Catholic Encyclopedia
Church Fathers
Classics Library
Church Documents
Prayer Requests
Ray of Hope
Social Doctrine

A Commentary On The Psalms From Primitive and Mediæval Writers Volumes 1 To 4 by Rev. J.M. Neale D.D.

Gregorian. As Psalm 35.

Parisian. Under the covering * of Thy wings shall they put their trust, O LORD; and with the torrent of Thy pleasure shalt Thou give them to drink.

Ambrosian. As the last.

Mozarabic. In Thy Light, O GOD, we shall see light.

Quignon. With Thee * is the Well of Life; and in Thy light shall we see light.

1 My heart showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly: that there is no fear of GOD before his eyes.

The last Psalm ends,* “that have pleasure in the prosperity of His servants.” Therefore, as if with reference to that, rightly does the title of this say, A Psalm of the servant of the Lord, David.

This is the only Psalm which is said to be written by a servant of the Lord.* That which comes nearest is the title given to Moses, as the composer of the 90th, namely, the Man of God.1 Some will have the reason this: that, as the Psalm especially describes the character, (L.) so it should be written in the person, of a servant of God.

The Vulgate reads differently: The unrighteous hath said, to the end he may commit sin in himself, There is no fear, &c. And others desire to read, instead of my heart, his heart—a most needless correction. For so it is. My heart—let it be the true servant of GOD that speaks—does indeed show me the wickedness of the ungodly. That is, (A.) the motions of sin within me—the thoughts injected into my mind by Satan, my numberless falls—all these things show me that, were it not for the redeeming and upholding grace of GOD, any wickedness that the ungodly now does, I might be doing myself. “Who maketh thee to differ from another? or what hast thou that thou hast not received?” From studying myself, I know him. From my own wickedness, however in me chained and kept under,* I can judge and feel for his. It is a bold but true figure of S. Gregory Nyssen, that, where there is no fear of GOD to restrain, the devil holds a festal dance with sin. But, on the other hand, Tertullian writes: Where is GOD, there is the fear of GOD, which is the beginning of wisdom; there is the fear of GOD, there is honest gravity, and anxious diligence, and solicitous care, and deliberate communication,* and religious subjection, and an united Church, and all things GOD’s. The unrighteous said. The great Carmelite expositor here dwells, after S. Gregory, at some length, on the four exhaustive divisions of all human words. What is ill said ill: what is well said well; what is well said ill: what is ill said well. Ill said ill: as, “Let us crown ourselves with roses before they be withered; (Ay.) let no flower of the summer pass us by.” Well said well:* Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Well said ill: as the Pharisees to the man born blind, Be thou His disciple. Ill said well: as when the Apostle exhorts: Let him that stole steal no more. Honorius of Autun says very well,* that the Psalm is divided between the two nations—the people of sinners—here, My heart showeth me the ungodly; the people of the righteous, further on: O LORD, Thy mercy is in heaven, and Thy truth reacheth unto the clouds.

2 For he flattereth himself in his own sight: until his abominable sin be found out.

And we are carried in thought to that place and that day when “He stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground, as though He heard them not.”* To the end that his iniquity may be found out to hatred, it is in the Vulgate. And they well warn us here what is that danger: he flattereth himself in his own sight. O most miserable state of that man who is given over to sin, and yet thinks himself righteous! who has internal peace, only because he has no world, Satan, self, to strive withal! Be found out. It may be, not in this world, but in that Day of Days when the secret of all hearts shall be made manifest.* He flattereth himself. It was the very first attitude of men. “The woman, whom Thou gavest to be with me.” “The serpent beguiled me.” Where note: these two, because mercy was in store for them, (Ay.) were questioned as to their sins: “Hast thou eaten?” “What is this that thou hast done?” Only to the serpent,* for the reason that no place was left to him for repentance, it is said at once, “Because thou hast done this.” Here once more I have occasion to repeat, how the Saints who commented in early and middle ages on the Psalms, seem, as if by instinct, to have avoided dwelling on such a verse as this. Was it that they realized too deeply what that finding out of sin really was? that they could image to themselves in more terrible strength than words can express what is the second death?

