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

Gregorian. Ferial. Great is the LORD * and highly to be praised.

Common of Virgins. Many waters * cannot quench love.

Dedication. Moses built * an altar unto the LORD GOD.

Christmas Epiphany} We have waited * for Thy lovingkindness, O GOD, in the midst of Thy temple.

1 Great is the LORD, and highly to be praised: in the city of our GOD, even upon his holy hill.

Great is the Lord. This,* they say, is the ladder set upon earth, whose top reacheth unto heaven. Great; there we have natural religion: and highly to be praised; there we have the thanksgiving to be paid to Him in His earliest Church, namely, the synagogue: in the city of our God; there we descend to the Church militant here on earth: even upon His holy hill; and for the last step we arrive at that mountain which is exalted above all mountains, (Ay.) where the throne of the Eternal SON is established for ever. In the city of our God. And in how many senses do they understand this saying! First of all,* in that city which has not only its gates of pearls, and its streets of gold, and its houses of all manner of precious stones, but which is so compacted together that, as S. Jerome, himself accustomed to the most orderly and regular footing in this world, says, there needs nothing else to convince us of the celestial disposition of the heavenly promises than this; that the manifold arrangement of the heavenly hierarchy should be so wonderfully set in order. Or,* as others will have it, this city of our GOD is His dear home in this world. And I do not wonder that one, so tossed about from this to that country, over stormy seas, through lands which obeyed four or five different lords, all of them at enmity one with the other,—that one in short, so situated as was Guarric, should have found his greatest comfort in this sense of the verse. “Be it so,” he seems to say; “however miserable be the turmoil of this present condition, however Simon Magus seems to have seated himself in the chair of Simon Peter, nevertheless great is our Lord: He once before His Passion drove out those that sold sheep and doves from His temple on earth; He will again drive out those who make a traffic of the Blessed Sacraments, whereby we eat the Flesh of the Immaculate Lamb, and receive the influence of the heavenly Dove, from the Church which is now His temple.

2–3 (2) The hill of Sion is a fair place, and the joy of the whole earth: upon the north side lieth the city of the great King; GOD is well known in her palaces as a sure refuge.

And here we have one of those classical places, so to speak, which tell us how the hill of Sion is to be taken of the Church militant, of the Church in the state of expectation, of the Church which still looks forward to those blessed things which are to be revealed.1 But here is one of the most remarkable passages in the whole of Scripture. Interpret the original how you will, (D. C.) whether as we do, upon the sides of the north, the city of the great King; or as other versions, of the palace of the King in that city, being on its northern side. And why? Because the north, all through the Old Testament, is taken, even as village tradition has made it in our churchyards, the especial possession of Satan. “For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of GOD; I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, upon the sides of the north.”* What does this show but that, even now, and even however much it may at this present moment appear to be the inheritance of Satan, “the earth IS the LORD’S and all that therein is?” Or, if we like to follow the Vulgate translation: Mount Sion is founded with the exultation of the whole earth; that Mount Sion which pertains to the sides of the north, the city of the great King. They observe how, if not the first, yet nearest to the first of all the graces of the SPIRIT, (D. C.) joy is reckoned: and here we have that original joy, when, even at the foundation of this world, miserable as it was thereafter to be from sin,* “all the sons of GOD shouted for joy;” and so also when the new and lovelier Church arose on the ruins of the old,* when the true corner-stone of that Church was truly laid in the resurrection of our dear Master, thus it is written: “Then were the disciples glad when they saw the LORD.”* So then, the foundation of the world in its first creation, and the foundation of the new world in its regeneration are one and the same thing: the WORD, the Creator,* is the one; the WORD, the Redeemer, is the other. In her palaces. But what are her palaces? and in how many senses have they not been taken? In the first place, (A.) her Martyrs, who are of a verity the noblest of those dwellings in which the HOLY GHOST makes His habitation; then the Confessors,* who dwelt in that mansion,* as S. Cyril says, of charity, of faith, and of hope: then the Virgins who dwelt in the golden house of chastity; then the ordinary generation of Christians who, amidst all their various trials, have kept the faith undefiled; in all their palaces GOD is known as a sure refuge. Ah! it matters little whether you read with S. Jerome, Agnitus est; or with Arnobius, Cognitus est: or with the Roman and Ambrosian version, and with Cassiodorus, Dignoscetur: or with the Complutensian manuscripts, Cognoscitur: the thing is the same. Then it is,* as a saint of later times says: “It is in these palaces, in one or other of them, that we must be found: different palaces in this world, but one and the same in that. For thither, as from so many varying regions, so also from as many different states, shall they all enter in, to whom, in their varying ages, the LORD has been indeed a sure refuge; whether Apostles, Martyrs, or Confessors; whether virgins, widows, or continent, all shall be received into those many mansions which are but one, all shall be found acceptable where they have merited a place in that Mount Sion which is founded with the joy of the whole earth.”

