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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. Serve the LORD, &c. [Office for the Dead: Turn Thee, * O LORD, and deliver my soul, for in death no man remembereth Thee.]

Parisian. My just help is from the LORD, * Who preserveth those that are true of heart.

Mozarabic. Rebuke me not in Thine anger.

This is the first of the seven Penitential Psalms: the seven weapons wherewith to oppose the seven deadly sins: the seven prayers inspired by the sevenfold SPIRIT to the repenting sinner: the seven guardians for the seven days of the week: the seven companions for the seven Canonical Hours of the day.

1 O LORD, rebuke me not in thine indignation: neither chasten me in thy displeasure.

Rebuke me not in this life;* neither chasten me in the next. Where note: he saith not absolutely, Rebuke me not, but adds, in Thine indignation: “For if we be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are we bastards and not sons.”* And so David himself testifies in another place: “Blessed is the man whom Thou chastenest, O LORD.”* As if he said, Rebuke me as a Father, chasten me as a Master.

[Rebuke me not. This is the first step of the seven in the ladder of repentance,* denoted by the seven Penitential Psalms, and marks fear of punishment. Next is sorrow for sin, “I will confess my sins unto the LORD.”* Thirdly; the hope of pardon, “Thou shalt answer for me, O LORD my GOD.”* Fourthly; the love of a cleansed soul, “Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.”* Fifthly; longing for the heavenly Jerusalem, “When the LORD shall build up Sion, and when His glory shall appear.”* Sixthly; distrust of self, “My soul fleeth unto the LORD.”* Seventhly; prayer against final doom, “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant.”*]

2 Have mercy upon me, O LORD, for I am weak: O LORD, heal me, for my bones are vexed.

Have mercy. GOD has mercy in many ways. By waiting, as it is written: “And therefore will the LORD wait, that He may be gracious unto you.”* By long-suffering, as He saith: “It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.”* By calling: “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”* By helping: “He, remembering His mercy, hath holpen His servant Israel.”* By upholding: “When I said, My foot hath slipped, Thy mercy, O LORD, held me up.”* I am weak: (C.) there is nothing like a confession of weakness to move the Heavenly Physician to compassion. Weak, from the sin of Adam; so that “of myself I cannot do the things that I would.” Weak, from actual transgression: for no soul can fall into sin without losing some of the strength that it received at Baptism.* Weak: for if even the intellect were not enfeebled, how could it be so easily overcome by passions? Yes: weakness is indeed the first and best argument for GOD’s mercy. Whence S. Gregory, writing on this very Psalm: “Adest miseria: adsit et misericordia.” “What,” asks S. Ambrose,* “is David weak, and dost thou profess to be strong? Did Solomon fall, and dost thou stand firm?” Note: bodily weakness is sometimes spiritual strength; yet even against that also we may cry to Him Who “healeth all our infirmities.” But here, spiritual weakness is also included, and we cry for grace that “when we are weak, then we may be strong.” My bones are vexed: therefore we pray, heal me, remembering the promise, “He keepeth all His bones, not one of them is broken.”* Well, therefore,* asks S. Peter Chrysologus: “What is weaker than man, whom sense beguiles, ignorance deceives, judgment surrounds, pomp injures, time deserts, age changes, infancy softens, youth precipitates, old age destroys?”

[Heal me. The Psalmist calls on the Great Physician for help, but does not presume to tell Him how He is to heal.* Use Thy sharpest remedies,* fire and steel, on me in this life, so that Thou spare me in that which is to come.* My bones. It is not merely the weaker part of my nature which fails me, but the very strongest, my understanding, will, and firmness,* (D. C.) my spiritual might, all that is, or may be, virtue, is enfeebled by my sin.]