3 The words of his mouth are unrighteous, and full of deceit: he hath left off to behave himself wisely, and to do good.

4 He imagineth mischief upon his bed, and hath set himself in no good way: neither doth he abhor anything that is evil.

And there notice another prophecy of Baptismal Grace.* He hath left off. Left off? Then he had once begun. And so he had. If not in fact, yet in possibility; if not actually, yet potentially. He had the glorious and whole “first robe:” he hath flung it aside, preferring the fig-leaves of flattery and false excuses to the garment by and in which he put on JESUS CHRIST at the first. On his bed. For observe, (L.) Satan’s servants find not the whole day long enough for his work. They give up the night to it also. They that call themselves followers of the LORD, how do they weary even in the twelve hours of the day, wherein a man may work, and will not encroach on their own rest to do His labour.* He hath set himself, which implies a certain amount of resolution and will. GOD’S SPIRIT will not always strive with man, (C.) but it will for a while; and he that will not fight the good fight of faith, he that will not resist Satan, he must sometimes battle against the Paraclete; even as said S. Stephen, “Ye do alway resist the HOLY GHOST, as your fathers did, so do ye.” Neither doth he abhor. And, if he doth not abhor, he cannot fight: and if he doth not fight, (A.) how can he be crowned? Anything that is evil. And so is one of those of whom S. Paulinus speaks,* to whom “that is sweet, which is bitter; that is polluted which is chaste; that is hostile which is holy.” Further notice this; how thought, word, and deed are here expressed. Thought—he imagineth mischief; word—the words of his mouth are unrighteous;* deed—hath set himself in no good way. Upon his bed. Beautifully S. Augustine: “Our bed is our heart: there we suffer the stings of our evil conscience, and there we rest when our conscience is good. There is our bed, (A.) where the LORD JESUS CHRIST commands us to pray. ‘Enter into thy chamber, and shut thy door.’ What is, Shut thy door? Expect not from GOD such as are without; but such things as are within.” Most diligently does Ayguan follow up the Scriptural expressions concerning a bed, (Ay.) and tell us that there are six different, beds of wickedness—that of luxury; that of avarice; of ambition; of greediness; of torpor; and of cruelty; and he illustrates them all by examples from Scripture.

5 Thy mercy, O LORD, reacheth unto the heavens: and thy faithfulness unto the clouds.

6 Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains: thy judgments are like the great deep.

7 Thou, LORD, shalt save both man and beast; …

The Eastern commentators see in the former part of these verses a description of those various gifts which the HOLY GHOST bestows on the Church.* The heavens: the Apostles (see what I have said on this almost universal symbolism at the beginning of the 19th Psalm.) The clouds: the prophets, who darkly and enigmatically transmit the truth, even as those earthly vapours the rays of the Sun. The strong mountains: the most ancient of GOD’s Saints. The great deep: the abyss of Wisdom and Love contained in the Holy Scripture. Man and beast: the Jew and Gentile. And the epithets or phrases attached to each will tally with these interpretations. Thy mercy. For where can it be better set forth than in the great words of one of those Heavens? “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that CHRIST JESUS came into the world to save sinners.” Thy faithfulness. For, of all those prophecies, which has not been fulfilled? And so of the rest. S. Bernard will rather see in the first verse a prophecy of the Incarnation;* the mercy which devised the plan in heaven; the faithfulness with which it was devised and promised, and fulfilled, that salvation which GOD had spoken by the mouth of all His holy Prophets since the world began. Thy faithfulness unto the clouds. And, as we know, the clouds are continually expounded of preachers. The mystical resemblance between them is given in two lines of Hugo:—

Pulsa Notis: procul a terris: mare linquit: in imbres*

Solvitur, et tonitrus: volat: et tenuata dat Irim.