4 (3) For lo, the kings of the earth: are gathered, and gone by together.

5 (4) They marvelled to see such things: they were astonished,* and suddenly cast down.

Are gathered and gone by together.* But to what purpose? As friends or as foes? Is it the marshalling of foes drawn up in battle array,* kings of the earth against the King that reigned from the Cross? Or,* are these kings they who pass as in triumphal procession, (Z.) casting down their crowns before the King of kings and LORD of lords? In this case,* not as gone by or to pass away; but rather to pass on to that eternal kingdom which,* unlike earthly sovereignties, shall never be removed. So say the later writers. But there is still another interpretation, and it is that which finds greater favour with the earlier saints. The kings of the earth, the three wise men, (B.) are gathered, seeing that they came not from the same region,* but from lands far apart, and led by the star, are gone by; gone by Jerusalem where Herod might reign, but not the King of that Jerusalem which is free: gone by the hill-country of Judæa, then all alive with the tidings of that wonderful Birth: gone by Bethlehem too, (A.) when,* being warned of GOD that they should not return to Herod, the wise men departed into their own country another way. And there is yet another interpretation, by which we are taught that the kings of the earth,—that is, the kings chosen by GOD to rule the one nation upon earth which was His inheritance,—have gone by together in the sense of S. Peter, when he says that David, after he had served his people according to the will of GOD, fell on sleep and saw corruption; and so also the descendants of David, in like manner gathered to their fathers,* passed by, as David had done: whereas He, the second and truer David, the only Child of that Royal line, He in Whom the posterity of the kings of Judah ended, He never went by, but remaineth, as S. Paul says, not only a Priest, but a King for ever, after the order of Melchisedec. They marvelled to see such things. They marvelled, those kings as they followed the star, (Ay.) to see such things; to see Him That upheld the earth, Himself hanging on His Mother’s breast; such things, as that He, Who spreadeth out the heavens like a curtain, should Himself be sheltered by no better a covering than the roof of a stable; such things, as that He, Whose are all the beasts of the forests,* and so are the cattle upon a thousand hills, should only have one ox and one ass to do Him homage; but, more than all, they marvelled to see such things as that the LORD of the world should come to His own, His own not receiving Him; and while that poor ox knew his owner, and that untaught ass his master’s crib, Israel, rich with so many types, and parables, and instructions, would not know; the people, taught by so many prophecies, would not consider. They were astonished, and suddenly cast down: as it is written, “When they saw the young Child with Mary His Mother, they fell down and worshipped Him.”

6 (5) Fear came there upon them, and sorrow: as upon a woman in her travail.

And when did not fear fall upon those to whom any supernatural revelation of our LORD, or of His Angels, was vouchsafed? When, from the time that Manoah and his wife beheld Him Who gave them those good tidings of the deliverer of Israel,—from the time that Gideon, when he saw the messenger who announced the deliverance of his people from the Midianites? even as the three Maries when they stood at the tomb, and heard those tidings more blessed than had ever before entered into human ears. The great doctor of the Western Church tells us,* that where there is no fear, there can be no hope; and so the great doctor of the Jewish Church had said long before: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”* As upon a woman in her travail. And thus the Son of David repeats what David himself said long before: “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow because her hour is come; but as soon as she is delivered of the child,* she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.” Well may the Church take that discourse of our dear LORD to be her Gospel for Rogation-tide; for then all the longing, all the yearning, all the anxious expectation, which the Greek so marvellously expresses, (ἀποκαραδοκία,) then at last comes to an end: and the fear and the sorrow of that long travail came so blessedly to its conclusion.

