Monday, 4 April 2011

Psalm 37/3 - On being deaf, dumb and blind to sin (verses 14&15)


I said in the introduction to this psalm that it deals primarily with God’s punishment of us here and now.

Our first instinct, when faced with suffering and persecution is to ask God to have mercy on us, to heal our wounds and grant us the joy that comes with forgiveness of our sins, as the Psalmist does in the first two penitential psalms, Psalms 6&31. More, we naturally seek vindication in the face of our enemies, as the psalmist requests in some of the later penitential psalms.

Punishment and suffering in this life

This psalm, however, is a reminder that sin incurs punishment too, and that while not every suffering we face in the here and now is a punishment (remember Job!), some sufferings are punishments necessary for our own good.

The psalm is also an important reminder of the Gospel injunction: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

And the first kind of punishment, dealt with in today's verses, is false accusations against one.  So how should one respond?

The text

The first half of the psalm describes the speaker’s sufferings, with the verses immediately prior to the verses we will consider today talking about his rejection by friends and neighbours, and the plotting of enemies against him. Verses 14 &15 talk about his response, which is to keep silence, as Our Lord did in the face of the false accusations made against him.

14 Ego autem tamquam surdus non audiébam: * et sicut mutus non apériens os suum.
15 Et factus sum sicut homo non áudiens: * et non habens in ore suo redargutiónes.

Verses 14&15 say essentially the same thing in different words: the speaker becomes deaf (non audiebam=was not hearing; non audiens = not hearing; surdus=deaf) and dumb (mutus=dumb; not offering a defense= non habens in ore suo redargutiones).

A reasonably literal translation would be:

“But I was hearing, like a deaf man, and like a mute not opening his mouth
I was like a man not hearing, and not having rejoinders in his mouth”

A more poetic translation, from the Collegeville translators of the Monastic Diurnal is:

“But I am as one deaf and do not hear; and as one dumb, that openeth not his mouth. I am become like a man that heareth not, and that hath no reproofs in his mouth.”


Why does he offer no defense?

We are generally entitled to defend ourselves rather than simply stand there and accept the evil that others do to us. So why does the speaker here offer no defense? The psalm suggests several possible answers. The first and most obvious is suggested by the verses immediately prior: the charges against him may be fabricated, and his accusers will not give him a fair trial – what he says can make no difference to the outcome.  

Of course, the only person who can truly claim total innocence is Our Lord, hence the Christological interpretation of this psalm - our Lord accepts the punishment on our behalf even though he is totally innocent.  Still, the psalmist goes on to explain why this may still be an appropriate response for us even if there is some grain of truth mixed in with the lies, or where we are not guilty of what we are accused of - but are guilty of some other crime.

One reason is that the evil of the accusers could lead one into sin. St John Cassian comments in his Institutes:

“as the Psalmist says: "I was like a deaf man and heard not and as one that is dumb who doth not open his mouth; and I became as a man that heareth not, and in whose mouth there are no reproofs," so you also should walk as one that is deaf and dumb and blind, so that--putting aside the contemplation of him who has been rightly chosen by you as your model of perfection--you should be like a blind man and not see any of those things which you find to be unedifying, nor be influenced by the authority or fashion of those who do these things, and give yourself up to what is worse and what you formerly condemned. If you hear any one disobedient or insubordinate or disparaging another or doing anything different from what was taught to you, you should not go wrong and be led astray by such an example to imitate him; but, "like a deaf man," as if you had never heard it, you should pass it all by…”

Worse, we could be drawn into sin by the fury of our response, as St Robert Bellarmine points out:

"Another reason why he chose to be silent and deaf. It is better for me to have patience, and trust in God's assistance, for fear, by getting into impatience, and returning malediction for malediction, God may desert me...”

Thirdly, the psalm, in the very next verse instructs us to cultivate always the virtue of hope, and look to God, not man for our vindication and salvation. St Robert Bellarmine comments:

“…because he considered it would be of more service to him to put his trust in God, than in any defense he could set up for himself. I was silent, "for in thee, O Lord, have I hoped." I paid no attention to all the false and idle abuse so heaped upon me; because I was conscious that you, who are the just judge, giving to everyone according to his works, and in whom I have always hoped, was looking at, and hearing every¬thing; and as I did put my trust in thee, "thou wilt hear me, O Lord, my God," and deliver me from their "unjust lips, and deceitful tongue."

The next part of this series will look at the further reason the psalmist adduces for standing deaf and dumb to the attack on him, namely accepting it as our deserved punishment for other sins.  But in the meanwhile, enjoy this setting of the psalm by Leonhard Paminger (1495-1567) for your meditations.

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