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.

This Psalm forms in the Vulgate one with the preceding; the Introduction and Antiphons of that apply, therefore, to this.

1 Why standest thou so far off, O LORD: and hidest thy face in the needful time of trouble?

But He does not really stand far off,—He, (C.) ‘the friend that sticketh closer than a brother,”*—He, the very present help in time of trouble. We, indeed, complain of His absence, if He leave us but for a single moment: He endured to be forsaken of the FATHER during the whole of His long agony. Let Saul, if he will, say, “The Philistines make war against me, and GOD is departed from me;”* but not GOD’s servants, (Ay.) from whom He never can depart, though He may seem to hide His Face for a moment. If, being sent for, He abides two days still in the same place where He was, it is, to the end that, “if we will believe, we may see the glory of GOD.”* We may, if we will, follow Augustine and take the latter clause of the verse as the answer to the former. Why standest Thou so far off? Because it is the needful time of trouble,—because “it is expedient for you that I go away,”* because thus departing for a season it may be to remain with us for ever. But in the fullest and most bitter sense,* (A.) our dear LORD might take the whole question on His own lips, as indeed He did in His paraphrase on the Cross, Why standest Thou so far off, O Lord? “My GOD, My GOD, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”

2 The ungodly for his own lust doth persecute the poor: let them be taken in the crafty wiliness that they have imagined.

Or as the Vulgate has it: While the proud is arrogant, the poor is inflamed: that is, while Satan and evil men are permitted to persecute, the love of GOD’s true servant does but wax warm. When,* says Tertullian, we are consumed by the flames of persecution, then trial is made of the tenour of our faith. These are the fiery darts of the devil, by means of which our faith burns clearer and brighter. So S. Gregory;* “Gold,” says he, “grows to perfect purity in the furnace, whilst it loses its dross. As gold, then, by passing through the fire, so the souls of the righteous by suffering the furnace of tribulation: holiness is increased, vices are purged away. Whence David: While the proud is arrogant, the poor it inflamed.” And to this same purpose we may understand the text in Isaiah, “Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work.*” Let them be taken—as Satan himself was caught in his own guile; just as we have already so often had occasion to notice, and shall in the course of the Psalter again and again: and as, from that time to this, many a poor servant of CHRIST has but obtained the greater glory because his enemies exhibited the greater malice.

3 For the ungodly hath made boast of his own heart’s desire: and speaketh good of the covetous; whom GOD abhorreth.

And now they look past the lesser temptations of individual Christians, the feebler manifestations of his malice who goeth about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, and see, as in a glass, the frightful persecution of Antichrist, which will precede the end of all things. Hath made boast of his own heart’s desire: so that “he as God sitteth in the temple of GOD, showing himself that he is God.”* For just as comforting as are the types and prophecies of the Old Testament which point out the Captain of our salvation, just so awful are the symbols, whether in history or in prophecy, of that Antichrist who must be revealed before the end of all things: types, such as those of Pharaoh, Antiochus Epiphanes, and that fourth empire of iron which Daniel beheld, or such fearful verses as that,—(and GOD have mercy on those who shall understand its full meaning!)—“He doth ravish the poor when he getteth him into his net.” (Ay.) They take occasion then to point out five characteristics of the empire of Antichrist. 1. It will be an empire of guile, “the crafty wiliness” of David, the “deceivableness of unrighteousness,”* of S. Paul. 2. Of direct opposition to GOD, “He careth not for GOD,” “He opened his mouth in blasphemy against GOD, to blaspheme His Name and His tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven.”* 3. That it will defy every principle of right and of holiness. “Thy judgments are far above out of his sight, and therefore defieth he all his enemies:” “Who is like unto the beast, who is able to make war with him?”* 4. That it will have a certain appearance of goodness, “He falleth down and humbleth himself:” “He doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men,”* and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles. 5. That it will be an empire of flattery: He speaketh good of the covetous, whom God abhorreth: “He hath two horns like a lamb.… and causeth the earth and them that dwell therein to worship the first beast.”* Thus they elicit from this more particularly, but from other Psalms also, the great features of Antichrist; features which we must constantly keep in mind if we would understand the Psalms of temptation, such as this, and such as those coming between the fiftieth and the sixtieth. Having thus the general idea, let us go on to the details.