That is, (L.) they, above all others, are tossed about by the winds of tribulation; they rise far above the earth by contemplation; they leave the bitterness and barrenness of the world; they are the occasions of the tears of repentance, and they thunder forth their warnings against sinners: their word, like their Master’s, “runneth very swiftly,” and they divide Scripture into its various component keys of meaning, and set forth the reconciliation of man to GOD. Like the strong mountains. The Vulgate follows the Hebrew more closely.* Like the mountains of God. S. Augustine well says that the precepts of the Gospel are greater than those of the old Law, because the former have respect to heavenly, the other only to earthly things;* that the LORD hence ascended the mountain before He delivered His discourse; and he refers to this passage also. Others will have Thy righteousness to mean Thy righteous ones, and thus the Saints of GOD to be compared to the strong mountains, because of their firmness in resisting the storms and billows of this world; because of their being the first to catch the beams of the Sun of Righteousness, which they reflect to others. Thy judgments are like the great deep. Even as it is written in Ecclesiasticus, where our Blessed LORD is spoken of under the character of Wisdom: “Her thoughts are more than the sea, and her counsels profounder than the great deep.”* These, according to S. Chrysostom,* are the deep with which the LORD “covereth Himself as with a garment.”* Both, man and beast. Witness the merciful law about the dam and the eggs: witness the “much cattle,” alleged as a reason for showing mercy to Nineveh; witness the ass preserved when the disobedient prophet was slain by the lion. But we may take it mystically of the ruder, and the more educated servants of GOD; and the manner in which mediæval commentators heap together parallel passages in the same sense, is very striking. “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and with the seed of beast.”* So again: “Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and of cattle therein.”* Compare also that: “So foolish was I, and ignorant: even as it were a beast before Thee;” and the LORD’s being born in the manger, (D. C.) where were the ox and the ass. In a more mystical way, they see in that, Thy Truth reacheth unto the clouds, a parallel passage to the “Thou hast made Him a little lower than the Angels,” of the 8th Psalm. Thy Truth they take of the LORD CHRIST (“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,”) the clouds are the Angels (as that passage is explained by Pseudo-Dionysius,) in his Angelic Hierarchy, “Who are these that fly as a cloud?”* and, humbled as the Truth was by the Incarnation and the Nativity, yet He reacheth to the Angels, in that He is made only a little lower than they. Thy judgments are like the great deep. S. Augustine takes it in a sadder sense: (A.) as the mountains the righteous, so the abyss the sinner; and as the sin, so the judgment prepared for it; bottomless sin, measureless vengeance. The Angelic Doctor ingeniously compares the three heights—the mountains, the clouds, the heavens. GOD’s “righteousness is very high;” hence compared to the first, because He rewards more than we deserve. His Truth is higher; hence compared to the second,* because by “the truth of His promises, He gives what we do not deserve at all. His mercy is highest of all; hence compared to the Heavens; for that is infinite in prevailing over infinite sin.” Mountains of God. For there are mountains of the Devil, (A.) the heresiarchs of former times: Arius, Montanus,* Noetus; and even now many a Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence, and receiveth not the Apostles.

How excellent is thy mercy, O GOD: and the children of men shall put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.

But excellent does not come up to the force of the Hebrew; rather, How precious, τί τίμιον, as Symmachus has it. The Vulgate rendering is, How hast Thou multiplied Thy mercy! The second clause of the verse makes us especially remember the mercy of all mercies, (Ay.) namely, Calvary; and for that, “let them give thanks whom the LORD hath redeemed.” Multiplied them; but they are all from that one most precious root. Augustine says well: “Not without reason is it here put, (A.) ‘O LORD, Thou savest man and beast: but the children of men;’ as though, setting aside the first, He keepeth separate the children of men. Separate from whom? Not only from beasts, but also from men, who seek from GOD the saving of beasts, and desire this as a great thing. Who, then, are the children of men? Those who put their trust under the shadow of His wings. For those men, together with beasts, rejoice in possession; the children of men rejoice in hope; those follow after present good with beasts; these hope for future good with the Angels”. And what is the shadow of Thy wings? “I sat down under His Shadow with great delight.”* Those wings which were stretched out on the arms of the Cross, as if thence overshadowing the whole world,* gathering the young and feeble ones together, and guarding them: so to be a refuge from the storm, a hiding-place from the world. There is a tradition that the shadow of our LORD on the Cross fell on and covered the penitent thief; and so, “that the very shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow” some of them, was sufficient for those who sought healing from his hands.* Others, however, take these wings, whereby the Christian is, as it were, taught to fly, of the two great precepts of the Law: love of GOD, love of ourselves: but not, to my mind, with half their beauty who see the Cross in them.

8 They shall be satisfied with the plenteousness of thy house: and thou shalt give them drink of thy pleasures, as out of the river.

They shall be satisfied. Or as it is in the Vulgate, (Z.) They shall be inebriated. Hence in the first place they look to the time when the pleasures of GOD’s House were thrown open to the world at the day of Pentecost; when Partisans and Medes, and the countless nations that came up to Jerusalem, first of all had a way opened to a better House of GOD than that in which they were then seeking to offer their supplications.* Satisfied. “But, O LORD JESU,” cries S. Bernard, “what is this, that man, created after GOD’s image,—that man, with a capacity of immortality, that man whose likeness Thou Thyself didst assume,—should be satisfied! How much love, how much gladness, does that immortal soul take, to fill up the measure of its contentment!” To this verse, perhaps, S. Gregory refers in that hymn where he says:

Læti bibamus sobriam*

Ebrietatem spiritus.

