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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.

It is a good thing * to give thanks unto the LORD.

Monastic. [Comm. of One Martyr: The righteous shall flourish as a palm-tree, and spread abroad like a cedar in Libanus.]

1 It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD: and to sing praises unto thy Name, O most Highest;

A good thing for these reasons:* because it is just, and due from us to GOD our King; it is useful, as being one of those works which are profitable to the soul; it is delightful, for it is pleasant for one that loves, to praise the object of his affection; it is ennobling, giving man a share in the office of the heavenly spirits. (C.) The LXX. and Vulgate, according to their wont, put the term confess instead of give thanks, and the commentators note that such confession, to be adequate, (Z.) must be two-fold; acknowledgment of our own weakness and guilt, as the first step, on the one hand, and of GOD’S might and holiness on the other, after we have fitted ourselves, by this preliminary cleansing of the heart, to celebrate His praises. Unto Thy Name.* They tell us that this title especially applies to CHRIST, the Only-Begotten SON, by Whom GOD is fully revealed to us, so that we know Him, while the name LORD denotes the HOLY SPIRIT, and Most Highest the FATHER Himself. The word here translated sing is by LXX. and Vulgate rendered play (ψάλλειν, psallere), (C.) and is mystically explained as the activity of devotion in good works, whereby the notes of our souls, as of a psaltery when struck, ascend to the ears of GOD. And we may fitly apply here the old Leonine saw as to the recitation of the Divine office:

Rite canis horas, si Biblia evolvis et oras,*

Tuneque placent horæ, cum corde canuntur et ore.

Thou singest the Hours aright, if in Scripture and prayer thou delight,

The Hours are accepted when sung by the heart in accord with the tongue.

2 To tell of thy loving-kindness early in the morning: and of thy truth in the night-season.

There is a singular Rabbinical legend that this Psalm was the song of praise uttered by Adam as the first Sabbath dawned upon the world,* and that it descended by tradition as the special hymn for that day.* More consonant with actual history is the fact that it was sung in the Temple on the Sabbath at the offering of the first lamb in the morning,* when the wine was poured out,* and continues still in use as a Sabbatical psalm in the rites of the Synagogue, and that the Roman Church, amongst other tokens of the powerful Judaizing influence which affected its earliest days, retains it as part of the Saturday Lauds in the Breviary. Further, there is a distinct reference in this second verse to the morning and evening sacrifice;* while more than one Rabbi is careful to point out that the happy Sabbath of which the Psalmist sings is not one of the present time,* but belongs to the future revelation of Messiah in His glory.* Observe, then, how fitly it succeeds Psalm 91, wherein we hear of the victory over temptation, (R.) now followed by restful peace of mind, figured by the LORD’S repose in the grave when He, as at the beginning of creation, rested from all His work that He had done; and figuring in its turn the Sabbath of eternity. (A.) And as the clear morning denotes the sunshine of prosperity, we thank GOD, while it lasts, for His mercy and bountifulness towards us. But we do not on that account charge Him with harshness and cruelty when the night-season of adversity arrives; rather we praise His truth, that is, the justice with which He weighs our faults and metes out His fatherly chastisements. And as the night always precedes the morning,* so it is not till we have been tried by suffering and darkened by sin and trouble, that we thoroughly realize and can fittingly praise the mercy of GOD in that glad morning when the Sun of Righteousness begins to arise in our hearts. We tell of His truth in the night-season, because our eyes are unable to bear the dazzling glory of His full revelation, for it is written, “He made darkness His secret place.”* Therefore the Law was given amidst clouds and darkness on Mount Sinai, therefore the Prophets spake in enigmas, therefore too the LORD Himself hid the mysteries of His kingdom in parables, therefore we too, here in the night-time of the world, “see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face;”* then, in the morning of the everlasting Sabbath, when all secrets shall be revealed:

For when the Sole-Begotten*

Shall render up once more

The kingdom to the FATHER,*

Whose own it was before,*—

Then glory yet unheard of

Shall shed abroad its ray,

Resolving all enigmas,

An endless Sabbath Day.