4 The ungodly is so proud, that he careth not for GOD: neither is GOD in all his thoughts.

Here again the Vulgate differs widely from our translation: The wicked hath provoked the Lord to anger: according to the multitude of his indignation, he shall not seek. That is, his sins shall be left unpunished in this world, that they may be doubly visited in the world to come. So the man of GOD that came from Judah was slain by a lion, whereas the old prophet, the cause of his destruction, was buried in the sepulchre of his forefathers. So also that terrible threatening in Hosea, “Therefore, behold, I will not punish your wives and your daughters when they commit fornication.”* And notice why it is that he careth not for God. Satan at first, Antichrist at last, the sin was the same, the ungodly is so proud: “for thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of GOD; yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.”*

5 His ways are alway grievous: thy judgments are far above out of his sight, and therefore defieth he all his enemies.

Few Psalms are more difficult to explain from the Fathers and from mediæval writers than that on which we are now engaged, on account of the discrepancy between the Vulgate and our own translation. His ways are alway grievous: as we have it, it may either mean the ways of GOD to the sinner, or the ways of the sinner to GOD. Grievous, indeed, to the sinner, is that strait gate and narrow way; heavy to him, is that light yoke and easy burden. But in the Vulgate we have it, His ways are always polluted: then the reason, Thy judgments are far above out of his sight. The pleasures of sin here, (R) enjoyed, because the wages of sin there, forgotten; the light affliction which is but for a moment, found grievous and intolerable, because the exceeding and eternal weight of glory is kept out of sight. And therefore defieth he all his enemies: or, as the Vulgate has it, He shall have the dominion over all his enemies. Not a true victory, nor yet true foes; but that miserable triumph where to conquer is to perish. “My SPIRIT shall not alway strive with man:”* the HOLY SPIRIT may at last be conquered; every evil man shall do that in the battle-field of his own heart which Antichrist shall do in the great and final conflict between good and evil. He shall have the dominion over all his enemies, when “as GOD, he shall sit in the temple of GOD, showing himself that he is God;”* “When they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over the two witnesses,” “and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another, because those two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth.”*

6 For he hath said in his heart, Tush, I shall never be cast down: there shall no harm happen unto me.

And notice how, in the song of triumph over the mystic Babylon, this same self-confidence is prominently brought forward. “How much she hath glorified herself, and lived deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her: for she saith in her heart, I sit a queen and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow.”* In like manner Isaiah, to the literal Babylon: “Thou saidst, I shall be a lady for ever, so that thou didst not lay these things to thine heart, neither didst remember the latter end of it.”* And what is this in Antichrist, but the words of the parable in the mouth of an every-day sinner, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years: take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry?”*

7 His mouth is full of cursing, deceit, and fraud: under his tongue is ungodliness and vanity.

8 He sitteth lurking in the thievish corners of the streets: and privily in his lurking dens doth he murder the innocent; his eyes are set against the poor.

9 For he lieth waiting secretly, even as a lion lurketh he in his den: that he may ravish the poor.

He doth ravish the poor: when he getteth him into his net.

10 (11) He falleth down and humbleth himself: that the congregation of the poor may fall into the hands of his captains.

11 (12) He hath said in his heart, Tush, GOD hath forgotten: he hideth away his face, and he will never see it.

A sad, dreary prophecy of a most perilous and fearful time. No wonder that the saints have somewhat hurried over these warnings of that great tribulation which shall be upon all the earth. But rather look back, (B.) if you will, and see how this prophecy of David will apply to that hour in which the Son of David was betrayed. Think how then the Pharisees and elders were found stirring up the very dregs of the people in the thievish corners of the streets; (Ay.) how in their lurking dens, (C.) the Innocent,—He that “did no guile, neither was deceit found in His mouth,”—was indeed murdered when the thirty pieces of silver were paid for His delivery: how not then only, but all through the course of His public life, their eyes were indeed set against the Poor; and then, at last, how that prophecy was completed, He doth ravish the Poor when he getteth Him into his net,—when they stripped our true Joseph of His coat, the coat woven without seam that was upon Him; stripped Him of His liberty, of His honour, and lastly of His Life itself. When he getteth Him into his net. The net of false witnesses, which yet even so did not agree; the net of the various temptations which Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians, feigning themselves to be just men, had spread in His path. And then, how true the conclusion! He falleth down and humbleth himself: they, burning with the desire of a temporal kingdom—with the dream of a Jewish Empire, which should extend itself over the face of all the earth,—they, the Chief Priests, answered and said, “We have no king but Cæsar.”* Or again, when the Prince of Life had risen from the dead, and they condescended to devise with the soldiers an impossible lie, gave large money to them for repeating it, and promised them indemnity with the governor, should the tale reach his ears. And all wherefore? That the congregation of the poor may fall into the hands of his captains: that not only “that Deceiver,” but the eleven also that still owned Him their King, might be crushed in the very outset of their mission, and might thenceforth forbear to speak to any man in the Name of their LORD.