7 (6) Thou shalt break the ships of the sea: through the east-wind.

Or, as it is in the Vulgate, In a vehement wind Thou shalt break the ships of Tarshish. There are three things here which are to be taken in connection with each other, or else we shall fail of the meaning of each. First, consider at once “the sorrow as of a woman in her travail,” which the last verse tells us of, and the ships of the sea which are to be broken; and with all these also compare the text: the ships “went not” which were made to go to Tarshish, “for they were broken at Ezion-geber.”* And what are these ships, except those Holy Innocents,1 who were sent forth as it were in search of the true gold of salvation in Tarshish? But they “went not” in one sense; they were spared all that voyage over “the waves of this troublesome world;” and yet, without it, they obtained the true gold from the Land of Ophir. There were, indeed, not only the ordinary sorrows of mothers; there was also the agony of mothers thus bereaved. As the great Christian poet says—

O barbarum spectaculum!

Illisa cervix cautibus

Spargit cerebrum lacteum,*

Oculosque per vulnus vomit.

Aut in profundum palpitans

Mersatur infans gurgitem,

Cui subter arctis faucibus,

Singultat unda et halitus.

Through the east wind. And notice, when the children of Israel were to be delivered, and that for ever, from the Egyptians, and when Moses had stretched out his rod, “the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” And so says the greatest of mediæval theologians; that Wind,* namely, the SPIRIT of GOD, sent by the SON, as proceeding from the FATHER, divides all seas of difficulty, casts down all mountainous waves of temptation, makes both the Red Sea and the Jordan a highway for the ransomed to pass over. How can it be otherwise, when He, Whose Name is the East, rules and governs that wind, causing it to blow wheresoever and whensoever He will?

8 (7) Like as we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the LORD of Hosts, in the city of our GOD: GOD upholdeth the same for ever.

It is this text which was the great comfort of the Confessors, in that which later ages have thought so little of—the Iconoclastic persecution. Like as we have heard, so have we seen. For that reason,* and in defence of the Incarnation, because what they had heard from the prophets, what had been seen by apostolic and isapostolic eyes, that they were resolved to confess, even through torture, even to death,—therefore it is that the martyrology of the Eastern Church has received fully a third part of its names. It was not the cause of icons, but the belief in the Incarnation, that was at stake. So have we seen. But where? In the city of the Lord of Hosts. And here the later commentators notice,* that which the primitive and mediæval writers could scarcely in the nature of things have seen, how the Church is the only communion of Christians in which symbolism is the foundation of her ornaments and of her rites. Like as we have heard, so have we seen. Is there a Holy of Holies, a heavenly kingdom, into which they only shall enter who have been made perfect through suffering, and not they till after the consummation of all things? So has the earthly Church her sanctuary as well as her choir and her nave. Is there a Church—so to speak—in Paradise, waiting for the perfect consummation of all things? So also has the earthly Church her choir, separated from the nave by that marvellous screen, the emblem of death; separated also from the sanctuary less visibly and less actually, but still really. Like as we have heard, so have we seen. And notice this also, the double repetition, In the city of the Lord of Hosts, in the city of our God. Why the in one case, and our in the other? Because, speaking of Him in this world, He is not only the GOD of the elect, but the GOD of those that fight against Him, and the LORD of Hosts now; whereas the simple word of worship, GOD, is applied to the future Kingdom, because there can be no battles, there can be no need of armies, there the true King of Salem—which is by interpretation the King of Peace—shall reign. God upholdeth the same for ever. It shows how strongly the revelation of oracles had power to influence even Christians, (A.) that S. Augustine, writing on this verse, should be at the pains to prove, at great length, how false was the common Pagan belief, that the Christian Religion should endure only six hundred years. And yet, (C.) as it has well been observed, his elaborate argument on this question, now rendered so utterly needless, ought to be an example to priests, how they are bound to put out their full strength against heresies and mistakes, however ludicrous in themselves, which carry away a certain number at the time then present, although they may be fully aware that, after a short period, the confutation will seem almost as trifling as the assertion. And, if for one moment we may turn away from those primitive and mediæval authors to our own time, may not such of us as have to do battle against the follies and heresies which, like Jonah’s gourd, came up in a night, and will perish in a night, take all the more comfort in this, that, as we can work for no future reward in this world, so our recompense will be all the more laid up when our Master shall return from the far Country, whither He has now departed?

