Judicábit (3rd person future of judico, to judge, punish, rule) in (in +abl) natiónibus (nations, governed by in)

Judicábit in natiónibus = he will judge among the nations

implébit (3rd person future of impleo, I fill, fill up) ruínas (accusative pl of ruina, ruin, destruction)

implébit ruínas = he will fill up ruins/destruction

The Greek here is πληρώσει πτώματα, which Brenton translates as “he shall fill up the number of corpses”. The neo-Vulgate is closer to the Greek than the Vulgate here, making it cumulantur cadavera, corpses are piled up. The RSV translates the phrase as ‘filling up with corpses’.

conquassábit (3rd person indic fut of conquasso, I break or crush) capita (acc pl of caput, head)

conquassábit cápita = he will crush/break the heads

in terra (in +abl) multórum (gen pl of multus, many)

The Greek here (ἐπὶ γῆς πολλῶν) has both earth and many in the genitive: earth is governed by the preposition ἐπὶ meaning on. Accordingly, Brenton, correctly in my view, translates the half verse as

‘he shall crush the heads of many on the earth’. The Douay-Rheims, however, instead of referring back to the Greek, simply follows the Latin word order literally making it ‘in the land of many’, which makes rather less sense to me at least!

It is worth noting, however, that the neo-Vulgate avoids the ambiguity by providing a third variant, changing the phrase to ‘in terra spatiosa’, which the Monastic Diurnal makes ‘throughout the land’. However I suspect that the neo-Vulgate is just confusing the issue here by following the Hebrew Masoretic Text (rab erets), which could be best translated as Coverdale does ‘over divers countries’.

in terra multórum = of many on the earth


A literal reading of the Vulgate would be to slightly correct the Douay-Rheims as follows: He shall judge among nations, he shall fill ruins: he shall crush the heads of many in the land.

The Monastic Diurnal makes this verse: He judgeth among the nations, maketh ruin complete, He crusheth heads throughout the land.

But looking to the Greek Septuagint as authoritative, I think the better version is Brenton’s: He shall judge among the nations, he shall fill up the number of corpses, he shall crush the heads of many on the earth.

Protestant versions of this verse, based entirely on the Masoretic Text, have different take again on this verse. The King James Bible, for example, makes it “He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill [the places] with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries”.


natio, onis, f nation, people; in pi., the gentiles; a generation.
judico, avi, atum, are to judge, rule, punish, do justice to, to relieve from wrong.
impleo, plevi, pletum, ere 2 to fill, fill up, fill full; to fill, to cover; to fill, satisfy.
ruina, ae, f. a falling down, fall, ruin, destruction; evil, destruction, i.e., a plague
conquasso, avi, atum, are to break, crush, or dash to pieces
caput, itis, n. the head,
terra, ae, .f, earth, land
multus, a, um, much; many, numerous; much, great

Christ’s judgment of the world

This verse, Pope Benedict XVI points out, paints the final victory of Christ in vivid colours:

“Supported by the Lord, having received both power and glory from him (cf. v. 2), he opposes his foes, crushing his adversaries and judging the nations. The scene is painted in strong colours to signify the drama of the battle and the totality of the royal victory. The sovereign, protected by the Lord, demolishes every obstacle and moves ahead safely to victory. He tells us: “yes, there is widespread evil in the world, there is an ongoing battle between good and evil and it seems as though evil were the stronger. No, the Lord is stronger, Christ, our true King and Priest, for he fights with all God’s power and in spite of all the things that make us doubt the positive outcome of history, Christ wins and good wins, love wins rather than hatred.”

Nonetheless, the verse can be interpreted at the spiritual level in somewhat softer tones, as St John Chrysostom points out:

If you prefer to take this in a spiritual sense, you would say that he is doing away with folly…”

Similarly, St Augustine portrays the verse as talking about the humbling of the proud that leads to their conversion:

“Whoever you are who art obstinate against Christ, you have raised on high a tower that must fall. It is good that you should cast yourself down, become humble, throw yourself at the feet of Him who sits on the right hand of the Father, that in you a ruin may be made to be built up…He makes them humble instead of proud; and I dare to say, my brethren, that it is more profitable to walk here humbly with the head wounded, than with the head erect to fall into the judgment of eternal death. He will smite many heads when he causes them to fall, but He will fill them up and build them up again.”

Nonetheless, St John, St Augustine and the rest of the Fathers also accorded this a decidedly material interpretation, prophesying the fall of demons, the fate of the Jews and heathen, and indeed any who reject Christ, as St Alphonse Liguori tells us:

“Jesus Christ shall judge the rebellious nations, and will carry into effect the chastisements with which they have been threatened; he shall shiver in pieces on the earth the proud heads that rose up against him. This verse well applies to the end of the world and to the Last Judgment. Hence the proud will be confounded, and the humble after having been made to drink with their divine Master of the water of the torrent, shall be glorified with him.”

Make sure then that we learn from those things that humble us, lest our corpses join the pile consigned to eternal death….

And you can find the last part of the series on this psalm here.

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