3 Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the lute: upon a loud instrument, and upon the harp.

There is some variation of opinion as to whether we have two, three, or four musical instruments named in this verse. The first is the view taken by the Syriac and Arabic versions, which make the lute to be the decachord, and the harp the mere accompaniment to a song. The second view is that of the Chaldee, LXX., Vulgate, and A. V.; as well as of most modern critics, who are divided as to the precise mode of rendering the second clause, some taking it to be “a song to the harp,”* and others, “a loud (or a solemn) strain upon the harp”* itself. The third opinion, which makes the word Higgaion, here occurring, that of a separate musical instrument, is supported by Aben-Ezra, and does, no doubt, preserve more fully the balance of parallelism in the two strophes of the verse. As to the mystical meaning of the decachord, it is only necessary to add a little to what has been already said under Psalm 33:2,* namely,* that one ancient Father tells us that it means the LORD JESUS Himself, seemingly because the initial letter of that holy Name stands for the number ten both in Hebrew and Greek, (L.) while, as the Latin X marks the Cross, and is also the Egyptian sign of life to come, it may well denote Him too. Nay more, our modern way of writing it, with the figure 1 followed by a cipher, itself nothing, tells of the One sole sufficient godhead united by the Incarnation to the nothingness of man. Again, the decachord’s ten strings denote the ten precepts of the moral law; by compliance with which our lives make music to GOD,* while they take the song and harp (Vulg.) to be the cheerful acceptance of bodily mortification, and the readiness of almsgiving. And that because, as was noted before, a mystical distinction is always drawn between the psaltery, whose strings are struck from above, and which is therefore taken to denote divine contemplation, and the harp, played from below, and therefore typical of humility, (A.) and the active service of the body. And S. Augustine here observes: Our business here is not merely to carry the psaltery but to sing to it. Even the Jews have the Law; they carry it, but they do not play upon it. Who then do play? They who put it into action. That is not enough. They who act with dejection are not yet playing. Who are they that play? They who do well with cheerfulness. For there is cheerfulness in playing. And what saith the Apostle? “GOD loveth a cheerful giver.”* And the same Apostle,* in counting up the afflictions of mind and body which habitually befell himself in the course of his ministry,* puts another decachord of suffering into our hands, wherewith we, by striking its strings boldly and cheerfully,* can make melody well-pleasing to the LORD. For, as one has well said, GOD speaks to man, saying, Thou art My harp, and flute, and temple; a harp, by reason of harmony; a flute, because of breath; a temple, because of the Word.

4 For thou, LORD, hast made me glad through thy works: and I will rejoice in giving praise for the operations of thy hands.

5 O LORD, how glorious are thy works: thy thoughts are very deep!

These verses appear to have suggested the Rabbinical legend already cited; that this was Adam’s morning hymn on the day after his creation.* And we may observe that the phrase in the first verse does not run, Thy works have made me glad, for if there be no more than that, then the beauties and marvels of creation are snares to draw us from the thought of GOD. But here it runs Thou hast made me glad, and that through Thy works as an instrument to declare Thy love and power. And thus our own poet, in the hymn he puts into Adam’s mouth in Eden:

These are Thy glorious works, Parent of good,*

Almighty, Thine this universal frame,

Thus wondrous fair; Thyself how wondrous then!

Unspeakable, Who sittest above these heavens,

To us invisible, or dimly seen

In these Thy lowest works, yet these declare

Thy goodness beyond thought, and power divine.

