On the Identity of the Ungodly

As I was praying Morning Prayer, I was briefly distracted going through the psalms because I couldn’t remember for the life of me what Cassiodorus and Augustine had said about Psalm 10. Psalm 11 was no issue—actually, I’ve got a post lurking in my brain dealing with the opening lines of Psalm 11—but 10 was a blank until I finally figured out what was ging on…

Here’s the start of Psalm 10 as I read it from the ’79 BCP:

  Why do you stand so far off, O LORD, *
and hide yourself in time of trouble?
  The wicked arrogantly persecute the poor, *
but they are trapped in the schemes they have devised.
  The wicked boast of their heart’s desire; *
the covetous curse and revile the LORD.
  The wicked are so proud that they care not for God; *
their only thought is, “God does not matter.”
  Their ways are devious at all times; your judgments are far above out of their sight; *
they defy all their enemies.
  They say in their heart, “I shall not be shaken; *
no harm shall happen to me ever.”
  Their mouth is full of cursing, deceit, and oppression; *
under their tongue are mischief and wrong….

Now—here is the start of Psalm 10 as found in the psalter of the ’28 BCP:

   WHY standest thou so far off, O LORD, *
and hidest thy face in the needful time of trouble?
   The ungodly, for his own lust, doth persecute the poor: *
let them be taken in the crafty wiliness that they have imagined.
   For the ungodly hath made boast of his own heart’s desire, *
and speaketh good of the covetous, whom the LORD abhorreth.
   The ungodly is so proud, that he careth not for God, *
neither is God in all his thoughts.
   His ways are alway grievous; *
thy judgments are far above out of his sight, and therefore defieth he all his enemies.
   For he hath said in his heart, Tush, I shall never be cast down, *
there shall no harm happen unto me.
   His mouth is full of cursing, deceit, and fraud; *
under his tongue is ungodliness and vanity….

See the difference? It’s the difference between the plural and the singular.

For the Church Fathers, Psalm 10 was not really Psalm 10, but the second part of Psalm 9. Following the Septuagint (the 2nd century BC Greek translation), the Vulgate retained the acrostic structure lurking in the Hebrew and kept the two parts together; the Hebrew manuscripts and our English versions following the Hebrew separated them into two different psalms.

Augustine starts off his interpretation of Psalm 9 with a twofold indentification. The psalm starts in the “voice of the Lord” and therefore the “enemy” referred to in VgPs 9:4 (inimicum meum) is identified as Satan particularly since Augustine connects “retrorsum” with the “get behind me” of Jesus in Matt 16. But Augustine also says, “If, however, we prefer to understand the phrase, my enemy, more generally as a sinner or pagan, that will not be out of line” before concluding that the phrase “is more fittingly understood as spoken in relation to the devil.”

(Jerome, in his very brief Homily 4 on the Psalms, also brings the devil into it, noting VgPs9:29 thus: “Notice what the psalm says about the devil, he lurks in ambush with the rich. It is almost impossible for the rich man to be rich without robbing the poor.”)


At verse 19 and 20 (the end of our Psalm 9) Augustine brings in the Antichrist as the one who will be set over the heathen as “lawgiver” (a term not in our version/translation; here’s the Douay-Rheims for comparison). The Antichrist is that “lawgiver” and Augustine brings in the Antichrist a few more times as he considers the “ungodly” in the rest of the psalm.

Cassiodorus takes the hints that Augustine drops and develops the second part of the psalm as a prophetic narrative concerning the Antichrist and the unfolding of the last days. In his reading, the “ungodly” is not a singular noun collectively pointing to bad people but is pretty clearly the Antichrist. Within the psalm, then, Cassiodorus finds a fairly detailed account of the rise of the Antichrist and his actions against the poor and righteous which he bolsters by tying verbal details from the psalm into other passages across both the Old and New Testaments.

(At the same time, though, Cassiodrus insists on a historical reading at the start of the psalm, and, while Augustine brings in the devil at verse 4, Cassiodorus goes in a *completely* different direction: “Though David had many enemies, here we appropriately think only of Saul.”)

So—singular and plural terms in the psalms (or other Scriptures) can lead us in very different directions. The Hebrew, Greek, and Latin use the singular term (impius)  which leads the Fathers down one particular road. Yes, impious can be a collective noun, and Augustine reads it like that at points, but the use of the singular also moves them in the direction of a singular figure. Even though the BCP retains “wicked” as a collective, the use of plural verbs and then plural pronouns would never lead us in that direction.

What’s my point, then, to touch off a screed against inclusive language? No. Simply to make the observation that textual details matter. Certain textual features enable, suggest, or recommend reading in certain ways and close off other lines of interpretation. The shifting of grammatical number (from singular to plural) alters the way that we encounter the psalms. Psalm 1 and Psalm 10 are central examples. The Church Fathers identified the singularly evil person in Psalm 10 as the Antichrist; similarly, they saw the singularly blessed man in Psalm 1 as Christ.

We don’t.

5 thoughts on “On the Identity of the Ungodly

  1. Barbara S.

    Very interesting! Thanks for this; had to look up Cassiodorus, a name I’ve never heard before. Was he a Psalm specialist?

    And while we’re on Psalms: do you happen to know of any books that conjecture, on the basis of whatever evidence there may exist, about their various composition dates? I’ve been wanting to find such a resource for a while now, but have no idea where to look.

  2. Derek Olsen Post author

    I had a full post written up on Cassiodorus that my browser just managed to lose… I’ll have to recreate that now!

    Most academic-type commentaries will give suggestions on dating the various psalms. The one we’re all waiting for is Hermeneia commentary. Volumes 2 and 3 are out, but not volume 1 with its promised “comprehensive introduction.” The Anchor Bible commentary by Dahood is interesting but shouldn’t be relied upon—he goes overboard in his assessment of the importance of Ugaritic and Canaanite parallels and tends to place things much earlier than the general field. I actually need to do some work on the most recent commentaries (i.e., catch up on the last fifteen years after leaving seminary!) to figure out which is the best. More on this later…

  3. Brian

    If/when the push to bring singular “they” into mainstream usage bears fruit, it will have an interesting effect on this as well.

  4. James Morgan

    Might want to check Carleton’s English Psalter and JM Nealson’s Commentary on the Psalms for some interesting comments.

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