12 (13) Arise, O LORD GOD, and lift up thine hand: forget not the poor.

I know no part of the Psalter where mediæval commentators seem to shrink from exposition, so much as here. That fearful persecution of Antichrist, when, if it were possible, the very elect should fall away,—that terrible trial of faith when, as S. Anselm says, the persecutor shall glitter with miracles, and the Martyr shall perform none,—of all this they seem loth to speak, except distantly and generally. Lift up Thine hand. Taken in this sense, of that last lifting up of GOD’s Right Hand which shall accompany the Depart, ye cursed. But we may also take it of His lifting it up and stretching it forth on the Cross: that Right Hand which even then became glorious in power, which even then was dashing in pieces the enemy. Forget not the poor. Forget not even in the midst of that great affliction Him, Who though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor; forget not His poverty, when He went about not having where to lay His Head, when He was a guest with publicans and sinners; lastly, when He was so poor, after they parted His raiment among them, and cast lots for His vesture, as to be beholden to the love of His disciples for the clothes of the grave.

13 (14) Wherefore should the wicked blaspheme GOD: while he doth say in his heart, Tush, thou GOD carest not for it?

Blaspheme God; as Pharaoh, the earliest type of Antichrist, (Ay.) when he said, “Who is the LORD, that I should let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.”* And thus to decry GOD’s providence is, according to S. Bernard, one of the greatest of sins;* an iniquitas ad odium, as he calls it. Thou, God, carest not for it. As if it were possible that He should not care for those whom He bought at no less a price than the effusion of His own blood,—those whom He has graven on the palms of His Hands,—those for whom His side was opened with a spear, that they might have the readier entrance to His heart,—those whom He guards “as the apple of an eye.” Well, therefore, may the Psalmist continue—

14a (15) Surely thou hast seen it: for thou beholdest ungodliness and wrong.

Thou hast seen it. Thou writest it in Thy book of remembrance,—Thou shalt proclaim it before men and angels at the end of the world,—the ungodliness that was met by the patient endurance of the Martyrs,—the wrong that was borne by the long-suffering of the Confessors, or baffled by the purity of the Virgins! S. Augustine understands this passage in a very singular sense,—a sense in which he has not been followed.1 He takes the verse to be spoken by Antichrist, and in this sense: “Surely Thou hast seen it; I know that Thou art acquainted with my evil doings, and my persecutions of Thy saints; but (not FOR) Thou beholdest the labour, (for so he would rather translate ungodliness) and wrong, or rather, trouble,—and therefore because of this labour and trouble which it would cause Thee to put an end to my transgressions, (L.) therefore Thou wilt not interfere with me.” In fact, he would interpret it in the sense of the poet of atheism, speaking of the Gods and their nature—

Nam privata dolore omni,* privata periclis,

Ipsa suis pollens opibus, nihil indiga nostri,

Nec bene pro meritis capitur nec tangitur irâ.

But this, notwithstanding the great authority of S. Augustine, seems an unnatural and forced interpretation. And it is far better so to apply the words, that every faithful soul faithfully suffering this or that for her LORD, bearing this or that cross, enduring this or that temptation, assailed by this or that hard word or unkind deed, (G.) should be able to say, Surely Thou hast seen it. Thou Who didst suffer such contradiction of sinners against Thyself; Thou That wast called a man gluttonous and a wine-bibber; Thou Whose mighty works were ascribed to Beelzebub, the Prince of the devils; surely Thou hast seen it, for Thou Who once didst suffer in Thyself, now beholdest exerted against us, ungodliness and wrong.

14b (16) That thou mayest take the matter into thine hand: the poor committeth himself unto thee; for thou art the helper of the friendless.

How are we to take our own version? Are we to join, (A.) “Surely Thou hast seen it,” with, “That Thou mayest take the matter into Thine hand,” as if this were the end of GOD’s seeing that He might act? Or are we to join, That Thou, mayest take the matter, with the next clause, The poor committeth himself unto Thee, as if the sense were “The poor trusts, because that very trust will make Thee act on his behalf?” Both senses are full of truth and comfort: though the Vulgate favours the former. Thou art the Helper of the friendless. Or fatherless, or orphan, as the Vulgate and Septuagint have it. The Commentators find a singular meaning in the promises. Originally, every one who is afterwards brought to CHRIST belongs to the devil as his father;* and when he forsakes Satan, is in this sense fatherless. Or, as they take it who prefer the translation “orphan,” the Psalmist would speak of those who have lost the world as their father, and concupiscence as their mother.