And that because,* as the Apostle says, “the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and godhead.” Wherefore S. Basil the Great aptly calls creation the “school and lecture-room of souls.”* But there are some marvels which lessen by experience and knowledge,* and therefore the Psalmist adds here that such is not the case with GOD’S works, because their wonderful character, in greatest and least alike, and the whole mystery of creation is very deep, lying far below the longest plummet with which man would fain sound the abysses. But if the creation of nature be wonderful, far exceeding it in beauty and marvels is the creation of grace; and they tell us truly that the way GOD made us most glad through the work of His hands was when He stretched forth those hands upon the Cross, there to work out our redemption, when His thoughts were very deep, looking forward to the whole constitution and history of His Church, and the coming of the nations into the fold.

6 An unwise man doth not well consider this: and a fool doth not understand it.

They give several explanations of the distinction between the two classes of persons here named,* some telling us that the first denotes unbelievers, who know nothing of the wisdom of GOD, and the second evil Christians, who, knowing the outer facts of His truth, are unable to comprehend them by reason of perversity. Others see, not dissimilarly, the man who is incurious of heavenly things,* and him who is eager about earthly matters. Or again, the Jew who rejects, and the Gentile who has never learnt the Gospel. Once more, it is explained to denote the man endowed with worldly wisdom, but who is destitute of spiritual knowledge,* and the man who has neither wisdom of this world nor of the next. But the most satisfactory account seems to be that by the first are meant simply those who are deficient in understanding, and dull in observation,* as a mere mental deficiency; and by the second those who have blunted all their powers by perversity and wickedness. And we may draw one lesson from this verse, that the so-called “sacrifice of intellect” is not an oblation well-pleasing to GOD, for it stunts our faculty of admiration for His glory, and folds in a napkin of specious purity of intention the talent He gives us to put out at interest for Him. Wherefore Lactantius says very well:* “Religion cannot be separated from Wisdom,* nor Wisdom from Religion, for it is one and the same GOD Who ought to be understood, which is Wisdom, and honoured, which is Religion.

7 When the ungodly are green as the grass., and when all the workers of wickedness do flourish: then shall they he destroyed for ever; 8 but thou, LORD, art the most Highest for evermore.

9 (8) For lo, thine enemies, O LORD, lo, thine enemies shall perish: and all the workers of wickedness shall he destroyed.

This is one of the deep thoughts of GOD which are not considered nor understood by the unwise and foolish,* (Ay.) namely, that there is no Sabbath rest of mind or of future happiness awaiting the wicked. It is the consolation given to the servants of GOD, that their enemies, who are His enemies too, will fade and disappear in the very moment of their apparent strength and triumph; while He, Who is His people’s stay, is untouched by any change, is not as the grass of the field, lying low or rank, but Most Highest, (C.) is not one that can perish, but is for evermore. And thus, though His enemies counted Him a mere man, who could be slain, and His memory blotted out, yet His very death itself was the overthrow of both His ghostly and human foes. They give several explanations of the repetition of the words Thine enemies; (D. C.) for the most part taking it as denoting some special emphasis, either as increasing the terror of the threat,* or fixing the certainty of retribution; (R.) but others prefer to see a reference to the great variety of sinners,* and one will have it that two classes of offenders are here distinguished, those who break the positive law, specially enjoined by GOD, and those who transgress the natural law, familiar even to heathens. Shall be destroyed. Rather, with LXX., Vulgate,* and A. V., scattered. And so the Chaldee takes it, (C.) shall be separated from the congregation of the righteous;* a meaning which most of the Christian expositors transfer to the division between the sheep and goats at the Day of Judgment.* There is, however, a gentler reading of the verses, which deserves citation. The sinners,* observes a Greek Father, who spring up like the grass, are impure thoughts, for grass is a weak and frail thing, possessing no vigour. When the evil thoughts arise in the mind, then all the workers of wickedness appear (LXX.) which mean actual sins, that they may perish for ever. For when sins appear before warriors and athletes, they are at once slain by them. Note then the order of the language; first evil thoughts spring up; then sins appear, thereupon all of them perish. All this has to do with athletes. We, who carry sin into action, and always fulfil our vices, are unable to know when bad thoughts spring up, or when sins appear, but we are still in Lower Egypt, making bricks under Pharaoh.

