Thursday, 31 March 2011

Psalm 31/4: On being stubborn as a mule (verses 11&12)!

It is impossible for me to conclude this mini-series on Psalm 31 without a quick look at my two favourite verses, which deal with our natural instinct to rebel against God's providential guidance of our lives!

God's guidance

Verses 8&9 of Psalm 31 discuss the gifts that God gives to those who repent of their sins, including his guidance and protection.  But verses 11&12 (in the liturgical ordering of the text), which I want to focus on today, contain a warning:

"Nolíte fíeri sicut equus et mulus, * quibus non est intelléctus. In camo et freno maxíllas eórum constrínge: * qui non appróximant ad te."

The verses are translated fairly literally in the Douay-Rheims as:

"Do not become like the horse and the mule, who have no understanding. With bit and bridle bind fast their jaws, who come not near unto you."

In terms of the translation, the first phrase, giving us the image of the horse (equus) and mule (mulus) is straightforward.  Intellectus simply means understanding or insight.  The last phrases are a little harder to get but the sense is clear: 'in camo et freno' means with bit and bridle; maxilla means jaw or jawbone; while the verb constringere means to bind together, hold fast, fetter or restrain.  Approximare means to approach or draw near.

The virtue of reason

St Robert Bellarmine explains the verses as follows:

"The Prophet now exhorts all, both good and bad, to learn from his example the evils consequent on sin, and the blessings to be derived from penance and virtue, he having tasted of both. Turning to the wicked first, he says, "Do not become like the horse and the mule, who have no understanding." Endowed with reason, but not guided by your animal propen­sities; be not like the horse and the mule in your licentious desires, as I was; be not like the horse and the mule, in tearing and lashing at your fellow creatures, as I have been in regard of Urias. "With bit and bridle bind fast their jaws, who come not near unto thee." He foretells the calamities in store for those who will act the part of the horse and the mule towards their neighbor. They will be forced by tribulations either to return to God, or will be prevented from injuring their neighbors to the extent they intended; but, as usual, this prophetic warning is expressed as if it were an imprecation. You will force those wicked men to obey you, as you would subdue a horse or a mule, with a bit and bridle, and make them obedient to you. The words bit and bridle are used in a metaphorical sense to signify the crosses and trials that God has sometimes recourse to..."

Next time, an introduction to the third of the penitential psalms, Psalm 37.

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