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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.

WE have now reached the Psalm of all Psalms; that which of all inspired compositions has, with the one exception of the LORD’S Prayer, been repeated oftenest by the Church. And there are almost as many mysteries in its position as there are in its structure.

As to the way in which the Church has repeated it. Till the last reformation of the Roman Breviary, it was said at every Hour, concluding the service, with the exception of Christmastide and the Great Forty Days. So, for some thirteen hundred years, this Fifty-first Psalm, in thousands of congregations, was repeated seven times daily. As S. Augustine says—and what small cause had he, compared to ourselves, thus to exclaim—“O most blessed sin of David, so gloriously atoned for! O most happy fault, which has brought in so many straying sheep to the Good Shepherd.” And further notice the position of this Psalm as the L.1 The Psalm, then, as the year of jubilee: so they all, those great lights of the Church, Origen,* S. Hilary, S. Ambrose, S. Thomas, Cassiodorus, S. Jerome. Compare with this,* as the same saints have done, the law given on the fiftieth day after the people had departed from the land of Egypt; compare the parable of our LORD about the two debtors,* the one that owed five hundred pence,* and the other fifty; especially remembering the sin of David, which you will, in this Psalm; compare the penalty of fifty shekels of silver inflicted on him who,* among the Israelites, had dishonoured a virgin. Think also of the fifty just men with whom Abraham’s petition began; think of the width of the Ark,* fifty cubits,* that ark which was to save all those who were saved from the general ruin; further, of the breadth of the tabernacle which Ezekiel in vision beheld: and lastly of the freedom of Levites from the servile works of the tabernacle when their fiftieth year had been attained. But above all, the year of jubilee, when all debts were remitted,* all manors returned to their original owners, all slaves were liberated, all prisoners were set free,—this, above all other interpretations, sets forth to us the mystery of this glorious fifty, which yet may be worked out, as we shall proceed to see, into many other senses.

To give the various Antiphons said to this Psalm,* would be simply to give all those of the day hours in the Church’s year: and of its quotidian use at all the latter, except in Eastertide, we have spoken not only above, but in the First Essay.

TITLE: To the chief musician. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the Prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. “Where sin hath abounded, grace did much more abound.” For consider how for nearly three thousand years that sin of David, that one momentary glance from the house-top, has given occasion to the enemies of the LORD, in each successive age, to blaspheme, down from the Lucians and Porphyries of primitive times, to the Voltaires and Humes and Paines of our own. And yet, no doubt the encouragement it has given to those who otherwise would have despaired, may be known to the Searcher of all hearts, far to outweigh the mischief and the blasphemy. So S. Augustine said in his time: so S. Bernard taught in his: so the latest of those who have any claim to the title of a mediæval teacher, S. Thomas de Villanova more than once asserts: so the great schools which have their rise on the one hand from S. Vincent de Paul, on the other from De Hauranne, differing as far as Catholics can possibly differ on the subject, are nevertheless agreed in this. One can only remember S. Augustine’s words, with respect to a still sadder fall, and apply them to this: “O sin of Adam, certainly necessary, which merited such and so great a Redeemer.”

Here, too, we may observe how many theological terms have their first origin in this Psalm. The Kyrie Eleison at the beginning; the clean heart; the broken and contrite heart; the sinner shall be converted; and above all,* here is first to be noticed, the first faint foreshadowing of one of the foundation truths of the Catholic faith. Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Never before had the HOLY SPIRIT been made known to the Jewish Church; nor yet again was the Paraclete spoken of to them till Isaiah, now about to conclude his prophecies by his martyrdom, said of the generation in the wilderness: “They rebelled and vexed His HOLY SPIRIT.”

Then as to the recitation of it. Never has Psalm, whether by Priest in Confession, or by Synod in Canon, been so often put into the mouth of Penitents as this. And thus Origen;a S. Hilary;b S. Ambrose,c more especially in his apology for David; Cassiodorus;d S. Jerome;e they all dwell strongly on tins point. And again; it has been well observed that there is scarcely one great theological verity which is not in this wonderful Psalm set forth. Here you have—the Incarnation; the calling of the Gentiles; sin, both original and actual; the nature and effect of preaching; grace, (L.) both justifying and sanctifying; the Atonement; the Institution of the Church; the Mission of the HOLY GHOST.

When Nathan the Prophet came unto him. They enter largely into the various opinions on this seer; some holding with many mediæval writers that he is the same Nathan with the son of David mentioned at the beginning of his reign; some with S. Ambrose, with S. Augustine,* and others, that he was a natural son of Uriah, and afterwards adopted by David. The wonderful tale related by S. Epiphanius no reasonable critic will now believe. Only this is to be observed: that the “king’s prophet,” Gad,* was not now made the messenger of GOD to David; any more than two centuries later, when GOD had a message of life and death to Ahab, Elijah was not the prophet chosen; but the message which determined Ahab’s fate was given to one of far less note, Micaiah. As to Bathsheba, S. Thomas most wonderfully observes how she is mentioned in the genealogy recorded by S. Matthew. Her name is not given; her husband’s name is recorded; and so, in the genealogy of our LORD, her sin is stamped on the whole history; whereas, of the honour that she might have rightly claimed of being a progenitress of the Messiah, she is deprived by her name being withheld.

Before we enter on this Psalm, I may remark as a proof how dear it has been to the Church, from the most primitive time till now, that I know of a hundred and fifty-nine Catholic Commentators who have explained it, either in treating of the Psalms generally, or of the Penitential Psalms, or of this especial Psalm. One of these, whom I have not, however, had the means of referring to, Alfonso de Tortado, has published a folio volume of 1200 pages on this one Psalm. And even for those beyond the Church, this Psalm has still had its own charm; and the great Lutheran dictionary of the writers of that Communion mentions twenty-seven who had written separate volumes on it. I have no means of learning how many Calvinistic authors have also made it the matter of an especial treatise; but I believe that certainly not fewer than those of the Lutheran Communion. Take notice then, how, as one of the late Catholic Commentators says, (L.) the precious ointment of this Psalm not only ran down the beard, but went down to the skirts of Aaron’s clothing; but was diffused even among the other sheep which were not of the fold.








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