The plenteousness of Thy house, (Cd.) in its highest sense, what is it but that gift, a greater than which GOD cannot bestow, a more precious than which man cannot receive,—the Bread of Angels, the Cake which is to support us during all the course of our journey through the wilderness? Drink of Thy pleasures.* And how can it be that the Blood so poured forth, when there was no sorrow like His sorrow,—when He was despised and rejected of men,—when His physical and mental sufferings strove together, as it were, which should be the greatest,—that this Blood should be spoken of under the title of Thy pleasures? Whence also not here for the first time, for the holy interpreters of the Psalms have set that truth before us again and again, we are reminded of the day of the gladness of His heart,* of which the Bride speaks in the Canticles. Think, then, of this, O Christian, whosoever thou art, that art tempted to despise the chastening of the LORD, or to faint when thou art rebuked of Him, that the Blood which He thus shed, from its earliest drops in His Circumcision to that hour when He poured it forth in Gethsemane; and again, when “the ploughers ploughed upon His back and made long furrows;” and further, when the Crown of Thorns was forced on to His Head; and yet again, when the purple garment was torn from His re-opened wounds,* down to the time that they pierced His Hands and His Feet, and opened His Side with a spear; that the shedding of this Blood was not only our redemption, but His pleasure. And further, As out of a river. Not out of a pool or lake, that may dry up and be exhausted,—not out of some Cherith of a stream, of which it is written, that “in process of time the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land,”*—but from a never-ending supply. For He that fed the five thousand with the five loaves, and multiplied the widow’s oil, how has He daily, from His Resurrection till now, satisfied untold myriads of His people with that Living Bread and that Blood, which is drink indeed! Whence it well follows:

9 For with thee is the well of life: and in thy light shall we see light.

And first they notice the marvellous reference to the Blessed Trinity which this verse contains:* For with Thee, the FATHER, of Whom are all things, is the well of life: with Thee, as it is written, (Z.) “In the beginning was the Word,* and the Word was with GOD.” And forgive the Fathers of the Eastern Church if, in the latter clause, they saw the procession of the HOLY GHOST from the FATHER alone. In Thy light:* which they compare with “The Spirit of Truth which proceedeth from the FATHER.” And then notice, taking the Fountain of life in another sense, how the blessing of the pure of spirit is here also pronounced. The well of life, the waters of Baptism; and the light, the illumination which has, even from Apostolic times, been synonymous with that Sacrament,—even as the Epiphany, the commemoration of our LORD’s Baptism,* is to this day in the Eastern Church called The Lights. And all the commentators delight to show how many lights there are which profess to guide us through the darkness of this world; many a Barcochebas, a Son of the Star, who fall under that condemnation of the Apostle, “Wandering stars,* to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for over.” In Thy light. For even of each of the saints it is said, “He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of the Light, that was the true Light.”* “Scarcely anywhere else in the whole Psalter,” says one of the greatest preachers of the conclusion of mediæval times, “do we so find the SON and the HOLY GHOST, and the Sacraments, preached as here. It is as if David spoke with John’s voice, when he tells of the Light; with Paul’s voice, when he sets forth the Well of life.” Again: In Thy Light shall we see light, is of course the basis of that clause in the Nicene Creed,* “Light of Light.” S. Ambrose dwells at great length on the subject in connection with this verse, and shows where and how the symbol falls short of that which it typifies. Once more, notice this, for so marvellously does Scripture hang together: (L.) compare the junction here of the Well of Life and the Light, with GOD’s opening Hagar’s eyes, so that she beheld the well of water.* “And do thou beware, O Christian,” so says a mediæval doctor, “lest that wicked Holofernes come and cut off the fountains of thy salvation, so that thou canst find no water:* take good heed lest the herdmen of the Philistines stop up the wells, as of old time, in the desert,—the wells which the true Abraham,* the father of the faithful, opened,—and thou perish of thirst.”

And now we come to the consideration of that which has made this verse one of the most famous passages in Scripture, the nature of the Beatific Vision. Mediæval writers here find that on which to argue in support of both views,—that which ascribes the power of beholding it to the innate essence of the Deity; the other which considers it an intrinsic endowment of every beatified spirit. No one can describe it more beautifully, and at the same time more according to mediæval teaching, than Giles Fletcher:

It is no flaming lustre made of light;*

No sweet concent or well-timed harmony;

Ambrosia for to feast the appetite,

Or flowery odour mixed with spicery;

No sweet embrace, nor pleasure bodily;

And yet it is a kind of inward feast,

A harmony that sounds within the breast;

An odour, light, embrace, in which the soul doth rest.