10 (9) But mine horn shall be exalted like the horn of an unicorn: for I am anointed with fresh oil.

Whether CHRIST be here the speaker, or one of His members, the horn is the same, that mighty horn of salvation raised up in the House of David, the LORD strong in His own power, or His disciple strong in His co-operation. He is a horn, (L.) for springing from flesh, He hath nothing of the passions of flesh, but grows out beyond the carnal nature from which He derives Himself, (Z.) and rises up on high, in strength and honour, a terror to all His foes, specially in the Judgment. He is anointed, with fresh oil, not with that old traditional oil of the decrepit Mosaic dispensation, wherewith the Aaronic Priesthood was set apart, wherewith in former days kings and prophets had been consecrated. His unction was fresh, a new thing in creation, the direct anointing of the HOLY GHOST Himself, of which that elder rite was but a faint symbol, fresh, as knowing no corruption, as ever new and young, though eternal before and after all worlds; a new anointing which He sent on the Apostles in the fiery tongues of Pentecost. (A.) Of an unicorn.1 Those who take this whole speech to be that of the Church, (C.) see here in the unicorn the type of Catholic unity,* or as the Greek Fathers take it, the worship of One GOD; while a third view is that the singleness of future glory, in which no foreign elements can mingle, (R.) is denoted; and a fourth sees here those who rejoice in the one hope of reaching that one glory.

In the latter strophe of the verse, the LXX. and Vulgate read, (A.) And my old age in rich mercy2 And this they take of the old age of the Church, (C.) in the late evening of the world, when her beauty will be as snowy as the hair of an aged man: or again, of the future life itself,* an old age in the sense of its late arrival and its tranquillity, although in itself a perpetual youth; or yet again, the gravity and calmness of life and demeanour to be observed in Saints, even in their early years, all which are blessed with the rich mercy of GOD. And the Carmelite, citing Aristotle, (Ay.) urges that there are five good qualities of old men which make them apt types of the Church in the time of wisdom, as of individual Saints also; namely, that their passions have cooled, they have more pity for suffering than the young, they are not given to such strong assertion of doubtful matters, and they are discreet and temperate in action.

11 (10) Mine eye also shall see his lust of mine enemies: and mine ear shall hear his desire of the wicked that rise up against me.

They take it in a threefold sense, (P.) first, of the victory of the Church, by no physical act of her own, over the Jews and the Pagans who oppressed her in the earliest days of Christianity; next, (D. C.) of the inner eye of the soul beholding the victory of faith over temptation; and lastly, of the final overthrow of sinners in the Judgment.

12 (11) The righteous shall flourish like a palm-tree: and shall spread abroad like a cedar in Libanus.

Here is the forcible contrast to the lowly and fading grass of a previous verse, taken from the stateliest and most valuable trees of Palestine. There are many reasons given for the comparison of a Saint to a palm-tree,* which have no lack of aptness. The palm grows in a barren soil, as the Saint in this world’s desert, and yet needs constant moisture, as he needs the fountains of the Word. It grows to a great height, and perfectly straight, denoting aspiration to heavenly things and uprightness of life; it grows as long as it lives, is an evergreen, and always fruitful, denoting spiritual improvement and continuous vitality of holiness; its leaves spread out above as high as possible from the ground, and its fruit is amongst those leaves, denoting loftiness of aim and action; it is slender and without bark, denoting the absence of all grossness of habit, or superfluity of possessions; it has wonderful elasticity of fibre, rising up from under heavy weights, a type of that buoyancy of confidence in GOD which makes His Saints cheerfully cast off troubles, and every part of it is good for some purpose, showing that in a holy life no faculty, talent, or opportunity is suffered to go to waste; and in its symbolical use, both amongst Jews and Pagans, because it never bends before the storm, it is the emblem of victory. The cedar,* again, in its mountainous abode, in its vast spreading bulk and majesty, in its deep roots, its sweet perfume, its incorruptible wood, and its great longevity, serves as a type of other endowments of the Saints. They are cedars of Libanus,* the “white” mountain,* because washed clean from their sins in the waters of Baptism, (Cd.) and the precious Blood of CHRIST, and they also denote the Gentile Martyrs, because Lebanon was outside the actual limits of the Holy Land.

