Every morning at the end of matins, the Church prays the last three Psalms of the Psalter, which include the following verses.
Psalm 149:6-9 Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, And a two-edged sword in their hand, To execute vengeance on the nations, And punishments on the peoples; To bind their kings with chains, And their nobles with fetters of iron; To execute on them the written judgment—This honour have all His saints. Praise the Lord!
How are Christians to understand these verses? Almost certainly they were originally written to be read literally. In the Old Covenant, resurrection had not yet been revealed except in the vaguest types and shadows. With the exception of a few prophets and holy men and women, the promise of God was understood exclusively as a promise of land–land taken away from the ungodly by the force of arms. The blessing of God was understood exclusively in terms of abundant harvests, secure borders, long life and many children. Death was the end: “For in death who can praise you?” the Psalmist asks.
However, in Christ all of this changes. The Church reads the Old Testament in the light of Christ, or through the lens of Christ’s life, teaching, death and resurrection. In my Protestant days, we sometimes referred derisively to this Christ-ized reading of the biblical text as “spiritualizing the text.” We thought that reading the Old Testament this way was a kind of bastardization of the text–a sort of free-for-all that made room for anyone to imagine the text to mean anything they wanted it to mean. Yet even pre-Christian Jews in their interpretation of the Old Testament texts often spiritualized their readings, and from the earliest days of the Christian reading of the Old Testament–heck, throughout the entire New Testament itself–the Old Testament is Christ-ized. As Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You search the scriptures because in them you think you will find eternal life, but it is these that speak of me.”
So, to return to the Psalm that we pray every morning, how do we understand the two-edged sword in the hand of God’s holy ones executing vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples? I do not pretend to speak for the whole Church, but it seems to me that one way these verses can be understood within the Orthodox Christian Tradition is the following.
In the light of Christ’s teaching, life, death, resurrection and the experience of Christians from the beginning, it seems obvious to me that the blessing of God is not to be understood in terms of material blessing. Blessed are you poor, Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. Similarly, if the blessings of the Kingdom of God are not material, neither then are its judgements: the vengeance and the punishments.
Many of the hymns of the Church speak of the martyrs putting to flight the demons and defeating the tyrants by not being terrified of fire or sword. In these hymns, we have an interesting play on both the spiritual (Christ-ized) and literal use of military language. The martyrs (in a spiritual sense) put to flight the demons and defeated the tyrants by not being terrified of (literal) fire and sword. For the martyrs, the Kingdom of God had become so real that spiritual reality was substantial, was really real, while the temporal reality was like a dream, a vision that passes away.
And so in the martyrs, the demons are put to flight in their attempt to drive the saints out of the “land” of their spiritual inheritance, which is manifest in them as the knowledge of a reality that transcends the temporal, and that judges the temporal. That is, the demons through the fear of death cannot drive the saints to abandon what they have come to know of the Age to Come. For the saints, all that is right and true of the temporal age gets its alignment from the Kingdom of God which in now known only (or primarily) through inner perception. Those wielding the weapons of this age, in their attempt to control and manipulate those whose hearts are anchored in the Kingdom of Heaven, are put to flight because temporal sufferings cannot dislodge the certain inner knowledge of the Kingdom of God. And this is the judgement on those who wield temporal power.
Christ tells us that in the Age to Come, the Apostles will sit on twelve thrones judging Israel (the people of God, specifically and perhaps all mankind, generally). But how will this judgement take place? It will not be like the judges of this temporal age who refer to books and laws and do their best to determine how much one did or didn’t deviate from what was written. No, not at all. The judgement of the age to come will not be like that at all. Yes, the books will be opened, but only to reveal what has been actual and true for every living thing–nothing will be hidden.
The judgement itself, however, will not require books. The judgement will be the judgement of a plumbline, as the prophets of the Old Testament say. Our own conscience will be the prosecutor–nothing will be hidden, not even from ourselves. In that moment, we will see the Apostles and all of those who in this life did not fear death in its various forms, and then we will know that they are the true ones, while we are crooked. They lived in accordance with reality, while we only talked about it, while we didn’t even think it was possible to live according to the eternal spark that glowed faintly in our hearts. They were the ones who saw clearly, who loved in spite of temporal loss, while we refused to see–then it will be clear to us that our blindness was chosen–while we preferred to save our temporal life rather than to lose even a little of what’s perishing anyway for the sake of love. And that is the judgement: our twisted and perverted life against the plumbline of the saints.
That’s when the two-edged sword will slay the nations. That’s when God’s holy ones (that’s what the word “saint” means), that’s when God’s holy ones will execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the people. The two-edged sword in their hand is the life they have led. It is the Word of God incarnate in a life lived–not words in a book, but love shown; tears shed; and kindness, patience and gentleness manifest in a thousand daily, often unconscious acts. This is the judgement written, this is the honour all of His saints have.
So when we read of the hueing down of enemies in the Old Testament