9 (8) We wait for thy loving-kindness, O GOD: in the midst of thy temple.

Or rather, as it is in the Vulgate, We have received Thy loving-kindness, O God. Here—and how happy would it be if only in other places as here—the Eastern and Western Churches are fairly arrayed against each other. The former takes the verse as a prophecy of the future, (L.) the latter as a history of the past: the one as typical of regeneration, the other of final election: the one as telling of the Blessed Eucharist, the other as of Him Who, no longer under signs and symbols, but in His Own dear Self, will manifest Himself to His people. Wc might reckon up, were it worth while, the commentators on each side: S. Athanasius, S. Cyril, S. Theodoret, on the Eastern; S. Remigius, S. Bruno, and the great S. Thomas, on the other. But, after all, both in the past, and present, and future, this dear verse has to do with us. We wait. But why? says the great Carmelite commentator. “Because Thou hast been my help, therefore under the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice.” “My help?” Let me quote Manoah,* and his wife; his wife, when the weaker in sex, but the stronger in faith, said to her husband, “If the LORD were pleased to kill us, He would not have received a burnt-offering at our hands.”* So also, because Samson, when he had so wonderfully conquered the Philistines, pleaded that former victory as a kind of reason why the second should be granted to him: “Thou hast given this great deliverance into the hand of Thy servant, and now shall I die for thirst, and fall into the hand of the uncircumcised?”* And, latest and noblest of all, David, when he left this on record: “Because Thou hast been my helper, therefore under the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice;” and, “Thou, O GOD, hast taught me from my youth up until now; therefore will I tell of Thy wondrous works.” But they take the sense in a truer and deeper way. It is, (D. C.) perhaps, rather bold to understand our LORD’S Temple as consisting of those three crosses on the summit of Mount Calvary: He Himself in the midst; those that were crucified with Him, Dymas on the right, Gesmas on the left. And in the midst of these,* even then pretypifying His own setting forth the Day of Judgment, He so waited for GOD’S loving-kindness, He so waited, as that after He had said, “I knew that Thou hearest Me always,”* He should afterwards receive the full blessing of that waiting in “Lazarus, come forth;” Who so waited as regarded Himself,* that the same loving-kindness was shown Him; firstly, in the ministrations of the daughters of Jerusalem; then in those Who stood round about His Cross; then in those who, having been so tremblingly afraid to confess Him while He yet dwelt among men, so gloriously paid their homage to Him after He had died the death of a male-factor. However physically untrue, (B.) one cannot wonder that the love of those mediæval saints should thence have gathered, as a philosophical dogma,* that the city of Jerusalem was the centre of the earth. And to me it is a noble thought, that they should so bravely have taken GOD’S Temple to mean this whole world, which not only ought to be His in fact, but is His by right.1 In the midst of that Temple, then, that loving-kindness, (A.) for which, even in those old times, David waited, was poured forth both to David’s seed according to the flesh, and to the truer seed of David according to the Spirit.

10 (9) O GOD, according to thy Name, so is thy praise unto the world’s end: thy right hand is full of righteousness.