13 (12) Such as are planted in the house of the LORD: shall flourish in the courts of the house of our GOD.

As the cedar and palm both played their part in Solomon’s temple,* the one in actual timbers and beams, the other carved everywhere as an ornament; so the Saints of GOD, like-ened to these trees, can flourish only when planted within His Church, not merely inside its visible limits, but rooted in its doctrine. They have been transplanted thither out of Jewish unbelief, out of Gentile idolatry, out of worldly carelessness, by the agency of GOD’S servants, for it is written, “I planted, Apollos watered,* but GOD giveth the increase.”* Only there, and only so, can they flourish,* for it is written, “Every plant which My Heavenly FATHER hath not planted shall be rooted up.”* We may take this house and courts of the Lord to be either the Church Militant,* especially in the Religious Life, or the Church Triumphant after the Resurrection, in both of which the righteous flourish, though in different fashion. And one who prefers the former interpretation remarks that the courts are in front of the house,* and outside it, and that they denote in this place renunciation of secular things, so that he who gives up the world, plants his palm in the courts of GOD’S house. It is curious to find it said that they who are planted in the house shall flourish in the courts; (Ay.) but it is well answered that the righteous are planted by their inner faith in heaven itself, while the outward token of that holy rooting in love is visible in the Church below by their good works and devout conversation, or, as another tells us, (D. C.) their own hearts are those outer courts of GOD’S house which are blooming with the trees and flowers of His inner dwelling.* This verse is in use as a  . and  . in the Breviary Office for Martyrs.

14 (13) They also shall bring forth more fruit in their age: and shall be fat and well-liking.

Here reference is made to that distinguishing property of the palm-tree, already mentioned, that it never ceases to bear fruit, however old it may be, till its actual death, nay, that its produce is more abundant in its latter years; while the cedar, though not a fruit-bearing tree, continues to spread in bulk and foliage to a vast age,* thus signifying the undying vitality and productiveness of the Church Universal and of the holy soul to the end of their earthly time. (D. C.) And so the Wise Man, after telling us how “the multiplying brood of the ungodly shall not thrive, nor take deep rooting,”* adds that “honourable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that which is measured by number of years; but wisdom is the grey hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age.” (B.) The Vulgate reading in the latter clause is, They shall be right patient; that is, not merely holding out sternly against suffering, as criminals often do when being punished, but with that patience which is born of love and faith, (Ay.) the endurance of the Martyrs; right patient, because while they preach of heavenly things they bear adversity bravely and cheerfully,* that by such endurance they may obtain yet more blessings for their souls. And this notion brings us back to the well-liking of our version,* for Tertullian says of patience, that it is “beautiful in every sex and every age.”

15 (14) That they may show how true the LORD my strength is: and that there is no unrighteousness in him.

That is,* that here in all troubles, and especially when the persecution of Antichrist falls upon the Church, they may continue steadfastly to profess their unshaken faith in the justice and promises of GOD, their belief that He causes them to suffer only that patience may bring forth her perfect work, and increase the glory of that crown which He,* the righteous Judge, our firm Rock, (A. V.,) hath promised to bestow upon them, (Z.) when He brings them into the Sabbath which remaineth for the people of GOD.*


Glory be to the FATHER, the Most Highest; glory be to the SON, the LORD our Rock; glory be to the HOLY GHOST, the fresh Anointing of the LORD.

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

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