15 (17) Break thou the power of the ungodly and malicious: take away his ungodliness, and thou shalt find none.

Break Thou the power of the ungodly Not the ungodly himself;* his power is taken away that he himself may be saved. Or if we still refer the whole to Antichrist, then the prayer is like the prophecy in Job, “From the wicked their light is withholden, and the high arm shall be broken.”* And notice this by way of comfort: Take away his ungodliness and it shall not be found, for so the Vulgate reads: “I, even I, am He that blotteth out your transgressions for Mine own sake, and will not think upon your sins:”* and how? The Apostle shall tell us: “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, nailing it to His Cross.”* S. Augustine takes it in a more terrible sense: (A.) He shall not be found, because he shall so utterly perish: as Pharaoh and his host were not found: “The Egyptians whom ye have seen to-day, ye shall see them again no more for ever:”* (G.) as Jezebel was not found when “they went to bury her, but they found no more of her than the skull, and the feet, and the palms of her hands.* Or finally, still continue the sense of Antichrist: Thou shalt take away his ungodliness, and it shall not be found; because then, when he is destroyed, all iniquity will have come to an end; Satan will be crushed for ever; the kingdom of righteousness will begin: so that the Psalmist may well continue—

16 (18) The LORD is King for ever and ever: and the heathen are perished out of the land.

Which is only what the Apostle says, in different words, “When all things shall be subdued unto Him, then shall the SON also Himself be subject unto Him Which did put all things under Him, (Ay.) that GOD may be all in all.”* Out of the land. What land, save the new heavens and the new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness, into which nothing can in any wise enter that defileth? as the seven accursed nations were rooted out of the old land of Canaan; as every evil passion and worldly desire is rooted out of each faithful soul, when it enters into its heavenly rest. And then the Psalm sums up the whole of its prayers and petitions, saying—

17 (19) LORD, thou hast heard the desire of the poor: thou preparest their heart, and thine ear hearkeneth thereto;

18 (20) To help the fatherless and poor unto their right: that the man of the earth be no more exalted against them.

The desire of the poor. As we have seen before, (G.) all those many supplications which the Poor King of Heaven and Earth offered up for us during the days of His humility: His desire that we should be preserved while in the flesh from harm, “I pray not that Thou wouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou wouldest keep them from the evil:”* His desire that day by day we should grow in holiness: “sanctify them through Thy truth, Thy word is truth:”* His desire, finally, that we should go and dwell in that land out of which the heathen shall perish: “FATHER, I will that they also whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory.”* Thou hast heard the desire of the poor: for so it is written: “He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied.”* Thou preparest their heart, namely, from the beginning, before the world was, to undertake the work of man’s redemption, and before His entrance on its final struggle, to cry out, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished.”* (B.) Then the Poor shall indeed be helped to His right,—to the possession of the countless souls who are the lawful purchase of His blood; to the Name which is above every Name; to the Throne on the Right Hand of the FATHER, and the confession of all the company of heaven that the Kingdoms of this world are become the Kingdoms of our LORD and of His CHRIST, and He shall reign for ever and ever. That the man of the earth may be no more exalted against them. No more proud monarchs, as Pharaoh and Antiochus; no more fierce chiefs, as Sisera and Rabshakeh; no more false prophets, as Balaam; no more treacherous priests, as Annas and Caiaphas; no more insidious workers of righteousness, as the Scribes and the Pharisees. This is the desire of the Poor, both for Himself and for us; and we have but to pray in accordance with it, in the words of S. Peter Damiani:

CHRIST, Thy soldiers’ palm of honour!

To Thy city, bright and free,

Lead me, when my warfare’s girdle

I shall cast away from me;

A partaker in Thy glory,

With Thy blessed ones to be.

And therefore:

Glory be to the FATHER, Who lifteth up His Hand and forgetteth not the Poor; and to the SON, the Poor King Who shall one day be helped to His Right: and to the HOLY GHOST, the desire of the Poor, Who is always heard;

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

Copyright ©1999-2018 e-Catholic2000.com