According to Thy Name. And, (L.) as one says, how could there be a greater proof of the humility of the Only-begotten SON than this? According to Thy Name—that Name which has not only healed diseases, cast out devils, raised the dead, but in and by which the worlds were framed: what, after so glorious a beginning, might one not expect as a conclusion of the sentence? Was there ever, so it would seem to us, so miserable an apodosis? So is Thy praise. That praise to man so utterly worthless; that praise which has given glory to tyrants and the vilest of sinners? Even so: as it is written in another place, “Whose offereth Me thanks and praise, he honoureth Me.” So is Thy praise. So? So, by the blood of the martyrs was His praise Who was the Martyr of martyrs; so by the testimony of the Confessors was His praise,* Who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession; so by the love of the Virgins was His praise, Who so drew them that they should run after Him; so by the confession of every righteous man,* that He, the only True, the only Righteous, should have this testimony borne of Him, “This Man hath done nothing amiss.” These were the four parts into which our LORD’S garments were divided: divided, but not till He had made good His Name, the Name of JESUS, and that Name could only be made good on the Cross. Thy right hand is full of righteousness. (L.) And here they ask two questions: the one, why that right hand should be full of righteousness or justice, rather than of mercy? the other, why it should be the right rather than the left hand? S. Chrysostom says that,* since the execution of justice is rather the active, the performance of mercy the passive, grace, therefore the right hand, the symbol of strength and action, has that attributed to it. But mediæval writers have found out a higher meaning, basing their interpretation on that saying of S. Paul, “that He should be just, and yet the justifier of him that believeth in JESUS.” Thy right hand, they would say, (whatever multitudes shall be placed thereon at the last day to be received into Thy heavenly kingdom,* miserable sinners though they were in themselves,) is, nevertheless, not only full of mercy, but full of justice also. Others, again, take the clause in the same sense in which, through so many Eastern monasteries, one sees the verse interpreted, “The souls of the just are in the hand of GOD:” a Divine hand, that is, surrounded with the nimbus of glory, holding within its grasp the liberated spirits of the righteous; and so an interpretation founded partly on the parable of our LORD, and partly on the saying of the Wise Men.

11 (10) Let the mount Sion rejoice, and the daughter of Judah be glad: because of thy judgments.

And here they bid us notice how often David calls us to rejoice; which the SON of David never did. And why? Because David himself was a type, (Ay.) not of his suffering, but of his triumphant SON and LORD. “Never but once,” says S. Thomas, with that most beautiful modesty which distinguishes writers who, like him, were imbued with, and, so to speak, steeped in, Holy Scripture; “never but once, so far as I remember,* was Sion called on to rejoice, during our LORD’S sojourn upon earth. And when,” he continues, “was that? Just before that same daughter of Sion exclaimed, ‘Crucify Him, crucify Him!’ So hard,”* he says, “is it to indulge safely even in spiritual joy.” “They were more whom the wood devoured that day than the sword devoured.”* That is, they were more who, by a false trust in the Cross, threw away their salvation, than they who, by the open assault of Satan,* fell into unconcealed and deadly sin. And so, as S. Fulgentius says: “never let us think ourselves more near to some desperate ambush of Satan, than when we have obtained some signal victory over him—only let it have been an easy one: never let us be more afraid of falling into an ambush, than when the host of the Philistines was repelled from us in a way which we cannot understand.”

12 (11) Walk about Sion, and go round about her: and tell the towers thereof.

13 (12) Mark well her bulwarks, set up her houses: that ye may tell them that come after.