3 My soul also is sore troubled: but, LORD, how long wilt thou punish me?

Troubled. Not with passion, nor anger, nor with temporal fears only: nor with the afflictions of this world only, but with sorrow for sin. For of the former it is written, that “man disquieteth himself in vain.”* How long? If GOD delays to be gracious, it is not without love to incite us to more fervent prayer, to make us more vigilant against sin; (A. & G.) for that which is easily cured, we take little care to prevent: to try our faith, and to make us feel, if the penitent suffers much, how far more grievous is the lot of the impenitent. Note: GOD hears, though He answers not. The verb is in the present, to show the readiness with which GOD gives: “Unto him that knocketh, it shall be opened.”* Here it is in the future, to teach us that the visible effects of GOD’s gifts do not always at once appear.

4 Turn thee, O LORD, and deliver my soul: O save me for thy mercy’s sake.

Turn Thee. For the LORD turned and looked upon Peter, before he went out and wept bitterly. He that has turned from us for our sins, must turn to us that we may repent. For it is written: “Turn ye unto Me, and I will turn unto you.” “How long,”* cries S. Peter Chrysologus, “wilt Thou endure, how long wilt Thou not assist, where is Thy CHRIST so often promised? Let Him come, let Him come, before the world shall have perished altogether, and nothing be found in it that He can preserve.” Turn Thee, O Lord, From what? From GOD into man, from the LORD into the servant, from the Judge into the Father.

5 For in death no man remembereth thee: and who will give thee thanks in the pit?

In death. It may be understood either of temporal or eternal death. For how can we remember Him to Whom we are dead in trespasses and sins?* They are solemn words of Salvian’s, in which he describes—commenting on the Vulgate, “And who shall confess to Thee in the grave?”—the utter uselessness of a too late repentance; the limit beyond which the keys of Absolution have no power.

6 I am weary of my groaning; every night wash I my bed: and water my couch with my tears.

Every night. For repentance is not a thing to be done once and then left alone; but to be practised day by day as long as we live, more especially in the dark night of affliction. Couch, may be understood mystically of those sins which have plunged the soul in security, (Ay.) and have withdrawn from it the light of GOD’s presence. Of which couch the Bride speaks in the Canticles, saying: “By night on my bed I sought Him Whom my soul loveth; I sought Him, but I found Him not.”* Wash, lamenting past sins: water, so as to bring forth good fruits for the future.

[My bed. The bed on which the soul lies sick, is the flesh, weakened and wounded by Adam’s fall. That bed the great Physician touched, (P.) by taking flesh Himself and suffering therein, and when He touched it, the sick man was healed. Wherefore is said to the repentant sinner, “Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house,”* that soul and body may be together in the heavenly mansions.* My tears. This is the second of the seven liquors which GOD gives us to wash the soul. First come the waters of Baptism: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean.”* Secondly; tears, as here. Thirdly; the milk of pure doctrine: “His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk.”* Fourthly; the precious Blood of CHRIST, Who “loved us and washed us from our sins with His own Blood.”* Fifthly; the wine of compunction: “He washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of the grape.”* Sixthly; the butter of rich devotion: “I washed my steps in butter, and the rock poured me out rivers of oil,”* Seventhly; the oil of spiritual gladness: “Bring me oil, that I may wash me.”*]

7 My beauty is gone for very trouble: and worn away because of all mine enemies.

My beauty. That is the beauty wherewith we were arrayed in Holy Baptism, when, as Ezekiel speaks,* We were girded about with fine linen and covered with silk, when there was neither spot, nor wrinkle nor any such thing in us. Worn away: lost, little by little, through the assaults of our ghostly enemies. The Vulgate gives it rather differently: (L.) “I have grown old among all mine enemies.” Where Lorinus observes that Holy Scripture mentions eight kinds of age. 1. That of natural condition: “They all shall wax old as doth a garment.”* 2. Of human corruption: “Put off the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.”* 3. Of ignorance: “Ancient error hath departed.”* 4. Of character and disposition: “Neither do men put new wine into old bottles.”* 5. Of sin:* “O thou that art waxen old in wickedness.” 6. Of friendship: “Forsake not an old friend.”* 7. Of the law: “That we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.”* 8. Of eternity: “I beheld till the thrones were cast down and the Ancient of Days did sit.”*