A heavenly feast no hunger can consume;

A light unseen that shines in every place;

A sound no time can steal; a sweet perfume

No winds can scatter; an entire embrace,

That no satiety can e’er unlace;

Engraced into so high a favour there,

The saints with their beau-peers whole worlds outwear,

And things unseen do see, and things unheard do hear.

Ye blessed souls, grown richer by your spoil,

Whose loss, though great, is cause of greater gains,

Here may your weary spirits rest from toil

Spending your endless evening that remains

Amongst, those white flocks and celestial trains

That feed upon their Shepherd’s Eyes, and frame

That heavenly music of so wondrous fame,

Psalming aloud to all the honours of His Name.”

S. Thomas nowhere seems to penetrate so deeply into those mysteries which eye hath not seen nor ear heard, as where, rapt as it were beyond himself, he shows that, in order to see the Essence of GOD,* some kind of similitude to that Essence on the part of the visual power is requisite; in opposition to those who taught, as later and poorer theologians have endeavoured to prove, that the Vision itself is habitual to beatified spirits. The two texts on which he builds those magnificent passages are the verse which has led us into this inquiry, and that in the Revelation, “Having the glory of GOD.”*

10 O continue forth thy loving-kindness unto them that know thee: and thy righteousness unto them that are true of heart.

Having thus spoken of the Beatific Vision,* David tells of the way by which only it can be reached. And as if carried away by the dear hope of the glory which shall be revealed, he speaks of faith as if it were knowledge: Thy loving-kindness unto them that know Thee. Where, by a verse which we had long ago, (D. C.) we can enter into the fuller meaning of this, “They that know Thy Name will put their trust in Thee.”* For it is that beloved and glorious Name of JESUS which opens the way to GOD’s knowledge by faith in this world. And notice, again, (D. C.) how the loving-kindness precedes the righteousness. The loving-kindness which gives us the power to act; the righteousness which rewards us for acting when we have the power. The loving-kindness which bestows on us the grace; the righteousness that crowns us with the reward of grace, which is glory.* Thy righteousness unto such as are true of heart: that is, themselves righteous. For unto him that hath shall more be given. And so it is almost in the last verse of the Bible: “He that is righteous, let him be righteous,”—or rather, continue and act out the being righteous—“still.” And observe this: the two parts of each clause answer to each other,*—the righteousness is to be continued to them that are righteous; therefore the loving-kindness ought to be promised to them that love. Instead of which it is, to them that know Thee. For of a truth it is one and the same thing really to know and really to love.

11 O let not the foot of pride come against me: and let not the hand of the ungodly cast me down.

12 There are they fallen, all that work wickedness: they are cast down, and shall not be able to stand.

The foot of pride.* It is singular what a depth of meaning they find in this expression.* First we are reminded of the struggle between Jacob and Esau, symbols of the unregenerate and the regenerate man. Then, again, of the wise man’s advice, (L.) “Keep thy foot when thou goest into the house of GOD.”* And then of our LORD’s lesson in humility, by washing His disciples’ feet. And, furthermore, (D. C.) observe the gradual increase of evil: the foot of pride in the first clause, and that only to attack, come against me: the hand of the ungodly in the second, and that not simply to attack, but to prevail, cast me down. There. “And who shall tell us,” (Ay.) says a mediæval writer, “what that there is? Little word, but oh, what a depth of meaning! Few letters, (P.) but what untold lapse of time!” Are they fallen, all that work wickedness. Rejoice, therefore, O Christian, when at last thy reward shall come, and thou shalt be delivered from them that work wickedness within thee, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life; and around thee, the world and all its fascinations; and against thee, Satan and all his powers. Let this be thy comfort: He saith not, “They shall be cast down,” but “They are cast down:” they are already destroyed by Him That died on the Cross. He that believeth not—and who is the great unbeliever, but Satan?—is condemned already. Shall not be able to stand. See what is said on the last verse of the first Psalm.

And therefore:

Glory be to the FATHER, with Whom is the Well of Life; and to the SON, in Whose light we shall see light: and to the HOLY GHOST, Whose righteousness standeth like the strong mountains;

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Copyright ©1999-2018 e-Catholic2000.com