Now, then,” as says a holy writer, “now, then,* all ye that are weak in faith, ye that think the City of our solemnities, after all, to be conquerable by the enemy; come and behold what are its walls, what are its bulwarks; come and observe how, set face to face over against Babylon, the one in its calm and eternal strength, the other in its hurried and pretentious weakness, it, and it alone, shall endure not only the wind and the storm, but the attack of the enemy also. I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem. And who are they? The time, as blessed Paul saith, would fail me to reckon who they are that are first mounting the walls, not of the spiritual Jebus, but of the true Jerusalem. Who are they”*—for the writer lived in that terrible time of the thirty years’ war, when every Priest in Germany was almost as conversant with the stratagems of a battle-field, and the art of fortification, as with his own ecclesiastical rites—“who are they, save the Martyrs, that are posted on the barbican, awaiting the first onset of the foe? Who are they save the Confessors who, on the outer walls, do their best to repulse the more general assault? While the keep is held out, as the heart of the whole fortress, by those who have taken the vow of religion; while obedience, poverty, and chastity mount their triple banner thereon.” Go round about her. But it is a far dearer sense,* that which the Hebrew allows,* and which S. Jerome approves, embrace her: and so the Greek Fathers understand the phrase in a meaning somewhat between the two—so go round about her, as to be in love with her, (Z.) as to take in all her beauties at one glance; while there are not wanting mediæval writers who, taking it in a higher sense still, would bid us understand the phrase of embracing it with our arms. And again; many of the Fathers would interpret the two clauses of the two different estates of Christian men: Walk about Sion—there you have the secular life;* embrace her—there you have the religious rule. And then, (Z.) in the three next phrases,* tell the towers—mark well her bulwarks—set up her houses, may we not be well said to have the hundred, and sixty, and thirty-fold of the parable? exactly as in the prophet, “They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not be faint.”* And now for the reason why these three divisions are chosen as the types of—to say it with all reverence—the earthly Trinity of all faithful souls. Highest of all are they who mount up by most closely following,* in their typical representation of the Cross, Him Who died on the Cross; so, and so only, as Euthymius says, (Z.) they can mount. Run you may, and walk you may, without so exact a conformity to the Crucified One;* but to be transformed into His most perfect image,* three things are needful: the first, eyes like eagles, that can look at the full blaze of the sun; the second, extended wings, like those of the same birds, so as more fully to represent the sign of the Cross; the third, that as the chief characteristic of eagles,* as distinguishing them from other birds of prey, is the rapid, decided, intent manner in which they swoop upon their quarry, so that not only while they pounce on it, but while they give it to their young,* they never for one moment alight from their wings: so each particular makes them the truer representative of Saints. Next to them we have those who shall run and not be weary, namely, those who, whether in the estate of widowhood, or of the enforced service of our LORD,* have given themselves up to Him. And then, lastly, “And shall walk, and not faint;” and that, as one says who himself did not strive after the highest life, (A.) involves a thousand graces, each several one being fraught with a victory over some one sin. I might well say,* the time would fail me to tell of those who have thus summed up the various gifts set forth in this Psalm. And, fortified by all these interpretations, we ought, as S. Jerome says, to believe that which follows:

14 (13) For this GOD is our GOD for ever and ever: he shall be our guide unto death.

And, GOD be thanked! there is but one difficulty in this verse, and that, on what the word for depends. And they most of them take it as a prophecy of the Church triumphant, as well as the years yet to come of the Church militant: “that ye may tell them that come after.” Why? Because by the victories of the past they may understand the expectations of the future. So speaks the greatest doctor of the Church,* and a noble passage it is. Them that come after. And who are they? who but those who, having passed through great tribulation, have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb;* those who shall neither hunger any more for the vain joys of this world, nor thirst any more for the parching temptations of Satan; but the Lamb, the true Paschal Lamb, as of old time He led forth the tribes of GOD from Egypt, so now also shall lead them, no longer to the rock whose waters failed, but unto living fountains of waters. He shall be our guide unto death. And there we have a singular variation in the Chaldæan version, (L.) where it is, He shall be our guide all the days of our youth. And, (Ly.) as one of the earlier commentators says, What is the difference? All the days of a Christian’s life in this world,—are they not the days of his youth, and of that only, so far as regards the next? Our guide unto death. So be it.* He Who went up to His own death carrying the Cross, would have us in that, and in no other way, follow Him also. Our guide unto death; because He Himself bare the Cross; beyond it, (B.) because He Himself rose again from the dead; for ever and ever, because it is written, “I am He that liveth and was dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore.”*

And therefore:

Glory be to the FATHER, the LORD highly to be praised; and to the SON, the GOD Who is well known in the earthly and heavenly palaces as a sure refuge: and to the HOLY GHOST, for Whose loving-kindness we wait in the midst of His Temple;

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

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