[My beauty. The A.V. correctly, (B.) with all the old versions, mine eye. This is the eye whereof the LORD saith in the Gospel, “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light; but if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness.”* This eye is the Catholic understanding of the Church, which is troubled because of wrath (Vulg.) against heretics, oppressors, and evil spirits. It is also the reasoning power of each man, confused by the attacks of his ghostly foes. Worn away. The A. V., rightly, waxeth old. Because it has not “put off the old man;”* because “Israel, (D. C.) thou art in thine enemies’ land,* thou art waxen old in a strange country.”* And so, even a heathen poet has truly said:

αἶψα γὰρ ἐν κακότητι βροτοὶ καταγηράσκουσι.]*

8 Away from me, all ye that work vanity: for the LORD hath heard the voice of my weeping.

After declaring his repentance, he proceeds to speak of its effects. Away from me. “For what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” In the Canticles: “I have washed my feet, (Ay.) how shall I defile them?”* That work. Not that have worked, lest he should seem to exclude penitents like himself. Note: all the Psalms which treat of penitence, one only excepted, the 88th, end with the expression of joyful hope.

[They that work vanity always are the evil spirits,* who are most readily driven away by penitential weeping, for as has been well said,* Satan can better endure his own fire than our tears, and he is more racked by the weeping of a contrite heart than by the flame of the burning of hell. That flame can absorb all rivers, but cannot dry up the waters of tears. Nay, rather, observes a Saint, writing on this very Psalm,* tears can extinguish the fire which is not quenched.]

9 The LORD hath heard my petition: the LORD will receive my prayer.

My petition. Like Jeremiah’s, That I should not be caused to go into the pit to die there.* My prayer: for grace for the future. It is not enough to a truly joyful heart to express its gladness once; whence S. Paul also says, “Rejoice in the LORD alway, and again I say, rejoice:”* hence its repetition here.* S. Hilary prettily enough represents penitential tears as going on an embassy to the throne of grace: S. Ambrose works out the idea at greater length,* and says that such an embassy can never fail of its aim. “The most honourable embassy,” writes another Saint, “which can be sent to GOD, is the shower of tears which fell from a penitent eye.” “The prayers of tears are more useful,”* says S. Maximus of Turin, “than those of words. Words of prayer often deceive: tears of prayer deceive not. A word is often unable to express its own meaning: a tear can always say that it would.”* S. Anselm of Laon says neatly enough, “Oratio Deum lenit, lacryma cogit; hæc pungit, illa ungit.”

10 All mine enemies shall be confounded, and sore vexed: they shall be turned back, and put to shame suddenly.

This is not so much a prayer against, as an intercession for, (Ay.) his enemies. Confounded at their past folly; sore vexed by true repentance; put to salutary shame in this world, (A.) that they may escape everlasting contempt in the next. Suddenly. For though the day of the LORD tarry long, yet that which is not expected at the time, (C.) comes suddenly after all. And note: it is fit that after crying for mercy himself, he should ask it for others: according to that saying, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”*

[Confounded. This is the very same word יֵבשׁוּ which is rendered put to shame, in the last clause of the verse, and much of the force is lost by diversity of translation. Let them be ashamed, after my example, for their past sins, (D. C.) sore vexed by the fear of judgment to come, turned backward from their sins, and to GOD, and ashamed, (Lu.) not of their sins alone, but of all in which they once boasted, and that suddenly, that they may not delay repentance till it is too late. And note that shame is twice mentioned, the shame before conversion which leads to repentance, the shame from the memory of past sins, which guards against relapse.]


Glory be to the FATHER, the LORD Who hath heard the voice of my weeping; glory be to the SON, the LORD Who hath heard my petition; glory be to the HOLY GHOST, the LORD Who will receive my prayer.

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

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